Friday, August 28, 2009

Report on the Tom Rob Smith event

Well, last night a good, sizeable crowd were entertained by acclaimed thriller writer Tom Rob Smith at the Takapuna Library in Auckland. It was another great event held at this library, which is quickly becoming a compulsory destination for many visiting international authors. This particular event was well-supported/co-organised by The Book Lover bookstore, and Penguin New Zealand.

Tom Rob Smith was making a flying visit to New Zealand after appearing at the Melbourne Writer's Festival. His debut, CHILD 44, a serial killer thriller set in Stalinist Russia, was a supernova success - garnering a bidding war for the publishing rights, selling more than 1 million copies, being translated into more than 30 languages, winning the 2008 CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for thriller writing, and being nominated or longlisted for both the Man Booker Prize and the Costa First Novel Award (formerly the Whitbread).

His second novel, THE SECRET SPEECH, continued the saga of former secret agent Leo Demidov, this time in the Khruschev period of the Soviet age. There is a good article on Tom Rob Smith in the April issue of Good Reading magazine (which many NZ libraries have in stock).

Tom Rob Smith told the audience last night that he is currently working on the third and final novel in his Demidov 'trilogy', which is set during the (first) war in Afghanistan, and will be published in 2010. He was a very down-to-earth, nice, funny, and entertaining speaker, and I enjoyed the opportunity to listen to him, get a book signed, and have a quick chat. He noted how he'd had an Oxbridge education in literary fiction in the UK, but that this very academic approach had actually initially hampered his progress as a writer - because it ignored some of the things he most enjoyed about storytelling. He went on to work in film and TV, because he found they gave (sometimes) greater scope for concentrating on the audience, rather than the semi-autobiographical and rather ego-centric self-focus pushed by some in the academic literary world.

Highlights from his comments on the night included:

On his childhood: "I just loved stories... it didn't matter if it was a film, play, or reading a book - I just loved being caught up in stories..."

On his first experience of Russia: "When I went to Russia for the first time as a 17 year old on a history trip, I had no idea I would eventually write [thrillers set there] ... but perhaps it was an omen that one thrilling moment did happen, in Moscow. After seeing St Peter's Square, we were walking up to a bridge near the Kremlin, and saw a bus that looked stalled. It turned out it had been hijacked, a bus full of Japanese consular staff... all these media showed up, CNN etc, and some of us were interviewed... even that was a pretty flimsy brush with a thriller moment...
He noted that he'd also had a thrilling experience in New Zealand, so maybe that's an omen for him setting some future novels here - he was questioned by Immigration officials on his entry from Australia earlier this week, as there was a criminal named "Thomas Smith" that they were on the look-out for. Fortunately, he says the officials were very polite, and let him go as soon as photos showed he wasn't the wanted felon.

About writing for TV and film before novels: "Writing soaps taught me to get drama from the domestic... when writing a thriller you can't always write about the epic, big moments... that was one of the first building blocks towards writing CHILD 44 - the realisation that thrillers could have a balance between domestic drama and chases on a train...

He also was involved with Cambodia's first ever soap opera (supported by the BBC), which was used to help transmit educational 'health messages' to the masses.

On the inspiration for Child 44: He was intrigued by the real-life case of Soviet serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, who murdered 65+ children during the 1970s-1990s, but who had been largely ignored by investigators due to a number of factors (e.g. his Communist Party membership, and the fact Soviets believed there wasn't even a serial killer, because that was an American phenomena). Tom Rob Smith was more intrigued by what the case said about the society it occurred in, more than the serial killer himself, and how that society was different, but also familiar, to our own.

"With CHILD 44 I wanted to take a take a world that was very different, but push through the [universal] things that affect all of us, but also push through the conventions of the crime novel we are so familiar with... CHILD 44 is really about society, rather than about the serial killer... what I find interesting is how we react to serial killers, not the serial killers themselves (why they do it, how they do it)... the police investigations are like a sponge, soaking up the things about their society..."

On fiction set in the past: "With a book you have to know everything, even if you don't put it in [ie it flavours what you do put in] - you need to be able to answer any question if your readers asked..."
"The difference you have as a fiction writer, rather than as a historian, is that they have so many facts, that they include, whereas you can choose to dramatise those facts... I read a history book, and one sentence caught my eye... during the famines in Ukraine, the number of domestic animals quickly reduced, which makes sense because if people are starving, they are going to have to think about their pets... but as a fiction writer you can dramatise that fact, and create a [personalised] situation where a character is torn between their love for their pet and [their hunger]... which makes you wonder, what would you do in that situation?"

On researching the locations: He spoke of how it was more important to get a feel for how the people in a society felt about what was happening around them, rather than just focusing on what buildings looked like, how much things cost, and factual details like that.

"What was very useful to me was the diaries that were written by people at the time, that were never meant to be read, and were confiscated by the Secret Police... what's amazing about them is that you get a slice of life that has been preserved... concentrate not on material details, but what people were feeling at the time... suddenly you're immersed into that world, those emotional key moments rather than the nuts and bolts..."

On getting the reader emotionally invested: "It's really about putting yourself into this world... I wanted people to think, 'what would I have done in this situation?'... It's easy to be a good person in a good society (like UK or NZ), where we can get things, your good job, your nice apartment, by doing good things... it's interesting to think about how in a society like Stalinist Russia you only got ahead, you only got those good things, by doing despicable things... there's a question of whether you would have given up everything to be a good person [including possibly your life or liberty], or would you have succumbed and become involved [as an informer, as an agent, or as some-one who merely looked the other way while things were done to others]... being honest, I'm not sure what I would have done..."

It was a fantastic evening, and another fantastic event, at the Takapuna Library. Many thanks to the library (especially organiser Helen Woodhouse), The Book Lover, Penguin (especially Philippa Muller), and Tom Rob Smith himself. Did you attend the event? What did you think? Have you read Tom Rob Smith's books? Do you like meeting authors and hearing them speak? Comments welcome.


  1. I don't go out of my way to meet authors but have mostly enjoyed those occasions when I have met a few authors. Perhaps I'm odd but I don't really want to know too much 'behind the scenes' info about what went into the writing of my favourite books...I just love them for what they are.

    I read Child 44 and really enjoyed it. I didn't really expect to love it so much (I often find that books that are hyped so much don't live up to all that's said about them) but Leo and his wife took such an interesting and engaging journey that I was captivated and I am looking forward to reading the next one.

  2. "having a balance between domestic drama and chases on a train..."

    The above is a quote from Tom Rob Smith in the post above. A mystery discussion group that I belong to took up _Child 44_ about a month ago. The group unanimously (and that's rare, believe me) decided that he failed to keep that balance. The book really was a domestic drama, about living in the Soviet Union under Stalin. The second most import issue was being an MGB officer, the politics and political maneuvering that went with the job. His least important concern was with the crime aspect. I wonder if that is how he perceives the mystery element--chases on a train.

    We found it fascinating as a domestic drama, but it was supposed to have been a crime drama. However, as this was a first novel, and he definitely shows signs of being a talented writer, most of us agreed that we would take a look at his next novel.

    This seems to be a trend today: in the past month I've read three "mysteries" in which the solving of the crime was mostly irrelevant, or a side issue, and at least one SF novel that had no science whatsoever and nothing that could be considered fantasy by even the widest/wildest stretch of the term.

    I also found it interesting that the librarian(s) who decides the appropriate category for books listed all four as fiction. Maybe we should check with library first before we decide to select a work for the group discussion.

  3. I may have done Tom Rob Smith a bit of a disservice there Fred - I was taking handwritten notes during a 30-min talk... the comment about the balance between domesticity and 'epic' thrills (e.g. chases on a train) was more about his thoughts on thrillers in general - that he realised that thrillers could be about more than chases on a train, and that there could be drama in the domestic (e.g. soap operas).

    He later went on to say (something I didn't include in this post) something along the lines of that it was the emotional drama, and the realities people faced under the regime, that interested him more than the crimes themselves... it was society's response to the crimes he found more intriguing than the crimes themselves (I think I touched on that with his other comments about Chikatilo and serial killers - it was kind of a running theme at one point in the talk, and I didn't get it all down).

    Hope that clarifies things Fred. I think he was very much going for the domestic drama within the larger societal upheavals, rather than chases on a train.

  4. Kiwicraig,

    Yes, thank you. That does help. If he was more focused on going for a domestic drama than a crime story, then it appears as though the problem is a labeling problem which leads to erroneous reader expectations.

    I and the others in the group felt that he did write an interesting novel, and some were so intrigued by the case that they researched the serial killer that the story was based on.

    It was Alexander Pope who wrote in his poem on criticism:

    " In every work regard the writer's End,
    Since none can compass more than they intend;
    And if the means be just, the conduct true,
    Applause, in spite of trivial faults, is due."

    As I think I mentioned earlier, I feel that he is someone I would read again, regardless of the problems I had.

  5. Wow, he sounds like a wonderful author to meet. I have Child 44 on my self to be read. I'm really looking forward to it after reading your post. Hopefully I'll be buying his future books as well.