This interview with Tony Strong is taken from The Writer's Handbook
Guide to Crime Writing, edited by Barry Turner and published by Macmillan,
Tony Strong’s first crime novel, The Poison
Tree, was greeted by The Times
as ‘a debut to die for’. Since then he has written three
more novels. Barry Turner seeks his advice on starting out
on a life of crime writing.
Barry Turner: How did you get into writing?
Tony Strong: Like most people I started writing
the kind of stuff I like to read. Because I could never find enough
of it I sensed there was a market for it. I started to write short
stories and gradually two of them kind of joined to make a full-length
story. But it was still only 50 pages long so it wasn’t very
successful. Then one summer when I had nothing to do at work I revised
my 50-page story and realised that it was actually a synopsis. Working
in advertising, I was used to writing short, compressed scenes and
this is what I had done with the novel. So all I had to do was go
through the relatively easy process of unpacking it and turning
it into a book. This was what became The Poison Tree.
BT: But how did it get published?
TS: I had a friend who was working in publicity
at Transworld and I asked her for the names of some agents. A couple
of them got in touch and I asked my friend which one I should use.
My friend put me on to Ursula Mackenzie (Transworld Editorial Director)
who said that Transworld was actually looking for someone in my
area, so why not send the manuscript to her and she’d have
a look at it and advise which agent to go for. Then she decided
she liked the book enough to publish it herself. I was lucky –
it's not usually that straightforward.
BT: You came in on a new fashion – really quite gritty
stuff, a move away from both cosy detective fiction and from the
TS: There was a new wave of writing I really liked
in the early ‘90s. There was Ian McEwan who had gradually
moved from the gritty, gory, even slightly grotesque realism of
The Cement Garden and The Innocent into areas that were more psychological
– thrillers by any other name. That was one influence. A few
other writers were doing intelligent, interesting things with the
crime format too – Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s
Feeling for Snow, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Snow
Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. Often the heroes of these books
were quite ordinary people rather than private eyes or the stock
figures and that was what seemed to me to be new – to take
ordinary, reasonable, well-written people, and drop them into some
BT: On the practicalities of writing. Do you have a regular
routine? Are you disciplined?
TS: I have to be because I’m quite a slapdash
person. I have a day job which is quite pressurised. I enjoy it
hugely and I want to do it properly. I work four days a week for
an advertising agency and write fiction on the other day. I don’t
write at weekends at all. That’s family time. In addition,
on the days I'm at the agency I go to work at around 10am and I
hope to have done a couple or even three hours writing before then.
BT: And how many words in a day?
TS: Well, I treat the whole week as planning time.
The day I write, I try to write from 8.30 in the morning until 8.30
at night. I use my son’s bedroom as my office so I can’t
leave papers out or be messy and I can’t go downstairs because
the nanny is there with the youngest child, so I have to work.
BT: That’s a hard day.
TS: Yes, my head is often spinning by the evening
but it is the only day I get to write.
BT: How many thousand words do you have at the end of that?
TS: It varies enormously. On a really good day
I may write a chapter; maybe around 6,000 words but more usually
around 3 to 4,000 words. And if it's only a thousand, that's fine
BT: Do you do rewrites?
TS: Yes. I do rewrites as I go along. But I can
only rewrite on something that’s been printed out, on the
physical page. Most writers say don’t edit until you’ve
finished. But if I do get stuck I haven’t got time to wait
for the block to work itself out. I have to be doing something as
it’s my one day of writing. So I start to rewrite. As well
as rewriting, I’m looking for a grasp of the character or
a little event or something in what I’ve already done that
will give me a clue to get on to the next bit.
BT: Does that mean when you start on a novel you don’t
have the complete plot in mind?
TS: I’ve always had a complete plot in mind
but always changed it as I went along.
BT: How do the ideas flow? What inspires you?
TS: Advertising is all about having simple ideas
and having that background means all my books have started with
a very defined idea. In the first book there were two ideas –
the predicament and the character – it boils down to the idea
of an academic who is lecturing on detective fiction but is involved
in an American-type modern psycho-killing. Everything else is how
the character works it out. In The Death Pit it is modern-day witchcraft
and my academic (the same person) is studying a 17th century witch.
Again, very simple: two things collide and after that comes the
whole plot. In The Decoy it is an actress who is involved, tangentially,
in an investigation into the death of a woman – she’s
asked to act the part of someone who’s the next potential
victim. The latest, Tell Me Lies is actually based on a true story
I was told (although it turned out to have been distorted in the
telling). A woman has been raped and her best friend murdered. The
police think they know who did it but can’t get the guy to
court – they’ve got evidence but it’s not admissible
– she agrees to lie in court to get a conviction and then
there are the consequences of all that. In my books, it is usually
two elements – a person and a predicament – which come
together and that’s it. I’m not saying that’s
the only way to write a book but that’s the kind of thing
I like because it’s very simple. I know where I’m going
with it and you’re instantly into a ‘so what might happen
BT: Do you think visually with your books?
TS: Well, I like visual writing. My third book,
The Decoy, I saw very much as a movie, partly because the heroine
was an actress and I wanted it to play out like a movie; you never
know what she’s thinking because that would destroy the plot.
So I wrote it in the present and didn’t describe what anyone
is thinking or feeling. I simply told the reader, who becomes the
viewer, what they see. And then with my last book I wanted to do
the complete opposite so I wrote from the first person perspective
– so that becomes less visual and more psychological.
BT: Is The Decoy likely to become a movie?
TS: Yes, it’s been optioned by a very good
Hollywood producer, the man who made The Fugitive, Se7en and The
Perfect Murder so, in the sense that it’s got to a Hollywood
studio, it’s achieved all that a writer could hope for. Whether
it gets made into a movie or not is in the lap of the gods or whatever
one calls Hollywood producers.
BT: Does your mind stray to thinking 'what couldn’t
I do with a Rebus-type character'? Are you, in the back of your
mind, thinking of creating a long-running detective?
TS: Well, I really liked Terry Williams and I liked
what happened to her in the course of the first two books. She did
odd things, like becoming a wiccan, not because she believed in
Wicca but because she became good friends with the coven who appear
in The Death Pit, and became godmother to a wiccan child whose life
she saved. She also has a sexual relationship with another woman,
in The Poison Tree, despite the fact she isn't gay. And she's interestingly
arrogant and self-opinionated – all the things that detective
figures aren't meant to be.
BT: I suppose my own psychological block against thinking
of her as your character is because you’re writing about a
woman. And that’s a tricky thing to do. Aren’t you making
life unnecessarily hard for yourself?
TS: Life would have been much easier if I’d
used a female pseudonym because female readers in particular read
your book in a more critical way. If there was any way of removing
that critical distance I would but there doesn’t seem to be.
I’ve no idea why I prefer to write about women except that
the women I write about are women I like so I have an almost romantic
relationship with them. But look, it really isn't that big a deal.
My lead characters are white, middle class, usually in their 30s
or thereabouts, in the arts or media or academia, and the only real
difference between them and me is that they’re female. If
I’d written about a Scottish male tramp, people would say
that’s fine, so why is it thought to be so hard for me to
write about a middle-class academic, just because she's a woman?
There’s this assumption that the sexual divide is the biggest
BT: Do you do research?
TS: Yes, quite a lot, mainly through the Internet.
In Tell Me Lies the first chapter is a woman being examined in a
rape suite and you gradually realise that not only has she been
raped but she’s been drugged with a date-rape drug and she
has discovered her best friend’s body in the flat they lived
in after the attack. On the Internet you can look up rape suite
medical protocols so you know exactly the process a woman goes through
in that situation, even down to details such as the colour coding
on the tubes for the blood samples. On another level you can go
to rape survivors’ websites where people talk about their
experiences so you can know what your subject is thinking. Maybe
it’s voyeuristic of me to go trawling through these sites
for research but it seems to me if you’re going to write about
that kind of thing you have to be accurate. So I do try to get both
the facts and human reactions right.
BT: You can even research necrophilia on the Internet?
TS: Yes. When I began planning The Decoy I typed
‘necrophilia’ into a search engine and discovered there
were over 20,000 websites. Again, I started off with the idea that
this character should be a necrophiliac for all sorts of structural
reasons. At that point he was just a kind of cartoon villain in
my mind, a necrophiliac in the same way that Hannibal Lecter was
a cannibal. As I started to read more about necrophilia and accounts
by necrophiliacs of what they see as their misunderstood psychology,
the character gradually acquired a bit more depth. He’s still
a villain as that is his role but he’s more of a rounded villain
than if I’d not done the research.
BT: And the funeral business?
TS: In America they have a big tradition of what
they call ‘cosmetology’ – dressing up a body for
display in an open casket. Undertaking is a much bigger business
there than here. I found an undertaker in the middle of America
who was offering training courses for mortuary science attendants
on the Internet and, as a sweetner, he was offering a free module
as a sample. So I did Module One, took my test and in fact got a
BT: But you didn’t go on with it?
TS: No. I covered the only bit I needed which was
the preparation of a dead body.
BT: Have you always had a strong stomach?
TS: Just the opposite. I’ve always been interested
in gruesome stuff but I’ve also always been very squeamish.
For example, I faint when anyone ever takes my blood. I always say
to them, ‘Look, I’m not nervous at all but I will faint
when you take that blood’ and they say, ‘No, you’ll
be fine. I can always tell those who are nervous and you’re
not’. And they take the blood and I faint; just like that.
I don’t know why.
BT: One or two other writers I know who write about grisly
subjects are excessively sensitive in real life. I’ve only
come across one other person like me who picks up worms in the street
and puts them back on the soil and that’s Brian Masters who
has written several books about mass killers. Are you like that?
TS: Not to that extent. I think perhaps writing
psychological thrillers has made me more like that as you spend
a lot of your time thinking about really dark things and maybe going
a bit further into them than you might otherwise have done.
BT: Has it changed your life in any way? Does it affect
TS: Writing has, yes. It completely takes over
my life . That’s how I like to write. To be focused on the
one thing and forget everything else. Without a book to write, I
feel completely bereft. It’s addictive.
BT: How old are you?
BT: If a young writer came to you now and said I want to
be Tony Strong, would you have any advice to pass on? Is there anything
that you feel you’ve done right or done wrong that you would
pass on to others?
TS: I would say that once you write your first
book it will set the template for all your future books. If you
start writing crime you will always have to write crime because
your editors and publishers will expect it. If you write a comedy,
they'll want another comedy. So I’d say, don’t rush
into print. Spend a few years writing short stories, poems, whatever,
so that when you do commit yourself to a book you don’t find
you’ve gone down a path that you will regret later.
BT: Is that the book shaping the author or the publisher
shaping the author? Is there a danger of becoming typecast?
TS: Yes. I have had agents and publishers, particularly
publishers, saying, ‘That’s a nice idea but it’s
not really a Tony Strong idea’. So you become two people.
You’re the person who wants to write a book about X and you’re
also the person who, like it or not, is also called Tony Strong
who is a brand in the same way that Channel Four is a brand or Eastenders
is a brand, and of which people have certain preconceptions. Weirdly,
it’s better if you’re not successful because you can
say to your publishers, well, that last book didn’t sell very
well so why don't I write something different. The moment you write
a bestseller, everyone wants you to write it all over again. When
it comes to stories, we're all like children. If you ask a child
what story they want you to read them they'll always say 'the one
you read me last night.' But as writers, we want to tell new stories.
That’s the paradox.