You’ve said that while you’ve had various jobs, there is nothing that you ever seriously wanted to do except write. How long have you been writing and what experiences have you had that have influenced your desire to write?
I have been writing since I was in my mid-twenties, but my first published book was written in 1976 and published in 1979—The Cater Street Hangman. It was the first Victorian story and the first mystery. All experiences, good, bad, and indifferent, affect who you are. Everything you believe goes into your writing, sooner or later.
You are quite well-traveled. You’ve also held a number of different jobs from flight attendant to insurance underwriter. How has this wide range of experience influenced you?
I have been lucky enough to travel quite a lot. I have been to the Bahamas, New Zealand, the United States, Canada, Africa, and many countries in Europe, especially France, Spain, and Italy. Again, all experience, all people you meet eventually feed into what you write.
Travel especially sharpens your interest in other cultures. You realize the richness and the contributions they have made to all our lives. Look for what is good and you will certainly find it. Most especially you will find kindness.
Of course it helps if you already know something of the history and geography of a place, and a few words, at least, of the language. However badly you speak, people usually appreciate the fact that you are willing to try.
What was it like getting your first novel, The Cater Street Hangman, published?
Getting the first novel published has an unreal quality. I kept on thinking any moment I was going to wake up and find it was just another dream. The first time I was in a bookshop and saw someone buy a copy, it became real. Only now, after sixty books, am I accepting that I am professional!
What is your writing process like? How do you get your ideas, and how long does it take to finish a book? When and where do you write?
To describe the writing process would be a ten-page essay at least. Very briefly: Get the one sentence idea, the key to the underlying passion, the thing you want to say. Then plot out a storyline that is tight, logical, carries emotion, incident, and pace. Go over it in closer detail. Make sure it is all historically possible. Write a biography of all your main characters, especially how they change in the course of the story, how they affect events and how events affect them and their relationships with each other. Then do a detailed plot, possibly thirty or forty pages. Write the first draft. Go over it and then write the second draft. Write the third draft and send it to your literary agent. When you receive his or her comments, write another draft–which we hope is final, at least until the editor asks for a rewrite, which will be minor. At last, do copyeditor’s notes and rewrite as necessary. That should be all until you come to touring with it, if you are so fortunate.
How long does it take? Four or five months until you send it to the agent. After that, it’s out of your hands. Probably a year or two before it’s published.
Where do I write? In my study—or if travelling, wherever I happen to be (hotel room, airport, etc.).
I write 8:30 a.m. to 5 or 6 p.m. Usually Monday through Saturday, fifty-two weeks a year.
Who are some of your influences?
It is very difficult to know who influences you. My favourite writer is G. K. Chesterton, but that is largely for his poetry, his philosophy, and his use of language. Everything I read has some influence. In mysteries I admire Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, and Jonathan Kellerman. More recently also Mark Gimenez and Scott Frost. They are all American men writing in present-day setting, I know. I also like the philosophy of Terry Brooks. I like different people for different reasons. It could be humour, pace, character, sensitivity, compassion, descriptions—all sorts of qualities.
You’ve said that you couldn’t be paid money not to write. What is it about writing that inspires that kind of drive and commitment in you?
I think anything creative—writing, painting, music, etc.—is a natural outlet for those who wish to do it, just as running is for an athlete. We all have a powerful need to do whatever it is we have the ability for. If we are created in the image of God at all, then we must have the will to love and to create.
You’ve been praised for your accurate depiction of Victorian London, which is the primary setting in which you write. What attracts you to this time period?
The first thing that attracted me to Victorian London was the fact that the first story I wrote in that setting was the first one I sold. Any writer would tell you “yes” from a publisher instead of “no” will do that. I continued to set stories in that time and place because that is what I was contracted to do.
I continue to like it because it is a complex, sophisticated, and optimistic time close enough to our own to be understandable, and yet far enough away to have a certain glamour. Also, that was the height of the British Empire and London was the centre of that Empire, so, in a sense, of the world. Anything you wanted could happen there, and it would never grow boring.
A third element is that it is before most forensic science, so crime stories could still centre on detection by observation and common sense rather than ballistics, finger prints, blood types, etc.
How do you do research for your novels? How much time do you spend researching each novel? What are some of the things you find enjoyable about this part of the writing process?
I research by reading, and I have a researcher who works for me four days a week to find many of the sources of information and look for particular facts and backgrounds.
It is not something I do in a block of time separate from writing, so I couldn’t tell you hours and minutes. I am too busy doing it to keep a check.
Research is always interesting. Part of the skill is knowing what to include and what to keep only as a guard against error. I would say about three-quarters at the very least falls into the latter category. One wants to write a story with the sense that “you are there,” not a history book. It is easy to become very boring.
You have several successful series. What are the benefits of writing a series and what are some of the challenges?
The benefits of writing a series are that you can develop characters and watch relationships over a period of time, usually years, and make people grow and learn in real time. Of course you don’t have to. In the past several very successful writers have left their characters pretty well static, but I think these days it is unacceptable.
The disadvantages are that you have to keep changing something about the stories—theme, background, specialist skills, etc., or you risk becoming boring.
How did the ideas for your characters Thomas Pitt and William Monk come?
Thomas Pitt simply developed. There was little planning in advance because I had no idea he would become a series character.
I intended Monk to begin with no memory of his motives but to discover his actions through detection, therefore judging himself from the outside only—as we judge other people. He will grow gradually to judge other people with the compassion he wishes to judge himself—i.e., with the compulsion to know the reasons and understand actions from the point of view of the person taking them.
Your book The Cater Street Hangman was made into a film. How were you involved with the project? How did you feel when you saw the finished film?
I was not very much involved in the filming of The Cater Street Hangman, but I did go down to watch filming one day, and I enjoyed it very much. Very educational as well as exciting to see my own story come to life. I was delighted with the finished film in almost all respects. Some of the scenes they added (not from the book) were excellent. I wish I had thought of them.
What has your experience writing your standalone novels Tathea, Come Armageddon, and The Sheen on the Silk been like? Particularly, what were some of the challenges of breaking out of your standard genre?
It is really almost impossible to describe the experience of writing Tathea and Come Armageddon. The nearest would be to liken it to taking a journey of spiritual exploration of existence such as a retreat out of time or physical context of the present. But any journey of the mind can be like that, if it is profound enough. It is exhausting, exhilarating, dangerous, and infinitely rewarding. It has nothing to do with writing technique or skills and everything to do with plumbing the depths of my own belief.
The Sheen on the Silk was simply a technical challenge of dealing with a new period of time, five separate point of view characters and five storylines which have to come together, the pacing, the different settings, and the real history. Most writers will deal with such things at one time or another.
While your books have been translated into several languages and sell all around the world, I understand that your largest readership is in the United States. Any theories as to why that might be the case?
Yes, my largest readership is in the United States. That may be partly because it is a very large country indeed and has several times the population of most other individual countries. I think it may also be at least in part because it is my belief and experience that Americans are largely an optimistic and open-hearted people. I found this when I lived in America in a very formative part of my life, and something of that attitude has become natural to me. I don’t really know the answer, but that seems possible.
What are some of the things you do to engage with and expand your readership?
I keep a website, travel and lecture, do signings, answer correspondence. My publishers send me on book tours in America, Italy, France, and Spain. Occasionally I speak at libraries. Mainly I try to be honest to my beliefs in what I write, and to explore the issues I believe matter and are common to most people.
Do you have any projects coming up that you’re particularly excited about?
I always have projects coming up—ideas, plots, dreams, and hopes. At the moment I have four book outlines and am working on ideas for television which may or may not work out—and a film script to do with the Pitt series.
Any advice for beginning writers who would like to get their work published?
My advice to beginning writers is to write about whatever you feel most passionately. Technique can be learned, but without passion it is empty. Write and rewrite, and re-rewrite. Get a good agent. Never give up.
In very practical terms, read something you do not enjoy, then analyse why you don’t enjoy it. I think mostly you will find it is because the plot is unbelievable—or you do not care what happens to the people. The first is fixable and the second is not. You must care! If that is the case—create different characters drawn out of your own feelings.
You’ve been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for forty years now. How were you introduced to the Church, and can you tell us something about your conversion process?
I always knew I was a Christian, but most Christian churches hold certain beliefs I do not agree with. I worked out for myself what I believe—and then when I was living in California, my next-door neighbours were strong members of the Church, and I discovered that the doctrines at the heart of the Plan of Salvation are exactly what make sense to me.
I recently wrote a piece for Deseret on “Why I am a Mormon” which answers your question exactly.
You’ve said that Tathea and Come Armageddon reflect some of your religious beliefs. How is that the case? Do you see your beliefs influencing your other work?
I said Tathea and Come Armageddon reflect all of my beliefs, not some of them. I do not mention the Saviour by name, but He is implicit. If you ask how that is the case, all I can suggest is that you read the conversation between Man of Holiness and Asmodeus at the end of both books, and your question will be answered.
Yes, of course my beliefs influence all my work. I think that has to be true of any writer at all, whether you mean it to be or not. ❧