I’ve been trying to adhere to George Orwell’s six tips for writing from his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” – never use a long word where a short one will do, if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out, etc. At work, it helps having a boss who is a former Major General who demands clear and concise Anglo-Saxon English. And where I stray too far in my fiction, my editor Nick Sayers, has the good sense to call me out.
One thing we’re always keen to know when talking to an author, is what your typical writing day look like?
I try to write a minimum of five hundred words a day, under any circumstances, sometimes on planes or in airport departure lounges. I’ve learned that helicopters are rubbish for writing. I trash laptops at a frightening rate and I’m constantly emailing myself the latest draft or, if there’s no signal, downloading it on multiple USB sticks for fear of losing it. Because I have a full-time job that involves a lot of international travel and the risk of night-time emergencies is a fact of life, there is no typical day and it’s not easy to build a rhythm. That said, scenes and characters tend to steep like tea in the back of my head and when I eventually sit down it often flows. My favourite place to write is the cottage that I rent in rural Dumfriesshire, close to HALO’s HQ. If I am there I sit up at night, surrounded by books and listen to music while I tap at the keyboard. I don’t write with a pen. I can pack a wound and insert an intravenous drip, but my most accomplished medical skill is illegible writing.
Was writing something you’d always known you would do?
Yes, always. I wrote my first novel when I was eleven. In barely-legible pencil on foolscap. It was a World War Two commando story about a motley crew of rebels and castoffs who pull off an audacious rescue mission behind enemy lines and mostly die in the process. It set the tone for all subsequent work. Eyes-upward emoji. Put it this way, I can’t imagine not writing.
Where do you draw inspiration from for your settings and characters?
I’m fortunate that my job at HALO, clearing up after conflict, takes me to remote and sometimes hazardous places. In the last five years my focus has been Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. Because my role involves setting up new projects, I am often the first person from HALO on the ground and that inevitably sets you up for interesting experiences. I meet strangers who share anecdotes on abandoned battlefields and in the back of land rovers and land cruisers. I bastardise real people. Ten years ago, I worked in an office opposite the MI6 building and my work took me regularly into Parliament. I watched and took notes. When it comes to villains, I don’t seem to have any problem in drawing on my own resources to create them
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?
I want to say that I am in control. After all, I have the power to punish them in unusual ways but characters can be pesky and independent minded. They grow more autonomous with each draft.
When you are not writing, what do you do to relax?
I have a strong-willed Siberian Husky who has put up with me muttering to myself for over eleven years. We hike together in Scotland, on woodland trails and up hills and mountains. I’ve developed a taste for dark Venezuelan rum to be taken at the end of a night’s writing with one cube of ice. I used to live on Islay and when it comes to whisky, I prefer it smoky and peaty.
What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
I suspect that I’m not the only one who has been reading a lot of dystopian fiction recently. I really enjoyed Andrew Hunter Murray’s The Last Day, Claire North’s 84K, Chris Beckett’s America City, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Dogs of War, but the strangest and most audacious book I’ve read recently is Nick Harkaway’s 2017 novel Gnomon.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to any aspiring writers?
Write every day.
Thanks for joining us Simon.