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.
|THE CHILD WHO
Simon Lelic (www.simonlelic.com)
Released: 5 January 2012
Earlier this year, in the inaugural post on Reader Dad, I noted that Simon Lelic, after only two novels, is an absolute must-read author. His third novel, the tense and ultimately heart-breaking The Child Who is released in January, and is, to my mind at least, his best work to date, and surely one of the top books of 2012.
Leo Curtice is a solicitor who spends his days dealing with drunk and disorderlies, an unchanging, soul-destroying routine that ends when he takes a phone call and finds himself defending a twelve-year-old boy, Daniel Blake, who has been accused of murdering a schoolmate, the eleven-year-old Felicity Forbes. Leo jumps at the chance, seeing it as a career-making move, ignoring the advice of everyone around him, not seeming to grasp the fact that the tabloids will paint him as a villain, a man willing to defend the murderer of a child. As the case proceeds, and Leo develops a rapport with the young boy, he fails to acknowledge the strain his actions are placing on his family. His daughter, Ellie, is attacked in school and quickly becomes an outcast, her friends deserting her because of what her father is doing. When Leo and his family are threatened, he tells himself it comes with the job, nothing to worry about. But Leo is heading towards disaster, an event that will change his life, and the lives of everyone around him.
As with Lelic’s previous two novels, the strength of The Child Who is in the characters, solid chunks of humanity that evoke real reactions from the reader. The story is told from the point of view of Leo, and it is through this means that Lelic builds suspense. There is no omniscient narrator here, despite the third person narrative, so we learn things as Leo does, and we only ever know what he knows. Each of the characters with whom he interacts – his wife and daughter, Daniel Blake and his parents, the head of the detention facility where Daniel is being kept, his colleagues, friends – comes fully-formed and in three dimensions, real people that we come to like, or to hate, or to meet briefly in passing, as we do during the day-to-day course of our own lives.
Lelic has his finger on the pulse of how Britain thinks, the tabloid mentality that grips the common man when these horrific events occur:
He goddamn nearly raped her. This is what they all kept coming back to, as though rape were as bad as it could get.
The second chapter of the book repeats the phrase “he goddamn nearly raped her” and the reader, like Leo, is stunned that this is almost bigger news than the fact that he killed her, as if the fact that this young boy took this young girl’s life is not enough to satisfy the bloodlust of the nation.
The Child Who deals with a shocking subject matter, and does so head-on. This is a story grabbed from so many newspaper headlines over the course of the past decade and beyond. Lelic adds a human element through an examination of the impact this terrible crime has on everyone involved: the family of the victim; the young murderer who cannot quite comprehend what he has done despite what the law says of his culpability, and his family; and, unusually, the family of the solicitor hired to defend this murderer, a man who will do everything he can for his client, because that is his job.
Lelic displays a keen mastery of language, his turns of phrase unusual, but immediately evocative, much more effective at planting images in the mind of the reader than verbose descriptive passages:
[…] pupils were beginning to appear in the playground below. There was a boy, alone, rummaging in his rucksack and weaving towards the entrance. In his wake whirled a gossip of girls.
Much like the guards tacked to the common room walls, the boys all wore smart shirts and trousers […]
The Child Who starts slow, the tension building as the story moves forwards and Leo loses himself in the case at the cost of his family relationships. When disaster strikes, it does not come as much of a surprise to the reader, because we have a little bit more distance than Leo. From there Lelic works his way towards the book’s final paragraph, a masterstroke that, I’m not ashamed to admit, brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat, the most effective and impactful ending to a novel I have read in a long time.
I have said it before, but I’ll say it again: Simon Lelic is a man to watch, a must-read author, the real deal. The Child Who is a powerful and heart-wrenching thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat and drag you, emotionally, into the thick of the plot. This is, without doubt, Lelic’s finest work to date. It is a showcase for a man who is the master of his art, a skilful plotter, and a writer who proves that, when it comes to language, spare can be beautiful. A stunning novel from one of the finest writers working today. Not to be missed.
Simon Lelic (www.simonlelic.com)
Simon Lelic’s first novel, the quietly horrific RUPTURE, made him an instant “must-read”. THE FACILITY, his second novel, bleaker and tougher than the first, but no less enjoyable, has cemented that impression, leaving this reader pining, already, for whatever comes next.
THE FACILITY is the story of three very different men, connected by the mysterious prison facility of the title, set in an all-too-real modern-day Britain where civil liberties have been eroded almost to the point of non-existence. Henry Graves is the prison warden tasked with building and running the facility that strikes the reader almost immediately – and is confirmed by the fictional News of the World headline – as a sort of Guatanamo UK. Graves is a troubled man, cut off from his family, bound to a secret job that does not quite gel with his moral sensibilities.
Arthur Priestly, a dentist, is one of the facility’s inmates, falsely imprisoned on the word of a man he has never met. Tom Clarke, a journalist with strong views in opposition to the laws that allow the government to arrest people at the vaguest suspicion of terrorist activity, is hired by Arthur’s wife to help find where her husband has gone, and why he has been arrested.
The story is told alternately from the point of view of each of the three main characters, each with his own perspective and tone: Graves is sedate and troubled, a man losing his sense of self and his sense of self-respect; Arthur is confused, frightened and ultimately defiant; Tom at first seems like comic relief, the tone of his chapters light and airy, but it is Tom who, perhaps, provides the most drama as the climax approaches.
THE FACILITY grabs from the first page, where two unnamed men interview Arthur in an encounter that grows more violent with each paragraph – leaving the reader in no doubt that there is something slightly off about the version of reality in which this novel is based – and holds the attention throughout. It’s a tough read, like all good noir fiction, and like all fiction in that genre, there is no happily-ever-after, no – if you’ll pardon the pun – get-out-of-jail-free card.
This is modern noir at its absolute peak, and Lelic seems set for superstardom, assuming he can continue to meet the expectations he has set with his first two novels. He remains, for this reader at least, an absolute must-read.