Tom Rob Smith: Thriller author

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image-tomrobsmith200Tom Rob Smith’s latest novel is The Secret Speech. It is the second book to feature detective Leo Demidov, who first appeared in Smith’s debut novel, Child 44.

Child 44 won huge acclaim when it was released in 2008. It was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, won the 2008 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger prize for best thriller and was nominated for the Costa First Novel Award (formerly the Whitbread Awards). Film rights for the book have also been sold.

Smith studied at Cambridge, graduating in 2001, then continued his Creative Writing studies in Italy. Before completing Child 44, he worked as a script-writer. He has written a number of plays, and also wrote for the BBC and in Cambodia on the country’s first ever soap opera.

Click play to listen. Running time: 19.05

The Secret Speech

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Tom thanks for joining us today.

Tom
It’s my pleasure to be here.

Valerie
Now your first novel, Child 44, was very well received and highly acclaimed. How did it feel to be so successful with your first outing?

Tom
Well of course it was my first in terms of the first that had been published but I had been working on things for quite a time. I’d half finished novels or various screenplays and TV shows. It wasn’t completely out of the blue so I don’t think it was a kind of seismic shock. I wasn’t doing another profession. It felt like it was part of what I had always been working on.

Valerie
How did you get into writing in the first place? What attracted you to the profession of writing?

Tom
I’ve always loved stories. I think it was a mixture. I didn’t quite understand when I was seven that I wanted to be a writer but I knew I loved fiction. I knew that I loved movies. I loved theatre and I loved TV and books. I didn’t really distinguish between them in a sense. I loved Roald Dahl. I loved the movies of Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis.

Then when I sort of got to 14 and 15, I thought how could I get into this world. I guess I thought about directing. I guess I thought about other avenues but it was always writing that seemed to me the one that I fitted into neatly. I think that it really started from there. I think it was a story. I just loved the stories.

Valerie
Then after studying at Cambridge you continued creative writing studies in Italy. So why Italy?

Tom
It wasn’t a creative writing course. What it was it was an exchange so the Italian University of Pavia could send three students to my university and my university could send one back for the entire year and that was me for that year. I had the option of doing anything that I wanted to basically.

It was essentially just giving that individual a year where you had a nice room, you had all your food paid for. Then you could just use that time to do whatever you wanted. People did all kinds of things. Academic pursuits, they did musical pursuits and for me it was just a chance to start writing full-time.

Valerie
You went into script writing and then wrote Child 44. What was the transition like because when you sit down and  you write a script it is much more self-contained and you do it in a shorter period of time. Was it hard to transition into writing an entire novel?

Tom
Yeah I think that is spot on one of the big differences. You can get a script done in a relatively compressed amount of time. Once you have worked out the story you can get one done in about two months. That’s not an ungenerous amount of time, maybe a bit longer, maybe a bit less.

A book is like climbing a mountain. It took two years to get Child 44 done. It’s difficult if it’s a speculative novel and you’re not commissioned. You think, “Is this even worth doing? Is it ever going to be published?”

There are times when you have, like everyone does, bad days and bad weeks and you’re thinking, “Is this project worth pushing forward with?” whereas if the project is shorter you know that you are closer to the end. So that is definitely one of the challenges, I think, of getting a novel done.

Valerie
How do you keep the faith in those two years especially as you say, when you haven’t been commissioned?

Tom
I think an important part of it is, I just did this workshop on it at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival on this the subject, is really work out your idea at the beginning. Really think it through so that you really believe in it and with Child 44 I always knew that it was a great idea and that this was an interesting period. Whenever I had tough times I knew that this was a book that I wanted to finish and it really worked. So I think that early preparation really sort of working on the story and understanding what the book would be was the remedy for those tough days.

Valerie
Your latest novel is The Secret Speech. Tell us about it.

Tom
It is the same main character. At the end of Child 44 he is a detective who has spent his career arresting innocent people and in Child 44 he decides to redeem himself by going after the one guilty person who in fact is protected by the state and so he criminalizes himself by doing the right thing. He thinks that by putting his life on the line that way he kind of redeems himself.

In the second book it is really about that question of how is redemption really possible. If you have arrested all these innocent people what value is it to say to them that you have done this good thing. How does that repair their destroyed lives? It’s setting up the backdrop of a regime and Stalin who is now dead and Khrushchev is releasing the people from the gulags. They are coming back into society and meeting the people that denounced them, meeting the people that arrested them, that destroyed their lives. It is really set against the backdrop of that very fractious tension.

Valerie
So why did you chose to set your books in 1950s Russia? What appealed to you about that?

Tom
The original story that Child 44 is based on was an original case set in Russia. It was very particularly Russian in a sense that it was a killer who had killed for ten years because not that he got away with it for so long because he was a kind of criminal genius but because the state denied that he could even exist. The story and the location was inextricable. My decision to make it actually in the 50s was just that the 50s were far more extreme. The things that the case embodied like the way in which the state would criminalize you if you disagreed with it were more extreme in the 50s. That was why I moved it back to then. On the contrary it never crossed my mind to set it anywhere else. The story and the country were sort of bound together.

Valerie
How did you research Russia in the 1950s? What did you do?

Tom
I obviously travelled but I would say far and above the travel was just the books, obviously the history books were wonderful and brilliantly written. I don’t think that I came across a single book that I found that was awkward or uninteresting.

Then there were also the wealth of material confiscated by the Secret Police. It was sort of irony that the Secret Police confiscated all these diaries that probably would have been lost and were never intended for publication particularly by a 13-year old girl. They have just been reproduced now so you can read this girl’s diary and suddenly you are sort of in her world in 1934 I think her diary was confiscated. It even includes all these sort of annotations the Secret Police made on the diary of what was anti-Soviet and what wasn’t. So there was a lot of material there to get you into that world. I just concentrated on the emotional questions rather than the material details.

Valerie
Right, so when you plan your story are you one of those writers who actually plot it out? You are very clear what is going to happen to your characters. Or do you let it flow out?

Tom
No, I plan. In a way that was one of the reasons that I knew I could finish the book because I knew what the whole story was and I knew it had a whole shape. I definitely plan in some detail. But of course even if I spent 13 months on the storyline which was a reasonable amount of time on the storyline but not an extreme amount of time. I’ve heard of writers who spend far more.

Even then compared to two years on a book you are going to come up with new ideas and it’s going to change and it’s going to adapt. There’s always improvisation and shifts along the way. It’s just good to have a general sense of the direction that its going even if you decide to change direction. It’s good to know that you are deliberately doing that and now there is a different end point. So I plan quite carefully.

Valerie
Did The Secret Speech also take you two years to write?

Tom
Yeah, The Secret Speech I started it once I sold Child 44 which was a year before it was published. So it looks like it only took a year because it came out a year after Child 44 was published. In fact it was a two year writing period. Also because when I wrote Child 44 I wasn’t getting any money from writing Child 44. I had to do other jobs so I had to share the time with other writing projects, working on other people’s shows. When I did The Secret Speech those two years I just worked on The Secret Speech.

Valerie
Are you writing a third novel now?

Tom
Yeah, I’m taking a bit of a break. I’m doing two screenplays, one for Warner Brothers and one for Universal. You have to just sort of gear shift after doing those two novels back-to-back. But yeah, I’m sort of a third of the way through the third book.

Valerie
Tell us about your typical writing day. When you are in the middle of writing a novel do you have a routine or structure to your day or how does that work?

Tom
I’m pretty routine. I get up quite early. I like writing in the early morning. I get up around 6:30 and I start writing around 6:45 or 7:00 and I work through to mid-day and then I will go for a walk, have lunch. Then I will sort of work through to about 7:00. I very rarely work in the evening. Sometimes I do I guess.

Valerie
That’s a long day.

Tom
Yeah, I guess it is quite long. It never feels particularly arduous because you can sort of putter around, make a cup of tea and you don’t have anyone shout at you. As long as you are good at maintaining that discipline it doesn’t ever feel like it’s a tough routine to keep anyway.

Valerie
Do you have a word quota or how do you feel satisfied that you’ve done a good day’s work?

Tom
It’s good question in a sense. You do kind of have quotas but it’s not like 500 words a day kind of thing. It’s more like you know where you need to be getting by say the end of the week or the end of the month. So you know that some days you are pushing forward a bit further because you feel that you are up high. And some days you are dragging a bit. Those are flexible to an extent but it’s more you build in terms of points in the book or points in the screenplay that you need to go to.

Valerie
I understand that you did some work in Cambodia, is that correct?

Tom
Yeah, I worked on Cambodia’s first ever soap opera.

Valerie
Was it in Khmer?

Tom
Yeah it was. I worked on the storylines so I worked on those in English. I had a team of Cambodian writers and they were just out of university and they would write the screenplays in Khmer. We would have them translated and I would give them notes on those. It was a weird sort of triangle. You had English to Khmer through a translator. The whole thing was amazing and I’ve never worked on anything quite like it.

Valerie
How did you get involved in that? That’s quite unusual.

Tom
The BBC set it up with BBC World so the trust was funded by the department of international development in England. They’d make these shows sort of around the world and the idea is that you use the popularity of the medium to get across health messages about either child healthcare or HIV/Aids or a whole range of topics that varied on medication and what was important. It might be the malaria or it might not be.

So you would then build those health messages into the story of the day. I think that because it was the BBC I think that I saw an ad in a newspaper or a sort of trade paper and I just applied for it.

Valerie
How long did you spend there?

Tom
I was in Phnom Penh for six months.

Valerie
Did you get to do much writing at the time or did your time there influence any of your work projects?

Tom
I started on a screenplay which I then sold to Universal Studios after I sold Child 44. So it was weird. No one really wanted it until I sold Child 44 I couldn’t get anyone to read it basically until I sold Child 44. I couldn’t get people to read so I sold it. I actually started when I was in Cambodia.

Valerie
And what is that about?

Tom
That’s an original thriller set in the States and it’s a revenge thriller with a sort of big twist.

Valerie
I understand that film rights to Child 44 have also been sold. Are you going to be writing the screenplay for that?

Tom
No the screenplay was written by Richard Price who wrote Lush Life and Clockers and it’s a brilliant script. I just read it actually a couple of months ago.

Valerie
Is that weird because you write scripts yourself? Is that weird to see something that you have written then sort of being redone by someone else in another medium?

Tom
Yeah in a way even if I had written the script it would have been weird because it would have been changing something into something else. That process is always a strange thing if you understand in one form to suit in a different form. It would have been weird in some form whoever would have written the script whether it had been me or not. The fact that it’s a great writer writing the script obviously makes it exciting rather than sort of bad weird.

I think in some ways you need distance to make that transformation. Obviously there are lots of writers who are able to do it themselves but it is a difficult thing to do so it was never really an issue.

Valerie
Is there any actor in particular who you would see in the lead role?

Tom
Yeah, there are a couple. I can’t go into speculating because I mean if they then cast someone else it looks like I’m opposed to that person. But in some ways the great thing about having Ridley Scott as director and the producer is that he is a brilliant caster and he picks people and you suddenly think, “Wow, yeah, that person would be really great in that role.”

Valerie
What’s been the highlight of your career so far?

Tom
I guess it’s hard to pin it down. But I guess that first moment when you have sent the book off and I remember sending it off. I had this self-defence mechanism which is I always start working on something else as soon as I send something off because you need to brace yourself for the possibility that it’s going to be rejected.

I remember very clearly at the first sale in the UK when it was going to get published that was a really great moment. Then when it sold in the US that was a really great moment. Then when it started selling internationally as well which I just never thought about in a way. That was a really wonderful moment. So I guess that was the high.

Valerie
What’s been the most challenging thing so far or what is the most challenging thing about being a writer?

Tom
It’s not for everyone I guess but then nor is anything. I love writing. I love the routine. It sort of fits with my personality I guess. I like working for myself. I like structuring my own day. All those things which could be difficult for other people have a nice fit for me so none of it has ever been or I could never see anything as being particularly arduous about it.

Valerie
There is obviously a fair bit of research especially when something is set in Russia in another historical period. You’ve mentioned some of the research that you have done. Do you do all of the research first and then when you feel that you have what you need you start writing? Or do you write and then fill in the gaps with research?

Tom
It’s a bit of both. I do a good chunk to start off with so that I’m not completely clueless basically. But then obviously research is an endless  process. You could read forever on these subjects and so you continue reading. You learn new things and in a way that is part of the fun because it reinvigorates passages that you’ve done and you see new things that you can work in and you go back and you rewrite. So it’s a constant process.

Valerie
Finally what would your advice be to aspiring authors, people who are  listening to this and thinking, “Oh, I really want to get my book out there.”

Tom
Well, I would say go the next route. The thing is earlier I would say really work on that idea before you set off on it. Really think it through. Is this the idea that you want to work on for the next year, year and a half, two years? Is this the project that you really believe in because so many people get to Chapter 4 or 5 and then stop. In the end you can’t do anything with that. You can’t send it off to a publisher. Really it is very difficult to get anyone interested in five chapters. Even if it gets rejected you will get people to have read it. You will get feedback. I just think finishing something is the key.

Valerie
Wonderful and on that note, thank you very much for your time today Tom.

Tom
Nice speaking to you.


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