I was twenty-five when my first book was published. But I had been a journalist for seven years by then, winning the Scottish Young Journalist of the Year award, and having a children’s novella serialised in a newspaper. That first book, “The Reporter”, featured characters from a BBC television drama series which I also created.
Do you think an author is born or made?
Both. I think a writer is born with a certain natural talent, and has an inbuilt drive to write. But you can learn from others how to harness that talent and craft your writing to make it better.
What common qualities do you find in the personalities of published authors?
Masochism, stubbornness, self-belief, stamina, and a great capacity for consuming alcohol.
How do you know if you have a seemingly “stupid” book premise that is doomed to fail versus one that will fly high?
The simple answer is that you don’t. You go with your instincts, because it is almost impossible to second-guess what publishers and readers are looking for. I write what I would like to read, and hope that others will enjoy it, too.
What is the theme of your latest book?
At what point did you stop juggling suggestions and critiques and trust yourself (as a writer)?
From day one. You always have to trust your own instincts and make your own judgments. You can only ever write what you believe in.
Are takeaway messages important to you?
I don’t usually have messages in my books. But I am inspired to write about things that arouse strong feelings in me, for example the subject of genetic food engineering in “The Firemaker” – the first of the China series. Generally I like to think that the things I write about will strike a chord with my readers, in the sense of our sharing a common human experience.
When do you know you’ve got the finished product and it’s your best effort?
I do a lot of research and development before starting to write. I produce a very detailed storyline, so that when I begin writing, that is all I have to concentrate on. I write fast and, again, trust my instincts. Apart from minor revisions, I believe that if I don’t get it right first time, I never will.
Any anecdotes about the research or writing of your books?
There is an interesting story which revolves around my latest book, “Snakehead”. It was published in France last year and I received a phonecall to say that it had been shortlisted for a literary award called the Prix Intramuros – literally, the prize behind the walls. When I enquired about it I was told that if I accepted the nomination, I would have to visit prisons around France and talk to French prisoners about writing. Which was when I discovered that the shortlisted books were going to be judged by panels of prisoners in French penitentiaries, and that they would choose the winner. I visited three groups of prisoners in prisons near Bordeaux and Cognac, and engaged in lively discussions with them about crime fiction. Then, when I went to the awards dinner that night, discovered to my amazement that “Snakehead” had won the prize. I figured it was quite an accolade for a crime writer to get the thumbs up from criminals. I guess I must be doing something right – or is it wrong?
My series of China thrillers took me on many research trips to China. I was the first western writer to gain full access to the Chinese police. On one of my early trips, I was invited as guest of honour to a banquet held by a top Beijing cop. His favourite dish, was deep fried whole scorpion. A plate of them was brought to the table. My host proceeded to eat one, then thirty other faces turned expectantly in my direction. I had no option but to eat one, too. It was vile, filled with bitter juices that I quickly washed down with beer. My wife was with me at the banquet, but because she was not officially the guest of honour, felt that she could politely decline. Our interpreter, who was sitting next to her, whispered in her ear, ‘You are quite right – they are disgu-usting!’
How would you pitch this book to your intended audience?
By quoting from a review by Carl Brookins: “This is a novel with the potential to scare the pants off you. It’s timely,
international in scope, a whirlwind of a thriller.”