Robert Wilson’s adrenaline-laced background alone is enough to inspire his fiction: a night-long battle for life without painkillers, being held up at gun-point in Africa, facing a pride of lions, cycling to Spain and Portugal. He has, to a large extent, walked the walk so he can talk the talk.
Wilson, whose books have been translated in twenty-two countries, recently answered a few questions for The Big Thrill about his life and latest novel, YOU WILL NEVER FIND ME. Enjoy the narrative voice of this disciplined, prolific, and versatile writer whose kaleidoscopic experience and approach to the craft of writing will enthrall you.
Let’s start with a short introduction.
I’ve written thirteen novels including the Bruce Medway noir series set in West Africa and two Lisbon books with WW2 settings the first of which, A Small Death in Lisbon, won the CWA Gold Dagger in 1999 and the International Deutsche Krimi prize in 2003. I’ve written four psychological crime novels set in Seville, with the Spanish detective, Javier Falcón. Two of these books (The Blind Man of Seville and The Silent and the Damned) were filmed and broadcast on Sky Atlantic as “Falcón” in 2012. A film of the fourth Falcón book was released in Spain in 2014 under the title La Ignorancia de la Sangre Capital Punishment. The first novel in my latest series set in London and featuring kidnap consultant, Charles Boxer, was nominated for the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. This was followed by YOU WILL NEVER FIND ME in 2014 in the UK, and April 2015 in the U.S. The third book in the series, Stealing People, will be published in June 2015 in the UK and 2016 in the U.S.
What led you to being a writer?
It was at boarding school at the age of fourteen that I had the first inkling that I would like to be a writer. In an English lesson the teacher gave us the task of writing and reading out a poem. After an hour we returned with our work. Mine was a love poem. Not that I knew anything about love, but like most fourteen year olds I was anxious about it. Nobody wanted to be the first to read. I was a confident jock in those days so I volunteered and stood up amongst much jeering. With the first two lines I silenced them and they remained silent for the whole poem and a couple of minutes afterwards until the English teacher finally broke the spell. It was the quality of their silence that made me want to be a writer.
How often and to what degree do you miss the challenges of the life you led before writing success claimed you?
Before I became a full-time writer in the early 90s, I worked in a shipbroking company specializing in gas transportation. I learned about international business. After three years they wanted me to run their Houston office. But instead, I quit and rode a bicycle down to Spain and Portugal. I spent the whole six months thinking about a woman I’d just split up with, who had left to travel in Africa with a friend.
I came back from cycling and took a job in an ad agency. At a lunch the following year I persuaded the woman who’d just come back from Africa that we weren’t just friends and we got madly drunk. Jane and I got married a year later.
To test the strength of the marriage we bought a VW Kombi van and travelled across the Sahara to West Africa and then across the heart of darkness to Kenya and Tanzania. It took us a year. We met strange people. We got sick. We saw elephants. We broke down. We got crapped on by baboons. We dug ourselves out of sand. We pushed ourselves through mud holes. We were held at gunpoint. We found ourselves in the middle of a civil war. We saw a pride of lions, fat and lazy after a kill. We fell in love with Africa and I realized that there were other ways of thinking and doing things that were just as valid as my own. And we were still together at the end of it.
My flat in London now felt too small, the city hemmed us in but the countryside was overrun with traffic, too. We left again, for Portugal this time and lived in Sintra, just outside Lisbon. I worked out how to export bathrooms to Nigeria. I took a job setting up a company trading sheanut in Ghana. I wrote travel stories about my experiences in Africa.
When Sintra got too crowded we moved to the Alentejo, close to the Spanish border, and found our ideal house in the middle of nowhere. I started writing novels. It took me a year to get it right and another to finish my first book.
I haven’t looked back since.
The only thing I miss is being able to go and have a drink with my colleagues after work. You might think that writing gets easier the more you do it, but I’ve yet to meet the writer who hasn’t found their latest book the hardest piece of work they’ve ever done. As far as challenges go there is no greater one than facing the empty page.
What’s your secret to managing fame and fortune?
Over the decades several film options have been taken out on my books and I’d learned one thing: don’t hold your breath. Pay absolutely no attention to it. If it happens, great. If it doesn’t, that’s fine too. I’ve been lucky enough to have two films made of books from my Falcon series, but apart from having a little extra money, it didn’t change my life very much.
Do you work from home or an office away from it?
I divide my time between England and Portugal but I’ve found that the place where I really enjoy working is in my house in the Alentejo—a rural area directly east of Lisbon not far from the Spanish border. The house is set in a small range of hills, which has been popular with religious hermits for centuries. I go walking in the eucalyptus forest most days. The trees are used for making wood pulp and then paper. The irony is not lost on a writer.
How do you balance your personal and professional life?
I do yoga every day and that keeps me relaxed and controls stress. I like to cook because it’s creative but in a different way and unlike a novel it gives an instant reward. I make a terrific roast octopus in red wine and a monkfish, prawns and rice dish which is a Portuguese classic.
Which writers have most influenced you?
I studied American literature at Oxford and fell in love with Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Melville, and James. Later I discovered an obsession with writers like Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, George V Higgins, and Jim Thompson. Reading Chandler and Leonard was a revelation. I loved their distinctive ‘noir’ voices and decided I wanted to write like that. The only problem was that England didn’t lend itself to ‘noir’ so I set my first four novels in West Africa of the 1990s which bore a strong resemblance to California of the 1940s.
To what extent is your creativity the fruit of your environment?
I love to travel and that’s been the biggest influence on my writing. And I do a lot of research. Then I hole up in my house in Portugal where there are no distractions and total peace and quiet. I quickly worked out that you don’t wait for inspiration to come along before you start writing. Inspiration comes out of the writing process so you have to make a serious commitment to the desk. I have a very strict writing schedule. My day starts around five o’clock in the morning. It’s a regime that started the first summer I spent in Portugal and found that the temperatures hit (100 F) 40C by midday and writing after lunch just wasn’t going to happen. Once up I make a pot of green tea and read something totally different to what I’m going to write for about half an hour. This jogs the brain into action. I then go down to my study and do ninety minutes work followed by seventy-five minutes of yoga. After breakfast I lash myself to the desk and work until lunchtime with a single break for coffee. I sleep in the heat of the afternoon and then start work again in the evening. If I’m finishing a book I keep going but rarely beyond 10:00 pm. I work in ninety minute spurts because I know I can maintain maximum concentration for that length of time. I always write longhand using Bic biros and cheap photocopy paper. I hate the humming demand of a computer and I have the handwriting of a lame spider, which leads me to believe that everything I’ve written is rubbish and needs reworking. I aim to write a thousand words a day. Sometimes I manage to wring out a couple of hundred in six hours of torture, other times I can write three thousand and skip away from the desk like a schoolgirl.
How do you craft your characters?
Characters come from strange places in the brain. They are composites of people I have known or observed and they do not always behave reliably. In fact it is this unreliability which makes writing rewarding. Quite often I go into a novel thinking that I have a developed character in my mind only to find that when he or she starts to interact with other characters unexpected things happen. I have been known to completely rewrite a character as a result of that character’s determination to be someone different. So I’d like to be able to claim that I craft my characters, but quite often the characters craft themselves.
How do you control the development of your intricate plots?
A friend of mine once said to me: “My God, I’d love to have seen the wall chart of your plot for The Blind Man of Seville.” Wall chart? I didn’t have a wall chart. If I’d had a wall chart I’d still be doing the wall chart and not writing the novel. I would love to be one of those writers who plans their novels meticulously, but I just can’t do it. The creative process is stifled in me by any attempt to think things through without writing. So I get an idea, find a character and start throwing it down on the page. I work on the principle that if I don’t know what’s going to happen next then the reader will surely have no idea. This is not an easy way to write. It means I am in a constant state of unknowing, but that also creates tension within me which goes into the writing. So I’m open-minded about how things will unfold, which also means that, if later on in the novel I suddenly hit on an idea demanding an extensive rewrite of what’s gone before, then so be it. There are thriller writers who plan meticulously and I know at least one who believes that if a writer doesn’t know how his/her book is going to end he thinks that’s “a disgrace.” I’m sorry to say I have never known the ending to any of my books. I am therefore a disgrace.
What’s your revision input before you feel your manuscript is ready for submission?
After about six months working at the first draft I pretty much know where I’m going with a novel. Then I start transcribing the handwritten pages of my manuscript onto the computer. This is my first serious edit. I see those good days and I write again at the product of the bad ones. This goes on for another six months. Then my editor reads it and gives me notes. And after about another six or seven drafts I have a finished book.
Would you like to share any public service projects you might be involved in with our readers?
We are living in an era when global markets are having an enormous effect on the way in which local economies perform. So in London, where my books are set, residential property has become a much sought-after investment for people all over the world. This means that the capital is becoming almost an impossible place for anyone of normal means to live. We have homelessness on a scale we haven’t seen before. The number of people sleeping rough has been steadily rising year on year. And it’s not just the young, the poor and the disenfranchised, even middle class people find themselves surprisingly close to homelessness: a broken relationship and a lost job could be enough to tip someone into queuing for a hostel for the night. I have been supporting Crisis for many years now and they do brilliant work in not just temporary housing but also setting young people up for a future.
What are your hobbies and interests?
Obviously I love reading, the movies, long-running TV series and theatre. I enjoy travelling and learning about new cultures and their cuisine because cooking has always been a part of my life. Having been interested in sport when I was young I have always maintained a fitness regime and done a lot of cycling and walking. In the last couple of years I’ve got into yoga, which I practice almost every day.
Robert Wilson has written thirteen novels including the Bruce Medway noir series set in West Africa and two Lisbon books with WW2 settings the first of which, A Small Death in Lisbon, won the CWA Gold Dagger in 1999 and the International Deutsche Krimi prize in 2003. He has written four psychological crime novels set in Seville, with his Spanish detective, Javier Falcón. Two of these books (The Blind Man of Seville and The Silent and the Damned) were filmed and broadcast on Sky Atlantic as ‘Falcón’ in 2012. A film of the fourth Falcón book was released in Spain in 2014 under the title La Ignorancia de la Sangre. Capital Punishment, the first novel in his latest series set in London and featuring kidnap consultant, Charles Boxer, was published in 2013 and was nominated for the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger. This was followed by You Will Never Find Me (on sale April 2015).
To learn more about Robert, please visit his website.
Photography credit: Gabriel Pecot