An Interview with Tom Harper

I have been a writer for over twenty years now. In that time I’ve been enormously fortunate to meet many great people who have become firm friends. Tom Harper is one of those. We don’t meet terribly often, sadly, but he is a lovely bloke. It was good to have a chance to chat to him about his new book, Zodiac Station._GMH2729

It’s a bit of a shock to think that I first met you fifteen years ago. That was when I was the organiser of the Debut Dagger. Back then, I remember, you were involved in insurance.

My first job was working for an actuarial services company investigating pensions mis-selling. It was a boom industry: in three years the company went from about twenty employees to seven hundred, which was exciting to be part of.  Then the company stopped growing, and I realised the actual work was deathly boring, so I decided to go back to my original dream of becoming a writer.  I was encouraged to become a student actuary, but you needed Maths A-level to register, and I didn’t have that.  If I had, life might have been very different…

You were born and lived in West Germany, and lived there then in Belgium and America while you were young. What did your parents do?

With that background, people often assume my father was in the military.  In fact, he worked in insurance, for a big multi-national company; and he had itchy feet.  I didn’t live permanently in the UK until I was 18, when I came back for university.  It was a shock: I’d always thought of myself as British, because of my parents, but I came home and realised I was a stranger in my own country.  I had none of the cultural reference points I’d have known if I’d grown up here.  On the other hand, I think that outsider’s perspective has definitely helped as an author, observing things I wouldn’t notice if I’d always lived here.  Most of my books have a travelling or chase element, covering a lot of ground.  I suspect that comes from my itinerant childhood.

Where did you live when you finally moved back to the UK?

I lived in Oxford, then London, and now I’m in York.  We came here when my wife got a job at the University of York; she accepted the job before I’d ever set foot in the city.  I thought it was in Brontë country: when we drove up, I kept looking out the window waiting for the hills and the moors to start.  In fact, the Vale of York is about the flattest part of the country outside East Anglia.  We promised ourselves we’d stick it out for three years, five max, and then move on.  We’ve now been here for ten.

Can you tell me what kind of education you had?

When we moved to America, I went to the local state middle school and had an absolutely miserable time.  Ten years old, defiantly un-American, not fitting in and not at all street-wise.  After a year of that, my parents moved me to a local private school, where I really flourished.  I had some brilliant teachers, but the absolute best were in History and English.  I suspect that’s why I ended up writing historical novels.

I always wanted to go to Oxford for university, even before I was old enough to understand what it was.  I think, living abroad, it was one of those English touchstones I latched on to.  Amazingly enough, I made it.  I studied history, though in retrospect I could probably have studied it a bit harder.  My tutors kept telling me that I wrote very well, but they marked me down because I tended to sacrifice the nitty-gritty historical argument in deference to the narrative. Plus ça change. I was still living in Oxford, post-University, when I wrote my novel about Byzantium, The Mosaic of Shadows.  Each morning I’d go to the Bodleian library, digging up dusty old books, searching through footnotes for ever more obscure sources.  At some point, the penny dropped: this was probably what I should have been doing as an undergraduate.  But better late than never.

Okay, lets talk about your books, then. You started writing Blighted Cliffs in 1999 and entered the Debut Dagger in 2000 under your own name, but now all your books are branded as Tom Harper. How did that happen?

When Transworld bought my first book, written as Edwin Thomas, they told me there’d be an eighteen month delay before it was published, which is fairly standard in publishing, but feels like an eternity when all you want is to see your book in print.  That effectively meant eighteen months before the second book was due, and I’d just written the first one in less than six months.  I was on a roll and more than a little cocky, so I decided I could write two books in that time.  Transworld didn’t want to publish another series by me until they’d seen how the first one did, so they passed on my proposal, but Arrow – who had been interested in The Blighted Cliffs – were keen.  Both publishers felt the two series needed different names on the cover to differentiate them, so Tom Harper was born (derived from my real surname, Thomas, and Harper Lee).  At the time, I joked that Tom Harper might end up eclipsing his creator, and that’s exactly what happened.  The Transworld series didn’t sell well, and they dropped it after three books, but the Tom Harper books did better and Arrow were happy to continue.  So I stuck with Tom.

You’ve said you moved to York with your wife – is she still working full time at university, and did you find it easy/hard/traumatic to look after your boys while trying to work?

She went down to three days a week when our first son was born, and went back to full time this past September, when our younger son started school.  Before I became a father, I had visions of writing away while the baby lay gurgling happily in his moses basket; about a week in, I realised that would never happen.  I do most of the after-school care now, which cuts into my working days, but otherwise is a real gift.  Sometimes it’s hard, and occasionally it can be traumatic, but most of the time it’s good fun.  I’m glad to have the chance to spend time with the boys in these formative years, which even today so many fathers don’t.

I know I appreciated the time with the kids too. It’s one of the biggest advantages of being an author, I reckon. And one of the worst problems. Trying to concentrate and work when children are awake is impossible, isn’t it?

When I’m looking after the boys, I don’t even try to work; it just makes us all cross!

You have clearly undertaken a great deal of research to write Zodiac Station.

I spent about ten days on Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago (also known as Spitsbergen) that sits several hundred kilometres inside the Arctic circle, on roughly the same latitude as northern Greenland.  I explored abandoned mine workings and ex-Soviet ghost towns, crawled through glacier caves, travelled huge distances on snowmobiles, got lost in a whiteout and drank very expensive beer.

Svalbard landscape

Svalbard landscape

I’ve heard beers are hideously expensive! Was the cold very bad when you were up there?  

I remember being out in the wilderness one day and my glasses started fogging up.  I took off my glove to try and unfog them, and in less than a minute my hand was so numb I couldn’t move my fingers – not even to get the glove back on.  At that point, the guide swooped down, made me do jumping jacks and force fed me tea and chocolate until I’d warmed up.  I thought he was over-reacting; afterwards, I understood he was probably being very sensible.  If you lose the use of your hands out there, you’re finished.  It made me realise how quickly your situation can deteriorate when it’s -30 degrees.

Even here on Dartmoor people can be surprised by how fast the weather can change and endanger lives, even with much better temperatures. How about the technical subjects and science. You write very clearly about such matters. Did you find that easy?

My wife’s a scientist, so I’m sort of comfortable with having science around.  I embraced it. Until Zodiac Station, my way of writing a book was to pick a historical period or event, research it like mad, and let story ideas emerge from the history.  With this book, I didn’t have that crutch, so I let the science take the place of history.  Reading about the people who drill two miles into the Arctic ice sheets, live alone in isolated huts through the Arctic winter to take measurements, and crawl through tunnels hundreds of feet inside glaciers to find out how they work, gave me plenty of inspiration.

Through my wife and her colleagues, I’ve also learned a lot about scientists’ professional environment, which was important for a book where almost all the characters are scientists.  There are so many pressures on academics now to get grant money, publish papers and prove they’re being productive.  They’re expected to be collegiate, but at the same time they’re all in competition with each other for the same shrinking pot of money, the same limited slots in prestigious journals.  It makes for an interesting dynamic.

This book is a huge departure from your earlier novels which were historical based. Did you find it easy to move to this kind of genre?

I did it in little steps.  My editor had been encouraging me to write a contemporary thriller for years.  Part of his cunning plan was getting me to do timeslip books – half historical novel, half contemporary thriller – as a way of dipping my toe in the water.  So by the time I came to my first ‘pure’ contemporary thriller, I’d already written four halves of one.  I mostly find writing about the present easier than the past: much less worrying about how long it takes to get places on foot or on horseback, much less time taken up waiting for replies to hand-written messages.  Your characters can just pick up the phone.

Tom Harper while researching his novel.

Tom Harper while researching his novel.

What would you say were the most rewarding aspects of changing to modern thrillers? 

All my books are trying to say something about the world I live in.  With the historical novels, I set myself a firm rule that the characters couldn’t be wise beyond their time: they couldn’t offer the reader an interpretation of what was happening based on events in the future.  That meant I relied on the reader to make the connections between the past I was describing, and the contemporary issues I thought they addressed.  In the present, you can actually dramatise the issues directly: Zodiac Station touches on global warming, the new cold war between Russia and America, the surveillance state and medical ethics.  You can be much more direct.

What were the most daunting or difficult aspects of writing this book?

The hardest thing was actually knowing what to leave out.  When you’re writing a historical novel, you’re dealing with a very limited world.  Between the things you don’t know, and the things that didn’t exist at that time, it’s quite a sparse place you’re putting your characters in.  The first time I wrote about the modern world, I found myself describing absolutely everything, just because I could see it all in my mind’s eye.  It took me three pages to have the character cross the street.  In terms of what I could imagine, it was as if I’d been sipping from a dripping tap, and suddenly someone had turned on the fire hose.

Most people who set out to write a book inevitably fail because they do not realise the dedication that is required to write 120-140,000 words. I had the easy incentive of no children and no TV when I started. Do you find the process of writing to be a pain, or a pleasure?

Dial-up internet – that was another gift to writers trying not to be distracted (younger readers: look it up on Wikipedia).  Like anything you do over a period of months, there are good days and bad days.  On the good days, it’s so satisfying it’s like a drug; on the bad days, I wonder if I’ll ever do it again.  Every time I start a new book, I feel like I’m cranking up an old, rusty engine.  After about four weeks, I hit my stride and it really flows; after eight, I begin to run out of puff.  Unfortunately, that’s usually less than halfway through the book.  From there on, it’s a slog, like a rugby player repeatedly running into tackles, until the final adrenaline rush when the end’s in sight.

You wrote BLIGHTED CLIFFS for the Debut Dagger. I don’t want to rake up old grief! But seriously, do you think that kickstarted your career, or was it a bit of an obstacle when you came second?

I’ve never been so happy to come second in my life.  It got me an agent and a publisher, which was more than I ever dreamed I’d get.  It was, no exaggeration, one of the great turning points of my life.  I still shudder when I remember how I nearly recycled the newspaper where I saw the competition advertised.  Plus, history’s not written in stone.  I’ve lost count of the number of press releases my various publishers have put out claiming I ‘won’ the 2001 Debut Dagger.  I do try to correct them.

Yeah, right!

Tell me, when my first novel was written, I had a hideous shock when the manuscript returned with pencil marks all over it. Do you still find that a shock you, and are there any other elements of the process of writing that irritate or grate?

You’re right about that initial hideous shock, but I’m well aware of my shortcomings.  I actually get more worried if it doesn’t come back with pencil marks (or the digital equivalent) all over it.  I’ve been known to complain to my editors that the edit’s too light.  That doesn’t stop me getting moody and defensive about criticisms.  What I’ve learned is you have to separate the diagnosis and the cure.  Often the editor suggests a change, and I kick against it because it’s not right for the story, but the problem he’s trying to solve is a real one, and I have to find my own way of fixing it.

Like me, you were Chair of the CWA some time ago. What appealed to you most of all about that?

Getting out of the house!  When you sit in a chair making things up all day, it’s so invigorating dealing with real people and real issues.  The CWA really nurtured my career, first with the Debut Dagger and then making me feel very welcome when I was published.  I’ve made some wonderful friends through it, so it was great to be able to give something back to the organisation.  These are tough times for authors, and a group that helps us work together to support each other is more necessary than ever.  I think, as Chair, I managed to put in place a few changes that made it more responsive to members’ needs.

Thinking about needs: when you sit down to write, do you have a set routine – a set number of hours per day, a set number of words, or something similar to aim for?

I start as soon as the boys have gone to school, and work straight through until three, when I do the school run most days.  I’m still getting used to the shorter working day: I used to go until five or six.  When I started writing, I could confidently target two thousand words a day, but the longer I do it, the slower I get.  A good full day now would be 1500 words; for a school day, 1200.  I’m definitely too obsessive about the word count, in a Micawberish way.  Target 1200, result 1210: happiness.  Target 1200, result 1190: misery.

My children (and hound) often feel orphaned when I’m in the middle of a book! My son in particular would be much happier if I was outside kicking a ball with him. What do you wife/sons think about you writing? 

My wife’s always been very supportive, even when I announce I’m leaving her to mooch around the Arctic for the best part of two weeks.  She encouraged me to leave the actuarial job all those years ago to follow my dream, and she hasn’t wavered since.  For the boys, there are moments when they’re frustrated I have to work when they want to play, but most of the time, they think it’s brilliant having a daddy who’s an author.  It’s a job they can understand and identify with, which wouldn’t be the case if I was still working for the actuaries.  Both of them have already started writing stories, and talking about being writers when they grow up.  If I ever stop doing this, I think the hardest part will be explaining it to them.

What would you say was, for you, the most rewarding aspect of writing this novel?

Going to the Arctic.  I’ve always been infatuated with snow and mountains: Svalbard is 60,000 square kilometres of nothing else.  My idea of heaven.  For two weeks after I came back, I dreamed I was back there, and always woke up desperate for it to be true.  If it wasn’t for my family, I’d move there in an instant.

The other rewarding aspect was the structure of the book.  It’s told from the perspectives of four different characters, who all know pieces of the story.  It took a long time for me to be confident I could pull it off, but I loved experimenting with the different voices, and constructing the narrative so that they could tell what they knew without repeating each other.  One of my favourite novels is Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, and one of my favourite films is Rashomon: this is sort of my homage.

What would you say was the most useful piece of advice about writing that you have been given?

This goes back to one of your earlier questions, but I always quote Robert Louis Stevenson’s piece, My First Book.  ‘Anybody can write a short story – a bad one, I mean – who has industry and paper and time enough; but not every one may hope to write even a bad novel. It is the length that kills.’  In that same essay, he says, ‘The author must know his countryside, whether real or imaginary, like his hand; the distances, the points of the compass, the place of the sun’s rising, the behaviour of the moon, should all be beyond cavil.’  Whether I’m writing about real places, or an imaginary island like Utgard in Zodiac Station, I start with a map.  That’s the blueprint for the world I’m building, the world I’m going to populate with my characters and and animate with my story.  Without a map, I’m lost.

I’ve also always followed Elmore Leonard’s rule: ‘Never open a book with weather.’

Yes, I think many writers would learn a lot by reading and absorbing Elmore Leonard’s rules. What advice would you give to someone about to try to write a novel for themselves?

If you possibly can, make a space that’s dedicated to writing.  It’s so easy to not write.  If you have to clear the kitchen table, drag out your books, set up your laptop every time you’re going to write, then tidy away at the end, that just creates one more barrier.  The easier you make it to sit down and do it, the more likely you are to keep at it.  Also, buy a good chair.  It’s a worthwhile investment.

I’ve two chairs: the back of one I’ve just broken (but I did buy it thirty years ago, so it wasn’t a bad investment) and the other of which has lost its lifting mechanism, so I can entirely identify with and agree with that!

Tom, thanks very much for such full responses. I really appreciate your taking the time to take part in this. And I hope you’ll have huge success with Zodiac Station. It’s a great book and deserves massive sales. 

Good luck!

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