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Frequently Asked Questions
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Tell us about your new novel, THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS.
Where did the idea for the story come from?
The story is narrated by two women, Agatha and Meghan, who are both pregnant. How did you go about capturing their voices and getting inside their heads?
What made you decide to write psychological thrillers?
Your plots are often quite clever and have readers guessing right until the end. Do you map them out beforehand or do they come naturally?made you decide to write psychological thrillers?
You often take minor characters from one book and make them the main character of your next one. Why is this?
Is it true that you've ghost-written for some very famous people?
Can you tell us any secrets about them?
Did ghost-writing help or hinder you as a novelist?
Ghost-writing is a very different discipline to writing fiction. How did you change your mindset?
How much pre-planning goes into each book?
Do you have a set routine for your writing day?
Do you believe successful writing can be taught?
How do you manage to sustain the tension? It was a real nail biter and I was guessing right up to the end?
You write in the first person and the present tense. This is somewhat unusual, as most writers choose the third-person and the past tense. Is there a particular reason why you use this?
Do you have any advice for new writers or anyone just starting out?
1: Tell us about your latest novel THE SECRET SHE KEEPS.
MICHAEL ROBOTHAM: This is my 12th novel and it's unlike anything I’ve written before. It’s a book about pregnancy and families, jealousy and greed, and how we imagine other people’s lives or families are better than ours, but they’re just as screwed up as we are. The grass might be greener, but that’s because it’s been fertilised with blood and bone.
2: Where did the you come up with the idea for the new novel?
I can’t tell you the exact inspiration because it gives one of the major hooks away, but like a lot of my previous thrillers, it is seeded in a real-life event – a story I covered as a journalist when I worked for a national newspaper in the UK.
3: The story is narrated by two women, Agatha and Meghan, who are both pregnant. How did you go about capturing their voices and getting inside their heads?
MICHAEL ROBOTHAM: For the past two years, I have devoured mommy blogs and pregnancy blogs. I have talked to pregnant women, corresponded on Facebook, collected stories and eavesdropped on mother’s groups. I also come with some experience. I’m surrounded by women – I’ve been married for thirty years and have three daughters who keep me poor. In our household the toilet seat is forever down.
4: What made you decide to write psychological thrillers?
MICHAEL ROBOTHAM: I didn't actually set out to be a crime writer. It might sound naive, but I just thought I was writing an interesting story. It came as quite a shock when the label was applied. The reason I created Joseph O'Loughlin was due to my fascination with the human mind. Everything we do and say; and everything that has ever happened or will happen in the future comes down to that few pounds of porridge we call a brain. When Mozart wrote his symphonies, when Hitler ordered the Final Solution, when a serial killer murders young girls, or when a teenage mother abandons her baby in a rubbish bin – it all comes back to some aspect of human behaviour.
5: Your plots are often quite clever and have readers guessing right until the end. Do you map them out beforehand or do they come naturally?
MICHAEL ROBOTHAM: Some writers create a group of interesting characters and let the story unfold naturally but this is very hard when it comes to writing thrillers. At some point you have to steer the plot in the right direction. I love creating characters and their back-stories. Plotting is the bit I find hardest. Writing a thriller is like taking a journey. You know where you're going to start and finish but you never map it out too carefully, otherwise you might miss that side trip along the road less traveled.
6: You often take minor characters in your books and make them the main character in the following book. Why is this?
MICHAEL ROBOTHAM: I love having the luxury of being able to look at the world through a completely fresh set of eyes every time I sit down to write. This helps me to stay fresh. I don't get tired of my characters. Each book normally features new voices or new perspective on the world.
7: Is it true that you have ghostwritten some autobiographies of very famous people?
MICHAEL ROBOTHAM: I've been lucky to work with some remarkable, mercurial, difficult, insanely funny, manic and exceptional people. Many of these traits helped make them famous. Some of them I can't mention but others have acknowledged my help. I've worked with the likes of Ricky Tomlinson (Ricky), Lulu (I Don’t Want to Fight), Geri Halliwell (If Only), Tony Bullimore (Saved) and Margaret Humphreys (Empty Cradles/Oranges and Sunshine).
8: Can you tell us a secret about them?
MICHAEL ROBOTHAM: A big part of being a ghostwriter is winning people's trust. You learn things that even their families, wives, partners and best friends don't know. Sometimes there are tears and tantrums but hopefully, in the end, we have the truth. That's why I keep their secrets
9: Did ghostwriting help or hinder you as a novelist?
MICHAEL ROBOTHAM: Ghostwriting did more than pay the bills. It allowed me to see if I had the discipline and wherewithal to write 100,000 words; to sit alone in a room for month after month on a single project. It may seem odd, but I approach my novels in the same way as I approached my ghosting projects. My characters are as real to me as any real person I have worked with. I approach each book as if I'm writing their life story. At the same time, I occasionally get annoyed when I'm introduced as 'Geri Halliwell's former ghostwriter'. That was almost 20 years ago.
10: Ghostwriting non-fiction is very different to writing a fictional thriller. Did you have to create a completely different mindset? How did you approach it?
MICHAEL ROBOTHAM: I have wanted to be a novelist since I was about twelve and always saw journalism and ghostwriting as being stepping stones. Writing fiction is a lot harder than I expected. Instead of having a wealth of material at my fingertips - the interviews and research about someone’s life – I have to start from scratch, inventing everything. There are few things more terrifying than a blank white computer screen. I love the freedom of writing fiction but sometimes it feels like I'm standing naked on a high wire above Niagara Falls with everything hanging out in the breeze.
11: How much pre-planning goes into each book?
MICHAEL ROBOTHAM: I don't plot my books in advance. Instead I come up with an idea, create a group of characters and let the story unfold organically. Stephen King once described it as like discovering a bone sticking out of the ground. You begin brushing the dirt away, unsure if you're uncovering some rare fossil, or a dog bone. Hopefully, it's the rare fossil.
12: Do you have a set routine for your writing day?
Graham Greene once said that putting words on paper is the final part of the writing process. The most important part is done almost subconsciously. That's why my wife has learned to understand that when I'm sitting, staring out the window (or sleeping on the couch) I'm actually working. In truth, I start work after breakfast, break for lunch, and work until late afternoon. It's not all writing. I have emails to answer, books to edit and research to do. I work weekends and holidays. I try to write every day - even if just for a few hours.
13: Do you believe successful writing can be taught?
I think writing can be taught, just as tennis can be taught, or golf or painting, but showing someone the theory won’t make them a great writer. Nobody else can put words on a page for you. It takes practice. It takes perseverance. Most of all it takes passion. If you’re writing for fame or fortune or posterity, prepare to be disappointed. If you’re writing because you’re passionate about it, prepare for a life long love affair.
14: How do you manage to sustain the tension? It was a real nail biter and I was guessing right up to the end.
I think the tension is sustained because it builds up so slowly. The story is like a slow-burning fuse where there's plenty of time to meet the characters and learn about them. The fuse burns faster and faster and explodes in the last third of the book. By this stage, hopefully readers will really care about what happens.
15: You often write in the first person and the present tense. This is somewhat unusual, as most writers choose the third-person and the past tense. Is there a particular reason why you use this?
First-person present-tense is definitely challenging, but I think it creates a sense of immediacy and pace which grabs the reader and makes them feel as though they are literally being drawn into an adventure that is unfolding in real time.
16: Do you have any advice for would-be writers?
Write, write and when you’re sick of writing, write some more. It’s the only way to get better.
Read everything you can - not just the very best writers because some of them are so brilliant you will consider giving up because your prose might never match theirs. Read the lesser writers, the mere mortals, and ask yourself how each book could be improved. Take it apart like you would an old alarm clock. Why does it work? Why it doesn't it work? Learn. (With the truly great book, you won't be able to take it apart because you won’t be able to find the joins.)
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