Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: Ben McPherson
Tell us about yourself.
I’m Scottish and live in Norway, where I write psychological thrillers about good people doing very bad things.
My wife is Norwegian and wanted to give birth close to her family and friends, so we came for six months and never quite left. I was working at the BBC as a television producer, and for a while I lived in London and we saw each other at weekends, but four years ago I moved here properly. Now I have two Norwegian sons and three naturalised cats. Television feels like someone else’s life.
Norway is a strange and lovely place. There’s a kindness and a generosity of spirit amongst the people. People here will tell you it’s the happiest country on Earth, and in many ways it is, especially in summer, but once you look below that seductive placid surface, there are undercurrents, of course. The suicide rate is high; many people take antidepressants.
These contradictions make Norway a compelling place for a writer. My first book, A Line of Blood, is set in London, but my second is set here. There’s something about the country and the landscape that seeps into your soul. You’re so affected by the endlessness of the winter and the short, very intense summers.
How do you pick character names? Do any have special meaning to you?
I pick names of people I like. And then I throw them away and pick better names as I write, and start to know my own characters and how I expect them to think and behave. Sometimes there are small clues in a name that I don’t expect anyone else to get. Alex Mercer, the narrator in A Line of Blood, shares a name with a computer game character.
Where do you most like to do your writing?
I have to leave the house to start my working day, so I go to a café in the morning: I need to feel as if I’m going to work. In the afternoon I write from my office at home.
Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you tackle it?
As long as I’m sitting in front of my computer I produce something, though it won’t necessarily be good. But I give myself space to fail. If I have four good writing days out of five then I’m happy.
How easy/hard was it to get your first break?
I got rejected by a lot of agents. I rewrote and rewrote, and no one liked my manuscript. And then, finally, I arrived at a draft that I liked, and which someone else really liked, and we had a telephone call where we just clicked: for that short moment it was all very easy, and by the end of the call I had an agent.
Handling rejection is a large part of the job. Once you’re done being rejected by agents, you start to be rejected by editors (one was “morally repelled” by my ending), then by critics and then by readers. I have friends — some of them very successful writers — who can be deeply hurt by a single negative review on Amazon, or by the one newspaper review of their book that is heavily critical. But being slated by readers, or by critics: these are the problems you want to have as a writer. Three years ago you would have killed for that.
What is the best writing tip you have ever been given? How has it influenced you?
In the film Throw Momma from the Train, Billy Crystal tells a writing class that he teaches, “A writer writes, always.” It’s a dark comedy, very underrated, and that line is the best writing advice I know.
Sitting and waiting for inspiration does not work; not if you want to make a career of writing. Getting words on to paper is the only way, and finding a way of making yourself turn up and do your job is the key. If you are at your desk and writing, the inspiration will eventually find you.
What book do you wish you had written?
I wish I’d written Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert. It’s one of the darkest, funniest books ever written. He puts his characters through hell, and they learn nothing.
Do you ever surprise yourself with what you’ve written?
Yes. I appalled myself with a throwaway sentence in A Line of Blood. I wrote it late at night as a joke to myself about how badly the characters were behaving, planning to cut it the next day. And then I kept coming back to that sentence, because it was visceral and real, and it gave me the whole last act of the book.
What scene in your latest book did you most enjoy writing? And why?
The narrator is sitting with a female journalist in a courtroom café, when he sees his wife, who does not see him. His does something he doesn’t understand, and he can see that the journalist is intrigued. It creates this very uncomfortable bond between him and the journalist: a tension that has to be resolved.
Which book or character are you most proud of creating, and why?
I think it’s always going to be A Line of Blood. It’s my first novel, and getting published meant more to me than my entire career in television. It was definitely the best work I knew how to produce at the time: I still enjoy the way the characters think they’re good people, when they are doing such terrible things.
Describe your current work in progress in five words.
Nordic revenge drama — lost daughter…