Your latest novel The Beach House came out in January - can you tell me a little bit about it?
The Beach House is about a couple who take a holiday on the paradise island of Vaguely Familiar, somewhere in the Caribbean. They get engaged; and the main male character has sold his company for an absolute fortune. So far, so good, right?
The story touches down in thriller territory when Cora and Jonathan realise they are not alone on the island. There is another couple stationed there – even though they had been led to believe that they had the island to themselves. They make contact and have fun together… But things aren’t what they seem.
Things get weird, then they get nasty.
There was a lot in the mix, for such a simple story. I thought back to holidays I’d had in the past, and the type of books I read on those holidays. I used to make a point of taking the Ian Fleming Bond novels away on breaks, back in my hazy 20s. There are a lot of elements of 007 in the storyline – Bond fans will have fun picking those out. No laser beams, alas, but there are a few sharks.
Related to this, I thought about popular movies through the ages that were about taking people to exotic places. The Bond films are a great example, that sort of widescreen luxury and good living that was beyond about 99% of the people sitting in the cinema. South Pacific, or Beyond The 12-Mile Reef, or gumby pirate movies. That kind of Saturday afternoon BBC2 movie you used to get. I wanted to replicate that feeling of being transported somewhere exotic – even if there is a British pub on the main island with a quiz on a Tuesday…
In writing the book, I was trying to remind myself of those days when I actually went on holiday and had fun, as opposed to being a more horrific version of Mrs Doubtfire, running after my kids. Those days are going to feel particularly remote for everyone this year, unfortunately.
In terms of theme, the book is about responsibility. How much would money change you? It’s something we’ve all thought about. Does your identity come down to how good a person you are, or would prosperity change you into something awful?
Tell me about your life before you became an author?
Before I became an author, I was an aspiring one! In my full-time job I work in journalism. I’m from Glasgow, but I now live in Yorkshire.
Being a storyteller of some kind was always my goal. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a comics artist, but wasn’t quite good enough at art. Ask me to draw a car today and I’ll still do one of those Stickle Brick numbers.
Then I realised I could tell stories more quickly if I wrote them down… I’m still doing it today.
Can you share your journey to getting published?
The road was long and winding and pot-holed. I went about it all wrong, to begin with. Once I was in my first full-time job after university, I bought a computer, and thought: right, this is it. I’ll get started on the writing career.
Don’t laugh, but I wrote what I thought was the ultimate nineties novel… 250,000 words of it, the majority of them wasted. It took me years. I started when I was 21. The business of real life intervened, so you could say I ran into delays. I finished it when I was 26. You know when people say you should walk before you can run? That’s not bad advice.
It was dreadful, about nightlife in Glasgow, but it also had a serial killer in it. I thought it was all edgy and tough and muscular. Short sentences. You know. Punchy. But in fact, it needed to go to the gym.
I’d love to tell you it was a great learning experience. It was not. Bret Easton Ellis has a lot to answer for. It’s so bad that I fantasise about becoming a really famous author, then living in fear that it’s going to be found in a filing cabinet to embarrass me after I’m dead.
About halfway through I realised the truth: it was too long, and crap. But I finished it. It had become a running joke among people I knew. I got defensive whenever it was raised. I was weary rather than surprised or disappointed when no-one wanted to print it. But I was proud to have finished a full novel. It’ll come, I thought. There’s time. Book two, let’s do this!
I had a few false starts after that before I finished another novel - a big, heavy-handed and also heavy-footed satire about a giant monster attacking London. That one suffered a similar fate; I liked it, but hardly anyone else did.
One agent asked for the full MS, then got back to me with the immortal words: “I didn’t realise it was supposed to be a comedy.”
Another 150,000 words into the bin – it was overflowing by this time.
However, just prior to this time came the real breakthrough. I went on an online writing course run by my alma mater, Strathclyde University, led by the author Elizabeth Reeder.
This was the first time since school I’d dared show people my work (apart from unimpressed agents). It was a really positive experience. I had been really shy about putting my work out there, so this was a huge step. I got a bit of encouragement.
Subsequently, I put my monster novel forward for a writers’ social media site run by HarperCollins, called Authonomy. It was useful for a lot of reasons.
It was an education in terms of criticism, and also dealing with trolls. You developed a thick skin – although some people developed punctured skin. It could be vicious, and there were some shocking pile-ons when people stumbled in who didn’t “know the rules”.
Although the now-defunct site had glaring flaws, the most important thing is that I made a lot of friends there, many of whom I’m in contact with today. I still miss the silly threads and drunken Friday nights. In terms of writing, this is where I began to think I could do it; and that there were good, kind and encouraging people who would back you up. I took heart and got back into things.
They also had great advice and expertise. There were some people who had published novels in the 1960s and ‘70s who were starting again – they had seen and done it all.
I did well in some short story competitions and turned out dozens of them. I saw print for the first time. I was published in the same magazine as Alasdair Gray. I saw my name in the Daily Telegraph.
The time was right for some more poor, unpublished novels. I duly delivered.
I tried a high-concept techno-thriller… That was a nope. Then I went for “magic, teenagers, YA, quests, swords, dragons, wizards” type deal… another nope.
I wasn’t 26 anymore. I was aware of the ticking clock, I was about to become a father, and I was starting to think it would never happen for me.
I had another roll of the dice – a thriller.
Once it was done, I got the fear. No finished novel is a failure, but if you’re on your third or fourth or fifth shot, and getting no results, you do start to wonder.
Happily, a writer friend of mine pointed me towards an open call for submissions from Aria/Head of Zeus. They liked it, they signed me up for four books, and that was it. A doddle!
You’ve written a couple of novels – where do you get ideas for plot lines and characters? Do you follow a particular process?
I wouldn’t call it a skill or a talent, but I think one thing a writer must have as a basic component is a vivid imagination. This seems like a truism, but some people don’t have that. I only found out recently that some people are missing the component in their brain that allows them to “see” physical objects in their mind’s eye. I was astounded by this, but apparently, it’s true. Ask a certain percentage of the population to visualise, say, a red star, and they can’t do it. Whatever other deficiencies I have, that section of my brain seems to be quite well-developed.
And that can be a curse, in many ways. Anyone who’s ever taught me would tell you that I have a problem with disappearing out of the window when I am meant to be focusing on other things. It took me an embarrassingly long time to get a driver’s licence.
From a very early age I was forever making up wee stories… or even huge epics. Battles, either in worlds of fantasy or sci-fi. Monsters as a constant. I’d see it all happening in my mind’s eye. Then someone would snap their fingers in front of my eyes to wake me up. My mum always said I would disappear into my own world when I was setting up my Star Wars figures – the battles would take ages. Everything I write is a distillation of this. I simply enjoy making up characters, stories, events, drama, people and places.
I take inspiration from everywhere and everything. This can be from current events and news stories (an obvious source, given my line of work). To give you one very recent example, I wondered yesterday what might happen if people took to masks as a fashion accessory, as well as a health essential, given current events.
Otherwise, ideas could come from a real-life situation, or a dream, or one single image – or more likely, something scary.
For my first novel, The Family, I got the idea when I took a holiday in a cottage in the middle of nowhere. I remember lying in bed and listening to absolute silence outside. Even the sheep had gone home. And then I thought: If someone was out there, and meant to do us a mischief while we slept… It would be days before anyone found out about it. No-one can help us. Even if the police came in a helicopter, they might be too late. The opening chapter was born.
Plot lines take shape quite quickly, and I fill in the details around it. There is the joy of discovery in writing but having a good strong chapter plan saves you a lot of time and effort.
I’m a bit more of a pantzer than I’d like to be. I wish I was one of these writers with an office covered in post-it notes and a massive chart on the wall plotting everything in minute detail; I just don’t have the time for it yet. I carry most of it in my head, with one or two crib sheets to guide me. And in those first drafts, it shows. Thank God for editors and proof-readers! “Why have you suddenly started calling Jim ‘Bob’?”
One of my favourite things about writing is discovering elements of character; little tics and quirks that make them seem real, the fine details of appearance. There is a strange alchemy in that.
Who inspired your career and what’s the greatest piece of career advice you’ve ever been given?
The best advice I ever had came from a teacher who knew I liked writing. “Keep pumping it out,” he said. “Write at least 1,000 words a day, every day. Doesn’t matter how good it is – just do it.”
He was dead right. Whether it’s a matter of serious study and conscious construction for you, or something you just get a “feel” for, you have to put the words on the page and get the practice in.
I’m not sure who coined the phrase, but “Writing is rewriting” is another zinger. Get the book done, then fix what needs fixing. Your first draft might be unrecognisable by the time it’s ready to put out in the world. If you want reassurance with a little bit more weight to it, compare George Orwell’s original draft of the first chapter of Nineteen Eighty-Four with what actually made it to print.
For The Family, I thought I’d written the tightest, most whipcord-lean, most frightening first chapter I could – and it did snare a book deal. But even that got cut by more than 50% by the time the book was released.
One piece of advice from a colleague on Authonomy: “Beware becoming that miserable thing: a writer who does not write.”
Here’s some more from me, if you can stomach it: Do not give up. You have to take the knocks, but don’t let them stop you. Keep working. Bad luck is not a reflection of talent, just as good luck does not define it. Never stop writing. Keep pitching, keep hustling. No-one knows what the next big thing is – it could be you. And you are never too old. Even death doesn’t stop some writers breaking through – look at Stieg Larsson!
It’s hard to say who my inspiration is. There are many writers whose works I admire. If you mean someone who I looked at and thought, “I would like to be that guy”, then Stephen King is an obvious one. He came from nothing. He’s still at the top, nearly 50 years later. I don’t think it’s going overboard to compare him to Charles Dickens. And it’s gratifying to see him being more widely appreciated these days. He has an incredible gift.
A shout-out to the late James Herbert, too. More of a schlockmeister than King, but a hugely influential figure for a generation of British writers. I still think of The Rats, Domain, The Spear and The Fog with great fondness (that’s the wrong word, given the subject matter!). I miss seeing his name on the bestseller lists.
What are your future plans? Where do you see your career headed/ future books?
My goal is to write full-time. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I’m not there yet by a long way, but I’m so grateful to have been given a shot. I was afraid it would never happen.
I have a warehouse full of ideas but the next two projects I’m lining up are a romantic comedy, and the first in a detective series. I’m currently writing the fourth book for Aria, due for delivery in July; we’ll see what happens after that. I’m happy to write as many standalone thrillers as people want.
I’m not just about the nasty things in life. True story: When I was editing some grisly murder scenes in The Family, I was writing a short story for The People’s Friend. You couldn’t imagine two more diametrically opposed publications, but to me, the energy behind the murder novel and the quirky little story I had published in the Friend is the same.
What are your insights into the future of publishing?
Books aren’t going anywhere. Technology won’t kill them. As Stephen Fry said, elevators did not make stairs obsolete. But I do wonder, with hand-held devices more complicated than the ones we saw in Star Trek being everywhere now, and with audiobooks absolutely booming, whether we might start to see more interactive content.
It’s long overdue, and as reading devices evolve in the digital era it will be easier to see novels spliced with other mediums, or perhaps with more content augmented by the reader themselves – their own creativity, added to yours.
It’s been difficult to make this work on computer screens, but perhaps the time for interactive content has come with Kindles, Kobos and all the rest. Perhaps that will mean videos, animation, music, going hand-in-hand with the printed word.
It’ll be harder for people of my vintage and older to get into, but younger people will be the drivers. They’re probably doing it already. So long as everyone gets paid, it’s all good.
The next thing we might see is audiobooks taking the lead – we’ll see series making their debut on this platform, more exclusive content from big names. We’re already seeing long-form dramas and radio-style plays coming to prominence alongside simple narrative stories.
Nothing will take the place of a book, whatever format it might take. Writing is true telepathy. And reading is a religion. The human race will never tire of it.