James Cary’s day job is comedy writer for TV and radio. He’s the co-creator of BBC3 sitcom Bluestone 42, about a bomb disposal unit in Afghanistan, and three series of radio comedy Hut 33, about the Bletchley Park boffins. His work also includes Miranda and episodes of My Hero and My Family.
His comedy thriller Crossword Ends In Violence (5) follows the efforts of crossword compiler John Fellowes to clear the name of his grandfather, who was branded a spy when top-secret codewords Overload and Neptune, the latest in a series of words connected to the top-secret D-Day landings, appeared in a national newspaper in the run up to the invasion of Europe.
Crossword Ends In Violence (5) is published by new eBook publisher Piqwiq. You can get it from places like this.
So, you know where this is going – James gives us The Intel on codebreaking, his love of crosswords and, of course, his writing regime…
Tell us about Crossword Ends In Violence (5)…
It’s a comedy thriller about D-Day, crosswords and chess. With a Russian Gulag thrown in. I tend to say that it’s essentially Robert Harris meets Terry Pratchett.
Is it based on a true story?
It’s inspired by the story that just before D-Day, key codewords from the D-Day landings had found their way into the Daily Telegraph crossword – on a number of occasions, including the overall codename Overlord. Naturally this would be alarming if you’re about to land a million men in France in order to liberate Europe. So the book is about a crossword-setter called John Fellowes who discovers that the crossword-setter under scrutiny was his grandfather. So he tries to get to the bottom of it.
What’s the fastest you’ve ever completed a fiendishly hard crossword?
I used to do the Daily Telegraph Cryptic every morning while I was writing the book, and do my best with the Saturday Times large cryptic. I was never that fast, but really enjoyed it. But then I had kids, more paid work and eventually ran out of excuses to do cryptic crosswords during office hours. Pity.
The appeal is that their lateral, theoretical thinking made a huge difference to the war. Previously, wars were won by brute strength, tactics and the weather. But the employment of mathematicians, musicians, linguists and all manner of clever folk gave the Allies such an advantage when the most needed it. And I was so obsessed with all this that I wrote three series of a sitcom set in Bletchley Park for BBC Radio 4, called Hut 33.
Take us through a typical writing day for you.
For me, it’s mostly writing scripts for TV and radio which I tend to do during office hours so I get to see my family. I occasionally stay up into the small hours to get something finished, or enjoy the peace, quiet and lack of distracting emails and tweets. In general, I try to get the hard yards done by lunch, then after lunch do some exercise, then get back to the desk, or do something else. And if I feel totally uninspired, I’ll do my accounts, which usually triggers something to get me out of doing that particular chore.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
Rewriting and editing is never easy. Crossword Ends in Violence (5) was originally 80,000 words. I edited out a quarter of that. I essentially deleted about two dissertations-worth of writing. But it has to be done. You learn the lesson, but it’s always painful.
How do you deal with feedback?
The usual way. Resentment, denial, rage and defensiveness. Then self-doubt kicks in, followed by a desire for revenge, culminating in despair. And then you read the feedback, or notes, again and get on with your job. Ultimately, you know when a note or a comment is on the money. When I give notes or feedback to others, I always tell them to ignore the things I say that just sound stupid or ridiculous. But act on the notes that are vocalising something they secretly suspected all along.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
Growing up, I didn’t used to read much fiction, especially stuff that wasn’t out-and-out funny. (I read Terry Pratchett, obviously. Although I stopped after I’d read about ten of them. Like everyone else, I think Mort is the best, followed by Guards! Guards!) It was only in my mid-20s that I discovered half-decent books so I really got into David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, Tibor Fischer and Michael Frayn.
Give me some advice about writing…
Writing is very very painful, time-consuming and unprofitable. Do it because you have to. Not because you like the idea of being a writer, or think you’ll make money.
What’s next for you?
I’m currently writing Series 3 of Bluestone 42 for BBC3, which is filming in October. And trying to develop new sitcoms for TV and Radio.