An Interview With SIMON LELIC
Photograph © Kate Eshelby
Name: SIMON LELIC
On the web: www.simonlelic.com
On Twitter: @simon_lelic
Simon Lelic burst onto the crime fiction scene in early 2010 with his, frankly, stunning novel, Rupture, the story of a police officer’s investigation into a horrific school shooting. At the beginning of 2011, he followed up with The Facility, the timely tale of a secret government facility used to house suspected terrorists, people arrested with no apparent justification and spirited away without the benefit of a trial. His third novel, The Child Who, published in January 2012, is perhaps his best yet, and deals with the aftermath of the brutal murder of an eleven year-old girl by one of her classmates, as seen through the eyes of the solicitor hired to defend the murderer.
Simon comes from a journalism background, and currently runs his own business. I’m very happy to welcome Simon to Reader Dad for our inaugural interview, especially since Simon’s The Facility was the first book reviewed on this blog.
Thanks for joining us Simon. I’d like to start by exploring how much your background in journalism has helped/shaped your writing. Your books are all ripped from the headlines – school shooting; the war on terror; murdered schoolchildren – and I would be interested to know what the decision process is around what to write next, and how much influence current affairs has on the process.
Thanks for inviting me, Matt. In answer to your question, it’s certainly true that I have a drawer stuffed with newspaper clippings. Also, that a newspaper article – about a US college professor who shot one of his colleagues – was what gave me the nudge to start writing Rupture. The Facility, on the other hand, had its roots in a dissertation I wrote at university: the war-on-terror link evolved in the writing. With The Child Who, I had for a long time been pondering a novel on the subject of a child who kills, but could not, until I heard an interview with Jon Venables’s former solicitor on the radio, see a route in. So the ideas for each of my novels came to me from different directions. I don’t consciously scour the headlines – but any idea that does settle is far more likely to engage me if it chimes thematically with current affairs.
Your writing is lean and gripping, similar in tone (if not necessarily content) to James Ellroy or David Peace. I imagine it’s a difficult style to work with and maintain. How does it affect from what angle you approach a story?
Thank you, first of all, for drawing such flattering comparisons. I suppose the ‘leanness’ of my prose stems from my experience in journalism: where the onus is on brevity, on getting your point across succinctly, on not using two words where one will do. But it is also the style of writing that comes most naturally to me. And, so far at least, I’ve felt it suited the type of stories I’ve told. The project I’m working on at the moment is slightly different. It’s very early days in terms of the writing, but I know already that a shift in style will be necessary.
Your books all, at some point, hold up a mirror to British society and show us for the gore-hungry fiends that we can – collectively – sometimes be. I’m thinking particularly of the News of the World headlines from The Facility or the repeated phrase – "He goddamn nearly raped her" – and the discussion of that phrase early in The Child Who. Was this a conscious decision, and do you feel that it’s a fair representation?
I suppose what all of my novels so far have in common is an approach that asks readers to question what are often instinctive reactions. The gore-hungry headlines are what grab our attention, and they often represent the point of view that’s easiest (least uncomfortable) to accept. Reality, of course, is far more nuanced. We all know this; yet still, in spite of ourselves, we indulge our baser instincts and buy in to what the moral ‘majority’ would have us believe.
For your latest novel, you have moved into somewhat darker realms than before, dealing directly with the murder of one child by another and the aftermath of this terrible crime. You’re the father of two boys. Did you find this had any effect on the writing of the story: any parts where it particularly helped, or particularly hindered with the writing process/story?
I did not enjoy writing The Child Who – not, at least, in the way I enjoyed writing my first two novels. The Child Who deals with subjects no parent wants to have to think about. The loss of a child, for one thing. Also, what can happen when we, as fathers and mothers, fail. But it worked both ways. Being a parent was what made it hard, but it was also what made the subject feel so important. And that’s crucial, for any writer. The axiom is to write about what you know – which is right, I think, so long as you recognise that ‘knowing’ about something essentially means whether you can feel it.
Bookshops seem to have some difficulty categorising your novels, and I have seen them shelved under General Fiction, Crime, Horror. How would you best describe your work?
I had the good fortune and immense pleasure recently of talking to David Mitchell (a literary hero of mine, who gave me a great review of The Facility), and he wondered whether my publishers were attempting to brand me as a ‘dark, genre-bending’ writer. He mentioned it as a warning, in that branding can be something of a one-way street, but I decided I quite liked this description of what I do. If a bookseller is kind enough to stock my books, I’m happy for them to shelve them wherever they like!
What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?
I’m not sure I’m best placed to answer this question, but I can certainly tell you the contemporary writers I most admire. David Mitchell, for one – see above. Also, Don DeLillo, Hilary Mantel, Rupert Thomson and, a recent rediscovery for me (about whom you and I have exchanged quite a few tweets recently), Stephen King. Above all, though, it has to be Cormac McCarthy. I find his style so compelling that I have to ban myself from reading (re-reading) his novels until I’m between drafts.
And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?
The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Devastatingly simple, but dazzling in so many ways.
What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Simon Lelic look like?
It’s a bit of a mess, unfortunately. We have two boys, as you say, and another baby on the way. I also run my own business, so writing for me is squeezed in between emails, phone calls, school/nursery runs, more phone calls . . . you get the picture. I was asked in a recent interview how my ideal writing day would be structured and I got slightly carried away in the word count answering. It involved several naps, I think, and a beach-side walk. Also, lunchtime drinking . . . so perhaps, for my publisher’s sake, I’m better off sticking with the phone calls.
And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?
Be disciplined. Be patient. Be your own harshest critic. Be a better reader. Be persistent. Be lucky. Be nice to your wife/husband/partner/dog. Be wary of what advice you follow.
What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?
As ever, I have several books on the go. Some are research for my next novel, but for pleasure I’m reading Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go. I’ve just finished his A Monster Calls, and was completely blown away by its beauty (of the book itself, in fact, as well as the tale). The Knife. . . is a slightly different prospect, but so far equally compelling.
Would you like to see any of your novels make the jump from page to screen? If so, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?
The rights to Rupture have in fact already been optioned. The latest draft of the script is terrific, and as far as I know there is now a hugely talented director on board, so I have everything crossed. But my agent is a former film producer and has fully prepared me for the length of time these things tend to take. I’m not counting any chickens.
And finally, on a lighter note…
If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?
I’d tip a whisky or two into Cormac McCarthy’s pint glass, in the hope he might let slip a few of his secrets. If he was particularly careless, I might even be tempted to nick few sheets from that manuscript just sitting there in his saddlebag . . .
Thank you once again, Simon, for taking time out to share your thoughts. Best of luck with The Child Who, and the forthcoming addition to the family.