What is your writing process? What does your typical day, when writing, look like?
I’m a full-time writer and work 9 to 4-ish during the week in an attic room overlooking the sea on the Suffolk coast. I break the day up a lot, as I sometimes struggle a bit if I am sitting alone for hours on end. I swim at the local leisure centre for an hour first thing each morning. I stop and have lunch with my youngest son Adam and then go up the town with my wife Tracey at the end of the day. I have a dog, Dolly, and walk her once or twice during the day.
Was there a particular incident or person that provided the inspiration for Mr Todd’s Reckoning? Where did the idea come from?
My eldest son Michael went to university and suffered from depression and anxiety and ended up in hospital and then the Priory for five months. He’s fine now and we have written two books about these times, Dear Michael, Love Dad (Hodder) and Out Of The Madhouse (JKP Books).
When he came home though, things were touch and go for a while. The first scene in Mr Todd’s Reckoning features the son in the kitchen snip-snip-snipping away at vegetables in a wok and the father sitting nearby feeling tense and edgy. That was inspired by that difficult time although Mr Todd senior and Mr Todd junior are nothing like Michael and me.
Have you always been a writer? Was novel-writing something you’d always known you would do?
Yes, I’d always wanted to write novels and it was something I was going to do ‘sometime soon’. I got waylaid with life and children and mortgages and all of that and then got to 52 in 2014 and thought if I don’t do it now, I never will and I would always regret that. I spent 18 months trying different things and getting rejected by all the agents and all the publishers. Utterly, utterly demoralising days.
I then wrote Dear Michael, Love Dad, met an agent, Clare, for breakfast and she sold it to Hodder the next morning. An unbelievable, life-changing moment. Clare rang me and I thought I have to get through this conversation without showing too much emotion or breaking down and sobbing with joy. I failed spectacularly.
How do your characters develop? Do you find that your characters take on a life of their own when you are writing? Or are you always completely in control of what they say and do?
That’s really interesting. When I wrote my first novel, Sweet William, about a man who breaks free from a psychiatric unit to snatch his toddler son back from foster parents, I had it all plotted from start to finish. As I started writing, and got inside the man’s head, it just went in a different direction. I had no control over it.
It’s the same with Mr Todd’s Reckoning. I thought maybe that one of the characters, the father or the son, would kill the other and they’d spend the rest of the novel dealing with that emotionally, practically, etc. As it was, as I got going it was like, ‘whoa, watch out, here we go’ and I was racing to keep up at times. That’s a great moment when it’s running ahead of you.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your settings and characters?
My books, at least with Sweet William and Mr Todd’s Reckoning and the next one (the first in a detective series, Gayther & Carrie 1), have all featured fathers and sons and the relationship between them. I’ve written for The Guardian and other publications about my (now-dead) father who brought his teenage mistress to live in the family home when I was six or seven. Those were difficult days with psychiatrists and social workers and all of that and I think I draw heavily on those times without always realising it.
And, of course, Michael’s downfall and the feelings I had about that – anger, frustration, guilt etc – loom large in my work as well. Michael and I are ambassadors for Stem4, the teenage mental health charity and we go into schools and colleges to talk to students and parents about mental health. Mental illness, one way or the other, has featured strongly in my life.
I should probably add at this point that I do have a really happy family life. I’ve been with Tracey for 40 years this year, we met at school, and have three lovely children and they have wonderful partners. We’ve all just been over to Paris for my daughter Sophie who ran the marathon and for Michael’s partner Georgia who celebrated her birthday at Disneyland.
When you are not writing, what do you do to relax? What types of books do you read for pleasure?
I swim. I walk Dolly the dog. I watch Doctor Who with my youngest son Adam. I listen to music. I go the cinema once or twice a week, once with Tracey and again with the family at weekends. We go to the theatre a lot. We have a fab theatre, the New Wolsey Theatre, in Ipswich. We also get out and about – Les Mis in London, ABC at Southend, recently.
I do read, but often in fits and starts, and usually they are books that have nothing to do with crime and thrillers. I’ve just read Bernard Cribbins’ autobiography. I’m currently reading Graham Greene’s The Tenth Man. I’m about to read Claire MacLeary’s new book, Runaway. I’m a big fan of her work.
Now that Mr Todd’s Reckoning has been completed, what will the following year have in store for you?
I’m just finishing my first detective novel, Gayther & Carrie 1. I’ve then been asked to adapt Dear Michael, Love Dad for television so that’s up next. I’ve another television project progressing that will take up some time too. I then have another dark literary thriller to do – itching to get to that – and, if it goes down well, a second Gayther & Carrie novel. Have to say, I am living a dream. It’s all beyond my wildest dreams, really!