Tag Archives: Sebastian Faulks

The Intel: Tom Grass

Tom GrassWe reviewed Tom Grass’s high-octane re-imagining of Twist last week. It’s a clever heist thriller full of jumping and climbing and driving set on the streets and rooftops of London, as Twist, Fagin, Dodge and the gang take down some greedy art dealers.

We described it as Oliver Twist meets GTA, Grass describes it as Oliver Twist meets Point Break — we’ll split the difference.

Grass is a fascinating man, with a career in movies and computer games, and he’s got some interesting things to say about updating a classic novel, about the evolution of London — and about reimagining The Smoke all the way from Rwanda,

And, of course, he gives the lowdown on his writing process. Tom Grass gives the intel on Twist…

Where did you get the idea for a contemporary version of the Dickens classic?

While I was working at Pure Grass films with my brother, TV producer Ben we were always looking for good stories to turn into web series and films. At that time we met a pair of young creatives called the Lynch Brothers who had had the idea of combining ‘Oliver Twist’ with ‘Point Break.’ I worked with them brainstorming how that could actually work. Substituting the big wave surfing of the with parkour and armed bank robberies with art heists was the easy bit. Far harder was bringing Dickens characters to life in contemporary London in a way that made sense.

What is it about those characters – Twist, Dodge, Fagin, Sikes — that makes them ripe for updating?

Jaguar cars did an ad recently that asked why the best Hollywood villains are played by Brits? No surprise that my favourite actor in the ad is Ben Kingsley who played Fagin in Roman Polanski’s film version of ‘Oliver Twist.’

In Sebastian Faulks’ book on fiction, he selects a whole section on villains and chooses Fagin, that “loathsome reptile” as his favourite because he displays those traits that he finds most despicable in himself;  the laziness, the greediness, the lies, the squalor…

So there’s something in that self recognition but also in the relationship the boys have with their false father figure which transcends national boundaries so that the archetypal British villain has become a template for gang masters everywhere (just re-watch Slumdog Millionaire if you don’t believe me!).

And he’s one of our best loved villains because he’s not all bad (as compared with say; Sauron or Richard III). A survivor/scavenger whose function is to redistribute wealth in a grossly unequal society.

The counterpoint to his low down ways in the original story is Oliver. As a character Oliver is too young in the original to be much more than a foil. An innocent child whose innocence and good nature act as a touchstone to the villainy around him.

But by making him older I had to be sure that the audience would identify with him. Not by making him a cool graffiti kid but as someone who is alone and hungry and desperately wants to belong. To be part of a gang – to be a member of a family.

Who hasn’t needed a father figure at one time or another to bring us in out of the cold and give us a job and put a bottle of gin in our hand?

As in the Dickens original, the London in your novel is a place of huge contrasts in wealth – the action roams from Newham to Mayfair. Do you seem many similarities between modern London and the city from Dickensian times?

I was nervous about setting Oliver’s squat in an abandoned council estate in Newham because I didn’t want to upset anyone, but a year on my choice seems to have been vindicated.

The young mothers of Focus E15 who are fighting for their right to live in decent, local social housing in Newham, the place where they grew up are not alone. People are being displaced every day from boroughs across London and being told that if they can’t afford to live there, they’ll have to go.

At the same time in Mayfair, you have big properties owned by foreigners who never live in them standing empty and artificially buoying house price rises while young people sleep rough on the street.

So to answer your question – has London changed? Yes, in many extraordinary and good ways (just think about the London Underground and the sewage system) but the song remains the same in terms of the gulf between the rich and the poor as those on low and middle incomes are being driven out in a relentless wave of gentrification.

TwistTwist is also a heist thriller about the robbery of lost artworks – how difficult was it to come up with a clever scam?

Planning a good heist involves team work and I was lucky enough to work with a great British crime screenwriter called John Wrathall plotting the set ups in the novel.

Research was very helpful but also posed a big question of authenticity. I read an excellent book called ‘Hot Art’ which described the career of the character who most resembled Fagin, a poacher turned gamekeeper who now advises clients and police forces around the world when they seek to recover stolen works of art.

His own career describes a threshold of value for art work at around the £100,000 mark above which it’s impossible to sell on work without being detected on one of the international missing art databases.

The notion of stealing priceless works is a bit of a tall order in real life so when it does happen, like the theft of Munch’s ‘Scream’ from Oslo’s ‘Munch’ museum, it is rare and tends to be carried out by armed robbers who then try to either claim a reward or get the owner to pay a ransom.

And because I wanted to move away from violent crime we had to think about using confidence trickery to pull off something more subtle, the kind of thing audiences’ loved in ‘Ocean’s Eleven.’

Getting the plans for Losberne’s art gallery from the architect across the road was a good place to start and involved some play acting from Fagin and Dodge then Nancy seducing the gallery owner.

The actual parkour isn’t actually useful in breaking and entering the buildings but in getting away from the cops after the thefts have taken place. This is especially true of the end of Twist when Dodge and Twist have to use the elevator shafts to escape detection before zero jumping from the observation floor.

Take us through a typical writing day for you?

When I was working on ‘Twist’ I was living in Rwanda. I used to get up at 6am every day and be at my desk with a big pot of coffee by 7am at the latest. The work would carry on until mid afternoon when I’d clock off and send emails and manage my other projects.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Whereas in film, the director imposes his own vision on the script, in which character is expressed in action and dialogue, in a novel one is forced to describe everything in words (including the thoughts that are going on in your characters head).

This is hard work especially on bad days when what you put down on paper bears absolutely no resemblance to the idea that is in your head!

How do you deal with feedback?

Feedback from the publisher on Twist was amazing but sometimes it can be so unhelpful.  The worst kind is when you get lots of issues but no solutions to these problems.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

When I started to write Twist I read a lot of Elmore Leonard. He’s a genius at dialogue. Read: Killshot.

I also read a lot of Lee Child as preparation. He says he never plots his books and writes each page fresh as if he were reading it for the first time. He also says he’s written all his books stoned, but please don’t try this at home kids.

I’m a big fan of Stephen Pressfield. An American military historical novelist who fought in Vietnam as a US marine and really understands how and why armies fight from the grunt’s eye view up. Read: Gates of Fire (the story of Thermopylae). Superb research that lets you into the mind of a Spartan warrior.

Give me some advice about writing…

When asked the secret of his success, the legendary Lancashire fell runner and sheep farmer Joss Naylor would say:

‘Just gid on wid it.’

A little regularly is better than big lumps late at night or at weekends. Of course not having children helps.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a TV treatment for Twist. I’ve also just finished the script of my first comic – a Viking supernatural adventure called ‘STORM’ which I’m co-creating as a TV series with Jake Michie (creator of BBC’s ‘Merlin’).

History is full of stories. You just have to know where to look.

The Intel: Ann Widdecombe

Ann Widdecombe

Photo: Poppy Berry

Ann Widdecombe is, of course, best known as a politician — she was a Conservative Minister of State at the Home Office in 1995, where she was responsible for prisons and immigration. She’s also been a television presenter and a columnist and, since 2000, she’s had a successful career as a novelist.

Now, as A N Widdecombe, she’s written her first crime novel, a traditional detective story set partly in the studios of a TV dance show called Lively Toes. The Dancing Detective features a strangely familiar detective called Anton Caesar. Hmm, it all seems to ring a bell, somehow. Ann gives us the intel on her twinkle-toed pro tag, on critics and, of course, her writing process…

The Dancing Detective is set against the backdrop of a prime time TV celebrity dance show – where on earth did you get the inspiration for that idea?

I had always intended to try my hand at a detective novel when I retired and to set it on Dartmoor. Then, when I was taking part in Strictly Come Dancing, I suddenly thought what a wonderful setting that would make! So I combined both Dartmoor and a London studio. I began the book while on the show but my publishers were keen for me to write my autobiography so I postponed The Dancing Detective until that was over.

Tell us about your dancing amateur sleuth Anton Caesar…

The amateur detective, Anton Caesar, is based on my dance partner, Anton du Beke.  He thinks it hilarious! Nobody else in the book is based on anyone, the other characters coming from my imagination . Similarly the professional detectives, Frobisher and Molloy are not based on anybody I have met, although during my time in the Home Office I spoke to rather a lot of policemen.

You’ve written bestsellers before, but this is your first detective novel – what was your biggest challenge when writing it…

Writing a detective novel was a serious challenge for me because usually when I sit down to write I have no idea what is going to have happened by the time I get up again but one cannot write a crime novel like that. If you don’t know who did it and why and how then you cannot lay the clues and mix them all up. I aimed at a very traditional crime story in which all the clues are fairly laid and one should be able to work out whodunnit but I am pleased to say that most have not succeeded.

Take us through a typical writing day for you

I have no typical writing day. Some days I may be making long train journeys and use that time to write. On other days I will write in my study overlooking Dartmoor and on still other days I won’t produce a word!

The Dancing DetectiveWhat’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

The hardest lesson  to learn about writing is just getting on and doing it. The muse is not always at one’s beck and call.

How do you deal with feedback?

My greatest reward is to receive letters from people saying that they were sad when they came to the end of the book or it kept them up all night or they cannot wait for the next one. Better still are those who write to say that I captured their own experience with handicap/split families/children/teachers or whatever because then I know I have written convincingly.

The critics are another kettle of fish! They fall into two categories: those who review the book itself and those who are more interested in my having written it. I always pay close attention to those who address the book and learn from constructive criticism but those who simply want to find my own views in those of the characters and who have clearly set out to dislike the work from the outset are best ignored. One critic said there was no humour in my autobiography, causing me to wonder if she had actually read it.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Ian McEwan, Sebastian Faulks, Susan Hill and PG Wodehouse. On the detective side, Nicholas Blake, Josephine Tey and PD James. All create real characters – yes, even PG Wodehouse! – and all have coherent plots. The detective writers lay the clues fairly and do not suddenly rely upon an unknown factor at the end.

Give me some advice about writing…

The best advice I can give anyone about writing is just to start. Do not wait for the muse, don’t worry about how it will shape up, don’t worry if you are not sure about a character or plot: just start and see what happens.

What’s next for you?

My next project is another detective novel with the same detectives and of course the third book in my trilogy of which the two books published so far are An Act of Treachery and An Act of Peace. People keep asking me when it is going to be published.

Solo: The New Bond Cover Revealed

Random House has revealed the cover to the new Bond book. It looks, if I’m not mistaken, very much like this.


I like that. Kind of minimal, understated. Droplets, or bullet holes, and the merest hint of the legendary 007 designation. The book itself is set in 1969, so it marks a return to period Bond, which is where the character really belongs, I think.

The teaser blurb won’t take up much of your time: ‘1969. A veteran secret agent. A single mission. A licence to kill.’

Boyd has said part of the novel is set in Africa, where a number of his books have been set, and suggests that Bond goes rogue: “In my novel, events conspire to make Bond go off on a self-appointed mission of his own, unannounced and without any authorisation – and he’s fully prepared to take the consequences of his audacity.”

Shades of Licence To Kill, then. That movie was originally going to be called Licence Revoked, but the name was changed because it sounded too much like Bond had dropped points on his driving licence.

There’s a faint echo of Ian Fleming here, of course. The Bond creator was involved in the genesis of the Man From Uncle TV series. His only lasting contribution was the name of the hero, Napoleon Solo – surely as cool a name as has ever been invented.

Boyd’s participation is another prestigious notch in the bedpost of the Bond brand. Kingsley Amis, writing as Robert Markham, wrote the first post-Fleming novel, Colonel Sun, in 1968. John Gardner and Raymond Benson both wrote a series of novels which updated 007..

Since then, Sebastian Faulks – his effort was also set in the 1960s – and Jeffrey Deaver have both been given, heh, carte blanche, to reinterpret the iconic character. Boyd is the latest in what seems to be an ongoing project to align the character with critically-acclaimed authors who fancy a brief flirtation with arguably the most famous character of the 20th Century.

That’s the cover, then, but you’ll have to wait till September 26th for Solo to be published.

Thrill Seekers: James Bond

Some fictional characters are as real to us as the person next door. Thrill Seekers invites you to memorise ten — just ten! — facts about some of your favourite Crime Thriller characters. Ian Fleming’s James Bond has sold over 100 million books and he still has a, ahem, licence to thrill…

Unknown1/ James Bond first appeared in the novel Casino Royale in 1953, and many of his characteristics were already fully-formed – the love of fast cars and fast women, and putting bartenders to work making painfully-complicated martinis.  Author Ian Fleming, who worked in Naval Intelligence during the war, based Bond on a number of agents and commandos he had known – but Bond shares many of Fleming’s own characteristics.

2/ Bond smoked up to 70 cigarettes a day, his own special brand of Morlands. When you think about it, it’s amazing that he could climb the stairs, let alone manage all the action stuff.

3/ Fleming wanted his spy to be anonymous, a blunt-instrument. ‘I wanted Bond to be an extremely dull, uninteresting man to whom things happen.’ James Bond was the name of the author of a book called Birds Of The West Indies which languished on Fleming’s bookshelf. It was the dullest name that Fleming could think of. Now that short, terse name is a byword for glamour and action.

images-14/ Six other authors have penned Bond’s exploits since Fleming’s death: Kingsley Amis – writing as Robert Markham – Christopher Wood, John Gardner, Raymond Benson, Sebastian Faulks and Jeffery Deaver.

5/ Bond has been played by a number of actors, all of whom you could probably name off the bat, but Fleming originally wanted David Niven to play the part. Cary Grant was also considered, and Fleming’s own cousin, Christopher Lee. But if you want to know what Bond really looks like, in the novels he’s described more than once as looking like the singer Hoagy Carmichael.images

6/ The movie Skyfall explored Bond’s Scottish roots. Bond has a Scottish father, Andrew Bond, and a Swiss mother,  Monique Delacroix, who died when he was 11. Fleming was a bit sniffy about Connery in the first instance, but his performance eventually won him around, and in his penultimate novel, You Only Live Twice, Fleming finally sketched in Bond’s Scottish background, a knowing nod to Connery. Albert Finney’s role in Skyfall was written for Connery – but because of his iconic status in the franchise the film-makers changed their mind about his appearance.

7/ Bond’s favoured weapon in the novels was a Beretta 418 until, following the release of the Dr. No movie,  a fan wrote to Fleming to inform him that Bond was toting ‘a lady’s gun.’ Fleming changed the pistol to the Walther PPK, introducing the character of Major Boothroyd , the military Quartermaster – and Q division was born.

images-28/ The most-uneventful Bond story is perhaps 007 In New York. Fleming was commissioned to write an article about the city for a book called Thrilling Cities. Fleming, however, was less than thrilled with NY, and instead wrote the short story, in which Bond makes scrambled eggs.

9/ Bond was married once in the books, to Contessa Teresa di Vicenza, or Tracey Draco, the only child of the head of the Union Corse, the Corsican crime syndicate.  Tracey is killed on their wedding day. In the subsequent novel, You Only Live Twice, Bond is a broken man until he extracts revenge from Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

10/ And Bond also had a child. At the end of You Only Live Twice he leaves Japan without knowing he’d got Kissy Suzuki preggers. A Raymond Benson short story called Blast From The Past takes up the story, when he arranges to meet his son, James Suzuki.