Welcome to my weekly blog series – Author Interviews.
Each week I invite an author to sit in my red chair and tell me about how they write their books, the challenges that they overcome and their writer habits.
This week I am thrilled to announce that BBC Radio4 journalist Ed Davey is sat in my red chair. In his spare time Ed writes mind-blowing thrillers. They combine history and crazy adventure travel. I LOVE what he has done with the thriller genre.
So, grab a coffee, get comfy and let’s go meet Ed. This interview is going to be pretty special.
Ed, welcome to my blog!
Tell the readers of BlondeWriteMore about yourself and the book / books you have written
I’m a journalist at the BBC who loves history and crazy adventure travel. A few years ago in a lecture at the British Museum I discovered that the ancient Etruscans – a little known civilisation that was the precursor to Rome – believed you could predict the future by studying bolts of lightning. The shape of the lightning bolts, where they hit, the date of the strike. The hairs on the back of my neck went up! There’s something so otherworldly about this belief that instantly captivated me. Rome inherited lightning prophecy from the Etruscans after their civilisation fell, and that too I found astounding. For a people who were so advanced – so like us in so many ways, from law to democracy to our aesthetics – to have adhered to this pagan science for centuries? It blew me away. Then and there I decided to write a thriller on the premise that lightning prophecy actually works.
The result was Foretold by Thunder, which came out last year – my first published book. It’s based in the present, but looks back to the ancient world and Nazi Germany, with a slight sci-fi edge to it. The action takes place in London, Turkey, Ethiopia and Rome; all the predicting the future stuff allowed me to get into some really interesting questions about fate and free will.
The sequel – titled The Napoleon Complex – has just been published. I think it’s a darker and more multifaceted book than the first. There are more subplots, more ethical uncertainties, more going on. I tried to make all the baddies and henchmen three-dimensional characters too, with their own motivations, the belief they are the good guys. I don’t want to give too much away, but I decided to spice things up a bit by including a maniacal Prime Minister who hopes to rebuild the British Empire by very foul means indeed …
When did you write your first book?
This was an unpublished novel I penned back in 2008. It’s the tale of two British backpackers who get kidnapped by pirates on the Amazon. When Stockholm Syndrome kicks in they begin to identify with their kidnappers and eventually became pirates themselves, sparking a worldwide tabloid race to find them. I suppose in many ways it was a bit of a naïve book, however many of the elements that are present in Foretold by Thunder and The Napoleon Complex were there. Principle among these was the inclusion of surprising, exotic and sometimes dangerous locations, all of which I have researched on the ground for authenticity. For The Napoleon Complex, I visited Sierra Leone, Burundi, Tanzania, Israel, Thailand and Austria … and even got chased by a hippo in West Africa. (I had to climb a tree to escape!) The idea is that I visit some madcap places so you don’t have to …
How long did it take to write your first book?
It took about a year to first draft, with another couple of months editing. For my subsequent books – which have a strong historical element – you can add another nine months of pure research onto that before I write a single chapter. And I spend a lot longer on the edit too now, at least six months. I have a full-time job as a journalist for the BBC, so let’s just say I don’t spend masses of time relaxing in front of the telly each week …
What was your motivation to write your first book?
I love reading unashamedly ripping yarns that zoom around the world – escapist adventure stories against a backdrop of mystery and intrigue. For some reason there’s a strange dearth of classic adventure fiction being published nowadays, perhaps it’s seen as a little old-fashioned. One of my favourite authors is Wilbur Smith, who does the swashbuckling adventure travel stuff better than I ever could. But alongside strapping, six-foot five hunks (deadly in combat and irresistible to women), I think the flawed, humble, everyday chap deserves a place in fiction too. My hope is that readers will identify with an unassuming hero thrown into an extraordinary setting and unstoppable chain of events. I couldn’t find anyone else writing those sort of main characters in the swashbuckling adventure fiction format, so did it myself.
What writing issues did you encounter along the way and how did you overcome them?
My unpublished novels included comedic elements, which in hindsight I don’t think worked in a thriller context. So that’s something I removed from my later novels, which I hope are more unsettling and dark. I also used to overwrite copiously, using about twenty adjectives in a sentence when none would do! I’m certainly not averse to using the odd adjective nowadays, but the word count is so much lower without masses of them clogging up the page. With just as much happening in the plot but 15,000 less adjectives the whole is a far pacier read.
Did you go through any bad writing patches during writing your book – what kept you going?
Writing The Napoleon Complex – my first sequel – was a particular challenge. How much of the story from the first book to retell? How to take the characters on another convincing internal journey, when all the loose ends were (hopefully!) tied up and resolved in the denouement of Foretold by Thunder? How to create new tension with the fundamental mystery of the series already out there? The most important thing is that I was determined that the book could stand alone, and that the reader doesn’t have to have read the first novel to make sense of it. I wanted it to be a sequel that you could pick of the shelf and get stuck into without having read book one. This was a fine balancing act, so I had to write, write and re-write.
Are you a plotter or do you just write / see what happens?
I embarked on my first (unpublished) book with only the barest notion of how it would end, but now I’m a complete convert to plotting. I create a word document with bullet points for each chapter, every development mapped out; I also create character profiles, plotting the internal journey of each protagonist so that these intersect with the main plot. I think it’s impossible to create a thriller with lots of twists, turns and reveals without plotting it all out in advance – you’d have to be some kind of Mozart of the typewriter.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
When you get that first sense that maybe – just maybe – your plot is working and it’s all coming together. And in the research stage, when you make those fist-pumping discoveries – real historical events that fit perfectly into the plot you’ve got planned. I use only genuine historical events and documents as evidence of the entirely fictional conspiracies at the heart of my books, so it can take a lot of reading and hunting about before I find the smoking gun document I’m looking for.
What is the worst thing about being a writer?
The extent to which gaining any kind of traction with your work feels like a lottery that you are utterly powerless to control.
Have you ever considered quitting writing, and if so how have you worked through this?
Yes. I wrote two novels that I was unable to find a publisher for, before finally getting lucky with the third (I decided against self-publishing, though I may yet do that one day). So I certainly had my fair share of setbacks before Duckworth took a chance on me.
My second unpublished novel was about a hunt for the Great Library of Alexandria, which I wrote in 2011. I researched the period painstakingly and flew out to Egypt to visit all the locations involved at considerable expense. Two agents were interested, and for a while I really thought I had a chance of getting representation for it – only for Pan Macmillan to sign A.M. Dean’s The Lost Library, killing my chances stone dead. I had written 85,000 words and it was back to square one.
After a period of mourning I dusted myself off and wrote Foretold by Thunder, the first of the Book of Thunder series, encouraged all the way by one of those two agents (the other had left the profession). When I finished it, convinced it was my best work, she rejected the manuscript almost immediately. I was so devastated that I didn’t send it out to any other agents. I had officially thrown in the towel; Foretold by Thunder sat in my drawer for more than a year. Then in 2013 I met someone completely by chance (on the day Andy Murray first won Wimbledon!) who knew Robin Wade of the RWLA agency. She introduced me to him, and with nothing to lose I sent it to across, which is how I got my first book deal. I signed the contract in 2014 … seven years and more than 350,000 words after first setting out to get published. So I cannot emphasise this strongly enough: NEVER GIVE UP!
What does a typical writing day look like for you?
Get up early-ish. Have a light breakfast and two strong cups of coffee. Go for a run, thinking about the chapter I’m about to write so my brain is buzzing with ideas, images and phrases before I start typing. Then sit down and bash out 2,000 words in two hours. After that I cannot write another word for at least three days; I need space to let the next chapter permeate through my mind and new treatment ideas occur to me. If I have time I go for a workout and a sauna before writing – even better than a run. The sauna/steam bath is my secret weapon!
Do you suffer from procrastination and if so how do you handle it?
No – once I’ve embarked upon a novel I write two chapters a week – every week – until it’s finished. (With breaks for a much-needed holiday every now and then!)
Which is more important – plot or characters and why?
That’s a very hard question to answer as both are of the essence when it comes to fiction. But at a scrape I’d say plot (for the commercial thriller genre only, this certainly is not the case for literary fiction). One of the things that I got wrong in my unpublished books is that I focused too much on plot, while neglecting character somewhat. It sounds obvious, but if you can marry them together you’re onto a winner.
What have been your 3 biggest learnings during your writing career?
- The importance of character development, and how this must be intrinsically linked to key moments in the plot.
- Restraint in my prose. The writers I look up to most – John Le Carré, Frederick Forsyth or Robert Harris, say – write beautiful and elegant sentences, and are not averse to the odd unusual word or adjective. But these are only deployed in highly controlled circumstances. I’ve earned that the most important thing is that the writing is clear and efficient and never brings you out of the story.
- Be lucky.
How do you manage social media as a writer?
I tweet things on a daily basis, but I’m not convinced I make a particularly good fist of it! I see many self-published authors with vast social media followings and book sales that far outstrip my own and I’m in awe of how they do it. Perhaps I’m just a tedious tweeter!
Do you have any tips or advice for budding aspiring authors?
- Try to persuade someone who doesn’t know you to read your work – you’ll never get objective criticism from friends or family. Don’t be precious about your prose in any way – learn from all the advice you’re lucky enough to get, don’t be defensive, be willing change things.
- When you are writing the first draft, bathe your mind in the very best exponents of prose there are: Roald Dahl or Winston Churchill, say.
- Contact experts in the field you are writing about and try to lure them to meet you for a coffee – some unexpected detail will emerge from your meeting that you could not possibly have invented, which will give your novel more authenticity.
- Change the font in your manuscript before you edit the first draft, it’s much easier to put yourselves in the mind of a fresh reader and you’ll spot things you’d otherwise have missed.
Do you suffer from writer’s block and if so how do you overcome?
I used to but not anymore. My only advice is just to crack on and try to push through it. If the worst comes to the worst, go for a run and try again.
Do you ever think of the next book whilst writing?
Always – I have a permanent list of about four or five novels I’m considering writing next, jostling to be the one that gets written. The book I’ve just started work on, The Sapien Paradox, is a thriller about prehistory that’s been bubbling away in the back of my mind for a decade now.
What do you wear to write?
I dress up as a zebra.
Wow Ed – my blonde brain is boggling! Thanks for a great interview.
Your interview is jam-packed with useful stuff.
Here are some of my thoughts:
- I must try this sauna / steam before writing approach. Especially if I end up writing two chapters a week.
- I also believe that the flawed, humble, everyday chap deserves a place in fiction too. Who wants to read about strapping, six-foot five hunks anyway?
- Your writing tips are fab! The one about changing the font at editing sounds interesting. Seeing as I am about to start wading through my first draft I might try this.
- I love your ‘just crack on!’ approach to writer’s block.
- I am sure the readers of BlondeWriteMore will be disappointed at not getting a pic of you dressed as a zebra. Sigh!
Ed – fab interview and thx again!
Good luck with the book promo
If you ever fancy doing a guest blog post on writing tips please let me know 🙂
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