Emma Timpany - Travelling in the Dark

Emma Timpany is the author of Travelling in the Dark, a novella published by Fairlight Books. A local launch will be held at the Falmouth Bookseller, Church St, Falmouth on 23 October at 6pm. All welcome. Emma has previously published two short story collections and has recently co-edited Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Cornish Writing. https://emmatimpany.wordpress.com
How did you start writing?
I started writing a regular diary from the age of eleven. It was in those pages that I began experimenting with words. I mainly wrote poetry, as it was my first love, as well as bits of prose. I attended my first creative writing class, a summer school, while I was a student at the University of Otago. After graduating, I continued going to evening classes in London and Cornwall and eventually my first short story was published in 2010. So from the beginning to my first publication was a slow process which gradually unfolded over almost thirty years.
Did you always want to be a writer? 
Yes, but for a long time I didn’t think that it was possible. There was so much I didn’t know and I had little time to put into it. When my children started school, I began to have regular time to write and joined a local writers’ group. All my life I’ve loved reading fiction; I feel it’s important for writers to be readers.
You have experience in editing other people’s work. Do you think this helps you in your own writing? 
It’s something I’ve only started doing relatively recently, working as an editor on Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Cornish Writing. I enjoyed it a great deal because it’s very collaborative. The writers I’ve worked with have been pleased to have close attention paid to their work and are happy to make changes they see as improvements. I feel the same way when my own work is sympathetically edited.
The general editing notes I make are always suggestions – there’s no onus on the writer to accept them if they don’t want to – and alongside these I pick up on any typos or unintended errors.
How is editing someone else’s work different from editing your own writing? 
It’s much easier to edit someone else’s work because the writing is new, fresh and unfamiliar to me. Even a relatively brief short story of my own of, say, 2,000 words, might go through as many as fifty drafts before it’s finished. By this time, when I read the work I will miss even obvious errors, seeing what I want or expect to be there rather than what actually is there. One challenge as an editor is trying to stay true to the writer’s unique voice and not to impose my own ideas and style too forcefully. I’d sum up my editorial approach as ‘a keen eye and a light touch’.
You’ve previously written short stories. How do short story and novella genres compare to you as a writer?
I’ve been thinking about this a great deal lately and, in fact, have started to feel as though they share a great deal in common.
It’s something to do with their succinctness – they are both intense, concentrated forms which gain power from withholding information and not spelling everything out, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps and absences themselves. In both short stories and novellas, everything is pared down to its essence and sometimes becomes more than the sum of its parts.
Another trait they share is that novellas and short stories can be read in one sitting and so it’s possible to hold them in your mind in their entirety.
If you could describe Travelling in the Dark in one word what would it be? 
What inspired you to write Travelling in the Dark?
The inspiration came after I travelled to New Zealand after an absence of seven years with my husband and two young children, a year after the devastating Christchurch earthquake of February 2011. As we went back to lots of places familiar to me, it occurred to me that – while I was flooded with memories of the past – my children had no idea what had happened in those places. So the journey we were making was happening on many different levels at the same time, in the visible present and the potent past.
It also struck me that whatever difficulties we go through as adults, parents of young children have no choice but to keep going and carry out many practical, repetitive and tedious tasks each day whether they feel like it or not. Some might consider this a terribly mundane and unimportant subject to write about, but in this story the love and care that Sarah can continue to give her child in the present day acts as a powerful antidote to both her present and past suffering. Some might even say it’s heroic.
The nature descriptions in Travelling in the Dark are breath-taking. Did you choose New Zealand as a setting for this reason?
My home landscapes of Otago, Southland and Fiordland in southern New Zealand have always been the main inspiration for my writing. It’s a wild, unique and beautiful place but also threatening and intimidating. The immense power of the natural world dominates and makes human life seem small in comparison.
The places mentioned in your novella are mostly fictional. Did you base the descriptions on any real places in New Zealand?
Yes, all the fictional places are based on real places but most have been changed in some way, some merged, along with the possible routes Sarah can take. I wanted to do this as I’m aware it’s easy for people to assume that fiction is actually thinly disguised ‘fact’ or ‘the truth.’ I wanted to signal very strongly that these are fictional characters and fictional events occurring in a fictional place.
You describe many different types of scenery in your novella (New Zealand, Greece, etc.) When you are writing these passages do you recall the places from your memory or does it help to have a picture of them in front of you?
Interesting question. I write from memory rather than from actual visual images. I feel as though I can ‘see’ these places just by thinking about them. It’s very important to me for not only memory but imagination to play its part in the creation of fiction and have free rein. Imagination and the creative process are powerfully transformative, changing what once had some basis in reality into new and interesting shapes and patterns. What I’m writing is not factual, and I find it fascinating to see the alterations and versions my imagination makes.
What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned through your writing? 
That writing is extremely hard work, but true freedom – which is incredibly rare in this world – is to be found there. In what other occupation can you become anyone or go anywhere?
The act of creation is powerful and addictive and, when it’s going well, can seem the best feeling in the world. The stakes feel very high to me between success and failure, what I want to achieve and the actual result. I spend most of my time rewriting, polishing, perfecting and cutting anything unnecessary out, whereas what I love best is writing new work.
When I am happy with what I’ve written or, on the rare occasion, a story is gifted into my mind and flows out, as if something other than me is speaking through me, it’s an amazing feeling. It’s like being able to fly. But when things aren’t going well, it can be very bad. Light and dark, yet again, something I always come back to – the brighter the light, the darker its opposite. I try to be patient and realise that silence, frustration and rejection are all part of a writer’s life, even after publication.
What has been the hardest part of Travelling in the Dark to write?
I started this book six years ago and the first draft arrived fluidly and quickly. Since then it’s gone through dozens of drafts and countless transformations. The final rewrite I did – with help from my mentor Clio Gray – was the hardest as it meant rearranging the book (yet again). But I believe these final changes also made it publishable.
In this final stage I had to discard some scenes I was very fond of, and yet some parts of the writing have remained exactly as they were in the first draft. Beneath the surface of this book, I see so many other drafts and variations, rather like the layers of an archaeological dig. In a way, this is rather fitting and similar to the layering of time and memory in the story itself.
Why did you choose Travelling in the Dark as the title of your story?
The title came to me very early on as I wrote the first draft, and never changed. It was inspired by something the New Zealand writer Robin Hyde wrote ‘…who travels with his dream travels with a dark torch.’
For me, this really summed up the strange compulsion writers have to find their way to a story or finished piece of work, even to find out what they feel and think, out of thin air. More literally, the story opens with Sarah and her child on an aeroplane flying through the night sky. Another crucial scene in the novel takes place in the darkness as well.
What do you hope people take away from reading Travelling in the Dark?
I hope that it gives people who have lived through challenging experiences a sense of not being alone with their difficulties. When I was growing up and trying to understand my own feelings, I was helped mostly by books because no one ever spoke about those things.
We are all imperfect and have faults and flaws; Sarah’s fight is to face up to her past difficulties and help a friend in need, and her challenge is not to repeat the patterns of the past in her relationship with her child.
Many of the recent tributes to Stephen Hawking described him as a hero. In Travelling in the Dark I was trying to show that everyday bravery and kindness in the face of numerous setbacks is kind of an achievement in itself and might even be thought of as a difficult, quiet kind of heroism.
What does writing mean to you? 
It’s been my support and pleasure for thirty-seven years, and I hope that it continues to be so for the rest of my life. Every human being and every life is unique and immensely complex – at its best, writing can capture some of the strangeness and wonder of life and express what it is to be human.
What inspires your writing? 
Landscape, memory, trying to pin down complex feelings and emotions.
Do you have a writing schedule? 
My writing time falls between 8am to 3pm on weekdays during term time but is often interrupted for various reasons. Time and good health are gifts which can be lost at any moment. I try to remember that the time I have is limited and precious and to make the most of these hours.
Where do you tend to write?
I write at an old oak desk that used to belong to Great Western Railways in the front room of my home in Cornwall. When I was younger and didn’t have a desk, I’d always sit on my bed in my tiny room in Macandrew Bay and write there, looking out the window at the ever-changing light on the hills of the Otago Peninsula and the water of the harbour.
Who your favourite author? 
Very difficult question to answer. I always come back to Katherine Mansfield’s long short story ‘At the Bay’ (which some might argue is actually a novella).
There are so many books and authors I enjoy and learn from, as the stacks of books dotted around every room of my house will testify. Works I’ve enjoyed recently include Rachel Cusk’s Outline, Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, Kent Haruf’s Plainsong and Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. I love reading and rereading my favourite books, as I always find something new in them. I enjoy reading biography, memoir, poetry and creative non-fiction as well as fiction.
Do you have a pet peeve when it comes to writing? Something you notice yourself doing or something you pick-up in other’s writing.
I always feel that fictional deaths, especially those of children, must be absolutely necessary and hard earned. In far too many novels horrible things happen to children and young people, especially if they are female. 
My own children dying before I do is my greatest fear and so is something I never want to imagine for myself or for any of my characters. That said, far better writers than me have handled this subject with the utmost skill, grace and dignity – one example is found in James Baldwin’s brilliant work Sonny’s Blues, another in Kate Clanchy’s short story The Not-Dead and the Saved.
Do you have a writer’s habit that helps you ‘get in the zone’?
The quieter it is, the easier I find it to work. I get my best work done when it’s just me in the house and my cat is nearby asleep on the sofa.
Do you feel like you writing style has changed over the years?
I think my writing comes from the same place but I can see, looking at old work, how my writing has improved over the years simply from practice. I’ve learned a lot of techniques and got much better at editing my own work. But I still tend to say as little as possible, and to ‘write short’.
I thought I might be able to sustain longer narratives as I became more experienced. It still might happen. I learn most from reading the work of other writers and thinking hmmm…how did they manage to do that?
What’s a piece of advice you can give to aspiring authors?
It sounds very basic but read in your genre. If you want to write contemporary short stories then read every contemporary short story collection you can get your hands on. There will be plenty in your local library and short stories are broadcast on the radio most days. Try and think about why you like some of the stories more than others. A combination of reading and learning creative writing techniques will improve your work and, most importantly, help you understand when things go wrong. There are a huge number of resources available online now. Keep trying and practising. As with any skill, it takes time to get better, and practice (everyday, if possible) is at the heart of this.

Catching Love, the second time around

While publishers and book fans alike may see a book as fitting a particular genre, that's rarely the case for authors. Sure, we may say it's sci-fi, or fantasy, or crime, or spy fiction, but there will usually be other influences and elements in the mix. Even so-called crossover novels sometimes divide the critics as surely as they unite a wider audience. That being the case, it's my pleasure to introduce Deryn Pittar, whose novel (among her many other works) writes its own rules. More of that in a bit. First, let me introduce you to Deryn.
Every writer starts somewhere, so where did you begin and what were your early days like?

My writing journey has been split in two by simply being busy as a wife and mother until I had time to get serious about the craft.

As a young mother I wrote a short story about an angel who had been demoted because her previous charge had been run over. She now hovered anxiously about her present charge, fearing for his safety and further demotion. A crazy premise really, but I sold it to a magazine and bought a dozen orchid plants with the money. I had these for many years, so it was good value for money.

However, with small children and life’s challenges I resorted to writing long letters, then long emails, lots of reading until finally all the children left home and I looked around and thought “Now I can learn to write” -  and I did.

You mentioned the craft of writing - what did that mean to you?

It took several years and a heap of rejections to learn the craft. What words to leave out, how to write in back story, don’t use adverbs. What ‘showing not telling’ is all about and how to get rid of the ‘was’s (they slow things down). 

What did you do to develop your writing?

I took on-line courses, joined a couple of writing groups, found some critique partners and helped other budding writers by sharing what I had learned. I still do this. An honest, kind critique partner is a must.

What's been one of your high points?

Nothing surpasses the excitement of that first contract offer. 

Has your development changed since you became an author?

After receiving that contract, a new learning curve began: editing, proof-reading, the different English spellings between countries; a myriad of little things that make up life as an author. 

In recent years it’s been social media, scheduling posts, blog tours and designing banners and graphics. 

What sort of writer are you?

A busy one! I write futuristic and fantasy fiction, spiced with romance and adventure. I have also had Young Adult, short stories, flash fiction and articles on writing published. In addition, I self-published a children’s rhyming book, once won a prize for a short screen script and I'm a published poet. Thank goodness I’m supposedly retired. 

Where is home for you?

I live in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand, which lives up to its name. I belong to the Romance Writers of N.Z., Tauranga Writers, and Spec.Fic.NZ (speculative fiction NZ).

Tell us about your book in 100 or so words

William and Belinda, both genetically altered, meet years after leaving the government-rearing nursery. Their late development allowed them to escape a life devoted to the government's defence departments. If their skills are now discovered they will be conscripted and never be free again.

William’s talent is to move through space between locations in the blink of an eye. Belinda can lift objects of great weight with her mind. Their relationship creates a raft of problems both struggle to overcome.

‘Catching Love when it Falls’ explores an alternative reality and discovers the one thing neither Belinda nor William can control - love. 

What's next after 'Catching Love...'?

Catching Love when it Falls is actually the first novel in a series that's being relaunched. The other books from the Future Movers series will be available soon. You can also find out more about the series by contacting me on Twitter - https://twitter.com/derynpittar

Eric Borgerson - When the Eye Sees Itself

All writers bring aspects of themselves and their own experiences to their work. It's been said many times that if you want to understand a writer, read their words. It's also a place where, to quote Richard Bach's Illusions, "You are also free to write lies, or nonsense, or to tear the pages." The author Eric Borgerson has done something else again - he has put social issues and political themes at the heart of his novel. Eric and I recently sat down in cyberspace together to talk about his work - both his writing and as a publisher. 

Your novel, When the Eye Sees Itself, is rooted in the way that people can be classified and subdivided – and divided against one another; did you draw ‘inspiration’ from the way that popular opinion, especially online, seems to be drawn along political and ideological lines?

The novel is definitely informed by aspects of contemporary political culture in the (so-called) West and beyond, but the fictional society of the story is very different from our existing systems.  The novel explores the concept of power gradients, whether between individuals, between the government and the public, between branches of the government, and between factions in society.  However, those power disparities are decontextualized from the axes along which we customarily experience them, i.e., race, sex, gender, religion, color, national origin, sexual orientation, age or (for the most part) ability.  Citizens in the country where the novel takes place are differentiated by temperament: Vulnerables, deemed to require protection, Aggressives, deemed to require confinement or restraint, and Citizens, who possess a balanced midrange of the temperamental poles.

I believe the reader will see parallels to social struggles apparent in the news today, as well as the distorting effect of commercial interests on social policy and the various roles religion can play in underlying struggles for power and access to official legitimacy.

So, yes, the story reflects ideological and political divides blaring at us through the Internet and media today, but the form is very different and, I hope, gets at a deeper archetypal struggle that is playing out in seemingly varied ways on the surface in our world.

Do you see your fiction writing as an extension of your activism, and have you included any direct experiences in your writing?

Interesting question.  My own experience as an activist shows up in the struggles and characters of the story.  The book also contains political critiques relevant to issues in our contemporary world. The story is an allegory, and as such, it provides a mirror that I hope contributes to productive discussions about issues plaguing our societies, and more deeply, our consciousness.

The novel does not contain direct experiences. It is neither biographical nor autobiographical, but is informed (sometimes very vividly) by my experiences as an activist, and my familiarity with multiple sides of the law.

It is a story about power, not just a struggle for power over, but a deeper struggle over the meaning of power itself.
It is also about interconnection: institutional, psychological, political, cultural, economic, conscious, even subatomic (The sci-fi dimension of the story – Quantum Field Resonance Imaging (QFRI) technology that allows people to touch minds – serves an important role in this aspect of the story.)

Power and interconnection are important themes in most forms of activism and political critique.

What are your ambitions for Polylyric Press and its Independent Publishing model?

The objective for Polylyric Press is to develop collaborative relationships with authors, and a fairer distribution of proceeds than under traditional publishing contracts.

Under a traditional publishing contract, if a publisher decided to proceed with a book, it would control the title, cover, and content. If initial marketing did not send the book viral, then the author would be responsible for marketing and, in exchange for his or her labors, sacrifice of control, and ongoing promotional efforts, would receive the prestige of the publisher’s label, and maybe a 10 percent cut of list price on the book (which, if you look at the prices of books on the shelves, does not amount to much!)Although the author might receive an advance on royalties, it would have to be paid back through the royalties as they came in, which might never exceed the advance.

Polylyric’s model is different.  We will collaborate with authors to polish and develop their works to a high gloss for publication.  This means a shared decision making process about cover, editorial decisions, content, and title, with the aim of both Polylyric and the author ending up happy with the final version of the book that goes to market.  The author will, and in my opinion should, maintain control over his or her literary work, continue to own the copyright, and work with, not for, Polylyric.  Polylyric would hold a license to publish and market the book, but the author would retain ownership of his or her copyright.

As for royalties, there would be a proportional split which would route a significant portion of the net proceeds to the author. Initially, the proportion would balance in favour of Polylyric until its investment is recouped, then the ratio would flip, with the author taking the larger portion and Polylyric taking the smaller as sales continued.  This way, the author makes money from the beginning from all sales. If sales are robust and Polylyric recoups its investment, the author makes the lion’s share over the long haul.  If the book did not sell well, the author would still make money from sales and Polylyric would eat whatever it did not recoup of its investment. This, to my mind, is a much fairer arrangement.  I believe authors would come out way ahead compared to traditional agreements.

It bears noting, however, that there are several real world constraints on the size of the pie the publisher and author can divvy up, no matter how progressive their contract.  

The cost of printing is one hard factor, though economy of scale can mitigate it.  Another is the cost of distribution and order fulfillment. I think this may be where the publishing paradigm is about go through a fundamental shift.

As things stand now, in order to get books into bookstores, self publishers and independent publishers must go through existing distribution networks, so that their titles are made available to wholesalers and show up in the catalogs that booksellers consult to place orders. There are various ways to accomplish this (i.e. through Ingram, Baker and Taylor, or various distribution companies that access their networks) but they cost a significant percentage of sales, which limits a progressive publisher's leeway. The gospel is that there is no other way, but I think it is worth considering whether there is a path beyond this process. Circumnavigating conventional distribution would be revolutionary, but much in our world is in transition, and perhaps this sacrosanct assumption is in need of revision. 

This one is mostly for me! As someone who spent a little time in New York and Oakland / Berkeley, a long time ago, I wondered if you see differences between the West Coast writer community and that of the East Coast?  

I don’t have a strong opinion on that.  My interface with the literary world is primarily through authors and their work via the constant-flux digital nexus.  As with the world of publishing, I think the world of writing is getting both larger and smaller at speeds too fast to perceive.  I think we are converging on a global artistic community, even as the political world still clings to armed boundaries.

Are you currently open to submissions and if so, which genres / styles are you particularly interested in?

Polylyric is definitely interested in submissions.  Our mission statement sets forth the broad outlines of what we will accept.  (https://polylyric.com/mission.html.) We welcome both fiction and non-fiction from diverse perspectives, provided they do not negate the worth of any individual or group.  Politically charged material is welcome, though not attack pieces or screeds.  Our goal is to deepen the dialog, not the rifts. As the mission statement notes: “We are interested in works designed to awaken and inspire, rather than mollify and sedate.”  If you’ve got something that demonstrates courage and creative innovation, please consider contacting us at info@polylyric.com.

How, in your view, do writers balance up the needs of creativity with the commercial demands of writing and publishing (marketing, sales, social media, etc.)?

I’m not sure we do!  I have found the hard way that book promotion is very difficult work. It can swallow you up, and it takes discipline not to leap into the maw.  I think one must place deliberate limits in order to strive for balance.  A commitment to a limited number of hours per week for promotion, social media, etc., a commitment to sacred time set aside for writing, all in the context of a commitment to life balance: between work and play, thought and stillness, time with others and solitude, exercise and rest, and so forth.  It’s all about timing, balance and rhythm in life, and it is a lifelong practice, not a static achievement.

Was there any book that gave you a lightbulb moment and make you think ‘I could do this’?

Actually, it was an interview I read with the great Michael Cunningham wherein he said, in essence, that the most important thing he learned about writing was that writing happens by writing.  I sat down that night and started writing my novel and discovered there is magic in the process that no amount of thinking could achieve.

What are you working on next?

I have begun work on another novel.  The only thing I will tell you about it is that it is set in the real world and that it involves a modern iteration of an ancient tale.  I’m very excited about it.  Your questions have reminded me to keep carving out time to write it!

 More about When the Eye Sees Itself:

When the Eye Sees Itself recently was awarded Best Book in Science Fiction at the 2018 Pinnacle Book Awards. 

It also landed Winner in Science Fiction at the 2018 Independent Press Award.

Despite having a sci-fi dimension, When the Eye Sees Itself also was awarded first runner up in general fiction at the 2018 Los Angeles Book Festival.  It was submitted in that category because it is a broad piece, and because the ubiquity of technology in our contemporary lives may be eroding the distinction between (well-written) sci-fi and literary fiction.  Post-Cyberpunk may be the closest genre for this book, but it is a legal and political epic, a sci-fi thriller, and a sort of hard-knocks spiritual allegory.

A recent reviewer said this:  "[A]n intricately woven narrative dipping its toes in more than one genre ... interesting, unique and thought-provoking ... [T]ouches on subjects not explored in anything I’ve met in writing before. [A] nail-biting read."  -Siren and Soldier Book Reviews.

You can read more about When the Eye Sees Itself here:  http://polylyric.com/titles.html.

The Goodreads page for When the Eye Sees Itself can be found here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38111685-when-the-eye-sees-itself.  Facebook for Polylyric Press is here: https://www.facebook.com/PolylyricPress/.  The Polylyric Press website is here: https://polylyric.com.

Links to all vendors carrying When the Eye Sees Itselfcan be found on the Polylyric Press store page, here: https://polylyric.com/store.html.  The book is also available through Amazon (softcover and Kindle) (https://www.amazon.com/dp/0998069647), Barnes and Noble (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/2940158926969), Kobo (https://www.kobo.com/ebook/When-the-Eye-Sees-Itself), and iTunes/iBooks (https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/when-the-eye-sees-itself/id1339808147?mt=11).  

An offset print run is in the chute, and distribution options are under exploration.

Marital Advice? (Peter Davidson has made some notes!)

It's easy to get comfortable with our reading and stick to what we know. And I say this staring at a shelf filled with thrillers (not all of them my own...), comedy material and books about the craft of writing. The world - and the internet we tend to see it through - is a big  and interesting place though, and if you turn off your literary sat-nav you can sometimes find a gem. 

Recently, a US author, Peter Davidson, contacted me about a book he thought I'd appreciate. Turns out he was right. Marital Advice to my Grandson, Joel would not have appeared on my radar but I'm glad it has. It combines observational humour with personal anecdotes and has a ring of truth about it, not least because Peter genuinely wrote this book for his grandson, who in turn genuinely got married to Abby (see photo below). 

Peter's book doesn't take itself too seriously, but it has a lot to say about man's evolution, and why it would be a great idea!

Guys, relax. He has it covered.

Marital Advice to my Grandson, Joel
By Peter Davidson

When Peter Davidson's grandson, Joel, got engaged, Davidson decided to jot down a few words of marital wisdom for him, based on his vast experience as a husband. Davidson wrote and wrote and wrote until the “few words” became an epistle. Then he thought, why share this wisdom with only one person when he could share it with the whole world.  So, Davidson started a blog, listing new marital advice every week.  As the popularity of the blog grew, people suggested that the material should be turned into a book.  The result is Marital Advice to my Grandson, Joel.

The book reads like a long letter from a grandfather to his grandson, filled with homespun marital advice and philosophies, true stories, and large doses of humor. The reader will have the feeling of peeking over Davidson's shoulder as he pens his wisdom or of eavesdropping in on a conversation between grandfather and grandson.

Advice to grandson Joel, and to any man, includes: make sure that you buy a roll of electrical tape before you volunteer to do the vacuuming, and why, how to deal with your wife's steely-eyed, clinched-jaw scowl, known as “The Look,” the warning that your mouth will get you into a whole lot more trouble than your Willy ever will, and how to create the world's most powerful anniversary card for your wife.

Virtually all of the material in the book is presented in the form of upbeat stories, scenarios, and examples.  This is definitely not the type of advice that you'll find in a textbook on marriage or in a book on marital relations written by some psychiatrist.  This is the real stuff for real people.

The book is available at amazon.com, barnseandnoble.com and at book stores.

And just to prove there was - and is - a happy couple, here's that wedding photo I promised.

Film Noir Feeds my Fiction

The rules have changed.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that Raymond Chandler’s writing is one of the inspirations for my Thomas Bladen spy thrillers, but I also owe a huge debt to cinema.  It’s my great pleasure now to introduce you to a back catalogue of films that remain classics of the spy / thriller genre. Many of them are derived from novels but for consistency I will only reference the films and I’ve added the IMDB links so you can read about the plot in more detail. I hope you find some old favourites here, as well as some ‘new’ classics to add to your own list.

We’ll come back to Raymond Chandler in a bit. First and foremost, I have to pay tribute to The 39 Steps, a tale of a man unwittingly drawn into a murderous conspiracy, who goes on the run to prove his innocence. I favour the 1935 version with Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, as well as a brilliant BBC version from 2008 (which includes elements from the novel that were left out of every other film). How much do I love The 39 Steps? Well, in Standpoint, Thomas watches the 1935 version with Miranda and comments on how Hitchcock changed the story from the novel. There’s also a homage to one of the film’s plot devices in Line of Sight, my follow-up to Standpoint. I put North by Northwest (1959) alongside The 39 Steps as another great example of a mistaken identity driving the plot forward. How do you win through when you don’t know what you’re supposed to know? I think it helps to have other people looking out for you from time to time.

The films Farewell My Lovely (1944), The Big Sleep (1946) and The Long Goodbye (1973) allow Raymond Chandler’s world-weary private detective, Philip Marlowe, to fill the screen; much like Bogart’s performance as Sam Spade in the Dashiell Hammett co-scripted adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. My original intention had been to write Thomas Bladen as a detective, only he arrived pretty much fully formed and had his own opinions about what he did for a living. What I love most about this batch of films is the dialogue and the characterisation. The plots are well-crafted but to me they are secondary. The ‘hero’ is flawed and his attitude is often more hindrance than help as he battles relentlessly against the tide. These films are gritty, sometimes sleazy and show the underbelly of society. Yet somehow, almost miraculously, the hero emerges with most of his honour intact. My fondness for this genre led to the creation of Leon Thurston, a West Indian private detective who plies his trade from an old minicab office in Dalston. East London. While we’re on the subject of Chandler, make time for The Blue Dahlia (1947) – it’s an intriguing whodunit that apparently involved a controversial rewritten ending…but you can research that for yourself! Like Alan Ladd’s Johnny Morrison, Thomas Bladen is a little out of steps with the world around him, but the right woman makes all the difference.

Spies yet? Well, almost. Vicious Circle (1957) finds a humble doctor (humble but with a cravat!) drawn into a deadly game of blackmail and intrigue that leads him questioning who is out to get him – and why? I’d put this one in the same category as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and also (1956). Ordinary people in extraordinary times, who dig deep when they find themselves pawns in a much bigger game – much like Robert Hannay in The 39 Steps.

Both The Conversation (1974) and Enemy of the State (1998) tackle surveillance, paranoia and ethics, along with the perennial question of who watches the watchers. It is perennial too, as that phrase is as old as the Romans. In Thomas Bladen’s world, a simple surveillance job often turns out to be far more complicated and it doesn’t pay to ask too many questions (not that it stops him). The observer may seem impartial but they cannot deny there are consequences to their work. Three Days of the Condor (1975) pits one man against the ‘organisation’, by trying to stay one step ahead of everyone, in order to get to the truth and hold people in power accountable. By book five, Flashpoint, Thomas has learned that justice can take many forms and sometimes even a bitter compromise is the best option. The Third Man (1949) involves a mystery, a disappearing act with a difference and a conspiracy – how do you find out the truth when everyone is telling you something different? Its cunning and amoral titular character (compelling played by Orson Welles) dominates the film despite not being the main role. This group of films demonstrate another element that I wanted to bring to my books: unresolved endings. The moviegoer is left wondering what could happen afterwards.

I hope you’ll make time to watch all these films, even if you’ve seen them before.  

For those who enjoy extra homework, make time for:

The Long Memory (1953)
Rear Window (1954)
A Prize of Arms (1962)
Gilda (1946)
Build My Gallows High (1946)
In a Lonely Place (1946)

When not watching classic cinema, I write Thomas Bladen spy thrillers - intrigue, action and sardonic humour.

FLASHPOINT – Part Five of the Spy Chaser series

After London suffers a coordinated terror attack, Thomas Bladen questions everything – his future with Miranda, his Surveillance Support Unit job and even his clandestine role as a Spy Chaser.

But his troubles are just beginning.

When the Unit comes under MI5’s control and two senior SSU staff disappear, his search for answers is blocked at every turn.

A missing handgun and the reappearance of old adversaries forces him into uneasy alliances and hard choices.

-       Could there be a double agent in their latest assignment?
-       What is behind the rift between government departments?
-       And what if he has got it wrong this time?

Thomas must face his deepest fears and what he discovers could change the rules forever.