Tom Cain Q & A

Tom Cain is the pseudonym for an award-winning journalist, with twenty-five years experience working for Fleet Street newspapers and major magazines. Author of The Accident Man, The Survivor, Assassin and Dictator, he has lived in Moscow, Washington DC and Havana, Cuba.

Do you have a theory on why so many journalists turn to fiction?

Well, I suspect that inside many journalists there’s a novelist struggling to get out. And by the very nature of our work, both in the subjects we cover, and in the way we learn to write – economically, vividly, strong on narrative and character – crime writing comes pretty naturally. Then again, so does wild, scabrous satire, and I’ve done a bit of that, too!

Are any of your plots inspired by real journalism – by the stories you’ve reported?

None of my books have been based directly on stories that I have covered, although people I’ve met, places I’ve been to and things I’ve seen do influence my work a lot. But certainly The Accident Man and The Survivor were both based very directly on the reporting of actual events. And although I did not cover the death of Princess Diana, which inspired The Accident Man, I had written about her a great deal back in the Eighties. More importantly, I would not have written the book at all had I not been working on a book with Lord Charles Brockett, who had very strong views on Diana’s death, which he and I talked about a great deal. Those conversations got me thinking … and the result was the idea that became The Accident Man.

The crime genre, especially thrillers, can sometimes appear outlandish in their plots – but in your experience as a journalist, is real life stranger than fiction?

Oh yes, simply because things happen that are so absurd they would not be credible in a book; people are naturally far crazier and much more stupid than any character one could invent! In my own work there’s a more serious example of something that might seem over-the-top, but isn’t. Towards the end of The Survivor there’s a sequence set in an underground aircraft hangar, dug into the mountainside at Pristina airport in Kosovo. I’m very conscious that it might come across like a cheap rip-off of a Bond-villain lair. But that hangar really exists, exactly where I describe it. And there are far bigger ones scattered across the former Yugoslavia … like the man-made cavern in a Montenegran fjord that could hide the Yugoslav navy, for example.

David Simon has written he turned to writing The Wire after being made redundant from newspapers, and his TV work clearly is an expression of frustration at the failings of journalism and the media today – the cut backs, the PR-driven element – that journalism perhaps isn’t the best way today to reach audiences and tell stories. Do you relate to that?

Well, the state of newspaper journalism in the US is far worse than it is in Britain, largely, in my opinion, because American journalism is so boring, pious, pompous and mired in a sort of BBC-like soft-liberalism that almost never diverges from a very narrow, restrictive and actually illiberal view of what is polite and appropriate to discuss. Since the people who might read half-decent newspapers often hold very different views about what is important, and what they think about the issues of the day, they naturally refuse to read publications that refuse to acknowledge their opinions. Plus, have you see the front page of most major US papers recently? It’s as if editors there actually want to deter readers by coming up with the most boring possible headlines (in small type, naturally) about the most tedious possible subjects. I think US papers are also very vulnerable to pressure from advertisers and pressure groups, which act as unofficial censors. In those circumstances, I absolutely see why someone like David Simon would find it much easier to express himself freely in fiction. The very vulgarity and commercial brashness of British journalism makes it much more vital. If the Guardian, Times, Telegraph, Mail, Sun and so on are all hammering away in their very different styles, chances are there will be something, somewhere that chimes with a reader’s own view of the world. That said, the past two years in particular have seen brutal cuts in editorial budgets, and a far greater obsession with star columnists over reporters and feature writers, so it’s certainly becoming far, far harder to earn a good living and tell interesting stories, even over here.

Is journalism increasingly devalued by the internet – where commercially driven interests tend to rule. Or is that cynical?

My concern with the internet is less about content than it is about copyright. The fact is that the internet’s biggest money-makers, notably the service providers and a few massively popular online services have taken a very cavalier attitude to the distribution of what is, effectively, stolen goods. They allow the distribution of music, movies, TV clips and – very soon – books for free. They are supported by a bunch of ideologues who essentially claim that the very notion of copyright is redundant and everything should be freely available. Maybe I’m thick, but I don’t see why a plumber, a doctor, a truck-driver, a teacher, or any other working person should be paid for their work, but a writer, composer or artist should not. I have to pay the bills, same as anyone else, and I’m damned if I’ll work for nothing. Sooner or later, a way has to be found of monetising internet-based distribution and clamping down on pirates, or there simply won’t be any media or entertainment industries left.

What kind of advice would you give to aspiring journalists entering today’s market? Do you see a future?

I’m tempted to say: ‘Don’t.’ This is sad, because one of the people who wants to enter the business is my own daughter, and I think it would be terrible if she could not pursue a career for which she has a far greater talent than mine. That said, I do believe that a way will be found to persuade, or force people to pay for online information/entertainment, perhaps through their ISP charges. It seems incredible to me that professional news-gathering and story-creating will simply disappear. That said, there do seem to be a lot of people willing write blogs and fan-fiction for free … how do professionals compete with that?

Going by your biog, it seems you’ve lived an incredibly enriching life – living in Moscow, Washington, Cuba! How important do you feel it is to have plenty of life experience before attempting to write fiction (if at all)?

It helps, that’s for sure. But a writer with talent and imagination who has little experience could still come up with a masterpiece. Someone who’d been around a lot, but learned little from the experience, or was bereft of the means to express it could not. Unless, of course, he or she was a semi-literate celebrity who hired a ghost to write a novel and then flogged it by the hundred thousand to readers too gullible to know they’ve been conned, or too indifferent to care … Bitter, moi??!:)

What was the trigger or turning point for you to move from journalism to fiction?

It was a combination of financial necessity and the sudden, completely unexpected moment when I woke up at 3.00 in the morning with the image of the man who became Samuel Carver, standing at the far end of the Alma Tunnel, waiting to take out a black Mercedes limousine, and thought, ‘Now THAT’s a book!’

What kind of challenges did you find writing fiction after 25 years of journalism? Or were you always a natural, frustrated novelist even when you were writing journalism?

To me, writing a thriller was by far the toughest technical challenge in 25-plus years as a professional writer. It’s very, very difficult indeed to make the plot and structure work in such a way that readers feel compelled to keep turning the page. In that respect, thrillers are like comedy: absolute. In comedy, you either make the punters laugh, or you don’t. You either kill ‘em, or you die. In thrillers, readers are either gripped, excited and desperate to know what happens, or they throw the book away. Literary fiction, being far less specific in its demands, is also is far more forgiving. As for my frustrations, I think I always wanted to be a novelist. I probably expected it to happen sooner. But life very rarely runs to the schedules we set!

How did you find the process of getting published – I guess it was easier to get noticed with your profile as a journalist?

Well, I had an agent already, so that was certainly an advantage. That aside, my profile, such as it was, provided no benefit at all. It took more than 18 months of writing and rewriting the first 30,000 words of The Accident Man before my agent would even consider submitting it to publishers. It then went out under the name of Tom Cain, with no indication as to Cain’s real-life identity. So I’m actually quite proud of the fact that it sold entirely on its own merits. That gave me the confidence I needed to finish the book.

You use a pseudonym to write fiction, why?

Because Tom Cain sounded cool! Also, as a middle-aged man living in the Sussex countryside, I had the foolish notion that Cain might somehow be this alter-ego who could lead a life of Bond-like glamour and excitement, which would allow me to have a mid-life crisis by proxy. My wife, however, pointed out that she didn’t give a damn what name I was using: if I thought I could get away with bad behaviour, I was very much mistaken! More seriously, I wanted to feel as though I was working in a very different vein to anything I had done before and the new name enabled me almost to inhabit another character and get into a new mindset as a writer.

Is there a danger in writing about real life inspired events in your fiction (the Princess Diana crash springs to mind)?

Bluntly, yes. The whole Diana issue was very much a two-edged sword. On the one hand, that was where the whole idea for Samuel Carver came from. So without Diana, there would have been no Tom Cain books. There’s also no doubt that the concept of the book – ‘The hero is the man who murdered Diana’ – grabbed the attention of publishers around the world. BUT … The Accident Man is not actually about Diana. Her name appears nowhere in the book, nor is she ever seen, alive or dead. As my agent likes to say, ‘The Accident Man is as much about Princess Diana as The Day of the Jackal is about President de Gaulle.’ (Less, actually, I’d add). But the impression that the story might be exploitative or tasteless – which I truly believe it is not – may well have put off readers who might have enjoyed the book very much.

A review for The Accident Man, wrote: “As entertainment this is slicker than an oil-spill, but it also provokes a great deal of thought.” Do you think being a journalist adds the extra layer of thought that you perhaps wouldn’t necessarily get in run of the mill thrillers? Because good journalists always ask the why, or want to uncover injustices?

I’m not sure you have to be a journalist to do that. Michael Crichton, for example, was a doctor and film-director, rather than a reporter, but he consistently wrote thrillers that were thought-provoking, journalistic explorations of contentious contemporary issues. In the case of Accident Man, I felt it was absolutely obligatory to treat the subject with a degree of respect and thought, precisely because I did not want the book to seem exploitative or tawdry. But I was never a campaigning journalist, so although I certainly want to write about serious subjects – Assassin, for example, has a strong sub-plot about people-trafficking – I don’t see my books as serving a campaigning purpose. Not yet, anyway.

The review I quoted on Accident Man also said: “…buried a few inches from the surface of the narrative, is a feeling for humanity, people trapped by bonds created by economics and human nature.” I guess journalism can be limited in the sense it reports the facts and people’s live can be left un-dissected (or reduced) in a sensational headline. Is thriller writing a way to express ideas around injustice? Some crime authors I’ve interviewed have said there’s a sense that the world is full of injustice, and that there’s an element of correcting or addressing that injustice writing crime fiction– do you relate to that?

I really like the sound of this review!! …. But back to the subject … I’d say action/thriller writing is a little different to crime/detective fiction, insofar as the hero (and in thrillers it almost always is a hero) is not necessarily interested in bringing a bad guy to justice in the legal sense. He finds himself in jeopardy – one that may also involve many other innocent victims – and uses all his personal resources to stay alive and kill his antagonist. So this is a very basic, primal form of justice. Thrillers give us the satisfying fantasy that evil can be eliminated and problems solved. They give the reader the vicarious thrill of blowing a baddie away. The thriller hero represents one of the most ancient archetypes in human culture: the hunter who uses his skills as a killer to defend the tribe against a deadly threat. But to be honest, any thriller-writer who lets the desire to address injustice get in the way of the desire to tell a great story and entertain the reader is making a serious mistake.

Another amazing comment from a reviewer was: “This book (The Accident Man) made me remember why I read: to be thrilled, to travel to dangerous places from the comfort of my chair but also to understand a little how this world works…” Do you think crime fiction has an important role in providing insight into how the world works? Or is it just about entertainment?

See above! It’s exactly the same principle. Yes, it’s great to make readers feel as if they’re learning something about the world’s inner workings. But it’s even greater to make them keep turning the pages. That’s the real job. The rest is just bunce.

I’ve read you got a lot of encouragement from Lee Child when you first started out, for those aspiring writers who might not have personal access to established big-time authors like Child, what advice, tips, and encouragement can you pass on?

  1. Don’t give up. It took me many months of hard work, savage criticism from my agency – as in, for example, one partner of the agency beginning a meeting with the words, ‘It’s depressing enough to read a bad writer, but it’s far, far worse to read a good writer writing this badly” – and the constant fear that I was wasting my time before Accident Man finally went out into the world. And then it was sold in less than 48 hours.
  2. Put the reader’s needs ahead of your own. This is not about your genius, it’s about their entertainment.
  3. Never slow down. Thrillers are all about pace.
  4. Grab them early. This is one thing I really did learn as a journalist. There’s no point being a genius on page 100 if the reader has given up on page 10.
  5. Amidst all the speed and action never forget that a thriller is only as good as its protagonist, love-interest, villain and supporting cast. Character is absolutely vital. That’s why people come back to Bond books, Bourne books, Reacher books and maybe, one day, Carver books. Just because this is a thriller doesn’t mean you can’t have complex, three-dimensional characters. On the contrary: they are a must.

You’re clearly a huge fan of the crime and thriller genre – did you really want to be a thriller writer as a boy but journalism became the day job?

No, I was as much a fan of Tom Wolfe as of Ian Fleming. I wanted to be both!

As a journalist, I guess you need a thick skin – did that help you negotiate the critics or agents when you first started out? Writers can be sensitive souls and criticism is hard to take?

Well, I’m still as sensitive, self-pitying and whiny as the next writer! But it’s safe to say that, yes, three decades in the hurly-burly of Fleet Street, being monstered by editors, publishers and the occasional vindictive profile-writer did give me, at the very least, a degree of experience and understanding of the process. Doesn’t make a bad review hurt any less. But it does, perhaps, give a degree of perspective.

What are you proud of most – your journalism or your fiction?

Impossible to say: it’s like asking me to choose between my children!

Swapping baby photos with Steven Spielberg, dinner with Kylie, blackjack with DiCaprio… As an aside for a bit of light relief, and juicy gossip – can you tell us some stories about the celebs you’ve met, interviewed or socialised with? (Please!!)

Well, that’s not an interview answer, that’s a whole book! But here’s one to be going on with …

In 1982, I was a cub reporter at the Observer magazine. I managed to wangle an interview with the Rolling Stones – a band I worshipped, then as now – who were about to embark on a European tour. It was meant to be the cover story. Well, the Stones kept arranging, then postponing interview dates. The deadline came and went. The cover pic of Mick and Keith was replaced by a fluffy pussy-cat, for reasons I cannot remember now. Finally one night, after I‘d already gone to bed, there was a hammering on my door. I staggered downstairs to find the band’s then-PR, a stunning, six-foot tall African American woman called Alvinia Bridges standing there. Behind her, a vast black limousine was filling most of a Fulham street. ‘It’s now,’ she said. I dashed upstairs, pulled on some jeans, grabbed a notebook and dashed out the door. I was then taken to a movie studio outside London: Alvinia refused to tell me which one. We went up to one of the soundstages, walked in and the very first thing that happened was that a raggedy little guy in a battered green jacket came up to me, stuck out a hand and wheezed, ‘Hi, I’m Keith.’ I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. So I spent the rest of the night watching the band rehearse – or, more accurately, hang around for hours and play a few bars of music at random intervals. I also snatched a few words with Jagger and thanks to my nerves and Mick’s legendary caginess got perhaps the worst interview of my entire career. Then, as dawn rose, I was bundled back into the limo and driven back to London. Years later, I got another, far better interview with Keith in New York City. I also had dinner with Jagger at the Oxford Union, where I was debating against Jerry Hall. But that’s another story … two of them, in fact!

Hey, I think that’s loads of questions!

No kidding!:)

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One thought on “Tom Cain Q & A

  1. Leigh Russell

    Great interview! Sounds like Tom’s life is almost as exciting as his thrilling books.