Tag Archives: William Gibson

The Intel: Luke McCallin

Luke McCallin’s debut novel The Man From Berlin offers a unique take on the World War II conflict – moving away from the Holocaust, D-Day landings and British Home Front and turning to murderous events in Sarajevo, Bosnia.  It follows military Intelligence officer, Captain Gregor Reinhardt, as he investigates the brutal murders of a beautiful socialite and a German officer, threading a careful route through a minefield of political, military and personal agendas.

Published by No Exit, The Man From Berlin has drawn comparison with Philip Kerr, Dan Fesperman, CJ Sansom and Martin Cruz Smith. The first of a planned series about Reinhardt, it’s out now as a paperback, or ready to download to your Device from here.

Luke’s work is imbued with his experience working for the UN as a humanitarian. He’s been incredibly generous with his answers for The Intel. He talks about how Reinhardt walked into his dreams, about the evolution of The Man From Berlin, his writing process and his best-ever moment between the posts…

Luke McCallinTell us about Gregor Reinhardt…

Gregor Reinhardt is a German intelligence officer, a former Berlin detective chased out of the police by the Nazis. When you first find him in The Man From Berlin, he is haunted by what he has seen, tortured by recurring nightmares, wearing the uniform of an army he despises, and has ever fewer reasons to live.

He is a son, a soldier, a husband, a father, a friend, a policeman, a patriot… He is all of those things, and not defined by one of them more than another. He is a man formed by his times. He is a man much like any other. Sometimes strong, sometimes weak. Sometimes able to do the right thing, and sometimes too scared to. Sometimes shaped by events, sometimes able to shape them to him. Sometimes introspective to the point of paralysis, but with the intelligence to see past the veil of illusion and propaganda that has been pulled across his time, and thus perfectly aware of how his inactivity and fear make him complicit in the spiral of chaos around him.

Someone once said they would cross the road to talk to Henry V, or King Lear, but they wouldn’t cross the room to talk to Hamlet. I like to think Reinhardt’s a bit like that. He’s Hamlet. He feels his times very keenly. He feels his own inadequacies more keenly still. What I wanted to do in creating and writing Reinhardt was to find a way to look at a tempestuous and tendentious period of history, to create a character and make people think that he could be you. An ordinary man in extraordinary times, still trying to behave and believe in what makes sense, but so painfully aware of his own fears and limitations, and still knowing what is right and what is wrong. If you give someone like that an opportunity to do something, be someone, what would he do? What would you do…?

So, if you crossed that proverbial room — maybe at a reception or a cocktail party — if you got him to loosen up and talk to you, if he trusted you enough, he’d have quite a bit to say about himself, and his times. I think you would find him interesting. Somewhat taciturn, with a dry sense of humour and very self-deprecating, and I think you would find yourself opening up to him in turn.

Why do we find compromised heroes so compelling?

I suppose at its simplest, a compromised hero is someone who is not where they would otherwise want to be. As readers, we want someone to root for: someone who has something to lose. As an author, I want my character to move, and grow, but if we take ourselves as examples, our growth and development as people — as human beings — is not linear. But what works, or even doesn’t work, in life does not always work on the page. You have to come up with a character and a journey that lets you start at one point, and finish at another, and that allows you to show how the character has grown and changed.

In Reinhardt’s case, he is an officer in an army he detests, and he is a man who has allowed his fear to overcome his sense of wrong and right. He is compromised by his inaction, and by his participation — however unwilling — in the war, but however low he feels or thinks he is, there is always lower to go. He knows that, so the watchwords to Reinhardt’s character and story are probably ‘change’ and ‘consequence.’ Reinhardt’s story is a thread woven into a tapestry of a continent in upheaval. He goes through those times initially just trying to keep his head above water and survive, but he changes. It’s impossible not to. I think you have to make people interested in those changes, interested in the consequences of those changes, and you have to make people believe Reinhardt has something to bring to the table, so to say. You need to make people care about him, and to survive is not enough.

Where did the inspiration for The Man From Berlin come from?

It may sound clichéd, but Gregor Reinhardt walked into my dreams one night, and then sat quietly to one side for months and years, not saying much, not doing much, just waiting for me to find the time and the courage to start writing his story.

I was a political advisor to the United Nations mission in Bosnia when Reinhardt appeared. I worked with people from all walks of Bosnian life. With policemen and judges and lawyers, with mayors and town councilors, with priests and imams, with refugees and people still living in ruins, with war criminals and those who survived them, with those who had lived the war and those who fled from it, with women holding families together, and men who had fallen adrift of life. I began to build up a collage in my mind. I kept wondering, asking myself, what would I have done in their place, and I began weaving that human and historical tapestry, which is one of the most complex and fascinating you can imagine, into a story, and then into a book, albeit into another time, that of the Second World War, and the book had at its heart a man on the edge of despair at what his life had become, and his name was Gregor Reinhardt.

The Man From BerlinYou’ve described the city of Sarajevo as an iconic character in the book – what is it about the city that made you want to write about it?

Setting Reinhardt’s story in the Balkans was actually a late decision. The novels were originally to be set in Berlin, a city I’ve never visited and about which I know practically nothing. I spent years trying to research it, until I had something of a road to Damascus moment and Sarajevo offered itself up as a location instead.

Immediately, so many things fell into place. The story made more sense, I could say so much more about the themes I wanted to develop, and describe a city and people I have deep, deep affection for. I could entice readers with the promise of adventure in the Balkans — a part of the world known to most as a by-word for intrigue, or treachery — so it was a chance to show readers another side of that region. It was also to make readers more keenly interested in the characters. They’d have to be tough or resourceful to survive the Balkans, right?!

It was also because I think that with mysteries, time and place are almost characters in and of themselves. I spent six years working in Bosnia, and you can’t live there or in Sarajevo for long without it seeping into you. As much as it’s an overused analogy, Bosnia and Sarajevo really are historical and cultural crossroads, and are so contested. They defy any simple explanation, just like the finest puzzle or book or question. No matter the need to reduce and simplify them, there’s no one way to read or play them, and a place and time like that gives you so many options as an author: for drama, action, reflection; for asking big questions and trying out the answers to them.

What’s next for Reinhardt?

My original conception of Reinhardt’s stories was an initial set of three stories, a trilogy, each novel focusing on a particular theme (and I’m pretty sure my (un)conscious choice of a trilogy was influenced by all the fantasy novels I read!) The Man From Berlin was about redemption. The Pale House was about resistance. The third novel, which I’m writing now, will be about reconciliation. That novel will complete the initial Reinhardt trilogy. The fourth novel will be set in Reinhardt’s past, during the First World War, and will tell the story of an investigation in the trenches. I’ve always wanted to write a WWI novel, and I think Reinhardt will let me say some of the things I’ve always wanted to say about it.

I know there are at least half a dozen stories, including the two I’ve written so far, that contain specific things I want to say about Reinhardt the character, and his times and places. Places are very important to me. Like I said, they’re characters in their own right. That comes from my background, growing up in Africa, and my work with the UN. I’m fascinated by places, what they can do to you… I’ve ideas for novels in pre-WWII Paris, in Marseille, in Berlin, and even an idea for a Reinhardt novel in Panama!

You’ve traveled widely in your life – how do you think that has influenced your writing?

More than the travelling, it’s living and working in many places. I was born in Oxford to parents that had a humanitarian vocation. We moved to Africa when I was five. My father worked for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and my mother did work with child soldiers. That upbringing was inspirational, and engendered in me a desire to do something similar. I’ve worked for a range of UN organisations around the world, and now work for the UN based in Geneva. All the places I’ve lived and worked — in Africa, in Russia, in Haiti, in Pakistan, in the Balkans, especially — taught me something, or I saw something, or felt something. About what happens to people — ordinary people — put in extraordinary situations.

I’ve seen a lot of human suffering and violence, but also a lot of human dignity and kindness, and we can too easily forget about the latter when faced with the former. I feel compelled — inspired, if you like — to give voice to those impressions, feelings and observations. That’s not to say my writing’s about those places, although my first two books were set in WWII Sarajevo, but those experiences taught me a lot about how people can act in such situations. There is so much dignity and so much anguish in the human situation when confronted with war or natural disaster. No one really asks to become a war criminal, or to get conscripted, or deny other humans their basic human rights, or to try and raise a family in a refugee camp, but it happens. And at the same time, as we see right now in Ukraine, it does not take much for people to move so far so fast from the paths their lives were taking: for postmen, for bakers, for bank clerks, for miners to become gunmen, to become warlords, for them to turn on their neighbours of decades and believe the worst of them, to expect the worse of them, and so to mete out the worst before it befalls them.

What does it take for a man to turn on his neighbour? What does it take for another man to stand up for someone? Trying to understand the human motivations or conditions in all that, that’s what inspires me to write. I’ve found that no amount of work that we, as humanitarian workers, can ever really do will suffice to overcome those impulses. You are always going to be frustrated in what you achieve, to only get halfway to where you want to be, and often — far too often — the guilty get away with it. I think with my writing I’m trying to find some way of coming to terms with that. I don’t write about white knights on white horses — Gregor Reinhardt is certainly not one of those — but I try to ask those questions that seem to haunt me, and I try to find answers, and a sense of closure.

Take us through a typical writing day for you?

If only I had one! I have a full time job and a family so my writing time often ends up being done in the dogwatches. Curtailed, as Dr Maturin said in one of the O’Brien books! I try to do a bit each day, if only an hour, and it’s mostly in the evenings, but I recently started a new job with a lot more responsibilities. I’m finishing each day a lot more mentally fatigued than I used to, so the energy to write is not quite there even if the time is.

I get quite a bit done at weekends, usually when I’ve set up all the props. That would be black tea, by the litre, and some music! I like quiet, but only relative. I work to music a lot. I have a particular soft spot for West African music, especially music from Mali. I used to work in Mali and it’s a musical goldmine, a gift that keeps on giving!

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Harper Lee, Erich Maria Remarque, Vasily Grossman, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Isaac Babel were great influences who found and rendered the human amidst tumultuous backdrops. Cormac McCarthy and Peter Mathiessen are extraordinary modern American writers, with the first volume in the latter’s Shadow Country trilogy a master class in story-telling from multiple viewpoints, replete with ambiguity and with the ‘truth’ held tantalisingly just out of reach, just like real life. Mathiessen is also a writer who exposes the truth of a place, and I admire the way he is able to show many of the realities beneath the American dream, and put in perspective — and to sometimes hold dearer as a result — all that has been built in that country.

I admire Sebastian Barry for the lyricism of his writing, such that I’m sure he has to be the reincarnation of an Irish bard! Rosemary Sutcliffe’s books (she always said she wrote for children aged eight to eighty!) about Roman Britain were magical, almost fairy tales, and her descriptions of Britain’s beauty and wildness were and are inspiring. Hilary Mantel, Patrick O’Brien and Alexander Fullerton I love for the sheer depth of their historical research and, particularly for O’Brien, the sheer beauty of his writing and the creation, in Aubrey and Maturin, of one of the best fictional double-acts ever.

Growing up, it was science fiction and fantasy I read most. Tolkien, CS Lewis, and Stephen Donaldson, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, then Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Scott Lynch and R. Scott Bakker. I love all the world-building that goes into science fiction and fantasy, the intricacy of it. As much as I read a lot of history and current affairs, I don’t have a particular favourite writer of it — I tend to focus on periods or themes, more than authors — but AJP Taylor was, and remains, immensely readable. Joe Sacco’s graphic novels about Palestine, Goražde, and WWI are works of art as well as works of political analysis and conscience. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel changed the way I look at the world, as did Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change. Hew Strachan’s work on the First World War is magisterial. The Washing of the Spears and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee are classics that look at different instances of the imperial experience. The Isles is the single best book I know about Britain.

I’m reading a lot of crime, espionage and mystery, partly to familiarise myself as this was never the genre I thought I would write in! There are the giants like Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, Len Deighton and John Le Carré. Then the contemporary authors I’ve discovered are Philip Kerr (of course!), William Ryan, Alan Furst, and David Downing. Seeing as I’m fascinated by what places and times can do to you, I especially like James McClure’s Kramer and Zondi series about a pair of detectives in apartheid South Africa.

Give me some advice about writing…

There’s a suitably acerbic anecdote from Ernest Hemingway that fits this question. Once asked what the best training for an aspiring writer would be, he replied: “Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.

Write, and don’t be afraid to write badly, or with difficulty because, as someone once told me, there are no good writers, there are only good re-writers. Just write. Don’t wait for the perfect idea, or the most ingenious plot. Don’t be afraid to show what you’ve done, and show it widely. Writing is a lonely business, so it’s important that you as a writer get out and about, and that you show your work to people, as many people as you can. You want criticism, and you want that exposure of yourself and your work. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are all kinds of resources out there: workshops, writers’ groups, online courses and coaches, some of them right in your neighbourhood. Make friends with writers so that you have a community. I benefitted enormously from an online coach, who taught a great course on plot development.

What else…? Read outside your genre and comfort zone, and read widely and voraciously because you’ll never know what you might find, and where you’ll find it. Observe what’s going on around you. When you’re out and about, watch people. Watch them having conversations, watch them walking down the street, eating, laughing. Watch the sky, watch the play of light on water or glass, watch the street’s reflection wash over the yellow chassis of a New York taxi. Watch how water flows, what it flows around, how it flows around.

Take time to plan, but remember there’s a fine line between planning, and planning as prevarication. I used to just dive in and write, but what I’d end up with were lots of disconnected scenes and ideas. Sometimes I’d be able to join them up, often not. Planning — research, plotting, a synopsis, knowing the ending before you begin — can really help.

You play in goal for the UN football team – what’s the best save you ever made?

What a great question! There are so many great saves I made (tongue firmly in cheek), how to chose one… Well, there was one I’m particularly proud of because it was, I think, a sort of amalgam of all the goalkeeper’s arts — anticipation, observation, positioning, technique, reflexes and a spot of bravery. We were playing in a semi-final, and we needed a win. About five minutes from the end, we were leading 3-2, and the other teams two forwards made a clean break through into our half. There were no defenders with them, just me. The striker with the ball had already scored twice, so he was on a hat trick. I figured he’d want that third goal for himself more than for the team, so I made it ‘easy’ for him, and gave him plenty of space away from the other striker, who was screaming for the ball. Sure enough, the one with the ball tried to go round me, but I managed to close him down and went down at his feet, got a hand to the ball and knocked it away, and then got up for the rebound and saved that one too!

The Intel: James Swallow

James SwallowThis week’s Intel Interview is absolutely fascinating for anyone interested in the life of a commissioned writer. James Swallow is an author and script writer who has written a host of novels, short fiction, audio dramas and video games. He’s also the only British writer to have ever worked on the Star Trek TV series, providing story concepts for two episodes of Voyager.

As well as his own novels and stories – including The Sundowners steampunk western series – James has written a huge number of tie-in novels for movies, television series, comics and games, including Doctor Who, Star Trek, Judge Dredd, Stargate and Warhammer.

His latest novel, published by Titan Books, is 24: Live Another Day – Deadline. It fills in a missing part of the eventful and unhappy life of 24‘s rogue agent Jack Bauer.

James gives us the Intel on working with Jack, writing across different media and how ideas are the hard currency of any writer…

Tell us about 24: Live Another Day – Deadline. How does it differ from the events of the television series?

Deadline follows the 24 TV show model of a storyline told over 24 hours of real time, following Jack Bauer as he races across America from New York to Los Angeles in order to keep a promise to his daughter Kim, to see her one last time before he drops off the radar and vanishes – but Jack is being pursued by an investigation team led by a vengeful FBI agent and a strike force of Russian assassins, so he has a target on his back… And along the way, he stumbles on a dangerous situation in a small Midwestern town that he can’t walk away from.

In terms of how the book differs from the TV series, the key thing is that a novel allows you to show an internal viewpoint – you can get inside the heads of the characters in a way the television can seldom do.

As the events of the book pick-up where the show left off, how much freedom were you given to imagine what happens next to Jack Bauer?

Deadline is actually set before the events of 24: Live Another Day – specifically, one hour after the end of the previous season Day 8. There’s a four-year gap between the 8th and 9th seasons of the show, so that’s a lot more bad days that Jack can have!

In terms of freedom to tell stories, I was given a good degree of latitude to bring in elements from previous seasons and invent new events for Jack Bauer to be involved in. 24’s Writer-Producers Evan Katz and Manny Coto were consulted every step of the way to make sure the story in the novel connects directly to the TV show continuity.

24 DeadlineHow have you recreated 24’s famous countdown sequences within the structure of the book?

It would be almost impossible to replicate something like that in prose, as the ticking clock is such a striking bit of visual iconography – so instead I went for a story that takes place over a 24 hour period, told in 24 chapters, each with the same sense of fast-pace that the TV show exhibits.

You’ve written a lot of tie-in fiction for series such as Star Trek, Doctor Who and Stargate, as well as games and comics – how does the process of writing a tie-in differ to your own novels?

Working from a blank canvas can be very liberating but it can also be intimidating.  Working in an established world can be fun, because you’re finding new ways to play with a toy box of ideas that are well-known, but it can also be quite restrictive. The key in both cases is to find what you love about the fictional world and tell the best story you can. I try to give both my original and tie-in work the same creative energy.

Are you often given a series ‘bible’ and other related material and strict parameters to work within?

Generally, the parameters are the elements of the franchise itself – the movies, TV episodes or games that form the fictional world you’re writing for. The source material is always the best resource to draw from, because it’s the origin from which all other stories spring.

You’re a writer who works on novels and short stories, as well as audio dramas and video games – how important is it that writers explore different media?

It’s not for everyone. Not all writers can shift gears and write in different formats – some are better suited to long-form stories, others to scripts, etc. But for me personally, I like moving between different media because it keeps me interested and it keeps my skills sharp. At the end of the day, it’s all writing, all words on the page and storytelling – but having to fit that narrative into different structures is a great challenge.

You’re an extraordinarily prolific writer – what’s your secret?

The secret is that there is no secret. I honestly don’t consider myself prolific, not when I look around and see other authors with sixty, seventy or more titles to their credit. I write because I love it and also because it pays my rent, but my secret to doing that is nothing more amazing than just sitting my backside in the chair and writing, day in and day out.

Take us through a typical writing day for you?

Up at 8.00am, in front of the computer by 9.00am. Check and answer emails, then editing of the previous day’s writing before stating the current day’s assignment. Try not to waste too much time on social media. Break for half-hour’s lunch between 1.00pm and 2.00pm. Write through until I hit my target word count for the day or until my wife comes home from work around 6.00pm, which ever comes first.

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

Don’t be precious with your ideas. Don’t treat them like gold and hoard them away. Ideas are the currency of the writing game, which means you have to spend them. And if you can’t generate more ideas at a moment’s notice, you’ll have a hard time being a writer of fiction.

How do you deal with feedback?

I find I get the best results when I use a flamethrower.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

In thriller fiction, I’d have to say Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, Ian Fleming – all very different writers but they cast a long shadow over the genre, and have helped shape it to what it is. In science fiction, I enjoy the works of William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, Iain M. Banks – just for the sheer amount of creativity that goes into the worlds they write about.

Give me some advice about writing…

Two words: FINISH IT. All too often, people tell me they want to be writers, but they don’t have time or they have half a story they just can’t get around to completing. The fact is, if you can’t finish a story, you are not writer. You’re just playing at it. Even if you write and finish your thing and you hate it, the act of doing that has made you a better writer. It’s how you earn your experience, how you ‘level up’. No-one wants to read half a story, just like no-one wants a half-cooked meal.

 What’s next for you?

I’ve just completed an original action thriller novel of my own,  and I’m splitting my time between work on the script for to-be-announced videogame project and a science fiction tie-in based on the Star Trek franchise.

The Intel: M. Sean Coleman

Netwars: The CodWe all love a bit of fictional cyber crime.

All that frantic keyboard tippy-tapping just flies off the page. People bark clever acronyms and codes names at each other and discuss server logs and Intrusion Detection protocols, surveillance code, and bits and bytes. If, like me, your knowledge of computing goes as far as turning on the Playstation, it’s all terribly exciting –  like a portal into a secret world.

The rise of the Deep Web, cyber attacks and espionage is opening up whole new narrative frontiers. And yet, of course these cyber thrillers are written in the oldest data delivery system in the world:  a story. You may hold in your hand an ebook, the words may be backlit, but it’s still a good, old-fashioned story.

Or maybe it isn’t.

Netwars: The Code is a series of six ebook episodes, described as a unique global project. As well as an ebook series, it’s an interactive web documentary and Graphic novel apps, a fusion of fact and fiction about the increasing threat of cyberwarfare.

It features characters such as the cyber avenging angel Strider – mild-mannered computer geek by day, ruthless executioner by night – and his deadly nemesis Nightshade. It features the tall, beautiful and intelligent computer whiz Rebecca MacDonald, who’s caught up in the cat-and-mouse war between the both of them. Netwars has the galloping cartoon energy of a Saturday morning cartoon serial – but updated for the 21st century.

Each of the six-episodes of Netwars: The Code is only 100-pages long, and is written by London-based author M. Sean Coleman, who also wrote the script for the graphic novel app. Here’s the link to the first ep.

It’s ambitious stuff, and I’m not sure I’ve explained it properly. Luckily, Sean has agreed to give us The Intel on the Netwars series, about the dangerous evolution of new technology, and, of course – because this is The Intel, after all – he’s got lots of fabulous thoughts about the writing process.

M. Scott ColemanTell us about The Code – what’s it about?

It’s a crime thriller set in the seedy and little known world of the Deep Web – a place where, under the cloak of anonymity you can buy drugs, weapons, porn, even order a killing, just by knowing where to look. The Code tells the story of a rogue vigilante who uses the Deep Web to find his targets – picking out those who have broken his unique code of practice, and who have escaped justice. He makes it his business to ensure that they pay properly for their crimes. To further complicate matters he is also a consultant to the National Cyber Crime Unit.

When his latest target turns out to be closely connected to the underworld bosses of the Deep Web, he realizes that he has been betrayed by the one person he thought he could trust – his mentor. And now, that same person is coming after him, and he is the most powerful and dangerous man in the Deep Web.

At least, that is how the plot kicks off. Partly, the book deals with the fact that none of us really stop to think about how almost everything we touch and interact with these days, from our cars, to our houses, to the pumps and monitors in hospitals, could actually be used to kill us if a malicious actor was that way inclined. I wanted people reading the book to think twice about getting into an elevator, or driving a car that can park itself, or allowing their smartphone to report where they are and what they are doing at every moment of the day.

Netwars is an ambitious cross-platform project – what does that mean?

I think it genuinely means that if we had ever tried to pitch the whole project as it exists now from the outset, people would have laughed us out of the room. Netwars has evolved into the beast that it is now, but it began as a slightly smaller scale project. The project now comprises a TV documentary, an interactive web documentary, a three part graphic novel series for iPads and Android Tablets, and a six-part serialized novel, which also happens to be an audiobook. And that’s not all, we are still developing extensions of the Netwars world in other formats and on other platforms.

How do the narratives of all the different platforms connect?

We had a mantra throughout the production process of all of the parts of the project which was that everything should be possible, but nothing needed to be done. Basically, what that meant was that we wanted the audience to be able to find the content on any of the platforms and fully engage with the stories there, but we didn’t want anybody to feel that they had missed something by not, for example, reading the novel, or graphic novel, or only seeing the documentary. Our other guiding principle is that nothing could happen in any of the fictional parts of the project that weren’t based in reality.

We created a character, usually known as The Salesman, who appears in all of the fictional parts of the project, including the narrative backbone of the interactive web documentary. He is the glue. For the web documentary, it is he that lures the viewer in and makes them part of his dark world. He features in the graphic novel series, as a minor but important character, and he appears in the novel as the main character’s mentor, and eventual nemesis. In each case, you are introduced to him in context, meaning that you can enjoy one part of the project in isolation without feeling that you are missing any information.

How have your own experiences prepared you for working on the Netwars project?

Well, as an assassin myself… No, I’m joking. I thought about applying to be an Mi5 agent once, but I think I am both too indiscrete and too impatient. Plus, I know it would be nothing like James Bond. In reality, the only experience I could draw on for this project was my passion for technology and my casual worries that we are allowing machines to take over too many angles of our life. There we are worrying about whether the machines will become sentient and kill us all, nobody seems to have considered what would happen if somebody wanted to turn those machines against us.

A lot of what I researched kept repeating the statement that most of the systems we rely on were designed before we had terrorism. Which sounds stupid, but I know what they mean by that. An airplane is not a weapon unless it is used by terrorists to make a political or religious statement. In the same way that a screwdriver or a hammer are not weapons unless used that way – it’s just that we have legislation for carrying hammers around the place, whereas our essential infrastructures are often running on a machine less powerful than our TV. It’s a looping answer to your question. I have always been interested in how technology helps us be more efficient. Working on Netwars has made me research, in great detail, what the risks of relying on those technologies are.

Do you think the way we are consuming narratives is changing?

Yes and no. I think, at heart, we still want to be told a bloody good story. I think audiences, readers and consumers are all less worried about where that content comes from or how they get to see or read it. Just looking at myself, I still resist watching Netflix on my iPhone, but I am more than happy to watch on my iPad. I read on a kindle now, even though I have shelves full of books which I have an almost fetishistic relationship with.

Last year I would have said that I could only read non-fiction, especially for research, in an actual paper book, but the Netwars project research changed that, as there were some books that were only available digitally. I think we all want to be swept along, excited and impressed – we want characters we can trust, characters we can fall in love with and be excited for or disappointed by. The main difference is that we expect to find them all over the place, wherever we happen to be. We are as comfortable following a character on twitter as we are watching them in a drama series.

When we read a book, we often expect to see the TV series or the film of the same story, or at least the same world. I think there is more blending between the platforms, and as our viewing and reading experiences become increasingly connected, that will continue to develop.

Do you think authors need to start thinking about new ways to get their work onto the marketplace?

I don’t know. I worry that we head into a world where the cart leads the horse. I think, as a writer, you should ask yourself what your idea would be best as: a novel, a short story, a film, a TV series, a radio play, theatre, mime, a series of magazine columns, a web series, a blog, an art installation… I think the days are gone of being able to say: I am an author, or I am a screenwriter, or I am a playwright, or whatever.

I think the boxes have changed shape, and writers limit themselves if they think only in one category. That being said, I think the dawn of self-publishing, blogging and the whole digital age opening up readership again, means that there are wider opportunities for writers to build an audience without being beholden to the publisher, commissioner and producer. I think if someone has a passion to tell the story that they have brewing inside them, they should just get on and do it, the best they can, and if no one will take it, self-publish and prove them wrong. Right?

Take us through a typical writing day for you?

I’m pretty organised about my schedule. Some people are not, and prefer to let the creativity flow as and when it hits them. For me, if I don’t trick myself with a schedule, I get nothing done.

I work at my home, I have a wonderful office there, that is only for writing and it is a place that I can shut the door on at the end of the day, which is also important. I usually hit the desk at 8.30am, when my partner leaves for work, and I spend an hour replying to emails and doing bits of admin and invoicing. I realised that, even with the greatest self-control, the Internet was too distracting so from 09.30 until 13.00 I use a cheap program called Freedom, which shuts off my router and, unless I completely restart my computer, keeps me off the web.

I have a little notepad beside my keyboard and I jot down all of the questions that come up or things I need to research as I go along – I would otherwise spend about 30 mins or so finding out which park they were running through in the scene I was writing, only to cut the whole scene later. I just put a red X in the manuscript and plough on. I’ll go back and fill it in later.

Between 13.00 and 15.00 I have lunch and walk the dog. That is usually my background thinking time – I try to clear my head of what I’m doing and just look around me. Quite often, if I’ve been wrestling with a scene or character element, I will talk to myself (or the dog) as I walk and usually by the time I get home, there is a solution. I also use that time to answer any emails that may have come in, or reply to calls that I’ve missed (I also put my phone an airplane mode while I write – all pings and beeps must be silenced!)

I am back at my desk by 15.00 and I work through with everything off again until 17.00 usually, but 18.00 on bad deadline days. I like to leave a scene unfinished so that I can pick up straight away the next day and not have to start a new scene from scratch. It always helps to knock off a few hundred words quickly at the start of a session, it makes you feel like your achieving something.

At the beginning of every project I make a soundtrack using Spotify, of about 200 songs. This is all I listen to when I’m working, and it has nothing to do with my taste in music, it is about getting into the mood of the piece you are writing straight away. My writing is not always at the computer, either – I could be on the sofa in my office with record cards, fleshing out ideas, or scribbling all over the whiteboards on the walls – the music is always on – it stops me listening to the neighbours or being distracted by the people on the street outside.

When I finish for the evening I leave my desk ready to start straight away and then I go downstairs and start cooking, which is my other passion. That is pretty much my routine. If I do it right, I shouldn’t have to work later than 18.00 and never on weekends. Life is important too.

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

Writing is bloody hard. Especially, finishing is hard. Having the ideas are fine, and you’re really excited to start, but do yourself a favour and make sure you plot out what’s going to happen the whole way through. Make sure you read your plotting again and again, before you start writing. During your plotting, if you are really excited, by all means, write out the scene in your head, but don’t just dive in. Completion anxiety really freaks me out. Even when you have finished one piece, and know you can successfully do so, when you start the next one, there is always a time when you think: I don’t think I can do this. Embrace that neurosis. That’s what makes you a writer!

I think the other hard thing is finding your own voice and having confidence in it. I had help with that. My old friend and mentor, Neil Richards – an excellent writer himself – struggled with me as a young writer, some 20 years ago, to help me figure out what kind of a writer I was going to be! Through his patient, intelligent criticism, I stepped out of the shadow of those I was trying to parody, and eventually, believed that I had a voice too. It was never going to be for romantic comedy though! Or even comedy full stop. We laughed a lot at some of my early writing, but the truth was, we were laughing at how bad it was. He had the ability to make me see how bad it was, but without making me give up hope. He found the good bits and pushed them hard.

I guess the thing with finding your voice is that it has to come from you, but often, it needs someone who knows what they’re looking for, to see that spark, and help you to ignite it. Whenever I write now, I assume Neil will be the one reading it, and I try to imagine what he will think. Usually, I imagine he’ll tell me I can do better. Fortunately, these days, he’s a friend, and too polite to tell me he hated it!

How do you deal with feedback?

If it’s good, I love it. I copy and paste it and put it on my website! Feedback is tough. I learned through a lot of my producing work that you can’t get into personal conversations over feedback. There will be people who love what you do, and people who hate it. The thing about feedback is that somebody has taken the time to write a review or offer and opinion about your work, and that means a lot. Even if that opinion was negative, usually people are able to justify their feelings. If they felt a character was underdeveloped, or a theme was too uncomfortable, or the piece was badly researched, whatever, it’s a perfectly valid feeling. If we had the time and strength, we would go back and re-read and think about our work with those comments in mind, but we have to charge forward with the next thing.

The point is, readers aren’t wrong about their own opinions. I have read books by authors I love, that I didn’t enjoy on that occasion. I have read books that I loved that other people hated. The fact that people read your work and take the time to comment, whether negatively or positively is amazing. As a neurotic writer, the more positive comments the better. But then, the more pressure on the next book…

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

William Gibson, for his amazing creativity, intelligence, imagination. William Boyd for his incredible characters. I love most crime thrillers, and I really admire anyone that can create a character that returns again and again with a new adventure. Lee Child, for example, nails that with Jack Reacher – you know what you’re getting. It’s a great skill. There are some stand out books that I have just loved – like The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall. When I read it, I just thought it was such an individual and interesting concept.

I could go on, I read every day. For me, if your book is on a shelf, somewhere, you’ve made it. It’s a fantastic achievement, to have finished a story and put it out there for everybody to see. It’s a terrifying thing knowing that everybody is reading the words you wrote, and wondering whether they like them or not.

Give me some advice about writing…

If you’re going to do it, do it every day – even if it’s just a bit. Writing is like training – the more you do, the quicker, stronger, better you get.

Plan, plan, plan. Then write.

Don’t be too precious about getting it right the first time – learn to draft. I often have lines in first drafts like: ‘He says something really funny about her shoes. She doesn’t think it’s funny.’ I don’t need to know what the funny thing is there and then, because that’s not what the scene is about, it’s an emotional moment and I can come back to the detail of it. If I spend too long figuring out what the joke is, I’m out of the emotional moment anyway.

Get somebody who knows about story to read your work. If you can find other writers and offer a you-read-my-work-and-I’ll-read-yours kind of deal, that’s ideal. Your family and friends love you too much to tell you they didn’t like it, and don’t have the tools to tell you why. Unless they’re an editor, writer or agent, in which case it’s too close to home. Of course they must read it, but don’t be surprised if they are disturbed by the darkness within you…

What’s next for you?

I have an interactive storybook for pre-school children, called Milli’s Adventures on Apple-Tree Hill, coming out in the summer on iPads and Android tablets. It’s about a little snail called Milli who doesn’t know how to be a snail and has wonderful adventures trying to find out. It was created and illustrated by the wonderful Jana Schell and I am honoured to have been able to write the stories for it. I love it. Meanwhile, I have just begun writing the sequel to The Code, so keep your eyes open at the end of the year for the second book.


Once again I’m blown away by the detail authors are willing to share with us about their writing process – I hope Sean’s interview gives you as much inspiration as it did me.

By the way, Sean mentions his mentor, Neil Richards. You may recall that Neil’s already done his own fascinating interview for The Intel, and you can see that here.