20th Sep2013

Interview with Adrian Magson

by Lloyd Paige


Adrian Magson is the author of the fantastic Inspector Lucas Rocco novels and the Harry Tate spy thriller series, as well as a host of other stories, so it was a privilege for me to finally get Adrian on my site to discuss his writing career to date.

1. I understand that your grandfather was a part-time journalist, what impact did books have on your life while growing up?

You’ve done your homework. Books were always there, it seemed, on shelves, just waiting to be read. We lived in a rural farming community (my father was a farm labourer) and I was always being encouraged to read books, comics, sauce bottles – anything. I think my parents were trying to ward off the alternative of me getting into trouble in the great outdoors with the local junior thugs. Didn’t actually work that well, but that’s where my reading began, aged 7 or 8, with Leslie Charteris (The Saint) and Louis L’Amour books, mostly, until I graduated to the likes of Mickey Spillane and Hank Janson in my teens. I only met my grandfather some years later, after he’d stopped his journalism, so I’m not sure if the writing bug jumped the generation gap or not. I know my father was very pleased when I became a bookworm, though.

2. You spent a bit of time in France in your youth, an experience which you’ve used to good effect for the Inspector Rocco books. How important is the location of a story and does it help to sell a book?

For me, it’s extremely important. It gives me a hook on which to hang the story. I’ve never been good at inventing fictional locations, so I invariably use real ones, even if I change the name or some of the physical details to protect the innocent. It’s purely a mental thing, though; I don’t have to walk round a location to feel it – as long as I know it’s there and know the basic layout, I’m happy. Where I do get down and familiar at street level is using well-known locations like London, Paris, New York, for example. I like to know that if I mention landmarks, I’ve put them in the right place. I was taken to France at age 9 by my parents, and spent 2 years in a tiny village school there, which was a great experience. I think they’d be delighted I’m now using that knowledge in the Inspector Lucas Rocco books (Allison & Busby). My brother still lives there – he’s gone totally native – so he’s a useful reference source if I need it.
I do think many readers fasten onto a location which is different to their own, and if that helps sell books, great.

3. When you write, do you plan every stage or do you have a rough idea and just go with the flow?

I’m a rough idea kind of writer; I push with the nose to see where it goes. I’ve tried to plan at various times in my writing career, usually on the grounds that it’s something you should do… but always found myself being dragged off-course and having to junk the outlines. I might have a few ideas or scenes in my head when I start, and I rely on those to generate further ideas and scenes until I’ve got something solid going – a bit like laying down stepping stones then joining them up. It doesn’t work for everybody but does for me. I tell myself that if it surprises me, it should surprise the reader!

4. Have you always been a reluctant or compliant author with regard to sticking to the rules of the genre you write?

I’ve never thought about it to be honest (and never been asked that question before – good one!). I write crime novels and thrillers in the main, and I suppose I’ve always stuck with the main requirements of the genres, although that’s probably subconscious rather than deliberate. I used to write lots of short stories for women’s magazines, and probably stuck closer to those rules than any others, since if you went off-topic, you didn’t get past the editor! The short answer is, I know what I expect from the genre when I pick up a crime novel or a spy thriller, and feel puzzled or let down if it turns into something else halfway through.

5. In what ways must a character you create stand out for you?

The physical side is important, especially in how the reader sees them. I don’t put in a lot of descriptive detail of each character, and let the reader colour in the gaps. Every reader will ‘see’ a character differently, anyway, so I don’t try guiding them too intently. But the character has to have a presence, and part of that presence is portrayed by their actions and reactions, and their relations to others. Over the course of a story, and even more so over a series, which is what I write, the physical image is a hook (for dramatic effect when needed), but it’s the characterisation that stays and grows, and on which the reader comes to rely. Most series readers will comment on a favourite character, but less so on the physical side once they’ve got the character firmly embedded in their mind.

6. You’ve had the experience of being self published and being traditionally published. Where do you stand on the idea of both mediums being used in tandem?

I came to self-publishing after being published in the traditional manner. The first example was a YA ghost novel (to see if I could). Then I regained the electronic rights to my five Gavin and Palmer crime novels which had been published in paperback, and decided to try them out on Kindle (mainly because I didn’t think another publisher would take them on). I then put up some short story anthologies. All in all, I stand firmly in the camp that says ‘go for both’. Writers have to make the most of every opportunity, and if self-publishing is one of them, and they approach it professionally, why not? I don’t understand the criticism that comes from the so-called legacy-publishing gurus. I know people who have started small businesses because it was the only way they could do their own thing. Nobody from their various (non-writing) sectors told them they were second-rate or that they’d fail because it wasn’t ‘proper’. Writing is a business and everyone has a right to pursue it however they can. But be professional about it.

7. You’ve written quite a few short stories so do you think short stories are better served being self published by authors or would you like to see publishers to get fully behind them once again?

I’m not sure publishers will ever get behind them fully. To be honest. 99% of my short fiction appeared in women’s magazines because when I tried getting into anthologies many years ago, I found you had to be a name to get your work considered. So I went straight for the biggest short fiction market going – and which paid real money! I admit that women’s fiction wasn’t my first choice, but I enjoyed it and found it a great learning curve in how to write for a market, get your stuff in on time, at the right word count and so forth. I certainly think writers should consider doing their own thing if they like writing short fiction – but there are lots more opportunities for selling short fiction now, including in anthologies. The money might not be great but for that you have to rely on a heavy output, which is what I did.

8. You’re a consistent writer. Do your ideas relatively come easy to you and how do you get your inspiration?

(I have to be careful of tempting providence here). I usually(!) have no trouble coming up with ideas. Oddly enough I have more book ideas than short fiction ones, but maybe that’s a result of my focus on the longer form at the moment. I’ve always seen my writing as a business, especially since I was able to take it up full-time some 14 years ago. So I’ve always taken a practical view about using ideas – or not – of never throwing anything away but relying on another idea coming along sooner or later. And with the pace of events, of news, of world affairs, there’s always another idea that will flutter through the window like a lost pigeon, and either fly away before I can grab it or settle in for the long haul. What is interesting however, and I’m sure other writers find the same, is that there’s always a small nugget of an idea that’s been kicking around for years in your bottom drawer or on the hard drive of your PC, which suddenly bursts to the surface when you’re not looking. Which is why I never throw anything away. Cherish your old stuff!

9. If Harry Tate met Lucas Rocco in bar, would they get on and what type of conversation do you think they’d have?

I think they’d probably get on, professional to professional. But coming from different backgrounds and eras, they’d be wary, even cautious. But they’d recognise each other for what they were, which is hunters.

10. You recently announced on Twitter your good news regarding The Watchman, tell us a bit about that book?

This was a try-out. The publishers of the Harry Tate series (Severn House), asked me if I could write another character as a change from the Harry Tate books. I said yes, of course (well you do, don’t you, faced with this question?) Fortunately, they were okay with it being in the same spy/thriller genre, but I wanted to try something darker, faster-paced. I’d been thinking very vaguely about a character who is basically a covert bodyguard for spies, and who watches their backs on assignments in hostile territories, but without them knowing he’s there. His name is Portman (that was an immediate thing – no idea where it came from, but it stuck and refused to leave), and he’s something of an enigma, with a shady background (at the moment). He’s military-trained, focussed and will not hesitate to do whatever is necessary to protect his charges, even if that means taking out the opposition along their route to get them in and back out again. I like to hang my stories on a hint of real-life scenarios, and this one is about Portman being hired on the recommendation of the CIA to work for MI6 (SIS) to protect two SIS officers sent to negotiate with Somali pirates for the release of UN hostages. Unfortunately, all is not what it seems, as al-Shabaab (an al-Qaeda affiliate organisation) is involved and… well, I’d better not tell you any more. Suffice to say, Portman has his work cut out!

The thing is, like many writers I like trying different things. This turned out to be great fun and I was able to let out my darker side a little. (The publishers and my agent love it, so I hope readers will, too. It’s due out in February 2014).

11. Writers often have to believe in what they’ve written so if things hadn’t worked out when you submitted the proposal for The Watchman, would you have made it available to your fans yourself or would you have locked it away in a drawer?

I would have tried it elsewhere first via my agent, David Headley, who loved it. But if there had been no takers, no way was it going in a drawer. After the effort (and, OK, the fun) of writing it, I’d have put it out there myself.

12. You’ve worked under a female pseudonym before and we still see well known authors crossing the gender divide, but do writers nowadays still need to do that or is it simply a personal choice?

For me it was a matter of being asked to write some stories in the first person female for a national women’s magazine. I couldn’t see a man’s name at the top of the page working, and didn’t want to use initials. The editor said, ‘pick a name’, so I used my mother’s maiden name (Ellen Cleary), and it stuck for what my wife, Ann, refers to as the ‘frock years’. And no, I never cross-dressed once. Honest. But it was a useful device for me to get into the right frame of mind. As for other writers, I think it’s a personal choice. Go with your instincts.

13. Once your book is out there do you feel compelled to always monitor your rankings or are you able to take a step back?

Yes, ‘fraid so. Even if I don’t fully understand them, movement is movement and shows something is happening. The effort put in should have some return in my view, so I can’t step back, no. It’s how I make my living, after all, and why I also engage in social media and blogging. Hiding one’s light under a bushel doesn’t work in today’s world – there’s too much competition.

14. Finally, which authors do you enjoy reading?

Some of the obvious ones, like John Sandford, Lee Child, Steve Hamilton, Robert Crais. But others I enjoy are Gerald Seymour, Marshall Karp, Thomas Enger, Matt Hilton, Howard Linskey… and new ones I find all the time. So much to read and so little time…


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