1. Mr. Herron, thank you for this opportunity to be interviewed for my blog. Your new thriller, DEAD LIONS, comes out on May 7, 2013. Tell us a bit more about this book.
It’s the second in a series, the first book being SLOW HORSES. The so-called slow horses are failed spies; spooks who’ve messed up important assignments and been banished from the centre of operations to Slough House, a building in a fairly seedy corner of London, where they’re given humdrum tasks meant to bore them into resigning. But – twice so far – they’ve found themselves at the centre of major events.
In DEAD LIONS, this takes the form of the reappearance of a Soviet-era bogeyman; a Moscow Centre agent who never really existed, but who was dreamed up in order to get the Western intelligence services chasing their tails. When a former spy who once claimed to have encountered the mythical Alexander Popov in the flesh is found dead on a bus in Oxfordshire, it begins to seem as if Popov might not have been a legend after all.
2. Who is Jackson Lamb and how did you go about creating his character?
Lamb, head spook at Slough House, is a former Cold War operative gone to seed. Unlike the others, he has no desire to return to where the action is – his experiences have left him with a jaundiced view of the way the intelligence services operate, and he prefers the lazy life: tormenting his underlings, drinking too much, and eating Chinese takeaways. He’s overweight, grubby, has appalling personal habits, and spends most of his life in a darkened room.
Much of the time, his character is determined by my wondering, “What’s the worst possible thing anyone could say in this situation?”, and then having him say it. But I wouldn’t try putting anything over him. He’s quicker, and more cunning, than he looks.
3. What kind of research did you do for DEAD LIONS? How much of what you write about spying and spy agents is fiction and how much is fact?
I’m not big on research. I occasionally Google makes of car, etc, and I squirrel away interesting news stories when I come across them, but pretty much everything I write is fiction. I’m far more interested in how characters react to each other than I am in serial numbers on guns, or whatever.
4. Have you gotten any reaction to your novels from the MI5 and/or other intelligence services?
No, never. I imagine this is because (a) my novels provide such an accurate depiction of how the intelligence services operate that they’re worried about drawing attention to them; or (b) my novels provide such an inaccurate depiction of how the intelligence services operate that they’re not bothered; or (c) nobody connected to the intelligence services has ever read any of my novels. Probably a mixture of (b) and (c).
5. Why do you write? Why spy thrillers?
I write because I’m a writer, I suppose. Like most writers, when I’m actually at my desk, I can find any number of ways to procrastinate. But it distresses me beyond telling when circumstances prevent me from getting there.
My earlier novels were crime fiction, mostly set in Oxford, where I live. But I wanted to write about broader issues, and the spy genre offers that opportunity.
6. A word of advice for new writers?
“Rewrite” … However pleased you may be with something you’ve managed to get down on paper, don’t assume it’s finished. Look at it again a week or so later, and it won’t look quite so marvelous as it did at the time.
A good rule of thumb is: delete all those words that you thought made it a special piece of prose…
7. What are your writing habits? How long does it take you to research and write a novel?
I write daily, for an hour or so. Maybe ninety minutes. The target is usually about 350 words. SLOW HORSES and DEAD LIONS took twenty months apiece.
8. What are your favorite pastimes?
When I’m not at work, commuting or writing, I’m generally trying to get some sleep. But I play squash regularly – or at least, I do when my squash partner’s fit. When I have time to relax, it’s with a book, and music.
9. What do you like to read and what are you reading at the moment?
Fiction is my staple diet, and novels I’ve just read, or am just about to, include work by Christopher Brookmyre, Kate Atkinson and MR Hall.
Also on the go at the moment are John Sutherland’s Lives of the Novelists (for dipping into); three books about Everest (which I’m reviewing); and two collections of verse (Emily Berry’s Dear Boy and Paul Muldoon’s The Word on the Street).
10. What other book(s) are you working on?
I’m just about to complete a draft of a standalone novel, which doesn’t yet have a title (or rather, it has two, and I haven’t yet decided which one to use). I’ll start work on the next book in the Slough House series later this year.