You didn't start writing until age 40 after a successful career as a barrister. Do you have any advice for readers who've always wanted to write, but career and life get in the way (or keep being used as an excuse)?
Up until I was forty I was sure that I couldn’t write fiction, and, with the benefit of hindsight, I think that this must have been because I was inhibited by being the grandson of J.R.R.Tolkien. But ultimately the artificial block that I’d put on my creativity couldn’t withstand the pressure and I began writing in order to carve out an identity of my own. And then once I’d started nothing could stop me. The rejection of my first novel only made me more determined to write my second. And so I guess the lesson I would draw from my own experience is that we shouldn’t be sure that we can’t be creative until we’ve really given it a shot. There is nothing in life more wonderful than making something of value that exists outside of ourselves – be it a song or a painting or a story.
Your legal career is brought to bear in some way in your novels. As an attorney in the States, the UK legal system has always fascinated me with its history, formality-and of course, its wigs. Having lived in the US for many years, you've had the opportunity to see both legal systems. What one thing could the US legal system learn from the UK (or vice versa)?
The biggest difference between the two criminal justice systems is the death penalty, which was abolished in the UK in the 1960s after a series of controversial cases in which innocent men were exonerated after being hung. I focused on this issue and period in my novel, The Inheritance, where Inspector Trave is in a race against time to save an innocent young man from the gallows. Unlike in the US an execution in the UK could follow conviction within a few weeks and in line with historical fact, my hero spends his last days in a purpose built death house, unaware that the gallows is waiting for him on just the other side of an invisible sliding door at the back of the wardrobe in his cell. This meant that the hangman could dispatch the condemned man in less than a minute after entering his cell, unlike in Texas today where the criminal is driven for an hour to get to his execution in Huntsville. I write about issues that disturb me in my fiction – the death penalty in The Inheritance; the Holocaust in The King of Diamonds; and now the bombing of London in Orders from Berlin.
All of your books to date (FINAL WITNESS, KING OF DIAMONDS, THE INHERITANCE) are multi-layered, blending courtroom drama, historical and police procedural elements, among others. However, your latest book, ORDERS FROM BERLIN (released December 11, 2012), is a series of firsts for you. This time you add spies, namely MI6. There were many plots to assassinate Churchill (including one involving exploding chocolate). Were there moles within MI6? How much of the assassination plot is based, even loosely, on historical fact?
I believe that the essential requirement of historical fiction is not that an event did happen but that it could have happened. The assassination plot in my book is an invention but I think it’s a plausible one. Hitler admired the British Empire. He wanted to invade Russia, not England, and he was intensely frustrated by Churchill’s refusal to continue Britain’s pre-war appeasement policy and negotiate a peace treaty after the fall of France in June 1940. I believe that Hitler would have seen an assassination of Churchill as a masterstroke if it had had a reasonable chance of success. But I didn’t think that a German spy landing in England was a viable possibility as MI5 was very effective in dealing with this threat throughout the War. However, a double agent embedded in MI6 would have been a different proposition. Unlike his predecessors, Churchill was a hands-on leader who didn’t believe in keeping the Secret Service at arm’s length. I think that if the double agent had been provided with sufficiently good credible intelligence about the invasion threat by his masters in Berlin, then Churchill would have wanted to see him in person, and that would have provided the opportunity for an assassination attempt that could have changed the course of history.
ORDERS FROM BERLIN, being more of a thriller, is also a change in format for you. This time, the investigation is to prevent a murder rather than prosecute one. What prompted the change?
Orders is a new departure. It is a more explicitly historical novel than its predecessors. The international situation in September 1940 is key to understanding the motivations of the characters who include Hitler and Churchill, and I have tried to recreate what it was like to live through the London Blitz. And there are spies – a down-at-heel, conflicted MI6 which is a thousand miles away from the world of James Bond. However, in another way the novel follows my previous two in having William Trave as its hero, once again risking his career as he refuses to follow the official line in a murder investigation. But in this book the stakes are higher than they have ever been before, and by the end Trave comes to realize that the fate of the world at perhaps the most critical time in its history may depend on his efforts. And, like England facing invasion from across the Channel, the odds are heavily stacked against the young detective.
Lastly, whereas World War II has appeared in some way in the majority of your novels, this is the first set directly in that time period. Why fully immerse the reader now? Unlike other writers of historical fiction, on top of your own extensive education in the subject (including studying modern history at Oxford), you've had the opportunity to experience firsthand stories from family members who both fought and civilians who struggled in wartime. Is there any one particular story that inspired ORDERS FROM BERLIN? Was it these stories that first ignited your passion for the period?
I was born in fourteen years after the end of the War. It was a world of Beatles, ban the bomb, and moon landings. But the War was always there in the shadows. My next door neighbor had saved his friend who couldn’t swim by taking him on his back and swimming out to the rescuing ships from the beach at Dunkirk. One of my uncles won the Military Cross after D Day and another was a rear gunner in bombing missions over Germany. My father trained as a fighter pilot in South Africa. One story told me by a friend of my mother’s always stayed with me: how he had come across a disembodied hand sticking up out of the ground after a bombing attack in London. The hand was warm but he had been unable to dig the person out of the ground because the body was trapped under heavy masonry and so he sat holding the hand in his until it went cold. This story became a centerpiece event in Orders from Berlin.
What's coming next for you?
In my books past events have a habit of coming back to affect the lives of persons in the present and Orders from Berlin is no exception. The back story here concerns the brother of one of the main characters who was executed for desertion during the First World War and left behind a diary of his experiences. Researching this part of the novel has renewed my interest in the Great War. I visited the Somme battlefield where my grandfather fought a few years ago and now I want to make that period of history the focus of my next book.
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QUICKIES WITH SIMON:
Writing ambience: A cherry-wood table, a view of oak trees through the window, a dog snoring at my feet, and an endless supply of instant coffee. I use an iPad for research and an old British computer with Microsoft word for composition.
To outline or not to outline: I plot my stories in very great detail - it's an area where my legal training really helps. Then the writing process is like putting flesh on the skeleton - it's where the characters come to life.
Reading now: IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS, a wonderful book about the US ambassador to Germany in 1933, just after Hitler came to power. It's a vivid picture of a Berlin that no longer exists
Book he wishes he could read again for the first time: TITUS GROAN and GORMENGHAST [by Mervyn Peake].
Favorite sentence he’s written: Either-"I care about secrets," Sasha said quietly after a moment. "And about the past. You taught me that. I suppose I believe that dead men sometimes still speak." (THE INHERITANCE) Or-"Precicesly because there isn't any meaning, because there might not be any God, it makes everything in this world all the more precious." (Inspector Trave; THE INHERITANCE)
Book or eReader: Book. I read in both formats. I love my iPad but perhaps too much.
Favorite screen or print spy: George Smiley. Donald Sutherland in THE EYE OF THE NEEDLE comes a close second.
Favorite independent bookstore:: There was a second-hand bookshop called Thornton's in Oxford that I loved when I was a boy. It was a great rambling building with labrynthine rooms all full of books on every subject under the sun - a bibliographical paradise now vanished into the mists of time.
His biggest fear: I won't say, in case it comes true.
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