Q & A
Here are some responses to questions I was asked about Cliffhanger’s main protagonist Al Greenwood, and some insight into what inspires me. You can ask me anything over on twitter too.
Tell us a little bit about your character Al Greenwood and the books in which he is featured?
Al is not a good man. He is an angry man, angry with life. He loved his mother, but she died. He’s never really loved anyone else. His feelings for Audrey are mixed up. It’s why he adores the Leonard Cohen album Songs of Love and Hate. Al and Audrey both like their curry hot and fiery, uncomfortable as hell, despise those who can’t take it. Cold shivers and beads of sweat are the norm. Their emotions are violent, occasionally uncontrollable. They live in a bungalow, but could tear it apart with their bare hands. He feels trapped. She feels trapped. He doesn’t know by what but he feels trapped. She knows by what. He is consumed by doubt and self-loathing, though could never admit it (not yet anyway). Audrey is consumed just by loathing. He would probably like to die with flames raging. Audrey doesn’t think about death at all.
What is the inspiration for your books?
Inspiration (probably a too grand a word. A hint of something would be more appropriate, a spark that sets the writing mind alight) comes unexpectedly and at any time. For a novel called Island Madness (written under my real name Tim Binding it was a wartime photograph of a Channel Island girl and three German Officers. For A Perfect Execution it was an obituary of Britain’s last hangman. For Cliffhanger I just had the voice of Al, deciding to kill his wife. I wrote the first short chapter in about ten minutes
Tell us about the role of music in your books?
Usually music doesn’t play much of a role. There is an irritating tendency in novels for the authors to signal the period the books set in by someone switching on the radio and the appropriate song delivered out of the loudspeaker. It’s a lazy device. Songs don’t really help bring a time to life, Language does. In Cliffhanger, unusually for me, music is mentioned, but only referred to. Al likes Wagner and Leonard Cohen. His neighbour, was, in her youth a dedicated groupie, and later, her husband was rock and roll manager. So there are references. That’s about as far as it goes, though Al has an irrational hatred for ‘Happy Talk’ and ‘Mountain Greenery.’
Is location important for you?
In my books, nearly always.
My mother had a bungalow in West Lulworth, just up the road from Lulworth Cove. In the 50’s and 6’s we’d spend the whole of the summer holidays there. It was a rural community. The difference between rural Dorset and suburban Hertfordshire was very great. So the book is set around a fictional Lulworth, but the topography is much the same…the Bindon Hill which features in all the books, I could see out of my bedroom window. There used to be a little coastguard hut perched on the edge of the cove. I’ve used that too. A paddle steamer used to come in twice a day from Weymouth. I couldn’t use that. It had long gone.
How would you describe your writing style?
It’s not for me to define it. What I could say is that in these books the style is a reflection of Al’s character – for all three books are told in his voice. So the style, the content, the punctuation, the cadence, is dictated by him. ( The action too when I come to think about it . ) ( There is only one other book of mine carries a similar weight -– that is Man Overboard, novel about the life of Buster Crabbe, the wartime frogman who disappeared in Portsmouth under mysterious circumstances in 1956, while diving under the Russian battleship bringing Khrushchev on his first visit to the West.
What is your writing routine?
I have a hut at the bottom of a fairly large garden in Kent. It was built specially for me, using (apart from the tin roof) recycled materials. It looks out onto fields. It has green French windows. Inside there is a table, a stove for winter, a good back supporting chair a kettle , a CD player and armchair for Walter (one Bedlington) to sit on. Billy (the other, older Bedlington) prefers the armchair on the veranda outside. My day when I am working? I get up, have breakfast (read the paper) walkout the door and go to work. Generally 9.30 to 6 with a lunch break, sometimes at the house, sometimes, brought back up to the hut. I go to work, like everybody else. Later at night, I sit up in bed and correct the day’s work (by hand).
Do you find it easy to write?
Easy? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. With Al (and Crabbe) if it wasn’t always easy it was most of the time fluid – I knew how to say it. I had the character, I had the voice, Whatever he got himself into, I knew how he’d react, what he thought about things. The books are quite intricately plotted – but I never work out the plot beforehand – just trust the character. They usually know where they should go- even if they don’t.
What got you into writing?
I was an editor for a time – first at Picador UK and then at Penguin UK. I worked with a lot of gifted (and some not so gifted) authors – some made the grade, some didn’t. I loved all of it (and, I think, got quite good at it). Being an editor is all about making the book the author wants even better. That’s it. It’s their book, their style, their intention. Your job is to help them get it into the best shape possible. If they were any good, they knew what needed to be done anyway – just needed to be told. When Penguin left me, I decided not to go back into the publishing world but to give it ago myself. That was in 1989. I’m still giving it a go.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Little and often is better than a lot once in a blue moon. You need to keep the rhythm going. So even if it’s only an hour a day, you’re staying familiar with it, keeping it warm. Leave it alone for too long and it’s like starting an engine after a deep frost.