Interview with Bestselling Author Roderick Gordon

Get to know Roderick…

Roderick Gordon was born and grew up in London. He also went to university in London where he was supposed to be reading biology but instead spent far too much time in the various student bars with his future writing partner, Brian Williams. He went on to do corporate finance in the City until 2001 when he was thrown out for excessive daydreaming. He counts a number of writers and poets among his ancestors such RD Blackmore, Philip Doddridge and Matthew Arnold, and, not least, the two paleontologists and celebrated eccentrics, William and Frank Buckland (which probably explains much). Having recently moved with his family from London to north Norfolk, he is frequently to be found on the M11 as he commutes back and forth to his garret in Islington. For more info, visit his website.

Let the conversation begin!

When are you the most productive?

Since I started to write back in 2003, it’s varied enormously. For around nineteen years I worked in an investment bank, and the days were long, and sometimes my weekends were blotted out if a deal was running. When I was sacked in 2001, I began to drift towards being nocturnal, I suppose as a reaction against the hours I’d been forced to keep for so long. But one of the greatest things about getting my life back was that I could take my youngest son to school in the morning. Frankie was three years old at the time, and I felt I hardly knew him because the job had kept me away from home so much. But now I could walk him to school, after which I’d write for the rest of the morning.

But these days I never write in the morning. My wife Sophie does the school run which means I’m free to work whatever hours I choose. And, at the moment, I work straight through the night, when there’s peace and quiet in the house. I usually see my family in the morning for breakfast, then retire to bed. It’s almost as if my wife and I are running shifts, and I drew the night shift! The problem comes when there’s something in the morning I have to get up for, such as a meeting or a talk on my books, and I have to quickly adjust to a more normal routine. What’s very handy though is that I never suffer from jet lag when I do book tours in America because I’m already on US time.

What book was the easiest to write? Hardest?

The short answer to that is none of them have been easy to write, but with the first one, Tunnels, I threw myself into something I hadn’t done before, and it was all incredibly new and exciting. I was swept along by a sort of naive enthusiasm. Although I’d tried some short stories in the past, and completed a book in the early nineties (which I just hid away in a drawer), I’d never really attempted to write seriously before Tunnels.

I worked on Tunnels with Brian Williams, who I’d met at university some thirty years previously, and it felt as if we were embarking on some great adventure together. Although I spoke to a few people, it was never the plan to go out and find a publisher for the finished book. Early on I decided to self-publish it, and it was released in 2005 in very limited numbers as The Highfield Mole. And quite frankly, when Barry Cunningham of Chicken House rang up and said he was interested, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion that Brian and I wanted to take things forward with him. But Barry has such an incredible reputation in children’s publishing, and the fact that he gave JK Rowling her start was something we couldn’t ignore. Barry and his colleague Imogen Cooper suggested that we change the name from The Highfield Mole to Tunnels, because they wanted something simpler and with a more modern feel to it.

The second book in the Tunnels series is the one that means the most to me. I wrote most of Deeper in 2005 and 2006 when I was having terrible money worries. On top of this my wife was very ill. The book was a refuge for me. I hid away in it, and in a way I really believe it saved my life. It’s why the story is so unrelenting and claustrophobic. The emotion I poured into it was very raw, and even today there are scenes I can’t look at without becoming very upset. I think Closer is my most accomplished book so far in terms of the pace of the plot and the use of dialogue to drive it forward. I’m still learning and developing as a writer, and now don’t have to experiment quite so much to get what I’m aiming at with my prose.

What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

I was talking to the author Hanif Kurieshi, who’s been writing far longer than I have and whose canon of work I really admire, and I asked him why writing didn’t become any easier with each book. At the time I think I was working on the third of the series, Freefall, and was finding the going difficult. Hanif simply said to me, “Why would you want it to be easy?” He was right, of course. When it becomes too easy, you’re not doing your job.

Also Nina Killham, an American writer living in London, wrote a fantastic blog about the fear associated with writing. It touched on all the baggage you accumulate when you’re trying to write, such as “Who is this for?” and “How will the publisher market this?” It’s inevitable in a way because you’re isolated for such long stretches of time as you write, and your fears and doubts begin to bubble up to the surface. Nina said that you have to ignore all that, and just focus on what you love – focus on your love of writing, because that’s all that matters. I took this on board and it helped. It cuts straight across one of the “Top Tips for Beginners” you hear being bandied about, which advises Work out who your audience is before you type a word. And I say: Rubbish! You’re writing it for yourself. You can’t write effectively with someone looking over your shoulder.

Where do you get your ideas?

I really don’t know. I haven’t dreamt at all for years – or at least I have no recollection of any dreams when I wake up. I often wonder if this is because I dream while I’m awake. And, of course, the Big Ideas are vital when you’re writing, but so are all those thousands of Little Ideas that come to you when you’re sitting at the computer. They hold the whole story together like glue. Maybe wherever my ideas come from, they’ll stop turning up one day, and I’ll have to do something else!

What initially drew you to writing?

I’ve always wanted to do something creative. Way back, in my early twenties, I messed around with synthesizers and composed some music, and also thought about doing something in the movie business. But my nineteen-year career in corporate finance put a stop to all that until I lost my job in 2001. I was so disillusioned and bitter about what had happened that I didn’t make much of an effort to find myself new employment, although I certainly needed the money to cover all my outgoings. Instead, I did something completely reckless, and began to work with my old friend, Brian. Back in the early eighties when we were both at university, Brian had done an art degree at the Slade while I studied biology around the corner. We’d meet up regularly in the students’ bar and talk about writing screenplays. But that was thirty years before, when I didn’t have a family. So it was hardly a rational thing to do.

It was in late 2003 when my wife, Sophie, made the suggestion that we should consider writing a book for younger readers. Although Brian and I didn’t take it terribly seriously to begin with, the ideas came thick and fast, and Will Burrows and the Colony were born. We both threw ourselves completely into the process, as if nothing else mattered. We sometimes say that the book chose us. So I suppose all that creative energy had been building up in me and, at the age of 43, I finally found an outlet for it.

Who is your favorite author?

It’s so difficult to name just one – I have so many from different times of my life. I devoured many of the classics by the great Russian authors – Dostoevsky, Chekov, Gogol, Tolstoy, etc. – in my early twenties, and although I don’t think I’d have the patience to read them again now, they meant a lot to me back then.

Maybe if you pushed me for just one author, I’d say William Golding, for his books such as Lord of the Flies, The Pyramid and Pinscher Martin. I love his prose because it feels so clean and uncluttered, and although I’d never never dream of making any comparisons, I do try to achieve something close with my own work.

What advice would you give young writers?

People say you should read as many books as you can, and that this will help a young writer. Of course you should read, but nothing can replace the experience of trying to write yourself. So get something on paper or type it into your computer. Then begin to live the story – let it rattle around in your head – and don’t stop working on it, and don’t expect the process to be quick. I’ve often said it’s similar to making a journey, say to school. As you make the same journey again and again, you begin to notice little details on the way that you hadn’t before. And prose is a little like a journey, so put the details in, and make the scenes come alive.

Are your characters completely fictional? Or do you base them off real people?

Some characters have their foundations in real people, but they very quickly develop a life all of their own. People very rarely recognise themselves in the books, which is a relief. And some of the other characters just seemed to present themselves. A couple have voices similar to actors who I’d like to play them one day. The Second Officer, a policeman in the Colony, sounds like an English actor called Ray Winstone when I write his dialogue.

Tell us about the book you’re working on.

I’m currently working on Spiral, the fifth book in the Tunnels series, which will be published in the UK in the fall and in the US next year. I think it’s going really well, but I do feel sorry for Will, Chester, Elliott and some of the other characters – they’ve been through so much already, and in this latest book their lives become even more difficult. I often think it would be nice to write a holiday scene for them, so they can just relax and take a break from the constant threat of the Styx. After all, authors take vacations, so why shouldn’t their characters?

Spiral will be finished as a first draft quite soon, then I’ll begin the endless editing to make sure it holds together as a book. I don’t know how many times other writers revise their prose, but I rework mine endlessly and obsessively before I’m satisfied with it. I reckon some of the chapters from my earlier books went through several hundred revisions, maybe because I was still learning how to write then.

Last year I started on a new story that had nothing to do with the Tunnels series, and I’d got about halfway with it when I had to stop because I needed to throw myself into Spiral. But as soon as Spiral’s put to bed, I’m going straight back to the other story. I can’t work on two books at the same time, and it takes me nearly a year to write a book – I wish I could go faster, but it just doesn’t happen.

Describe your dream vacation.

My dream would be that the Tunnels movie actually gets made, and I fly with my family to LA or wherever the premiere is held to watch it. And I really hope that this doesn’t turn out just to be a dream…

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