By James, Saturday 2nd September 2017
New and exclusive to CBS Reality, Written In Blood brings fact and fiction together and is presented by bestselling thriller writer Simon Toyne. In each episode, Simon meets other top UK crime writers to discuss how their works of fiction have been inspired by real life crimes. Here Simon chats about this compelling series and his career as an author.
CBSR: Did you know from a young age that you wanted to be a creative?
ST: I think everyone’s creative when they’re young and it kind of gets knocked out of you bit by bit as you get older. I suppose some are more creative than others though in the same way some people are taller, maybe they’re the ones who hang onto their creativity more tenaciously into adulthood. I’m definitely one of those.
CBSR: You say you were “hooked” on thrillers since you read Alistair MacLean’s ‘The Satan Bug’, what was it that gripped you about that novel?
ST: I remember picking it up, reading the first page and then having to turn the page to find out what happened next. And when I got to the end of a chapter I had to start the next one immediately. I read lots of Alistair Maclean after that and realised that he wrote to a pattern, similar to how someone like James Patterson does nowadays. The heroes were all pretty much the same, the situations developed in the same way, the fights cropped up at around the same page every time, but it worked. It still works.
CBSR: What did it feel like seeing your first book, Sanctus, on shelves?
ST: Seeing your first book on the shelf of an actual bookshop for the first time is exactly as you would imagine: amazing, unreal, an unbelievable rush - and it still is with each new book. But better even than that is the first time you get to hold a finished copy of a book that’s existed only in your head for a year or more. Publishers sometimes do an initial print run to send out to press and reviewers and they post one to the authors too. I remember opening that package and holding Sanctus in my hand, turning it over, feeling the weight of it, flicking through the pages and seeing the words I’d written printed upon them. It was one of the best moments of my life.
CBSR: It was a huge success; did that add pressure on you for your next piece?
ST: Huge. I wrote Sanctus fully aware that it might not even get published, because statistically the vast majority of first books don’t. So when I finished the book and got an agent, and then got a publishing deal, and then the book came out and became a Sunday Times bestseller and then was translated into 27 languages the pressure to write a follow up was enormous. I was about half-way through writing The Key (sequel to Sanctus) when Sanctus came out and became this huge success so writing the second half of that book in the shadow of that success was about the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
CBSR: How did you become involved with Written In Blood?
ST: Kind of accidentally. Before I was a writer I worked for almost twenty years in television as a producer and director. One of the producers I worked with at the end of my TV career, when I was finishing the first draft of Sanctus in my spare time, rang me at the end of last year telling me about a TV show she was developing about crime writers and the true crimes that sometimes inspired their work. We talked about the idea and I thought she was just picking my brain for crime writer contacts until she suggested I might present it. From my own experience in TV I know how few ideas actually make it to screen so I said ‘sure’, did a screen-test where I prowled around the Manchester canals looking all moody and crime-writery and lo and behold the series got commissioned and here I am now.
CBSR: How did you choose the books/authors to cover?
ST: The crime writing community is pretty tight-knit - we all know each other and read each other’s books - so I spread the word about the series once it was commissioned and most of the stories came from that. The production company also approached publishers and agents and the rest came from that. What immediately became apparent was how many amazing stories there are out there that either haven’t been told or not in the way we tell them.
CBSR: Did you learn anything new about the cases the books were based on that you didn’t know before?
ST: The series is made up of a mixture of some very well known cases - The Moors murderers, James Bulger, Rachel Nickell - and some I’d never heard of before - The Rotherham Shoe Rapist, The Facebook Killer. In the well known cases I always learned something I never knew before and the ones that were new to me were all so incredible I wondered how I’d never come across them before. What they all have in common is the proof of that old adage that truth is stranger than fiction.
CBSR: When authors are basing their work on actual events, how do they ensure they aren’t seen as exploiting the tragic events?
ST: It’s tricky. Crime writers are fundamentally entertainers and we want people to enjoy our books but inevitably part of the enjoyment and thrill woven into the genre is allowing people to experience some pretty dark stuff from the safety of their own living rooms with a book or a kindle on their lap. So when your story is inspired by real life events you have to be very careful not to just harvest the details for the sake of your plot, because there are real people involved who have often suffered terrible, unimaginable losses and you can’t just stomp all over that for the sake of a good story. Having said that the story of a crime is not just the story of the victim and the offender. It’s also the story of the police officers and scientists who help solve the crime. Its the story of the community that grieves and helps search for clues. It’s the story of the reporters who covered these cases and often kept stories alive until a key witness or piece of evidence was found that ultimately caught and convicted the criminal. So these stories belong to all of us and I think it is our duty to tell them because we have a duty as a society and as individuals to look into the shadows and see the depths people can sink to. We have a duty to try and understand, not only to honour the victims but also to be vigilant against whatever happened happening again. As crime writers we are part of that socially necessary mechanism - to tell the dark stories as well as the light ones - and that’s what this series does too.
CBSR: Is there one episode that stands out for you?
ST: In truth they are all good because professional writers are such great storytellers and every story they are telling in this series is extraordinary. I genuinely don’t think there’s a weak link in the whole chain.
CBSR: Do you think the strongest thrillers are based on true life events as they highlight “what can really happen”?
ST: I think anything is possible, both in fact and fiction, and totally made up stories can be just as powerful as life ones - it all depends on how well the story is told. The strongest thrillers, the strongest story in any genre, are always about people. It’s not what happens that makes you keep turning the pages it’s who it’s happening too.
CBSR: Do you have a favourite author?
ST: Not one, several, and it changes all the time. Dickens is always in there, as is Thomas Hardy, John Irving, and Stephen King. As far as crime writers go you can’t beat the first few Thomas Harris books (Red Dragon, Silence of the Lambs), and I’ll read anything Dennis Lehane or Don Winslow writes.
CBSR: So, what are you working on at the moment?
ST: I’ve started book three of my Solomon Creed series, about a man who seemingly knows everything about everything and nothing about himself. He’s on an epic journey to try and find out who he is, which gets him into all kinds of trouble. In the book I’m writing he does finally find out who he is. I’m also part of a team developing the first book in the series (Solomon Creed) into a TV show for the American networks, working with Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company. I’ve also outlined four other books which I would like to write if I can find the time and there’s also a strong chance that Written In Blood will come back for a second series, so, you know…busy, but happily so. As I say in the intro to the shows ‘My name is Simon Toyne and I kill people for a living’ - and even my vaguely cynical kids are mildly impressed by that.
CBSR: Simon Toyne, thank you very much.
ST: Thank you.
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