International Thrills: An Interview with No. 1 Bestselling
UK Thriller Author Simon Kernick
In this latest installment of “International Thrills,” USA Today bestselling thriller author J. F. Penn interviews Simon Kernick for THE BIG THRILL. Read the transcript below or you can watch the video here on YouTube. —Managing Eds.
With his fast paced novels topping the Sunday Times bestseller list, Simon Kernick is one of Britain’s most popular thriller authors. His latest book, ULTIMATUM, is just out in the U.S. It opens with an explosion in a central London café and a threat from a terrorist group that promises escalation of the violence. Can Detective Inspector Mike Bolt and Deputy Commissioner Tina Boyd stop the atrocity before it’s too late?
So, Simon, tell us a bit about your life before you began writing bestselling thrillers.
I’ve always wanted to write, ever since I was a little kid, so I was always writing stories of some description. But to pay the bills, I’ve done a number of different jobs, from bar work to road-building, to laboring and Christmas tree uprooting, obviously very seasonal work.
And eventually I had a career for some years as an IT software salesman, which never gets a second question, so I’m going to move swiftly on! I did that for about a decade, and while I did that, I was trying to get published, and eventually, I was lucky enough to get a publishing deal. And the minute I got one—which is pretty much almost thirteen years ago today—I went full time. And I’ve been full-time writing ever since, and I don’t want to go back to work anymore!
Your books feature a lot of famous British landmarks, so I wondered if you could talk about a couple of places in Britain that are particularly special to you, and how they feature in your books.
Well, London is the main location for the vast majority of the books. They do move out into the UK a little bit more, but as a general rule of thumb, it’s London. My latest book, ULTIMATUM, features a very new and very famous London landmark now, the Shard. It’s an amazing looking tower.
I love London to walk around, to see how the old and the new can just live together, and the rich and the poor merge together; it’s such an amazingly cosmopolitan city. But when you get on the South Bank of the Thames, and you see the Shard stretching up like a piece of glass into the sky, it’s an absolutely incredible scene, and pretty much the moment I saw it, I wanted it to feature it somewhere in a book.
And then to move completely away from London, to the other end of the country, my book Stay Alive, which I think comes out in the States next year, and which just came out in the UK this year, is all about a kayaking trip that goes wrong in the wilderness of Scotland. I spent a few days up in a place called Glen Affric, a huge glen about twenty miles south-east of Inverness, and it’s right in the middle of nowhere.
You can’t believe that in a country as heavily populated and as small as the UK you can have such amazing wilderness, but it contains an a magnificent ancient pine forest, beautiful waters and mountains, and it was a fantastic backdrop for the book and obviously a fantastic place to go and do some research.
You write a lot of action scenes and thriller readers love explosions! Have you got a hit list of things you want to blow up in your books?
Do you know, I’ve never thought about that. I do quite like a big explosion but I don’t think I’d like to explode any landmarks in London, because I quite like them, and I don’t really want to lay waste to the city—I think it’s much better on the page, to be honest.
I would like one time to actually blow something up myself, something that was ready for demolition, like one of those big tower blocks they have. I’d like to push down the detonation thing, whatever it’s called, and set one of those bombs off, but I have never done it.
I have been, though, to the Army Bomb Disposal School in the UK, where they told me how to make a bomb, pretty much from household components, which was research for a book, and I’ve actually handled various plastic explosives that they let me mess around with up there, but I’ve not actually blown anything up as yet. And that’s probably no bad thing!
What are the other thrilling things you’ve done in terms of your research expeditions?
Well, two of my books were set, at least partly, in the Philippines: A Good Day to Die and The Payback. Ispent some time there moving around the islands and checking out and exploring Manila, which is probably one of the ugliest cities in the world, because it was the second-most bombed city in the Second World War, after Dresden. It was bombed by both the Japanese and the Americans trying to get it back, and so it was completely flattened. It’s pretty much made up of low, two-story, three-story breeze-block buildings all over the place. It’s an incredibly ugly place, but very exciting and interesting.
That’s probably my favorite location for research, because it’s a little bit like the Wild West. It’s nothing like anywhere else in Southeast Asia. They’re a bit more violent, there are a lot more guns about, there are a lot more soldiers and police, and there’s always kind of something going on in the background, so it was an amazing location for the books.
There’s a lot of political upheaval going on in the world with ISIS in Iraq and other things happening. Do you get any ideas from the bigger political scene?
Yes, I do. I’ve written books, such as Siege, and ULTIMATUM, where they take on board things that are happening in the world currently, particularly on the terrorism front, on the Islamic fundamentalism front, and the rise of separatism. You always have to put your own slant on things, because I don’t want to write a book that’s very specifically current affairs. I just think it’s good to have a story that has some level of escapism from the horrible parts of the world that we keep hearing about, but at the same time, where it’s quite obvious from the plot that those events are impinging a little bit.
So I mix and match, really. It’s good to put the current affairs in, but my books are escapism: they’re there for excitement, action, twists and turns, and ultimately, I want someone to finish a book and think, “Ah, I really enjoyed that and I want to read another of his,” not, “Oh, my God, that’s so depressing. The world is collapsing all around us.”
Your books are set at breakneck speed, a nonstop pace. Is that how you live your life? If not, what do you do to relax?
Well, that’s a good question, actually. I do quite a lot of exercise. I do a fair amount of kayaking, although I’ve never ended up on the kind of trip where people are trying to kill me, as they do in Stay Alive. I do quite a lot of outdoor and fairly exciting activities, but at the same time, I lead quite a nice life, as well. When I’ve finished writing for the day, I relax. If I’m really knackered, I take a nice long walk down by the River Thames where I live, and then come back, cook some dinner, and just slob out in front of the TV, watching usually American box sets and comedies. And that, to me, is a nice way of relaxing.
But, funny enough, I am quite an impatient person, and I have a fairly short attention span a lot of the time. I can be talking about one thing and suddenly I move very quickly to another, and then quickly to another, and quickly to another. A lot of people have described me as fairly manic, so I think maybe that’s influencing the books as well. I couldn’t write a slow one, I don’t think.
No, I guessed that. No literary fiction in your department!
No, it’s too slow: I like things to move fast. But that’s how I like to read them, as well. A book has to engage me from the first page, or I don’t really give it too much of a chance anymore. I think a good book is always engaging in the first page, even if it’s a fairly slow plot, so that’s what I try to do with my books, and then just keep people reading, yanked in right until the very end.
What are the themes that obsess you, that you keep coming back to in your writing?
I think the fear that the criminals are winning. There is always a fear in my books that the police, the law, doesn’t protect the victims as much as it protects the criminals, and that this isn’t a good thing. So, the fear that the police are often battling as much against their superiors and the establishment and the legal system as they are against the criminals is a recurring theme.
And the need by almost all my protagonists, both police or not, to break the rules, because the rules themselves are too much of a straitjacket. So there’s this thing about how far do you go to break the rules, and how far can you go without becoming a criminal yourself and losing the sympathy that you’re trying to get. How far can you corrupt the sense of the search for justice?
So that’s the recurring theme that I think has run through every one of my books, and is very much in the latest book, as well. That’s what always interests me.
I’ve noticed that threat to family is also a common theme. Would that be true?
Yes, because a lot of my protagonists are just an ordinary man or woman that suddenly get themselves flung into a situation over which they have no control, and to which they don’t know how to react. And I think that’s hugely important to me, but often, when it’s an ordinary person, they have a family as well, and often they’re trying to protect their family. And family to me is very, very, important.
I have two children and I’m massively protective over them, and I suppose when I’m dealing in the books with threat to family, I think of my own kids and how I would feel if they came under threat, and so that adds an intensity to the writing.
It’s the fear that I have as a parent for my children going out in the world and protecting them against all the dangers that are out there. That’s a recurring fear for me, and I think a lot of parents probably can sympathize with that.
That speaks to the parenting side, but what other aspects of your life come out in your characters?
Well, I think a lot of me is in my characters, and I think that’s the case pretty much with any writer. If you’re writing a book, it’s your passions, your thoughts, your fears that go into the characters. Obviously, the characters are all fictional, and in many cases in my ones, they’re a lot braver than I would be in a lot of circumstances, but they have my sense of fear about the world; they have my sense of enjoyment when things go right, my sense of always desiring some form of natural justice as well.
I have a great thing about natural justice: I like to see the good rewarded and the bad punished, and that is a huge theme in my books: whether they’re the ordinary person in trouble or whether they’re the police officer trying to find a murderer, they all have that need for natural justice. That comes straight from me.
In talking about fear, I heard you speak at a literary festival about being abducted as young man. Would you mind telling that story?
I was hitchhiking with a couple of friends, aged sixteen, when we were picked up by three older guys in a very small car, and they basically drove us into my home town, late at night, and rather than actually drop us off, they drove back out of town with us in the car, and made us take our clothes off. It was a really horrible incident where we thought we were going to die.
We were eventually naked and lined up outside the car in the middle of some woods and beaten very badly, and then threatened. I think one of them said to another, “Get the shotgun out,” and I don’t know how much of it was trying to scare us and humiliate us, or how much of it was real. One of my friends actually broke free and escaped, and that’s when they let me and my other friend go.
But it was a really, really terrifying, ordeal. It was made worse, I think, by the fact that the police knew very quickly who they were, but none of them admitted anything under detailed and lengthy questioning. They never discovered the stolen car that they were in, and the police waited weeks and weeks before they came round with a book containing photographs that may or may not have contained these guys. We couldn’t pick out the guys so they were never brought to justice. That was quite a difficult thing.
The fear that I remember from that night is a kind of fear that you never, ever forget, because for about half an hour, I really did think I was going to die. I was sixteen and had never experienced anything like that before. I come from a comparatively sheltered background and lived in a small town, so it was a pretty traumatic experience. When I’m writing from the point of view of ordinary individuals in trouble, who are faced with a really terrifying situation, where they think they’re going to die, I draw upon my own experiences of that and try to infuse that in the page through their eyes.
Thank you so much for sharing that: I appreciate your openness.
It’s funny, but I didn’t think about it for years and years; I really pushed it to one side and tried to forget about it, and I never spoke about it with my two friends, one of whom I still keep vaguely in touch with. It’s still never mentioned, and it’s only in recent years with the writing that it’s come out and that I’ve talked about it more. Twenty-two years ago, I think it was. A long time ago, but you never forget it.
We often write to deal with these things ourselves. Do you think people who love thrillers are reading for that vicarious experience? Why do people love reading books like yours?
I think it’s always quite nice to be sitting in the warmth of your house, feeling all cozy in bed, reading a book where some horrendous things are happening to people who you can hopefully identify with, and think, “Oh, my goodness, thank goodness that’s not happening to me.” That’s quite a nice feeling, I always think.
And I think people just really, really enjoy books where there are plenty of twists and turns; where they don’t really know what’s going to happen next, and where they can actually identify with and sympathize with the characters who are their main protagonists. That’s the really important thing about using an ordinary person like I do in a number of books. I think that the reader can see these people and think, “Yeah, actually that could be me, and what would I do in those sort of situations, and what’s going to happen.” That, I think, is the real key to why people enjoy them.
J. F. Penn is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Arkane thrillers and the London Psychic series. Joanna is passionate about international travel, psychology, and the supernatural, and she weaves these obsessions into her fast-paced novels. She also likes a few gin and tonics. Free ebooks and audio, as well as more author interviews on her website or connect on twitter @thecreativepenn