An Interview with Mick Herron
‘Slough House was a branch of the Service, certainly, but ‘arm’ was pitching it strong. As was ‘finger’, come to that; fingers could be on a button or on the pulse. Fingernails, now: those you clipped, discarded, and never wanted to see again. So Slough House was a fingernail of the Service: a fair step from Regents Park geographically, and on another planet in most other ways. Slough House was where you ended up when all the bright avenues were closed to you. It was where they sent you when they wanted you to go away, but didn’t want to sack you in case you got litigious about it.’
Rising star Mick Herron is this year’s CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger prize winner. We thought we’d catch up with him and ask him a few questions about his brilliant Jackson Lamb thriller series.
How does it feel to be this year’s Steel Dagger winner?
I’m absolutely thrilled – who wouldn’t be? The Daggers are an award like no other in the crime-writer’s calendar, and to win one with Ian Fleming’s name attached is a very special honour.
What made you want to write a spy thriller series?
It seemed a good opportunity to write about a group of characters rather than focus on an individual. And the kind of plots that a spy thriller allows cover a broad canvas: I can be as global, as local, as political, as personal, as I like.
I didn’t originally intend to write a series, though. Slow Horses was going to be a standalone. But before I’d reached the end, I knew I’d want to revisit this place and these people – a realisation that caused me to radically rethink the original ending.
One of the things we love about your writing is your characterisation. There is always such detailed description of every character, all of which have such human flaws and characteristics that make them so relatable and the series so likeable. We particularly enjoy your descriptions of Jackson Lamb, the head of Slough House. There is some beautiful juxtaposition here showing the true complexities of his character. How do you come up with such brilliant description? Where do you get your inspiration?
I write from the inside out – that’s to say, most scenes are written from the point of view of a particular character, allowing their thoughts and feelings to colour the action they’re witnessing. This makes for variety of tone, I hope. That’s the aim, anyway.
With Lamb, though, that doesn’t happen. I allow the reader to know what he says and what he does, but rarely, if ever, what he’s thinking or feeling. This no doubt makes for increased complexity, or at any rate, conveys that impression. The truth is, I don’t want to get too close to Lamb. Revealing whatever secrets he holds close would render him harmless; perhaps even pitiable.
As for inspiration: it’s not something I have much faith or belief in, implying as it does some kind of visitation; the gift of a muse, or whatever. I work with words, and the possibilities they offer are infinite, but the key word there is “work”. For subject matter, well … I frequently deal in the absurd, the cynical, the cruel and the far-fetched. The world offers examples of each on a daily basis – look at 2016! An annus mirabilis, from that admittedly perverse point of view.
One of our favourite parts of the series so far is the running relationship between River and the ‘OB’. I was excited to see you have made this the centre of your narrative for Spook Street. How did you come up with this story? Had you planned it all along?
It wasn’t planned, no; it evolved naturally. The relationship between River and his grandfather was in many ways the heart of the series, and I was always happy to return to the pair of them, and their late-night sessions. But that couldn’t continue indefinitely – it would weary both me and the reader – so it had to develop, and the notion of something arriving out of the OB’s past was irresistible. That this in turn would have to do with River’s own origins crept up on me gradually. And that it would also spell curtains for that particular narrative strand was inevitable.
Your writing style has been likened to classic thriller writers such as Graham Greene and Len Deighton. Are there any authors you admire or aspire to?
Both Greene and Deighton loom hugely in the field of the spy novel; as, of course, do le Carré and Fleming. But I’m not sure I aspire to walking in their footsteps. Comparisons with such writers can’t help but cast my work in a pallid light; for that reason, if no other, I hope I’m forging my own path.
Which isn’t to say I don’t have many contemporaries whose work I’m in awe of. Charles Cumming, of course, is well established, and most deservedly so; Chris Morgan Jones, too, is writing a fine series of books. And anyone with an interest in the current spy novel should be keeping an eye on Adam Brookes.
You have a very distinctive writing style. We love the way you gradually build up each scenario to create context. Often your paragraphs seem unrelated to the story to begin with and then slowly and gradually it fits in. How did you develop this unique style of writing?
I think it partly arises from fixing the narrative – on the whole – within the characters. Often they themselves won’t be fully aware of what’s going on, or will be focused on their own devices and desires, and not entirely in tune with events. And I’m inclined, too, to come at scenes from an oblique angle; often the easiest way of getting hold of them.
The sentence is the basic building block of any novel, of course. But to me, a paragraph can be a beautiful thing. I love a paragraph that can be taken out of a text and read as something complete and entire in itself, by which I mean that its ending arises naturally and logically out of its beginning. At the same time, it has to lead straight into its succeeding paragraph, with no bumps or wobbles to disconcert the reader. Getting rid of those bumps and wobbles is a large part of the writer’s job.
You seem to like to misdirect the reader. Do you get a thrill out of toying with your readers’ minds?
I certainly do. It’s the mainstay of the thriller, really: messing with the reader. And speaking as a reader myself, I enjoy it when an author does that to me.
Who is your favourite character in the series?
Catherine Standish, I think. She’s Slough House’s conscience; the still calm voice amid the chaos. Though her future is looking a little less placid at the moment.
With five books in the series under your belt, you are writing at the same impressive speed as Ian Fleming. What can we expect from your upcoming instalment, ‘London Rules’?
More of the same, with a Brexit background. There’s perhaps more politics than previously; with blood on the carpet, and behind-the-scenes machinations. And a slightly stronger focus on some of the characters who’ve not spent much time in the spotlight yet.
How you would have any spare time I couldn’t imagine, but have you got any other projects on the go?
I have a standalone novel out next summer (earlier than that in the US). It’s called This Is What Happened, and it’s an espionage novel with psychological undertones … Or maybe that should be the other way around.
Any hint of a TV series?
For more information on Mick Herron and his impressive catalogue of thrillers, visit: www.mickherron.com