Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Birth of a “Child”

I recently expressed my enthusiasm on this page for the remarkable debut thriller, Child 44, from 28-year-old British novelist Tom Rob Smith. But apparently, I’m not the only reader captivated by Smith’s dark, Soviet-era tale. Child 44’s first territorial release was in Germany, where it zoomed to third place on hardcover bestseller lists after more than 40,000 copies were purchased in the first three weeks of its release--a remarkable achievement for a premiere novel by a writer who’s so damned young.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, I just read at The Bookseller’s Web site that Smith’s novel will be ubiquitous at supermarket chain stores, when the book is released here in March. Smith’s British publisher is planning a huge advertising campaign:
Sainsbury’s will be promoting Simon & Schuster’s much-hyped literary thriller Child 44 at its check-outs, the first time it has done so with a hardback title.Tom Rob Smith’s Stalin-era literary novel is published on 3rd March and 30,000 copies of the book have been supplied to retailers. The title will go straight into Sainsbury’s, Asda and Tesco’s charts display. It will be promoted front of store at W.H. Smith and placed in its chart, with the travel wing putting it into its 2 for £20 promotion.
Amid all of this excitement, and just after Smith returned home from meetings in Los Angeles, Simon & Schuster’s Joe Pickering arranged for the young novelist to speak with The Rap Sheet about his debut work, his reading tastes, and his history of screenwriting. But before we dive into that interview, let me just say three words: believe the hype. Child 44 is truly scary, and it’s full of insights into the good and bad that lurk at the core of what it means to be human.

Ali Karim: Can you tell us a little about your early reading and the works that inspired you to take up the pen?

Tom Rob Smith: I couldn’t name a single author who made me want to write. There was no epiphany after having finished a particular book. I don’t think as a child I made any distinction between the appeal of watching movies and television, as opposed to reading books. I’m not sure I make any distinction now. I wanted to work in fiction, making stuff up, creating stories--I guess that’s what it boils down to. To that extent, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were probably as influential as Roald Dahl in nudging me towards becoming a writer.

AK: So who encouraged your reading and future writing?

TRS: Obviously, I owe my parents a great deal. They both ran their own business, which they started from scratch, so they always understood how difficult being freelance is. I remember, after I’d graduated, and didn’t have much money, I was struggling not to buckle to the pressure of getting a steady job. My parents were very good at persuading me to brave it out. I should also mention my drama teacher at school, Mr. Jolly, [who] gave me a great opportunity--he staged a one-hour play that I’d written. I’m very grateful to him. In fact, I’m grateful to all the wonderful teachers I had, in whatever subject.

AK: I see that you started out as a screenwriter. Why did screenwriting appealed to you?

TRS: In fact, I started work on long-running television shows. My first job was as a story editor on Family Affairs. I then did some work on a drama series, Bad Girls. I then started to win some interesting freelance commissions. At that point I was able to work from home, which was when I started writing movie scripts. Screenwriting is very disciplined. Something of that discipline, I hope, has crossed over into my prose writing.

AK: Any films that made an impression on your psyche?

TRS: Anything by Spielberg, [George] Lucas, Robert Zemeckis … and later on, James Cameron, Ridley Scott: I like big adventure stories, which, in some ways, is how I see Child 44.

AK: And what’s this about your writing in Cambodia?

TRS: I was hired by the BBC World Service Trust to help storyline Cambodia’s first soap opera. The BBC WST sets up these soaps to transmit important health messages, such as about HIV/AIDS. I spent six months working on the show in Cambodia, writing alongside a team of Khmer writers. The show was a huge hit and an incredible experience.

AK: What other screenwriting projects have you tackled?

TRS: I adapted a really great Jeff Noon short story called “Somewhere the Shadow,” which is currently with a film company called Qwerty, who have just produced The Duchess. We’re hoping that movie will go into production sometime soon. It’s a science-fiction thriller. I also sold an original script called Put Together to Dan Films, and they’re currently trying to attach a director.

AK: I understand that Child 44 was inspired by the real-life Russian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo. How did that come about?

TRS: I was researching “Somewhere the Shadow.” The short story is about a future world where serial killers can be rendered safe by a neuro-surgical procedure. In order to understand what that procedure might be, I had to try and find out what lay behind these crimes, how these people might be “made safe.” I stumbled across the real-life case of Andrei Chikatilo and I thought it would make the great basis for a story.

AK: Has your reading often taken you into the crime/thriller genre? And if so, what sort of books have appealed to you?

TRS: Most of my reading for Child 44 has been non-fiction, rather than, say, other thrillers. More generally, I’ve never really been particularly loyal to any genre. There isn’t any kind of book I wouldn’t read. I guess I feel a little under-read compared to many crime/thriller lovers. I’ve read everything by Thomas Harris: my copy of The Silence of the Lambs literally broke apart, I read it so many times. Thomas Harris is an incredible writer. Hannibal Lecter is a great character. I’ve also recently really enjoyed Dan Brown, Dean Koontz, Lee Child, [and] Scott Turow.

AK: What is it about serial killers that you think appeals to modern readers and filmgoers alike?

TRS: There is the puzzle element: killers leaving clues and detectives trying to piece those clues together. That side is always fun, but a serial-killer story can also cut into society in an interesting way. The case embodies something of the society in which the crimes happen--whether its issues of racism, or corruption, or [as] in Child 44, the political ideologies of the time.

AK: Child 44 appears to have been heavily researched. So, are you interested in the Stalinist period of Russian history? And I thought you might also be familiar with George Orwell’s 1984--am I right?

TRS: I hope it doesn’t appear too heavily researched. I was keen to make the research feel light. Yes, Orwell’s novel 1984 is an amazing book, but I can’t say I thought about it very much while I was writing. The world depicted in 1984 is very stylized. I’ve tried to make the world of Stalinist Russia feel less far away--this is about real events, and events that took place not that long ago.

AK: The characters in your novel are quite vibrant, whether it’s the husband and wife duo of Leo and Raisa Demidov, or the villains of the piece, such as Vasili. How critical was it to go so deeply into characterization?

TRS: If you get the combination of characters right, you can draw enormous drama from very confined spaces. It means you don’t always have to stage an action set piece to generate excitement. Characters are absolutely critical. They’re the reason you care.

AK: Sometimes the most despicable traits of villains are not always the most visceral. I found the scene in which Vasili and his men ransack Leo Demidov’s apartment, while Leo watches Vasili rummage through Raisa’s underwear, sniffing the contents, probably the most disturbing and repellent part of the novel. Do you agree?

TRS: Yes, that is horrible! You’re right, though: paradoxically, depictions of violence can often become less disturbing the more graphic it becomes.

AK: Did you have to plot out Child 44 extensively, or did the narrative flow naturally?

TRS: I was working from a detailed treatment, but all the way through I’d be making changes, coming up with better ideas. It’s a combination of both extensive groundwork and then abandoning lots of that work and making up changes as I went along.

AK: On a technical note, I see that you abandoned the usual “speech markings” and instead reverted to italics, preceded by a dash, to show when something is in dialogue. Was this due to your screenwriting bias, or were you trying to suggest a Russian translation? Or was there some other reason for this?

TRS: You’re right on both counts. I was concerned about putting in speech marks, because, obviously, it’s not in Russian. And you’re right again: I did want to borrow from screenplays, where the dialogue is visually very distinct from the stage directions. I hope that doesn’t come across as just empty experimentalism. I thought it might make the dialogue read easier.

AK: Did you perhaps write Child 44 originally as a screenplay, as it does flow in a very cinematic format?

TRS: I wrote it as a treatment. I never wrote the screenplay. Instead of turning it into a screenplay, I turned the treatment into a novel, at the suggestion of my film agent.

AK: So tell me how you got Child 44 into print, as the book was subject to numerous hype-fueled rumors following the big London Book Fair last year?

TRS: This is a case where the truth is probably less interesting than the rumors. In fact, I’m not even sure I know what the rumors are. It was a very straightforward sale. It was sent out to a clutch of publishers. Three ended up bidding for it, and Simon & Schuster UK won. By the time of the London Book Fair, it was being bought internationally. Those sales proceeded along very similar lines.

AK: And what about the film rights? Have you had any involvement in the coming film production?

TRS: [The novel] was sent out by my agent, St. John Donald (United Agents) and Bob Bookman (CAA). The same process again; I think there were three bidders. [20th Century] Fox and Ridley Scott won. I’ve just met the Fox team when I was in L.A. They’re incredible. Although he wasn’t there this time, I’ve had breakfast with Ridley Scott before. He’s a wonderful guy. Very generous, and he’s made some of [my] favorite movies of all time. They’ve hired Richard Price to adapt it, so it’s in the best possible hands.

AK: Has the recent U.S. screenwriters strike affected your own work?

TRS: The strike has meant no film or television work. But I’ve been working on the follow-up to Child 44. … Obviously, the strike has delayed Richard Price.

AK: I see that the legendary screenwriter-director Robert Towne has spoken highly of Child 44. What was his involvement in getting this work to market?

TRS: He read the novel after it had sold. As part of the film submissions [process], he was sent the manuscript by [agent] Bob Bookman. We then spoke on the phone and he had some great ideas. I fed lots of his thoughts into the book during the editing process. Robert Towne has been incredibly generous with his time. I met him for the first time last week and he’s just the most wonderful guy, in addition to being a writing hero of mine. I gave him a copy of the UK first edition as (small) thanks for taking the time to talk to me back in April 2007.

AK: At times your book shows great compassion, despite its dark subject matter. How careful were you to ensure that you didn’t fall into the pathos trap?

TRS: I think I’m quite sentimental. I don’t think of sentimentality as a bad thing. There’s good sentimental and bad sentimental. It’s like anything--you either pull it off, or you don’t. I guess because I’m aware that I have a sentimental streak, I’m always looking to make sure it’s kept in balance, and that it never topples into excess.

AK: I see that you have traveled extensively. How important is travel in broadening a writer’s canvas?

TRS: I think there’s a danger in thinking that if you travel around the world enough times, you’re going to end up with a novel at the bottom of your rucksack. Child 44 is a book that owes almost everything to [my] reading and only a tiny amount to traveling.

AK: Have you sold rights yet for a Russian edition?

TRS: No. … I think we’re at 26 countries [that have bought the rights] so far, but not … Russia.

AK: You mentioned before that you’re working on a sequel to Child 44. Are you very far along in that yet?

TRS: I should have it finished in a couple of months. I’m very excited about it.

AK: Do you feel any pressure about delivering book number two, given how much hype and expectation were attached to your debut?

TRS: The pressures have changed. With the first book, I had the pressure of not being paid and wondering if I was wasting my time. With the second book, I have the pressure of meeting expectations, which is, in many ways, a much easier pressure to deal with than the pressure of writing a first book.

AK: And what books have passed over your reading table recently?

TRS: I just finished [Robert Louis Stevenson’s] Kidnapped, which I loved--another great adventure story. I don’t know why it’s always seen as a children’s book. In addition to that, I have a bunch of research books I’m working on. In a secondhand bookshop in Seattle, I found a first edition … of The Gulag Archipelago. I’d previously only read the Harvill abridged version, so now I’m reading the missing chapters.

AK: Finally, what do you do to relax these days?

TRS: I watch movies. I used to run, but I hurt my knee. I live very near the river, so I like to walk by the Thames. Once all the promotion is done on Child 44, I’m thinking about buying a dog.

(Author photo courtesy of C.J. Bauer/Simon & Schuster UK)

1 comment:

Grant McKenzie said...

I hear the buzz for this year's London Book Fair is the thriller SWITCH ;-) Hmmm, written by another Scot.