11th August 2018
Interview with Paul Blake
Good evening Mr Blake and thanks very much for your time. You’ve recently released your debut novel ‘A Young Man’s Game’ - could you describe it in a few sentences?
Hi Mike, thank you for agreeing to this. This feels so cool, like a movie star getting interviewed for their new release.
Hmmm...must not copy the back of book synopsis that took months to get right (which my publishers have put up on Amazon with typos :shakesfist:) Ok, here we go….
A Young Man’s Game is a spy thriller set in Berlin around the current time. The main character is Alec Foster. A washed-up Head of Section for MI6. He learns of a plot to kill the Prime Minister by someone in MI6 and is then falsely accused of murder. He is chased across Berlin as he tries to discover the traitor and stop the assassination.
In ‘A Young Man’s Game,’ you evoke a strong sense of location - in Berlin, for example - with vivid descriptions of tram lines, bars and the like. How important do you feel that is to a successful story?
I think it’s very important, especially as Alec’s local knowledge gets him out of trouble on occasion. One of my favourite authors, Michael Connelly, sets his Harry Bosch series of books in L.A. and the city becomes part of the story. I wanted to do the same for Berlin. Bring the city alive for the reader. When I started the story I had never been to Berlin (but always wanted to). Google Streetview was a godsend, as well as Yelp, Tripadvisor, and individual places’ own websites. Midway through writing the book I got the opportunity to go there for a couple of days which gave me the opportunity to visit where I had already written about and then could add first-hand colour to the scenes as well. I went to all the places in the book, except for the Goldhorn restaurant and the strip club.
Having made the trip, would you recommend authors to physically visit the locations they’re writing about, if it’s possible for them?
If they can, then visiting the locations can do nothing but good for their work. A place will have a smell, or vibe, or feel that you can’t replicate through research alone. For me, it was essential to go as most of Berlin on Google Streetview hasn't been updated since 2009 so it was important for me to see what had changed, what stores or restaurants I used for navigation had closed and what had replaced it. Or so that was the justification I gave my wife for the trip.
I tried to write the book so if readers knew Berlin they’d know where Alec was at any particular moment and anyone else, if they cared enough, could track his journey on Google maps.
I got a strong sense of John le Carré from the opening sections (which is always a big positive with me!) Was his work an influence on you?
Oh, definitely. Before writing the book I reread Call for the Dead, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and throughout writing I watched films, and tv series based on his books - The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, The Night Manager, and The Russia House. Not to copy from, but more to be inspired by. He is the master of the genre and it’s easy to see why.
What components do you think makes up the quintessential spy thriller?
The most important is a main character that the reader can get behind. Either the all-action ninja-badass spy like Jason Bourne, or the more flawed George Smiley type of spy. They both require the audience to care about what happens to them, otherwise there is no sense of peril, to make the heart beat faster and the pages to turn faster. The overall plot and location is less important as these are the backdrop to the character. It’s why you can have James Bond anywhere, against anyone. As long as there is peril where the reader doesn’t know for sure if the character will survive readers/viewers will love. When the peril goes so does the excitement. There also needs to be sleight of hand to distract the audience one way while laying the groundwork for the ‘what the hell?’ moment that takes the story and the audience in the opposite direction.
Alec Foster (the protagonist of ‘A Young Man’s Game’) strikes me as more of a George Smiley type, but with more direct physical agency than Smiley has in something like ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’. Do you think that’s accurate?
Oh, definitely. He could definitely handle himself in the past a lot better than he does now. He’s a scrapper rather than a martial artist, which I feel suits his character. George Smiley is more of a thinker, Alec is more reckless. There are similarities to their story. In Tinker Tailor Smiley is haunted by a relationship, much in the same way Alec is. Which I didn’t realise until I just thought about it. In Call of the Dead Smiley gets hospitalised when following up a lead. Alec gets beaten across Berlin.
Could you describe your writing space and routine?
My writing space is a mess, it’s a narrow little desk in the corner of my living room barely as wide as my monitor, where all the daily junk seems to gravitate to. I sit on a stool with my keyboard on my lap. It’s chaos. But it works.
My routine? During the week I’m a stay at home dad, but the littlest one goes to nursery for a couple of hours a day, so I use those precious hours for writing. Starting in September he’ll be full-time which will give me a lot more time to procrastinate with. I’m also lucky that in my weekend job I get the opportunity to write during quiet periods which is very handy.
This is an eerie description of my life, except with two at nursery (*thinks of nursery fees and sighs*). What do you say when your children start asking what you’re writing about?
Nursery fees. Oh my god. It’s why I became a stay at home dad otherwise all my wages would have gone straight to the nursery without passing go. They are shocking.
My parents always told me to watch my money and I do. It rests momentarily in my bank account before I give it all to the nursery.
My eldest, Ethan is eighteen so he’s handy to bounce plots and twists off. He also so just completed his Physics A’ Level so he’s a handy resource for checking some of my more technical stories for accuracy. The younger two, Logan (6), and Brandon (3) are quite oblivious to me writing except when an idea or fancy phrase comes to mind and I rush to my computer before they can interrupt the brain flow. Very rarely does it get typed without a nagging voice asking for something, anything, nothing. If they get interested as they get older I’m sure a few little lies will suffice for their curious little minds. I may even have to write a children's book, or at least encourage them to write their own.
Mine are younger and when the eldest starts asking me about the horror stories I write...well… I may need to tell a few untruths. What do you know know, having published ‘A Young Man’s Game’, that you wish you’d known at the start?
I entered a local competition with the opening (and at the time only) chapter of A Young Man’s Game to win the chance to get it published. I was selected to be a finalist which meant the book would be published (as long as I completed it). I finished the novel in February and then had to wait and wait and wait for anything to happen. I wish I had known that it would take so long, I could have used the nervous energy far more creatively than I did.
What do you wish you’d done?
I wish I had started on a sequel to A Young Man’s Game while the story was fresh in my mind. I felt I couldn’t start it, knowing I’d be distracted by the book’s release soon into writing. I also stopped writing short stories for a while. I was doing a Creative Writing module for my Open University degree while writing the novel and the final assignment came up just as I finished A Young Man’s Game. It was hard to concentrate on a 4000-word story while I was anxiously checking my inbox so often for any news of the competition and release date. I did, however, manage to complete the story and although I’m very happy with how it turned out and I’ve had great feedback - it’s on my website Mob Justice - it just would have been easier to write and I wouldn’t have finished it so close to the deadline (I finished it the day before it was due for submission) without the distraction of waiting for A Young Man’s Game news.
How much do you feel that writing a short story and writing a novel are different skills?
There is a great difference in the skills needed for both writing novels and short stories. For short stories, the plot and the story are main focus, so characters and locations can be flat and one-dimensional (although I do try for mine not to be) as the stories need to take the reader on a small trip with a large payoff at the end to be memorable. However, with novels the character is the most important aspect. The character’s journey and how they resolve their conflicts are the main payoffs. The story is the backdrop to the character. A Young Man’s Game was originally going to be a short story but part way through writing it I decided that it had great potential to be a novel and the rest is history.
A novel is, however, a giant time sink. A short story can be written in a day from concept to ‘the end’; however, a novel requires a far greater time commitment and interest can definitely flag while writing. It happened to me writing A Young Man’s Game. I think I was at Chapter Five. 12,000 words in. Far more words than I had ever written in my entire life. It wasn’t writer's block, as I know it, as I knew what I wanted to write and was still writing, just not enjoying it, the novel was petering out. However, I watched the amazing Atomic Blonde movie with Charlize Theron and James MacAvoy and the energy and sheer coolness of the film blew me away and resparked my interest. I put the soundtrack on a Spotify playlist and the next few chapters flew by and didn’t stop until I had finished.
What are your interests outside of writing?
Aside from my family - of course - discovering places is a big thing for me. I live just outside Central London and I love to just wander about seeing new and interesting things. Going down the quiet tiny streets off the main roads just to see what’s down there. I went to Berlin for a few days to research the book and did the same there. It was great.
I have always been a big fan of video games, however I’m limited to games that are not time-intensive. If I get a few minutes spare I’ll usually load up a game of Rocket League or Call of Duty WW2. Unfortunately, the days of playing Football Manager for hours are long gone.
I feel your pain. As soon as I see some new game boasting of ‘40+ hours of gameplay,’ it immediately goes on the nope pile!
I’m a big reader. I usually read two books a week, sometimes more. I think being a reader is an essential part of being a writer. You get a feel of what works and what doesn’t. How different writers use their words to shape their story.
I also watch a lot of movies and tv shows. They are great for getting a feel of realistic and unrealistic dialogue and how to pace a story.
What do you think are examples of particularly good or bad dialogue? You’re not allowed to use the Star Wars prequels for the bad example because that’s cheating.
I’m a huge fan of Aaron Sorkin’s work on The West Wing, Studio 60 and the Newsroom. I regularly rewatch these shows. The dialogue he comes up with is amazing to watch as two, or three, or more characters rapidly exchange stinging barbs and witticisms, which are totally in keeping with their character. Armando Iannucci and his team of writers on The Thick Of It and Veep are also great. I like clever wordplay and smart insults.
Bad examples? I love action movies, they are by far my favourite type of film to watch. The Mission Impossible series, Jason Bourne, James Bond, The Expendables and all the rest. But my god the dialogue is dire. Exposition in dialogue, contradictions and redundancies, bad one-liners. Actually, I love the bad one-liners - Arnie in Predator telling the guy he just pinned to a post with a well-thrown knife to ‘stick around.’ Awesome.
I think Arnie’s one-liners have a quality that no-one else can match! Are you working on anything new or are you focusing on ‘A Young Man’s Game’ at the moment?
As it’s now the summer holidays and the kids are at home, I’ve taken an enforced break from writing, but I will be starting work on the sequel to A Young Man’s Game in September. I am currently getting it sorted in my head first. I have the opening five chapters planned out and have the main plot kind of ready. But the locations, side plots and finale have yet to be decided on. With A Young Man’s Game, I had the ending in mind right at the beginning so it was a case of getting there with plot twists and conflict points. I’m not sure Alec Foster could cope with becoming a series, he’s pretty much past it at the moment.
Any chance of a little spoiler?
Of course, Mike.
Alec is in England at his niece’s wedding when he receives a call from Brigette (his long-time friend from Berlin). She has something urgent she needs to tell him, but it has to be in person. Alec takes the earliest flight back the next day and gets to Brigette’s apartment. She is not there and the apartment has been ransacked...
I have a prequel in mind too, which I will be working on as well. It will probably be novella length rather than a full-sized novel and touch on events that come up in A Young Man’s Game. I’ll hopefully release that by the end of the year as a bridge between the two novels. It will be interesting seeing Alec at the peak of his career rather than the out of touch and out of shape person he is at the moment.
I also enter a monthly writing competition on a football forum which satisfies the ‘must write something new’ bug I always get and provides a welcome distraction from the slog of a novel. Once the stories have been judged I always add mine to my website.
If people want to engage with you online, what’s the best way to do that?
I have a website where I post my short stories for people to freely read them - http://paulblakeauthor.com, I’ll also be posting on there ‘Special Features’ for A Young Man’s Game over the coming weeks, including all the different covers I went through before deciding on my final one, a Google Map Alec’s Journey, broken down chapter by chapter. And even the original short story that A Young Man’s Game was originally intended to be.
Paul Blake's debut novel - 'A Young Man's Game' - is available for purchase on Amazon.