Joy Hog: Your debut novel, “Child 44” has kicked up quite the buzz around the globe. Of all the places to set a thriller, why Stalinist Russia?
Tom Rob Smith: In a sense I didn’t pick the location. I was inspired by the real life case of Andrei Chikatilo, a serial killer who murdered across a ten-year period in the years just before the collapse of Soviet Union. He evaded capture not because he was ingenious but because the Soviet criminal system was reluctant to admit such a criminal could even exist within their society.
Reading the non-fiction account of the investigation was a frustrating experience. My reaction was so strong I knew that I wanted to tell my own version of the story. That’s what I mean when I say the location was picked out for me. I had to learn about the Soviet Union in order to write the book. It never crossed my mind to set the story anywhere else.
I did, however, move the story back in time, from the 1980s to the 1950s. I reasoned the pressures on our hero would be so much greater at this point in Soviet history. The regime was at its most extreme under Stalin. The hero, Leo, risks his life, the life of his wife and family, in trying to catch the killer. In the 1980s a process of liberalization was in motion: he wouldn’t have lost his life for bucking the official line.
JH: The book is coming out in more than 20 countries (hitting U.S. bookshops on 29 April). Have you found that readers in certain parts of the world find it hard to swallow because the politics hit too close to home?
TRS: You’re right, it has sold in a lot of countries, close to thirty now, but it hasn’t sold in Russia. That might be for a variety of different reasons. I had a great agent in Russia who enjoyed the book very much. However, she encountered reluctance from the publishing houses. Maybe there’s a suspicion the book was written with some kind of agenda. That certainly isn’t the case. Everyone in the book is Russian – the hero, the villain, I wanted the reader to almost forget about the issue of nationality. This is a book that asks: how would you behave under a totalitarian regime. What would you do if you had to denounce the person you loved in order to survive? Could you do it?
JH: Now, in the book, there’s a serial killer on the loose, and the way in which folks get knocked off is, well, totally gross. Did the gruesome details come from the dark recesses of your brain or did you watch a lot of ‘Law & Order’ or is it based on real stuff? If it’s real, I think I might ralph…
TRS: Much of the violence happens off the page. From a thriller point of view, I’m interested in people being in danger, narrative, suspense – once a person is dead, normally all those elements come to an end. For me, the moment just before a person is killed is where I’d end a chapter.
But to answer your question: yes and no, there was a real killer, who I mentioned in my first answer. He was a brutal and savage murderer: his crimes were horrific. However, his motivation and method were different from the motivation and method of my fictional killer. The real killer murdered because he preferred suffering to sex. He took pleasure from pain. That’s very difficult to write about. In a sense, there’s nothing to say.
From my point of view as a writer, there is a danger the killer becomes a completely alien figure, incomprehensible. I’ve reconfigured his motivation and his method for narrative reasons. Maybe that makes him more of a literary creation than an accurate reflection of a real killer… what’s interesting about my killer is that he is product of history. He embodies the awfulness of the 1930s famines.
JH: You sold the film rights to Ridley Scott and Fox 2000. Can you share any news on the plans for a film? Director, actors? What kind of catering you intend to have on-set, etc.
TRS: Richard Price is writing the screenplay. Which is amazing news – he’s an incredible writer. Ridley Scott is planning to direct it himself. I had breakfast with him – and he’s a wonderful guy and one of the best directors in the world. I can’t wait to see his take on the book.
But in terms of the smaller details (like catering) I’m not a producer on the movie, or anything like that. In truth, I’m pretty much powerless. I might, possibly, be allowed to visit the set, but only if I promise not to speak.
Often I’m asked if I’m nervous about handing the story over but in this case the opposite it true. When the people involved are this amazing I’m very excited about the process.
JH: When you’re coming up with new characters in your writing, do you ever cast the roles in your head with actors you enjoy? Perhaps Dame Judi Dench or Kevin Federline…
TRS: I don’t know who Kevin Federline is… Okay, I’ve just run a google search on him and I’m still not entirely sure I know who he is. So, I can definitely answer that I’ve never written a role with him in mind.
In fact, I never write any role with any actor in mind. I’m not even sure I have an exact sense of what my characters look like – I know if they’re handsome, beautiful, young or old, tall or short, but I couldn’t draw their faces for you. I know what they would do in any particular circumstances: I know what they would say. I know what they would feel. I’m not too bothered about the details of their nose, or their lips.
JH: How will you measure the success of the book? Are you more about sales, reviews, number of copies on beach towels?
TRS: I’ll be honest, sales are important. I want people to enjoy the book. Even better, I want a lot of people enjoying the book, and giving it as birthday presents and Christmas gifts…
JH: I understand that you are in the midst of a follow-up to “Child 44.” Is it a (dare I say it) sequel?
TRS: That’s right – set in 1956, called THE SECRET SPEECH. It’s an incredible period in history and I’ve found a great story to thread through it. I’m going to be done with the book in June, it will be published next year.
JH: With all the touring to promote the book, have you found a new favourite city or snack food?
TRS: I love New York and San Francisco but I’d been there before. New places, I really enjoyed San Diego. The USS Midway was incredible and I thought the city had a nice feel to it. I also enjoyed Los Angeles and Seattle, both of which I’d never been to before.
Snacks… I’m not sure… although when I was staying at the Hyatt in New York, one morning, I had room service because the breakfast hall was full. I ordered porridge, fresh fruit, tea and mineral water and the bill came to eighty dollars! That’s like a dollar an oat.
JH: And lastly, since we are complete JoyHoggers here, we’d love to hear what you’re watching or listening to or reading. It’s good sometimes to see what tickles the palettes of the folks we like…
TRS: Watching ENTOURAGE, which is great and 24, which has been a big influence on CHILD 44. If you love 24, I think you’ll love CHILD 44. That’s my hope anyway.
Reading wise, lots of research for the second book, and for pleasure, I’ve just finished Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, which I thought was tremendous. There isn’t a word out of place!
Listening, Leona Lewis – maybe as a hardboiled thriller writer (which really I’m not at all, CHILD 44 has a love story at its heart) I shouldn’t be admitting that but I’m really pleased she’s doing well in the States. She’s incredible.