As an author, inspiration can come from all things. It could be the line in a song on the radio, a snippet of conversation on the bus, a dream at night but one of the most important sources of inspiration are other authors.
Just like a budding sports star in the academy has that legend they look up to, I think it’s equally relevant to anyone who writes that they have heroes to look up to and learn from.
In this segment, I am going to interview fellow authors who have inspired me, those I have learned from and those who have helped me on my writing journey so far.
Harry Bingham is pivotal in my writing development, he runs the Writer’s Workshop to which I am indebted for the education they give new (and experienced) writers. When you ask Harry to sum himself up, you get this: Forty-something. Married. British. Kids. Living in Oxfordshire. Runs. Used to be a banker. Now a full-time writer. Likes rock-climbing, walking, swimming. Done.
He’s far more than just a 25 word biog though and the author of the Fiona Griffiths series has let me grill him for Inky Inspiration.
First of all, hello Harry! I’m going to start at the beginning and ask just when you picked up and pen and started writing?
Howdy, Jody! And, erm, that depends what you mean, I guess. I first picked up a pen (in the form of my mum’s manual typewriter) when I was about 9 or 10. I’d come home from school and type stories – an endless cycle of them, all set on a planet called (I think) Finge.
I didn’t start writing seriously until I was in my late 20s, and then only got serious about publication when I gave up banking to look after my wife, who had become very sick (and is, thank you, very much better now.) I wrote a huge manuscript – 180,000 words – edited it hard, and got published. Since then, I’ve never looked back.
With Talking to the Dead, though, it was different. I’d write most days – every day if I could find the time, and the flow never stopped. I’d simply go to bed each night and dream the next chapter in my head.
You talk about sharing your head with Fiona, when did she take up residence? Is it true that you dreamed about Talking To The Dead as you were writing it?
Yes. Normally, I find plotting the hardest part about writing. I’m reasonably fluent at getting words down on the page once I’m in the groove, but making sure that my groove is pointing in the right direction – that’s hard!
With Talking to the Dead, though, it was different. I’d write most days – every day if I could find the time, and the flow never stopped. I’d simply go to bed each night and dream the next chapter in my head. The next day my job was simply to write that chapter down. I kept thinking the miracle would come to an end at some point, but it never did really. I wrote that first book in about 2 months, or just a little more.
You spent a large chunks of your childhood in Wales, was Cardiff a big part of your childhood too?
Nope! Never once went there before deciding to set a book there – and what’s more the Wales of my childhood (very rural, hilly, sheep farmy, remote) is utterly different from the cities of the south coast. Two different worlds. I had a lot to learn, and FAST.
How did it feel to have your novel depicted on screen? Was it an easy process to watch it come alive or did it feel hard to hand Fiona over to the director?
I think if you sell your book to the TV industry, you have to accept that this is their medium and you are doing no more than providing raw material for a new piece of art (which you can sneak a view of here). In my case, I had a lot of faith in the producer – a brilliant woman – and I knew that her vision was very broadly the same as mine. At the same time, I never felt taken over by the TV. I didn’t really care if their Fiona was different from mine. (She was: of course she was). My Fiona wasn’t going to change for anyone.
The reader (and author!) spend half their time wanting to take care of her … and half the time standing well back as the explosions go off.
Love Story With Murders – You say that you loved writing this, what made it such a joy to write for you? Was it fun to embark on a second book with Fiona?
Ah, I love writing every Fiona book – she and I just get on very well indeed. I think my pleasure in her arises in large part from three things. First, she’s a lass who likes to express herself, vigorously and without censorship. For someone whose job is writing, that’s a beautiful thing to be around.
Secondly, she’s wildly unpredictable. She remains consistently herself, yet permanently surprising. You simply can’t get bored in her company.
And then last – she’s admirable, isn’t she? She has a very tough life in some ways and doesn’t pretend otherwise. But she keeps going, she tries to do right – and she’s got guts and brains and resourcefulness like nobody else. The reader (and author!) spend half their time wanting to take care of her … and half the time standing well back as the explosions go off.
What did you learn from the first book that you wanted to incorporate or omit from the second?
The main thing was that I wrote the first book with one foot hovering over the brake. I knew my character was odd and I worried that a publisher’s acquisition committee would think she was simply too odd to engage the reader, so I did hold back – just a little – from full force Fiona.
My worry wasn’t, in fact, a stupid one. When we sold the book, we did get some very enthusiastic editors who were not, in the end, able to persuade their salespeople that books about a small, mentally unstable Welsh detective was going to appeal. But my editor at Orion – a really good publisher – had the confidence to tell me to ramp it up. So I did. And (surprise, surprise), the books got better.
The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths – That doesn’t sound too promising for your girl! What made you worry about the publisher’s reaction to this book? What made it so exciting for you to write?
There’s a reader review somewhere on Amazon in which the reviewer said she hoped Fiona would learn to take better care of herself. Alas, that reader won’t be too happy about The Strange Death, where Fiona certainly does not take very good care of herself.
And my worry about the publisher’s reaction was effectively, ‘Have I made this too grim? Too relentless? Too intense?’ Again, my publisher’s attitude was to tell me to ramp it up. So I did – and I think the result is the best book, and certainly the most gripping, I’ve ever written.
There are currently three novels of Fiona’s, will there be more? What are you currently working on at the moment?
Oh yes – the first sacred duty of a crime author is to produce one book a year. I’m under contract to write a further three books in the series, and I hope there’ll be more after that as well. I’m currently putting the finishing touches to FG#4 … a book which may end up being called The Last Voyage of the Isobel Baker. (But everyone thinks my titles are terrible and they always get changed. Of the first three books, only Love Story, With Murders is my title – and my wife still thought that one was terrible.)
I love the way that you’ve set up your website and the way that Fiona won’t even tell you her eye colour. Is it a joy to write such a complex character?
It is, it is, it is, it is. Given that I spend a lot of time in her company, I have to like her!
“And – call me crazy – but I like dead people. I like corpses. I find them easy company and I’m more settled in their presence.” Fiona Griffiths
Any chance we can talk to the woman herself? If so, what made you decide Harry was the penmate for you?
He’s not my penmate. I don’t know him. I don’t necessarily even like him. Sorry.
You work for the South Wales Police, what made you decide to join?
I don’t know, not entirely. I know that I find life hard: I’m just not that good at it. But policing work, and especially investigation is something I am good at it. And – call me crazy – but I like dead people. I like corpses. I find them easy company and I’m more settled in their presence. And then of course I have some personal projects of my own that are easier to accomplish from my berth in CID.
Personal projects? Would you like to tell me more?
Why would the reader want to follow your story? What makes it so intriguing?
Sorry. I think you mistake me for a novelist. I don’t give a damn about readers. I’d prefer not to have them. If people want to be entertained, they should get themselves a dog.
What would you like to tell the readers about yourself?
Nothing at all. If people want to know about me, they can read Harry’s books – though, quite honestly, I’d rather they didn’t. In any case, I can’t see that those books are all that special. Read Shakespeare – or get a dog.
-That basic idea has remained at the heart of everything we do: get really good writers, with a proper publication record, to help other writers sharpen their skills and their manuscripts.
Thanks Fiona, we’re going to head back to Harry and his other job… The Writer’s Workshop, when, why and how did that come to you?
Erp – first of all, sorry about Fiona. She can be a little awkward, especially in public. She’s not really a people-pleaser.
As for the Writers’ Workshop, we’ve been going about 9 years, I think. I started it up because my writing career was looking a bit perilous and I wanted some income that didn’t depend on publishers.
That was the financial motivation, but then as well, I’d learned quite a lot about self-editing my own work and thought that was a skill that might be of value to others. And, indeed, that basic idea has remained at the heart of everything we do: get really good writers, with a proper publication record, to help other writers sharpen their skills and their manuscripts.
Are you surprised by the success of WW? What parts of the WW do you enjoy the most?
Yes, very! I thought that I was setting up a business that would give me, and maybe a couple of novelist-friends, a little bit of pin money on the side. I was astonished when the business grew and just keep on growing.
And as for the bit I like the best – well, the best part is definitely the Festival. It’s just fabulous. The almost-as-good bit is when one of our chicks gets a fabulous book deal. That’s wonderfully exciting too.
There are two occasions each year where you offer authors the chance to meet and learn from agents, publishers and other authors, how difficult/easy was that to organise?
Now – it’s easy-peasy, cos I don’t organise it: Laura Wilkins does (and she’s fiendishly good.) The first Festival was kinda scary though: I think we had a contract with York University (where the event takes place) committing us to a minimum spend of £40,000. Bringing agents etc to the event was going to cost us another £20,000 or so. If we didn’t sell enough tickets to cover those costs, it was going to be a VERY awkward marital conversation. And at that stage, we really had no idea whether we could lure that many people to York for a new kind of event. It’s was a real punt.
The book industry is changing and evolving at a rate of knots, how do you see the future of publishing and do you think Writer’s Workshop will play a big role?
Hard to say, on both counts. Clearly, the author will become more powerful than in the past – he or she will have more choices than before. That’s a very, very good thing because publishers haven’t always treated writers well, and the more autonomy writers gain, the more the industry will need to adapt.
As for the future of publishing – that wheel is still in spin. The range of outcomes is very wide. There’s the Weldonian view of the world (Tom Weldon is the boss of Random Penguins in the UK). He argues that this is a golden age for publishing, with big publishers reporting their best ever financial numbers. Then there’s the doomsday view, which says that high street bookseller will go bust: a perfectly credible view, in the sense that both here and the US, the leading chains are either losing money or only marginally profitable. And if the chains go, then could publishers survive in their current form?
I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between, but this game is very hard to call, so I won’t try. The WW – well, for now, people want agents almost as much as they ever did, so we’re just doing the same old thing. If our clients ever want us to do something different, we’ll give them that different thing.
What kind of services does WW offer? And can you tell us a little bit about Agent Hunter?
Agent Hunter is an online database of literary agents and publishers. The idea is that instead of choosing a name, more or less at random, from the pages of the Writers & Artists Yearbook, you should be able to locate an agent with an interest in your genre, with personal info (photo, biog etc) all at the touch of a button. We figured out what kind of functionality a database should have if we were about to look for an agent – then built that site.
Do you have any advice for unpublished or inexperienced authors?
The main thing is to pick a really strong concept for your first project and then really work at it. Your first draft will be horrendous, most likely – but that doesn’t matter. It’s what you do to get it right thereafter that counts.
Quick fire round
- What is your strength as a writer? Survival
- What is your ‘typical’ writing day? I write from about 9.00 to 3.00 – the hours are dictated by when I have childcare available.
- When readers pick up your books, what would you most like to hear them say? Well, obviously any writers most likes to hear the words, ‘I bought this new’. But after that, I always like it when people notice the books are quite well written. Often people get so absorbed in the story, that they don’t notice the writing.
- What would you least like them to do/say? “I got this second hand”.
- Who is your literary idol? why? Hmm: in crime terms, there are only really two essential authors: Conan Doyle and Raymond Chandler. Of the two, Chandler was (by far) the better writer.
- If you could have written any book, which one would it have been? I don’t have a permanent answer to that question. This week’s answer is Under the Skin by Michael Faber. A brilliantly weird and beautiful read.
- What is your ‘tic’ word when writing? It changes a lot. ‘Actual’ is cropping up a lot at the moment.
- Favourite word? Today’s best word? Bahookie.
- Least favourite word? The word ‘gotten’ on British lips.
- What would you most like to develop in your writing? I do seek a kind of tough, odd, torn-up lyricism in Fiona’s voice. I’d like it if that flowed even more.
Thank you so very much for chatting to me, Harry… and Fiona of course!
You can find Harry on Twitter here:@Harryonthebrink
His website is here: http://harrybingham.com.
Writers’ Workshop: http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/
Agent Hunter: http://www.agenthunter.co.uk/
Below are the blurbs for Fiona’s series:
Talking To The Dead [Fiona Griffiths 1] – Fiona Griffiths is the youngest, most junior detective on the South Wales Major Crimes unit. And when a young mother and her six-year-old daughter are found dead in a squalid Cardiff squat, Fiona is given a minor-seeming task to perform. She performs that task – sometimes following the rules, sometimes not so much – and starts to uncover a much wider and more brutal crime. That crime is finally solved – in blood – on a remote Pembrokeshire coast. And the reader learns just who this detective is – and quite why she’s so interested in corpses.
Love Story With Murders [Fiona Griffiths 2] – It’s end-of-shift. Fiona and a uniformed colleague get called on their way home – illegal rubbish in Cyncoed; how hard can that be? But when they arrive, they find, in the stinky bottom of a dead woman’s freezer, a woman’s leg, complete with high-heeled shoe. The victim is Mary Langton, a pole-dancer who vanished some five years earlier … but then new body-parts start appearing, and these are dark-skinned, and male, and totally fresh. Fiona’s investigation takes her to some dark places – and some very cold ones – and as she seeks final justice, she realises she’s lucky to be still alive.
The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths [Fiona Griffiths 3] – A Cardiff superstore has suffered a payroll fraud: phantom employees, siphoning cash. It’s an assignment that Fiona hates – no corpses – but she’s lumbered with it anyway. Then she finds the dead body of a woman who starved to death. And it becomes clear that within the first, smaller crime, a vaster one looms: the most audacious theft in history. The Serious Organised Crime Agency need a copper who can go undercover and they ask Fiona to take on the role. She’ll be alone, she’ll be lethally vulnerable – and her new ‘colleagues’ will stop at nothing to get what they want