Thursday, 7 March 2013

Interview with an author

Back in November I interviewed a Sussex-based author called Simon Toyne. This was exciting for me because I'd happened across his bestselling first novel, Sanctus, earlier in the year and really enjoyed it. I raved about it in fact.

It's a thriller that combines a bit of the spooky, religious supernatural with murder plots, conspiracy and intrigue - one of those books you pick up because the cover looks cool and then can't put down. Perfectly paced, expertly written and comparable to Dan Brown's hugely successful Da Vinci Code, I thought it was cracking.

What I found even more interesting was the blurb in the book explaining that Simon was in fact a TV producer and director - who had quit his job and taken his family off to France for six months, intent on writing a novel.

Simon's second book, the follow-up called The Key, was about to come out when I spoke to him and he was just in the process of reworking the final book in the trilogy, The Tower (out this month).

Last week I finally talked my husband into reading Sanctus and he too became addicted.

Here's the full, unedited interview I did with Simon - the shorter version appeared in the Kent & Sussex Courier. We talked for an hour (after all, you don't often get the chance to talk to the person behind a book you really liked) and it was a brilliant insight into the process of writing a book.

At the end I told him I'd quite like to write a book one day too and he said: "Go on, I dare you".

Simon Toyne

Simon Toyne, author of the best-selling thriller Sanctus, has been described as ‘the next Dan Brown’. Caroline Read talks to the acclaimed writer from his home in the Sussex village of Framfield.

The story goes that back in 2007, TV producer Simon Toyne quit his job, packed up his young family and rented out his house in Brighton to follow a dream. He intended to move to France for six months to write a book but had no idea what it would be about. After a sleepless night crossing on the ferry, the family abandoned a planned eight-hour drive to their temporary home and limped instead into the city of Rouen. The blurb at the back of his first novel, Sanctus, tells readers it was the sight of the sharp spire of Rouen Cathedral that gave him the idea for his story.
It’s a romantic tale and one the publishers were only too happy to mention in the book itself but 45-year-old Simon, who now lives in Framfield, says it’s no exaggeration.

“You know when you’re about 20, and you picture your future?” he asks. “Well I thought ‘when I’m forty, I’ll have written a book’. But suddenly I was approaching 40 and the book wasn’t there; it hadn’t just spontaneously appeared. So I thought I’d try to do it and get it out of my system one way or the other.
“We decided we’d just go off to France for six months, which I know sounds very glamorous but I just figured if I quit my job to give myself enough time to do it, and I just ended up sitting in my spare room, I’d really feel the pressure. Whereas if I went off to France, even if it didn’t work, we’d still have had a nice adventure!”

And indeed they did have an adventure. They got stuck on a ferry during a winter storm and couldn’t face the long drive ahead of them so they stopped over in Rouen, where Simon spied the cathedral and the tiniest story seed was planted in his mind. He was reminded of the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote – which now opens the book – “A man is a god in ruins”.
The following day, driving a van full of belongings and without even a radio to occupy him, Simon started to form the story that would become Sanctus.

You could simply skip through the next part of his story to Simon having written the book but he prefers to tell the whole truth about his writing experiences. “There was tons of research and that’s just what I didn’t want. Research, in a way, is invisible on the page. You can sense that it’s there but the writer has to do a lot of research for not a lot of column inches. I’d planned to write about something I knew but all that went out the window when I started. Rather than sitting down and writing it, I ended up having to do a lot of research.
“By the end of the six months, I actually had about 150 pages of book and about the same of notes. So we came back and I freelanced back at the TV production company I used to work for in Brighton and in my spare time I carried on writing.”

In fact, it took another year for Simon to finish the book. At that point he was happy enough with it to send it out to literary agents and it got picked up very quickly. But the first draft of Sanctus was 156,000 words and the advice came back to cut it down. “By the time I’d gone through several drafts, the published book was 118,000 words. I lost about 150 pages but in fact I didn’t lose anything. It’s all still in there, it’s just more efficient and better done. Much of writing, I have found, is actually rewriting.”

At the moment, Simon is going through the same thing with the third and final book in his trilogy. “The one that’s coming out this week is called The Key and the final one, that I’m rewriting at the moment, is The Tower, which will come out next April. But I had no deal when I set off to write the first one - I had no publisher and no contacts – so I hadn’t even considered writing a trilogy. If you can’t sell the first book, there’s no point writing a second one.
“However, when I was writing Sanctus I just kept having these other ideas. The story just kept going but I thought I had to make it self-contained so in my first draft the ending was very much wrapped up. It was nine months later and everything was fine. But the publishers didn’t like it – they thought it was too abrupt. In my first meeting with them they asked ‘what happens next?’ and I explained that actually there was more. So we planned two more books from there.” 

Without wishing to give too much away, Simon’s books are based around a fictitious ancient religious order, still operating in the modern world, whose job it is to protect a secret so precious – and dangerous – that it’s housed inside a great citadel in Turkey.
Religion has always been a popular theme but at the time Simon started writing, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was a huge worldwide hit. He says religion wasn’t an interest of his before and he had to quickly read up on bible stories.
“Basically, without giving too much away,” he says carefully, “I had this phrase ‘a man is a god in ruins’ in my head and I thought ‘what if that was literal’?
“When I first had the idea I was convinced that it was such a big and obvious story that it must have been done before. Da Vinci Code had been a massive hit relatively recently but I hadn’t read it and I just thought ‘what if I’ve had the very same idea’? But I did read it and I was very relieved to find it wasn’t anything like that at all. I also read Labyrinth, the Kate Mosse book, in case that was the same as my idea too. I did loads of neurotic research.”

The story of Sanctus, essentially a religious conspiracy thriller, only moves towards the supernatural at the end of the book but, all the same, it is quite a leap. In other hands it could have gone quite seriously wrong. Did he ever question himself while he was writing it?
“Of course. About halfway to two thirds through writing a book, when you’re knee-deep in it, you do think ‘is this rubbish, is it a terrible idea?’ but the very nature of writing is a very critical process. You’re constantly analysing it, testing it, writing and rewriting and when you’ve been in that process, working in the same idea for several months, inevitably you hit a bit of a slump but you just have to carry on.”

Simon found it especially difficult to get past this self-doubt because writing it had taken so much longer than he’d hoped. “I thought ‘have I just wasted a huge amount of my time on some silly idea’? but you have to have the courage of your convictions.”

And having the courage paid off for him. Sanctus became one of the top five best-selling paperbacks of last year and was the biggest selling crime thriller debut. Not bad for someone who just thought he’d give it and try and ‘get it out of his system’.
But with his background in television, and with his writing displaying a keen eye for cinematic effect, is Simon about to sell his books to Hollywood?
“Well, there have been lots of discussions but these things work at a glacial pace. The thing is you have to be slightly careful because it’s a trilogy. If you sell the first book, you’re selling the character rights as well so effectively you’re giving them all three.
“There have been ‘sort-of’ offers from various film companies but not particularly exciting ones. I’m a big fan at the moment of the big HBO series, like Game Of Thrones. They translate big novels with lots of characters and lots of locations much better than films do. I would love to hold out and hope that would happen. Of course I’d love to see it come to the screen – I’m a big film fan and I came from television – so I’d love to see it realised in some kind of visual way.”

Simon and his wife Kathryn had just two children when Sanctus was written and, having moved back to Sussex after their French adventure, they bought their house in Framfield because their eldest daughter Roxy was about to go to school. “Where we lived in Brighton, the schools were over-subscribed and it was very difficult to get into a good school. We looked around and decided to move out of Brighton, where property is a bit cheaper, but near to a station so I could get into London quite easily – and there’s a train from Uckfield that trundles in to London Bridge.
“Framfield has a lovely little school, and both my older children go there now. Whenever a nice house came up in the area we were interested in, we checked the Ofsted reports of the nearby schools. It’s the most fundamental thing you can do; get your kids in a good school and bring them up in a nice environment.”

Since then the couple have had another daughter and Simon has been lucky enough with the success of his writing to be able to work from home. “It’s great,” he says. “I take Roxy and Stan to school, do some writing and then pick them up again at three o’clock. It’s a lovely lifestyle.”

Many authors seem to have been drawn to Sussex over the years and Simon explains this is simply because it’s a beautiful part of the country. “It’s really pretty, the weather’s nicer. The good thing about being a writer is you can do it anywhere and if you are writing in Britain, then Sussex is a good place to be.”

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Three things (which may or may not be beautiful)

My friend Clare has been blogging since before I really knew what a blog was. I'd listen to her talk of websites and page views and I'd nod, smile and look impressed, then say to my husband in private: "is it like an online diary then?".

Bless me.

But her blog Three Beautiful Things has fans (yes, actual fans) all over the world. People love its simplicity and its honesty. She simply spots three things each day which make her smile and writes about them. But she does it religiously and she hasn't missed a day in nearly nine years. Oh, apart from while she was on her honeymoon and the day she gave birth - she had guests stand in for her then.

Unlike Clare though, I find it pretty hard to find beauty in everyday life. Do you know what I think is beautiful? Peace, quiet, wild places far away from other people. Unfortunately, having a two-year-old daughter, peace is something I rarely get.

So it's a far harder exercise than you'd think, spotting three happy moments in your day. But luckily I chose a particular weekend when my family had given me the most precious gift a stressed-out mother can ever get. A weekend without said family.

So I spent the day in glorious solitude, with just my thoughts, the TV, some squeaky guinea pigs and a lazy tabby cat for company. And I went about the task of looking out for happy-making stuff.

This is what I came up with.

My daughter on the phone.

My husband has woken up at his mum's house and phoned to check on me. He's only halfway through the second sentence when he's interrupted by a chirruping not-quite-three-year-old - who wants to speak down the phone to her mummy. I'm astounded by how high-pitched she sounds on the phone and flabbergasted by how grown-up our conversation is. "We're going to the beeeeeeeach now," she says. "We're going to see the stones. And the sand. And the seeeeeeeeea."

The smell of cat fur in the sun.

I'm trying to change the bed sheets and my cat does something he hasn't done for a very long time. He jumps on the bed and attacks the sheets every time I move them. This was his forte in his youth but lately he's just been mainly sleeping and avoiding 'the human child' which nobody even consulted him about before conceiving. Luckily for me he forgets he's being vicious halfway through and falls asleep on the half-made bed. I scoop him up like a rotund, furry baby and transfer him to my daughter's bed so I can get on with my chores. He considers whacking me for this act of cruelty but then realises the sun is shining on her bed. He snuggles down and as the black fur on his back warms up in the sun, he smells all... warm catty.

The letter.

There's a letter sitting on top of the radio looking all inconspicuous but bringing with it a huge change in our lives. Like most people I hate change and hanker after it in equal measure and to see it sitting there, all white and crisp and new, the letter is everything I dread and everything I know I need. I want to burn it and frame it all at the same time.

So there you have it.

While there's no doubt this must be a good exercise - both for your writing skills and for your mental health - the thing I've really learned from pretending to be Clare for a day is that she must have the self-discipline of a Zen master.

I took notes down for this on Sunday and it took me until Thursday to get round to blogging about it. Life gets so in the way of things like this. I don't know how she does it every day.

Find Clare, her awesome self-discipline and her beautiful things at

Friday, 8 February 2013

My cat is more famous than me

Padstow is nine years old and last week he finally found fame. Briefly.

It has been said that Padstow has a weight problem. How rude.

Your cat being more famous than you are is a problem that writer Tom Cox, author of Under The Paw and Talk To The Tail, knows all too well. He's carved out a nice little niche for himself with his witty, moving and cleverly-written books about living with up to six cats at a time. One of his clutch of felines, a 17-year-old black cat called The Bear, even has his own Twitter account - @MYSADCAT. But then The Bear has lived a rather eventful life (he was abandoned by the side of a motorway as a kitten, that's not a great start) and has now essentially retired to Norfolk to... well, mainly to look a bit sad.

Tom Cox's cat The Bear can be found at @MYSADCAT on Twitter

My cat Padstow, on the other hand, has lived a relatively uneventful life. In his nine years he's hardly saved any babies from burning hospitals. Other than a brief bromance with the 'sensitive' male cat that used to live nextdoor-but-one and the time he faked being so stressed by the new kitten we'd adopted that he and the vet conspired to get said kitten fobbed off onto my parents, he's had a quiet life.

Mind you, that said, he was about nine months old when he found us and all we know from his kittenhood was that he was living in the carpark of a YMCA centre and regularly breaking in to attend lessons for unemployed teenagers and scoff bits of their sandwiches. Before that, who knows? Maybe he was born in the circus and ran away because he was scared of clowns.

But last week Padstow the cat found the kind of fame an overweight, selfish, beautiful yet often rather grotty, middle-aged moggy can only dream about. He was famous on the internet. For a day.

Tom Cox tweets regular photos of The Bear pondering various things that make him sad (the closure of local libraries, the bad manners of his peer group, the astronomic ticket prices of various old rock bands, Watership Down). But I also noticed a trend. People were tweeting him back pictures of THEIR cats, often photographed 'reading' one of Tom's books.

And so I took this picture of Padstow and tweeted it to @MYSADCAT.

Yes, he is starting to yawn but doesn't he look as though he's laughing? Tom kindly retweeted to his 400 followers. Then this (below) popped up on my Facebook timeline. He'd put the photo on Facebook too  on his page Under The Paw, which has 29 THOUSAND followers - that's a LOT of cat obsessives. And that's thousands of people all over the world looking at a picture of MY cat.

Suddenly people were retweeting and favouriting my cat. I got a Tweet from a woman in Indiana saying how talented Padstow is. Another from a stranger saying he should have an agent. Hundreds of likes flooded in for the photo on Facebook. People were chuckling at their desks about the cat laughing at a book about cats. What the hell?

Padstow took his new-found fame in a typical Padstow kind of way, however. He's a naturally lazy cat and likes to spend at least 85% of his day kipping. He continued to snooze for the rest of the day and dreamed about what he might have for dinner that night - raw chicken breast chopped very finely hopefully. Then he briefly attacked the living room rug (what is it about that rug that aggravates him so?) and went out for a walk around the neighbourhood.

I'd like to think he was recognised by passers-by in the street. The "famous Laughing Cat off the internet". Only in my imaginary 'Padstow-gets-recognised-by-fans' fantasy he isn't sniffing fox piss and doesn't have at least one dead baby slug crusted into his fur.

You can buy Talk To The Tail (and Under The Paw should be nearby too) from Amazon at the link below. If you've ever owned a cat, I really do recommend you read them.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Remember when I interviewed Mumford & Sons?

It was September 2009 and a new band called Mumford & Sons were coming to The Forum in Tunbridge Wells. I was offered an interview. The name rang a bell so I looked them up and listened (all day) to two tracks: Little Lion Man and Blank White Page. I was hooked.

Here's the interview I did with Marcus Mumford for the Kent & Sussex Courier. Before he married a Hollywood film star and they became one of the biggest bands on the planet, naturally.

Mumford & Sons
September 2009

New bands come and they go, and let's face it –
few of them are anything really special. With what
was once indie music becoming more and more
mainstream, new bands have to really stand out
from the crowd if they're going to survive past the
initial hype.
One band with the potential to do just that is
Mumford & Sons. Four polite young men from
West London, they're selling out venues across
the country on the back of some great word of
mouth, a handful of EPs and one single.
Marcus Mumford, Winston "Country" Marshall,
Ben Lovett and Ted Dwane came together as a
band relatively recently, in December 2007.
Having all worked as session musicians and
played separately in bands across London, they
met and grew into a band in the most organic way
possible. Sharing a mutual love of country music,
folk and bluegrass, they decided to pick up their
instruments together and after one song,
realised they had to be a band.
With one single, the hypnotic Little Lion Man,
released to date and their debut album, Sigh No
More, set to hit the stores on October 5, Go!
spoke to frontman Marcus as the band were
about to begin their latest tour in Glasgow.
"Our music is hard to sum up. It's influenced by
country, bluegrass and folk but it's not exclusively
one thing or the other.
"There are times when we abandon the folk
instruments and just wig out on electric guitars.
Mostly though, I think our sound is vocal. We sing
a lot, all four of us sing and that's the most
consistent thing about our songs really."
The folk instruments Marcus refers to include
banjos, mandolins, a double bass and an
instrument called a dobro.
"It's basically a slide guitar," says Marcus. "It
sits on your lap and you play it with a slide, so
the strings are high off the fretboard and you
don't actually press them against the fret like you
do with a guitar."
Often compared to Crosby, Still And Nash and
even to Kings Of Leon, neither of these bands
feature on their list of musical influences. Citing
bands like Arcade Fire and The National as
personal influences on him, Marcus doesn't
really see the Kings Of Leon link.
"I just don't get that, no. Their early albums
were like proper southern garage but now they're
like stadium-filling pop anthems."
One word that repeatedly comes up when
Mumford & Sons are mentioned is 'passionate'.
They display their passion not only with their
energetic live shows but also with their honest,
evocative lyrics. Writing with their hearts firmly on
their sleeves, they each have a hand in the
resulting songs.
"On this album I wrote a lot of the lyrics,
Winston wrote a song and Ben wrote one but I
wrote a lot of the skeletal parts of songs.
"But recently we've all been writing and our
policy is if someone writes a good song, no
matter who it is, it gets in. It's more fun that way
because we all can write and I think we've got a
shared idea of what a good song is."
Over the past few months Go! has heard the
band's name mentioned a lot, usually being
recommended as a brilliant band to see live, but
it was only when Radio One's champion of new
music, Zane Lowe, played the single as his
'Hottest Record In The World Today' recently that
Go! got to hear them at last.
Marcus can't specify a moment when the band
thought they had made their big break, and he isn't
really convinced that they have yet, but with
several million listeners regularly heeding Zane
Lowe's tips, it must have been a turning point in
their careers.
"We're very lucky to have been heard by people
but we're just doing what we do. It was lovely to
play various festivals this summer and we had a
sold out tour in January/February. It's a great
feeling when people want to come and see you,
especially when we enjoy playing live so much.
"It was a massive honour to have been played
on Zane Lowe. We appreciate his opinion and his
support, that's lovely. And (Radio One DJ) Jo
Whiley has given us 'Record Of The Week'. That's
crazy because these are people you grow up with
on the radio and suddenly they're there talking
about you!"
The album promises to be an epic, expressing
the whole gamut of emotion from jubilant to
melancholic. The band are understandably
excited about the imminent release but Marcus
admits to also being relieved that the process is
finally over.
"We're basically away for nine weeks from
today, just touring, which feels like such a relief
after recording a lot and doing lots of press. It's
basically travelling round the country playing
music with your mates, after all. When you think
of it like that, it's the most awesome job!"
One of the strangest but best things for
Marcus has been audiences, even in Germany
where they've played recently, singing their songs
back to them. It's a testament to their reputation
and to the powerful influence of the internet that
a band who haven't even released an album yet
can have people that excited about them.
By Caroline Read

Here's some footage I've just found of The Forum gig. I was at the back (about three months pregnant), bouncing up and down like an overexcited puppy.