Today I’m delighted to be talking with the thriller writer Simon Toyne, author of the Sanctus Trilogy.
Martin: When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer? Was there a specific event that made you decide?
Simon: I’d wanted to write a book for as long as I can remember. Having said that I’d wanted to do lots of things, like direct a movie and play James Bond, so it would be misleading to categorise it as a sole, burning ambition. However, the older I got the more the lack of novel on my CV rankled more than all the other – less likely – ambitions. Increasingly I felt it was the one thing I would deeply regret if I never got round to it.
In terms of a specific event, when my son was born I was producing a series for Sky TV in my previous career as a director and producer. It was a big show and I was in charge so I wasn’t allowed any time off. I knew that a few months on I wouldn’t remember the show or what I was doing on it on those days but I would remember not being around for the first few weeks of my son’s life for the rest of my life. The desire to write a book and the birth of my son sort of collided and so I quit my job and gave myself six months to try and write something, figuring if I could somehow make it work then I could work from home and never miss a single important moment of my kids’ young lives ever again.
Which authors have had the greatest influence upon you?
I could throw many names into the ring here, from Dickens to Orwell and everything in between but I think like many authors of my generation the biggest influence on me has to be Stephen King. He was the guy everybody read when I was a kid and he was the first living person I was aware of who made his living from making stuff up.
You took a sabbatical to start writing your first novel. How did this help and do you think you would have completed the novel without the sabbatical?
It helped me a lot. You often read of people writing their first novels at the same time as doing a full-time job and I have awed respect for those people. For me, I was working in a creative field and doing a lot of writing as part of that so the thought of doing more writing when I got home felt like purgatory. Working in TV is also very demanding in terms of time and energy and I didn’t want to try and write a novel in a state of almost permanent exhaustion. Also my thinking was, if I take six months off and tell everyone I’m going to write a novel I’m going to look like a total idiot if I come back with nothing. So the sabbatical was a way of painting myself into a corner so I had no choice but to give it my absolute best shot. In the end I only wrote about a third of the book in those six months, but it was enough to create some momentum that carried on through another year of doing the writing at evenings and weekends thing until it was finally finished.
How much has your TV career influenced your writing?
TV gave me the one thing no writer can do without, and that’s discipline. I was used to producing scripts to deadline so the thought of sitting down every day to write a book didn’t fill me with the same sort of dread it does some new novelists. I wasn’t scared of the blank page or the idea that I wouldn’t produce anything, only that I might produce something that wasn’t any good. Also, writing for commercial television teaches you very good skills in terms of narrative. The books I write are thrillers and the techniques used to hook and hold a reader are exactly the same as they are to hook a viewer, so I came to the table with a few tricks up my sleeve.
If your most unpleasant character were to give you advice what would it be and would you take it?
It would probably be ‘make me the hero’ and I would, of course, ignore it.
How do you research your novels?
I generally research as I’m going along. I’ll do some specific background reading when I’m outlining a book on something pertinent like, for example, monasteries for Sanctus, lost languages for The Key and cosmology for Book 3. I spend quite a long time outlining a book so the reading and research starts to get dictated by where the story is going. This is when I might go to specific places or interview specific people to get a feeling for something you can’t get from books or the internet. When preparing The Key, for example, I went to the British Museum to look at their collection of cuneiform clay tablets and discovered something there that became a central part of the book. I even made a video about it (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voEGrMKiW2c)
What would be a typical writing day for you? Do you have set times, spaces, routines or rituals?
I use my children as a timing device. Once they’re at school and the dog has been walked I head up to my very small, very messy office at the top of the house (usually around 10) and work and play loud music until they come home again at 3. Tea breaks are allowed as well as a half hour for lunch. This of course only works during term time and when I haven’t got a pressing deadline.
What’s been your favourite moment in your writing career?
It has to be getting the call from my agent telling me she’d sold my first book for enough money so I could quit my job and write full-time.
What’s your next writing project?
I’m currently writing the third book of the Sanctus trilogy. It’s proving to be quite a challenge as it has to answer all the big questions posed in the first two books and, if anything, be even bigger and bolder than either of them. It’s certainly ambitious. At the moment I’m in the lonely midst of it so the notion of ever finishing it seems like an impossible dream. Then again, that’s why deadlines were invented. Also Twitter and Facebook are the friends (sometimes distracting enemies) of the lonely writer. You can pop by and say Hi to me here:
Thanks very much for talking with me, Simon.
Next time, on 12 October, I’ll be talking with N. Gemini Sasson.
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