It’s not everyday that your first novel sells millions, ends up on the Man Booker Long list, gets chosen by Richard and Judy and has the film rights bought by Ridley Scott. However Tom Rob Smith it did with his debut novel Child 44 and now he is hoping to follow that success with The Secret Speech. Savidge Reads was incredibly lucky to be able to pop round to his converted Jam Factory house for a nice cuppa, a catch up and some Jammy Dodgers… in what I am hoping will be a regular on here with ‘Savidge Reads Meets…’
Now for anyone who has been on Mars and missed the amazing success of Child 44 can you tell us a bit about it?
It is set in the 1950’s in Russia in the time leading up to Stalin’s death. It’s also actually based on a real life notorious Russian serial killer who got away with a horrendous amount of murders simply because people didn’t believe someone would do something like that and people weren’t looking for him. In fact they denied he existed and many innocent people were killed for the crimes he committed. I thought it was an interesting way to look at society then with a crime background. I wanted to write something that was a page turner something that was thrilling and hopefully that’s what it is.
How did you come up with a story like this?
I came across the original idea for a screen play; well I was researching a screen play which was an adaptation of a Jeff Noon short story about how to make serial killers safe in a science fiction world. As I knew nothing about serial killers I thought I should read up about them and came across the real life case which happened quite some years after the setting of Child 44. I just wanted to tell that story and then to have the whole Stalin Regime setting too worked for me.
How did you create the atmosphere of Stalinist Russia, as obviously you weren’t there…
Quite right yeah (laughs) it was all through other books really. In a way the weird thing, though a good thing, with the secret police was that they confiscated so much stuff particularly diaries. Now these people weren’t hoping to be published they were just daily diaries and they make amazing reading and snapshots of their lives and then I put myself in their positions.
So how do you put yourself in the mind of a killer? Reading the part from the killer’s perspective when he captures a victim is hard going I found as a reader personally…
Well the thing with that was that as you are dealing with a killer who has murdered many victims I didn’t want people to become immune to it, so you get a lot of mentions of the way bodies are found and the clues it leaves but then at the same time I wanted people to really feel the fear and the horror of the situation.
Well you did that at the start for me by killing a cat!
(Laughs) Well it wasn’t a cute cat, it was a scrawny cat. It had fought really hard to live that long but that’s the way it goes. I do have to kind of forcibly say to people ‘I do like cats’ (laughs) but it was true domestic animals disappeared very quickly at that time and I wondered about people who loved their pets enough not to eat them… so it was born out of sentamentalism
So now The Secret Speech which is set a while after Child 44, did you intend to write a sequel?
No, I had no idea. I didn’t even know if the first one would do well. Child 44 wasn’t presold when I wrote it I just wrote it. Once it had sold, I then thought ‘well is there another story’ and I knew if there was it would have to be another historical event and came across this marvellous speech and what happens after Stalin, so there was already a what happens next. I am not saying though as then no one will pick it up (laughs) so you’ll have to read it to find out. I will say its set in a fascinating period, it’s a revenge story in a world that’s completely upside down.
I have to say that I was really pleased Leo was back, but I have to admit I didn’t like him at first and then grew to really like him and warmed to him. How did you write him, were you aiming to get him to grow on the audience.
In a way… I mean at first I don’t think people twig he is even going to be the hero, I brought him into the book in a slightly peripheral way. Once people know he is the hero they say they find him hard to like until a good way in and that’s right. The job he did, though with his best intentions as to why he does it and his beliefs, is essentially a horrid job, they are the baddies. He does that job because he genuinely believes he is building a Utopia and that is hard for people to see and I wanted people to try and see it from a different perspective.
Was the instant success a shock?
Yes, you have this little dream in your head of what could happen and how well a book could do and how badly. Then when it does as well as Child 44 did, it’s a shock. Part of you is amazed and then part of you thinks what about the next one, will that do as well? If I do great, if I don’t I don’t mind… ok I do. I just wanted to write something I wanted to read, something exciting and new as I loved Conan Doyle and the like when I was younger. Plus I used to commute across London and to not have a book was hellish, I would actually walk back all the way home if I got to the station bookless. I wanted to write something that made people miss their stops, I didn’t think of the prizes or awards.
Now the Man Booker long listing caused a bit of controversy in some ways how was that for you as the author?
I didn’t mind the debate about genre particularly I think that’s actually an interesting debate. As to debating the book… well lists are always going to be debated and people will always say “oh this should be on there and that shouldn’t” that side of it didn’t bother me. I find the genre thing really interesting as all genres mean are a promise, so a thriller will thrill you and a comedy will make you laugh, that’s it it shouldn’t mean a book isn’t good if it is a crime book or some other genre that not what some people call literature.
Had you always wanted to write?
Yes, I mean I had been writing stuff for quite a long time in terms of plays and screenplays… and some TV. Mind you (laughs) most of the shows I worked on like Family Affairs and Bad Girls seem to have been dumped. Then when I found this story I decided that this might make a very interesting book as opposed to a screenplay which I was originally going to make it. Something clicked and fortunately it has really worked as a project. What’s your writing routine?
I like to start quite early and go on till lunch; have that and a nice walk then do more in the afternoon. I stop around six or seven; I am not a late writer. Do I have any rituals… hmmm… lots of tea (laughs) very British. When I am in American I become the worst Brit and complain about tea…
So what’s next?
Well… The Secret Speech is out, and then I am working on something with Universal screenplay wise. The million dollar question of what will happen with the Child 44 is something that’s in discussion and I am very excited about. I will then the final book in the Russian Trilogy which is a very definite ending, the whole book is about endings. It’s weird I didn’t ever expect it to be three books. I just thought I will try one and see how I go. See people can do anything.