MB: Our books look very different on the surface. Your Acts of Omission is a cool Le Carrean tale about the repercussions of the cold war in 90’s Westminster. My Sockpuppet is a riotous thriller about social media shaming and the loss of our online privacy. But there are a lot of common threads – the dismal realities of life in government, the fragility of political reputations in the age of spin. Though if I’m honest you have much better credentials than me to write about politics, since you’ve been a BBC political correspondent. What took you from the live OB to the computer keyboard in the back bedroom?
TS: I don’t think I necessarily have the better credentials. You have probably seen more of the insides of the rooms where things happen than I have, while I was standing outside in the street talking about those events.
MB: True, I have worked in government, though never very close to the seat of power. And I can’t claim I often noticed any actual decisions being made! But it was enough for me to get a sense of the constant pressure senior politicians are under. And the sheer impossibility of getting anything done. I thought that would be interesting to write about.
TS: But, to answer the question, I had long had an idea for a novel, though I only ever wrote scraps of it in the backs of notebooks in idle moments. There’s a lot of waiting around in journalism. There are also so many observations, characters, and stories that never come through in straightforward news reporting. Not long before I left the BBC, in 2012, I made a radio piece about political fiction; I interviewed Michael Dobbs and others. Putting that piece together made me more satisfied than I’d been for a while and I realised then that if I didn’t at least try to write the book I had in mind, I’d always regret it. I started by way of a Faber Academy course — I think you’re one of the Faber alumni as well? What made you take the leap into writing?
MB: Yes, I did the Faber Academy course, too, and it was a huge spur to getting started on Sockpuppet. I realised a few weeks before the course began that I couldn’t go on pretending to be ‘developing’ a book: I had to sit down and start writing. At that point I’d spent over ten years toying with ideas about how to write a novel about life online. I even finished a 150,000 word monster of a draft that was, looking back, absolutely terrible; though it contained a lot of the seeds for Sockpuppet. I actually called that wreck of a novel Disposable – which is a nice little irony. I sometimes wonder if it’s a good idea to get the bad book out of the way before you try to write a good one!
So, yes, the Faber course was hugely valuable – though I think perhaps the most valuable thing was the way it made me spend so much time critiquing the work of my fellow-students rather than just examining my own navel, so to speak. That taught me to be a better, more perceptive reader, which I think is a precondition to being a good writer. You need to train your ear for good writing.
TS: I also found it really helpful to be prompted to read more widely and in different genres — it made me look more critically at my literary comfort zone and at the kind of books I tend to read. In one class, we each had to bring in and read from a book whose voice we enjoyed. I read a passage from Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter — where Scobie is trying to decide whether or not to continue his affair; there’s a line I love that says ‘Virtue, the good life, tempted him in the dark like a sin’ — several of the others in the class hated Greene and thought of him as someone they were forced to read at school. Whereas I still adore books like The Quiet American and how they depict characters who are engaged with the world but deeply conflicted. And of course Le Carre is the master of complex characters in a closed world with its own rules.
I do find though that I read very differently now I’m writing myself and in some ways it has spoiled reading for me, because I can’t turn off my internal editor. I re-read Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd lately, which I still really enjoyed, but there were times I found myself picking apart sentences and paragraphs in a way I wouldn’t have done before.
I’m intrigued by what you said about spending ten years thinking about how to write a novel about life online. I think that in Sockpuppet you capture that immediacy and tone of online life brilliantly, and show the contrasts with the world we’re more used to reading about. How did you eventually approach that, when of course there hasn’t been much time yet for many authors to have tackled it in fiction?
MB: Thanks – I do hope I’ve captured some of the flavour of life on screen. These days we’re all spending more and more of our time in these glassy, abstract spaces, but we don’t always invest a lot of time thinking about the effect this is having on our sense of identity, of personal relationships. I wanted to capture some of that in fiction. I thought there was a huge amount of untapped opportunity for writing serious fiction about the issues of privacy and power emerging from our love affair with the internet. But – like many writers when they start out – I kept trying to tell the reader about these issues, rather than allowing them to emerge from a narrative. So what I was writing was more like documentary than fiction. The thing that finally brought these ideas to life was landing on a story, and a set of characters, that were so deeply rooted in the digital realm that they gave me license to delve quite naturally into the weird clamour of life online.
For instance, my central character, Dani Farr, is a thoroughgoing digital native. Everything she thinks and feels – about life, relationships and sex – is mediated by a screen; but her perceptions of these virtual worlds are every bit as rich and nuanced as those of a romantic protagonist striding across a stormy heathland. To convey this, I needed to develop a descriptive language that had sufficient emotional intensity, but that also reflected the flatness and abstraction of Dani’s online milieu. I suppose as a result, the voice of the book is heavily influenced by speculative fiction writers like Neal Stephenson and William Gibson; but I think it’s also got a specifically British, ironic tone that feels authentically mine.
So yes, I hope I’ve managed to find a way to write realistic, engaging fiction about tech; and to breath life into techy characters. It seems to me you’re trying something similar in writing about politics and politicians. Fictional politicians often seem to be drawn from the same machiavellian template. You’ve really worked to bring us into the worlds and inner lives of your politician characters – helping us understand their positive motives as well as their darker compromises. Given how much we’re all supposed to distrust MPs, is it possible these days to write a sympathetic politician?
TS: It’s interesting, when I started writing the book, there were people who told me that it wasn’t possible — I would give them the counterexample of Borgen and they would protest that it was all very well for something in Danish with subtitles. But I would certainly argue that not every fictional politician has to be a venal Frank Underwood/Francis Urquhart type, though those are classic characters. I’m interested by the compromises and the sacrifices that people have to make to succeed in a political career and in the gaps between the public face that politicians present and their private thoughts and concerns. I don’t think that difference is necessarily a sign of hypocrisy but I saw it a great deal in people that I’ve met over the years.
I can see some similarities between my Mark Lucas and your Bethany Lehrer, our fictional ministers — they’ve both climbed the first few rungs on the ladder to a ministerial job, they are finding the pressure hard to take, they want to succeed but maybe lack that final ruthlessness, and they both have a family history that they feel they need to live up to. They have the same flaws as any other character would but they’re blown up to a larger scale and then put on public view. The situations they’re in are full of conflict and secrets, which every novel needs. There’s also unintentional comedy in political and journalistic life — people being chased down the street by journalists, trying not to be found or caught out, events that go catastrophically wrong.
So, where do you go from here? I noticed that Sockpuppet is going to be part of a cycle of interconnected novels — I know it’s early days, but what’s next?
MB: Yes, Sockpuppet is the first of a series of what I hope will be five or six interconnected crime stories, stretching from the late 1940s to the near future. When strung together, the books will tell an alternative history of the British computer industry and the Internet – and the impact of data and surveillance on our lives. The series is called The Martingale Cycle, after the character Elyse Martingale, a fictional computing pioneer and political radical. Some of the books are set in the twentieth century and will follow Elyse’s attempts to use technology to liberate working people – with very mixed results. The rest, including Sockpuppet, are set in the current century and will trace Elyse’s strange afterlife, via a hacktivist collective that’s fighting to retain our digital liberties.
Each of these novels will stand alone, but they share a number of characters, storylines and themes. So I hope that the more of them you read, the richer a picture you’ll form. Book 2 of the cycle, working title Lucky Ghost, is set a few years in the future and will be out from Hodder in 2017. After this I aim to go back to the 1960s to tell some of Elyse’s story.
So that’s me committed for the next few years at least! Whereas your first novel was a standalone story; so where next for you?
TS: That sounds a fascinating and ambitious plan. My second novel is, as you say, not part of a series but it shares many characteristics with my first. It’s called Conflicts of Interest and it’s the story of two old friends, one a journalist who’s going through a bad patch, both personally and professionally, the other a successful PR man with connections in the political world. They come back into each others’ lives in the south of France and when the PR suffers an accident, the journalist discovers that his friend isn’t all that he seemed to be. It’s due out from John Murray in 2017. And in the meantime, I’m beginning to research a third book, though it’s still at too early a stage to say much more than that. Wishing you every success with Sockpuppet’s launch!
MB: And you with Conflicts of Interest!
Click to buy
Click to buy