Author Q&A

Karen Myers: What came first, the plot or the characters and why?
Neil: The character of Barclay came first. I was on the Random House Creative Writing course and the opening exercise was to create a character and introduced them through an object. I chose a bag, and that was the start of Barclay. That’s still the opening of the first chapter, although I had no idea it would become a novel at that stage. I needed someone to find the bag but had no idea who. I decided it would open more possibilities if it was a woman and so I came up with Claire and it sort of snowballed from there.
It was an interesting way to start a book but I think in future I’ll start with the story. I didn’t have the details of the plot worked out fully until I finished my second draft – the first draft wandered all over the place as I explored the characters more than the story.

Did you set out to write something with a twist or did it develop that way?
Neil: It just developed that way. I do like a story with a good twist so I was hoping I could squeeze one in somehow but wasn’t going to force it. In earlier drafts the twist was revealed much earlier but in the later versions I thought it would be fun to have it exposed at the story’s climax. Some readers say they saw it coming, others were taken by surprise. The end of the story is told at quite a pace and it just seemed to fit and didn’t feel too contrived.

It’s clear that some aspects of the plot come from experience, i.e. there’s local colour. But how much research did you have to do for locations, journeys, cars etc?
Neil: ‘Don’t let your research show,’ my course editor Barbara Henderson told me so I did that by doing as little research as possible!
I live in Greenwich and know Deptford and the Docklands well, but I wanted to steer clear of the famous landmarks in the area. One issue was ensuring I used locations without CCTV cameras – modern technology can be a nightmare when you’re writing a crime thriller – but I found that even in Docklands it was pretty easy to find areas with no cameras and poor lighting at night.
The only car I knew personally was the Karmann Ghia, which is owned by my neighbour, Graeme. I haven’t been in an Uno or Multipla for years and you don’t actually see many Unos around these days. I based Claire’s experiences on some posts and comments on Fiat drivers’ forums. I did do all the journeys described, but in my less-interesting VW Golf, and at 3pm rather than 3am!

You’re a 50-something man, the main protagonist is a 20-something woman. You found her voice, so how?
Neil: It came naturally. I surprised myself to be truthful – I think she’s my favourite character in the book and that old cliché about stories writing themselves is certainly true in Claire’s case. There were a few times in the editing process when I had to change some of Claire’s references as they were not what a 25-year-old would be familiar with, but her actual ‘voice’ came easily.

I was left wanting more of some of the characters, and to know more of their back-story. Were you writing them with book two in mind, in terms of who would live or be free to see another day?
Neil: I always wanted to leave things open at the end but resisted the temptation to leave it on a cliffhanger – I had toyed with the idea of Claire finding herself pregnant (by Tom) at the end but decided against it as it felt a bit cheap and it would mean any future stories would involve a baby, which I really didn't want.
I have plenty of background and supporting material on file I will use in the second book. There’s a lot more to Barclay than discovered by Claire in When She Was Bad and it’ll be fun exploring that in the next one (and beyond).

The style is very visual with lots of popular culture and product references. Do those come from your own preferences or did you use them as you thought Claire would see the world?
Neil: I’ve never owned anything by Prada or Fiat but I do love Apple products even if I do sometimes think life would be simpler with an old Nokia phone that just does calls and texts. I think the dominance of brands and mass culture is just the time we live in and that’s how kids in their twenties view things now.

It’s also quite cinematic, given the dialogue, the pace and the way it paints pictures. Do you see yourself as a screenwriter?
Neil: I’m just getting used to describing myself as a ‘writer’, and I’m happy trying my hand at novels and short stories for now. My dialogue and action scenes are quite cinematic but there’s no ulterior motive in writing that way except that it’s an effective way of making the reader turn the pages faster.

If so, who would you cast in the film or TV version?
Neil: I wrote Barclay with Benedict Cumberbatch (as Sherlock) in mind. Claire I pictured as Claire Foy but she can be whoever the reader wants her to be and I deliberately didn’t describe her appearance. My wife has suggested that Tom is Jude Law and I quite like that but I had a (young) Tom Hollander in mind as I wrote it. TNT would be the guy who plays The Mountain in Game of Thrones.

As a first-time author, how did you approach the task of writing? Computer or longhand? Storyboard? Short bursts or long days?
Neil: I’m new at this game so I’ve been making it up as I go along. This book started with the RH course I mentioned, which resulted in around two dozen short pieces which I then used as the basis for the first part of the initial draft. As the story developed though most were dropped as they didn’t fit in the story or its evolving style. A few survive: the prologue, the opening chapters, the visits to both families at Christmas.
I type faster than I can handwrite, so I tend to only pick up the pen when I’m sketching out rough ideas. I edit drafts by hand though.
I did try using the authoring software Scrivener for the planning, but found it too complicated for what I was attempting to do. In the end I covered my office’s wall with hand-written postcard outlines before finalising them with PowerPoint (a slide per chapter). I wrote it in Microsoft Word – I tried other writing tools but Word is still the best for writing and editing. The print edition was finished using InDesign.

I understand you started your career as a journalist. Do you have non-fiction in you too?
Neil: Possibly, but it’s not something I’m interested in at the moment.