Hi Tim. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your book ‘What She Left’.
Firstly, please could you imagine we are on a one minute speed date and tell me a little about yourself?
First off, sorry about the smell of wet dog, but my wife and I have just got a Golden Retriever puppy. In terms of other stuff, I live in Surrey and my day-job is as a farming journalist. When I’m not writing, you’ll find me walking the dog, Dudley.
When did you first realise you were going to be a writer?
I used to keep a diary when I was a kid – and I can distinctly recall the point as a teenager when I considered for the first time why I did this. It was because I was obsessed with recording detail and trying to capture moments. I hated forgetting stuff and my motivation has never changed. Writing is an attempt to grab hold of the world, make sense of it then, in turn, have your view of it challenged.
If you hadn’t become an author, what would you have done instead as a creative outlet?
I’m tone deaf and have zero artistic skills, so my options would be limited. I actually think business and science get a bad rep. They’re sometimes seen as boring, but they can every bit as creative as the arts. Most jobs – writing included – require a mixture of creativity and slog.
How do you go about researching detail and ensuring your books are realistic?
Research helps you visualise your characters, shape their personalities and make choices on their behalf. Once you get to know them well, you don’t need to make decisions for them any more – they do it for you. One of the ways I do research is to read the books that I think my characters would read. Ultimately, though, most of the research you do shouldn’t be visible on the page. It’s like an iceberg – most of it is under the surface.
Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?
I like to let ideas grow and stew in my subconscious so the initial stages of a book can be slow. However, I’m lucky in that, once I’ve got an idea and characters in my head, I can write quickly. Planning is important, but stories should evolve as you write them.
It was actually on Twitter that I found the original idea for ‘What She Left’. I saw a tweet by someone about what piece of music they’d like played at their funeral and it struck me how bizarre and intimate that was to read. That got me thinking, what else could I learn about this person on Twitter, and that eventually took me to the idea of reassembling, jigsaw puzzle-like, a suspense story from a young woman’s digital and paper trail. After all, more than at any point in history, each of us leaves such a “footprint” nowadays.
I’m fascinated by how the way we communicate and relate to each other is changing and this book felt like a good way to explore that. Hopefully the structure, as well as feeling like a novel, makes it feel like an unfolding news story.
What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?
I’m a morning person, plus I’ve got a day-job, so I write before I go to work. I love that time of day – my head’s uncluttered and I find it easy to concentrate. Of course, the disadvantage of getting up so early is that I’m rubbish company in the evening. I didn’t make it through a single episode of the last series of Downton Abbey without falling asleep in front of the telly! As for where I write, one of my favourite spots is my local coffee house. I’ll have a black Americano, if you’re buying please…
(Not sure about that as I’m a tea drinker but I might make an exception in your case!)
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
I enjoy psychological suspense novels, but read a range of stuff. If you’re a writer, it’s good to read non-fiction and journalism, too.
Do you have other interests that give you ideas for writing?
It sounds trite to say, but I get my ideas by looking at the world around me. Sometimes, I love what I see and sometimes I hate it.
‘What She Left’ has a very striking cover. How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please!)?
I’m so glad you like it. To me, that face is all about ambiguity. You can’t tell whether she’s alive or dead, asleep or unconscious, sweating or crying, you can’t even put an exact age on her. It asks readers to answer those questions for themselves and that’s what a lot of the book does – I’m asking readers to work out who to believe, to filter ‘fact’ from fiction, to consider how much of what we read nowadays we can believe, and to navigate their way around unreliable narrators. This is, after all, what we do every day when we interact with each other and follow news stories.
If you could chose to be a character from ‘What She Left’, who would you be and why?
Ooh, that’s a good question – I haven’t been asked that before. I wouldn’t want to be Alice because she dies so young, or Professor Cooke because of his behaviour. Maybe one of the lesser characters, Larry. He seems to have had a long, fulfilling life. Robert Altman said the death of an old man was not a tragedy and in some ways he’s right. Dying young, conversely, can never not be tragic.
Professor Jeremy Cooke is not a likeable character. How did he make you feel as you created him and how difficult is it to create a character like him?
He’s a man with many flaws and he’s behaved terribly, so he was hard to write at times, but in his head he’s trying to be better and he isn’t entirely without redeeming features. I can’t say I liked him, but characters don’t necessarily need to be likeable. What they need to be is interesting and believable – and to change during the course of a book.
If ‘What She Left’ became a film, who would you like to play Professor Jeremy Cooke?
He’s played by Charles Dance in the audio version, so I’d love to see him in the role. I briefly met him while he was recording the part. I tried to play it cool, but was completely star-struck. The only person who was more excited than me was my mum who remembers him from the TV drama, The Jewel in the Crown, and now tells everyone that her son has met “that very handsome Mr Dance”.
(I’m trying not to be jealous here but I might steal some of your vicarious fame.)
If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that ‘What She Left’ should be their next read, what would you say?
Because if no one buys the book, Dudley won’t get a Christmas present.
Poor Dudley! (There are buying links at the top of the page if readers would like to make Dudley’s Christmas)
Thank you so much for your time in answering my questions.