Sunday, 15 March 2020

Killer Women Festival : Fresh Blood : Russ Thomas

Welcome to the second of my Killer Women Fresh Blood panellists, Russ Thomas, who works as a mentor and creative writing tutor. Lee Child is a fan of his debut, Firewatching (Simon & Schuster), calling it, ‘a UK cop novel with a pitch-perfect blend of the best of the old and the best of the new; all the traditional strengths and charms are here, with a fresh and relevant 21st-century edge.’

SH: Russ, you took a trip around the world before writing Firewatching, which is set in Sheffield. How important was location to you when creating the series?

RT: It was very important. I tried a few other places in early drafts but all of them in this country - I never envisioned setting it in Thailand or Australia or anything (that would have meant doing far too much research!). But I ended up settling on Sheffield because it's the city I know best. Tyler is a city boy, just like me, and finds the quiet of the countryside almost unsettling. Of course, in the case of Firewatching, the countryside is a pretty unsettling place. I made up the small village of Castledene because I didn't want to put all the horrible things that go on there on a real village in the Peak District. I don't feel the same way about Sheffield though, it's big enough to take it. In a way, this is my way of giving something back to the city that took me in twenty-five years ago. It's such a great place, famous for what it used to be rather than what it is now. It's also the fourth largest city in the country but largely gets ignored. Hopefully, Firewatching will help put it back on the map in some small way.

SH: Let’s talk about what happened you had finished your manuscripts and started looking for a publisher. That road can be a rocky one. How was it for you? I hear you originally started writing Firewatching in 2005?

RT: It was 2008 actually, but still a long time ago. I started the manuscript when I began my MA in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. I came away from that three years later with a finished manuscript and a fairly average mark. Then my father died and all thoughts of writing went out of my head for a bit. When I came back to it, I found myself writing a story that was much more about fathers and sons than the original had been, unsurprisingly perhaps. I started sending it out to agents and getting politely worded responses, all the usual stuff - "I liked your writing but it's just not quite right for me" etc. After exhausting a huge number of agencies I decided to put it away and work on something else. I wrote a whole different novel. But I kept coming back to Firewatching. It was working on the character of Adam Tyler that finally changed it into something. I rewrote him changing the tense, changing the point of view, even changing Tyler's name, and somehow through all of that process, Tyler emerged as he is today. I searched for him for years and then he just turned up and said, "I'm here". And at that point I knew I had something worth sending out again. This time I got three agents who were interested almost immediately and from there the book went to auction. I can't honestly say what the one thing was that made the difference. Maybe it was just the passage of time and me getting better at writing. I can tell you though that all the reasons people gave for not liking it originally are all the things people now tell me is what they love about it. So my advice is to listen when people tell you there's something wrong with your manuscript but work out for yourself what needs changing. After all, it's your vision, you just need to find a way to get that vision across to the reader.

SH: What’s next for you?

RT: Book 2 will be out next year and continues Tyler's story. It's called Nighthawking. I'm just about to start work on book 3.

Thanks, Russ!

You can buy Firewatching here (supporting your local indie bookshop). Do join the discussion on Twitter where Russ can be found here.


christine said...

Hi! It was fascinating to hear about the long gestation for "Firewatching". Do you think that the more positive response to the final version is because of the emergence of a fully rounded character, the changes in structure, or just plain timing?

R J Thomas said...

Good question, Christine. I suppose it's a little bit of all of those. A really strong central character is essential to a crime series (or any novel arguably, but especially if we're going to meet this character again). The structural changes certainly made it a better book, and I think that elusive timing/luck factor is involved in everything we do. But overall I'd say it just came down to me getting better as a writer through practice. I'm still practicing and hopefully, I'm still getting better.