The Steel Dagger 2013 Shortlist: Robert Wilson
Every year the CWA announce the shortlisted authors for their Dagger Awards. This year is no different and last month the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Awards were announced. Four books that signify the best in thriller fiction sponsored by Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. Over the next four weeks we’ll be looking forensically at what makes these books great.
Starting off with the authors!
We’ve interviewed all four authors to find out what inspired them, how they think the thriller genre has changed and how easy it is for them to kill off their characters! We kick off with Robert Wilson author of Capital Punishment.
Who or what inspired you to write? Did you always want to be a writer?
I’d wanted to be a writer since the age of fourteen and I saw myself then as the next TS Eliot but this was only because I’d silenced my classmates with a love poem and I thought: ‘Done Prufrock, next step, The Wasteland.’ Reality quickly overtook this fantasy world and I left university to work in Crete, London and West Africa while travelling the world gradually amassing real life experience with the intention of becoming a travel writer. Then readers’ appetite for the travel book collapsed and a friend who’d read my stories recommended that I try crime. He told me to read Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard and I later fell on George V Higgins’ book The Friends of Eddie Coyle. They were revelatory and led to my four West African novels.
How attached do you get to the characters in your novels? Do you find it hard to kill characters off? What kind of characters do you most enjoy writing?
Most writers become very attached to their protagonists. I wouldn’t say it was like love or friendship because it’s a relationship with your imagination rather than a real person. There is certainly an emotional quality to the relationship otherwise you wouldn’t be able to invest the character with feelings but it is distinct from real life relationships because it all emanates from within. A character develops from an amalgamation of observation of others and one’s own insights and reactions to those observations with some added spontaneity, which means that a character’s source is not always clear. I’ve had the experience of being clear in my own mind about how a character was going to behave until I put her in a room with another character and she suddenly started to react in an unexpected way. I was so taken by this spontaneous misbehaviour that I rewrote the character. I’ve only killed off one protagonist in my career, Andrea in The Company of Strangers, but she had reached the right point so it seemed quite natural. I once killed off a character (Pablo Ortega from The Silent and the Damned) and had an experience of genuine grief, not of someone really close to me dying, but rather of a troubled friend. The most enjoyable characters to write are the ones who find their own life on the page and start dictating their role to you.
Ian Fleming said that to make a good thriller ‘one just has to turn the page’ – do you agree?
He could have said the same of writing a good book. I think there are plenty of readers who want to read a thriller purely for pace, tension and suspense and don’t want to be bothered with anything other than the story and the characters. The danger is that these books can become formulaic and prone to writer’s technique to maintain the thrills rather than genuinely strong storytelling. I am always looking for something that will make me turn the page, but it doesn’t always have to be stuff that keeps me on the edge of my seat. I’m quite happy to sit back if there’s great descriptive writing, a particularly charismatic minor character, a nugget of interesting history, a funny joke, a surprising development in the plot, an unexpected slug of insightful political analysis, a ripping exchange of dialogue. But there always has to be something.
How has the thriller genre changed in the post 9/11 world?
When the Berlin Wall came down that signalled the end of the post war spy thriller so 9/11 brought back the possibility of not just the spy novel but also terrorism as a theme. The main difficulty is that in the post WW2 era we had a strong vision of the enemy and their threat of Armageddon, but the post 9/11 villains remain elusive. These new terrorists are stateless, operate in disconnected cells and want to force their religion on us whilst threatening targeted destructive acts. This makes them faceless but living among us, reliant on new technology but with an ideology from centuries ago and religious rather than political. John le Carre developed the model for the post WW2 spy novel and this template is still in play, but perhaps the post 9/11 thriller needs a completely new vision to make it work in readers’ minds.
What is the strangest thing a fan has ever said to you / your strangest signing experience?
A guy came up to me at the launch party of A Small Death in Lisbon and told me he wasn’t much interested in the Lisbon book but he wanted to talk to me about my African novels and their hero Bruce Medway. He was the head of a sales team who operated all over West Africa, which as a business environment certainly has its challenges. Every month they would meet to talk over their difficulties to see if they could help each other out. He said: ‘If we came across a particularly intractable problem for which nobody had a solution there would be a long silence until someone finally said: ‘What would Bruce Medway do now?’
What is your favourite pastime when you are not writing?
Apart from maintaining a fitness regime because, as everybody knows, the pen is the heaviest tool of all, I like to cook. I recently moved to a place where there’s an oriental supermarket with lots of foods imported from Thailand so I have started perfecting my Pad Thai, the rice noodle dish by which all Thai restaurants are judged. So far I’ve been scoring high both from people who’ve never heard of the dish and others who’ve just come back from Thailand with expert palates… or maybe they’re just being nice to me.