Interrogating Andrew Barrett
I can’t believe that I have got up to my 50th interview since starting back in the spring. And this 50th is certainly a great read. So eyes down and see what goes on in the mind of someone who is closer to real murders that most people would want to be.
How do you strike the balance between writing something you want to write and writing something that people want to read, in terms of the compromises you make, if any?
I believe that you can’t please everyone all of the time. So I don’t try to. I write in a fairly gentle style that I hope will appeal to most readers. I do have some rules of my own though: there are certain profanities that I will never use (I like my stories to be as true to life as possible, but there are boundaries), and certain subjects I’ll never go near because I find them too upsetting to write about, let alone read about – and that’s not because of any personal involvement with them; I just think some things shouldn’t be fictionalised, not by me anyway. And I also have to be careful not to break a professional code and give away any of our most modern examination techniques, particularly if flirting with a terrorism theme for example. Also, I’m constrained by the Official Secrets Act and several others, so I have to be careful. But despite these ‘compromises’, or perhaps because of them, I live in the eternal hope that people will want to read what I write.
What excites, attracts or appeals to you about the genre(s) you write in.
Helping to catch the bad guys in real life gives me a buzz. And it’s the same writing in the crime/thriller genre too. But within the confines of a book I can be extrovert, I can create characters that are extreme; caricatures that I can shove into warped surroundings where they encounter depraved people, and see how they handle them. Of course, the depraved people have stories of their own too, and often these can be more fascinating than those of the protagonist.
The crime/thriller genre excites me because it encapsulates everything about modern people and their lives, and I love to get inside their minds as deeply as possible. Crime/thrillers are often fast-paced and exciting in their own right, but they don’t have to be superficial; they can delve and pose serious questions and explore motives.
On another level, who doesn’t want to go hunting for clues? Everyone does; everyone is a would-be Sherlock.
Oh, and we get to use some really cool pieces of kit!
Do you have a box, drawer, folder etc where you keep thoughts and ideas for future stories? Such as names you have come across, bits of dialogue, ideas, characters – even if you have no idea when you might use them?
I used to have a buff folder (everyone has one, right?) entitled Novel Ideas. It disappeared years ago. But I’m quite lucky in that I never struggle to grab a name as I’m writing and usually it fits quite well. In A Long Time Dead, my protagonist was called Jon Benedict. No idea where that came from, but during a recent re-write (2011) I binned the name in favour of Roger Conniston. The more I tried to grab the book by the scruff of the neck and turn it into something halfway decent, the more his name fought against me. Jon Benedict was damned boring and he had to go. When Roger Conniston took his place, I seemed to have no problem turning the book around – how strange is that?
Again, I’m lucky in that I seldom struggle for characters or for dialogue. I make them up and use them while writing rather than stock-pile them. And dialogue is easy anyway because all I do is transcribe what they say anyway, honest gov! Nothing to do with me!
The only things I do struggle with are story ideas. My brain is grey mush, and inside are various rooms. In one of the rooms is a chest full of ideas – and they are superb ideas! Trouble is, I’ll be buggered if I can find the damned room.
Once I do happen across a story though, I’m usually off like a shot with it and seem to have no trouble blending in subplots…
How do you manage plot bunnies (ideas that invade your mind that aren’t usually helpful to the story you’re writing but breed like…er…bunnies)?
…that add relevance to the main plot. If I create a character for a certain scene, I often wonder if I can use that character for something else, particularly if he’s a deep character, well-rounded or has an interesting story of his own – or maybe he did something or said something I wasn’t expecting that I could use in a positive way. Waste not want not, as my old fella used to say.
I usually know where a story is going from the outset (hence the problem coming by ideas), and I work towards it allowing subplots to weave their way into the main plot, but never to overcome it, or to become a distraction from it. If I find that happening or it’s running towards a dead end, I will delete the chapter/scene.
In The Third Rule, I invented a burglar who also was a wonderfully talented artist. He was there to illustrate what happened to criminals under the new justice system. But he was good. I loved writing him, and he came fully loaded with emotions and traits and… Well, when the time came to bin him, when the illustration was complete, I decided instead to keep him; I had other uses for him – further illustrations with which he would prove useful. And anyway, as I said, I liked the guy. So maybe he was a plot bunny disguised as a character (the crafty sod!) that slipped through the net.
How much of you is in your characters? Which of your characters is the you that you’d most like to be? Or be with ?
Good question. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t write a single word about a character without some of me rubbing off onto them. My protagonists, from Jon Benedict (the wimp), to Roger Conniston (the jolly nice chap), to Eddie Collins (the violent idiot with a heart of gold), are all facets of me. Sorry. Well, at least I’m honest. They are not me though, I still made them up, and they still do things differently from how I would in their situation – it’s fiction – but essentially, they are poor quality 3D photocopies of me and my persona. But hot off the copier, I spray them with chemicals that come in small plastic squeezy bottles with weird labels like Essence of Murderer, or Scent of Suicide, or even Decanted Dumbass.
(You can find these distilled wonders of the fiction-writers arsenal on the air freshener aisle of your local Asda).
Do you become so wrapped up in your writing that your spouse wonders if they’re married to you or one of your characters?
Oh my, an even better question.
While reading A Long Time Dead, my then-wife burst into tears. Cripes, I thought, it must be bad! Jon Benedict, as he was back then, was having an affair, and because my blood flowed in his veins (see above), she assumed I too was having an affair. I blinked for an awfully long time when she confronted me with this, and then I didn’t help my cause by laughing so hard I fell off the chair.
On the one hand it was such a compliment that my writing even fooled my wife, but on the other it meant she didn’t really know me very well, and that I would never do a thing like that – and then write about it!
I do tend to spend an inordinate amount of time writing or being here thinking about writing. But I should put that into some kind of context I suppose. I spend an inordinate amount of my spare time writing. I worked 67 hours this week, and the first thing I did when I came home from work at midnight, or two in the morning, was grab a coffee. The second thing I did was write.
What type of book do you like reading? Is it the same genre as you write?
Yes. And no.
I recently finished a lovely book about the secrets of Bletchley Park. Six months ago I read a book about how the mind makes decisions, and a book about composite materials used in race cars, another about matter vs anti-matter. A year ago I read Ozzy Osbourne’s bio just after I finished Stephen Hawking’s The Universe in a Nutshell. I recently tried to read Ash by James Herbert, and I got part way through Under the Dome by a small-time author called Stephen King (only joking, Steve) when I was distracted by something – must return to it soon.
On my shelf I have some books that I ache to get to one day: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, The Runes of the Earth by Stephen Donaldson, and Sword Song by Bernard Cornwell (I love his historical fiction), to name just a few. Of course I read thrillers too including Deaver, Hogan, Child…
What lengths do you go to to convince us readers that your book has the X factor?
In the grand scheme of things, it would be very difficult to sway a reader into opening his wallet or purse to buy my humble books. If you have a large publishing house behind you, it may be considerably easier. The only way I can get noticed is by word of mouth. But look on the positive side: it means that most of the books I’ve been lucky enough to sell have been recommended to the buyer – and that’s a compliment if ever there was one.
How do you feel when a reader points out the spelling mistake(s) you have made?
Ah well, yes! I’m thoroughly embarrassed to begin with. And then after a short while I’m very grateful that someone has taken the time to get in touch and let me know about any errors. I’ve recently completed a full read-through of the entire Dead trilogy because of one such review on Amazon that said some very complimentary things but finished off by saying it was a shame about the errors. Oops.
I don’t like the thought of people being pulled out of the story because their eye has settled on a typo, so if I can get rid of that distraction then everyone’s a winner.
What do you like most about visiting KUF/forums?
The friendliness. I have met some wonderful people on the forums that have become very close friends. They’re a great place for offering and receiving encouragement, for swapping tips and tricks, and I can safely say life would be quite a bit emptier if it were not for the forums.
What is on your near horizon?
I have recently begun writing a new novel. The working title is Angel and it’s about…
Many thanks to Joo for permission to reproduce her interview here