An Interview with Acclaimed Thriller Author, Stephen Leather
If you like your thrillers taut and with pace, your characters hard and well defined, the writing professional, believable and magnetic, then Stephen Leather is your man. Here is a writer who knows his craft and knows his readers, and delivers with amazing skill. I caught up with Stephen during one of his many, overseas trips, and despite his busy schedule, he was happy to set aside some of his valuable time to talk about his work, his life and his thrillers, including his latest novel; FAIR GAME. I don’t know how many words Stephen churns out in a year, but he tends to aim at between 100,000 and 150,000 words for a novel. He recently turned out 250,000 words and discarded 50,000 of them (this was for VETS). I asked him about that.
Michael: Did you find it hard ‘throwing away’ 50,000 words (almost a novel)?
Stephen: It was very hard, but at 250,000 words it was just too long. I think it’s a better read because it was tightened up.
Michael: You’ve written for television. Do you prefer script writing to novels?
Stephen: I prefer the process of writing screenplays because it’s so much simpler than writing a novel. But I hate the fact that so many people in the TV business want to have their input. Too many cooks, generally….
Michael: How can you know so much detail about your stories, is it all research?
Stephen: Sure, pretty much everything I write is based on reality.
Michael: You move around a great deal. Is this born in you, or are you just a fidget?
Stephen: I enjoy travelling and I enjoy living in different countries. Over the years I’ve lived and worked in England, Scotland, Ireland, Hong Kong, France, the US and Thailand.
Michael: The EYEWITNESS was the first book of yours that I read, and very powerful too. What affect did the research have on you, if any?
Stephen: No affect, really. I spoke to about twenty hookers in the UK and in the former Yugoslavia and visited plenty of brothels, but I wouldn’t say that the process affected me.
Michael: Did anybody in the security services ask you about SOFT TARGET from the point of view of where or how did you come up with such a scenario?
Stephen: The scenario for Soft Target, where suicide bombers targeted the London Tube, came from the security services. They told me that was one of their biggest fears some two years before it actually happened. Soft Target was published well before the London Tube bombings and it’s uncanny how accurate it was.
Michael: HOT BLOOD features SAS tactics. This was similar to Hard Landing. Have you worked or trained (not seriously) with the SAS?
Stephen: No, but I have friends/contacts who served in the SAS and SBS.
Michael: Is there any autobiographical content in PRIVATE DANCER?
Stephen: Sure. There is in every book I write.
Michael: Your latest Spider Shepherd thriller, FAIR GAME is about the threat of Somali pirates, and like your other thrillers, extremely well researched. I can’t reveal the ending, that would be a spoiler, but it looked like there could be a follow on perhaps?
Michael: When researching your work, have you ever been in ‘tricky’ situations without a minder of some sort?
Stephen: Never. And I don’t have minders. I generally don’t get into tricky situations and when I do I can usually talk my way out of any problem.
Michael: Do you believe that the internet can replace hands on research (the kind that you do) effectively?
Stephen: No, but the internet is a big help. It can give you lots of information and details and help you check facts, but to write about a place properly you really have to go there and experience it for yourself.
Michael: Do you write for yourself or for your readers?
Stephen: A combination of the two. I write the sort of books that I want to write, but at the end of the day it’s how I make my living so I have to write books that sell. If I wasn’t enthusiastic about my work then the reader would be able to tell.
Michael: Are you a great believer in sharing the creation of your work with another writer; James Patterson & Howard Roughan for example?
Stephen: I think the fact that Patterson can get other writers to write his books means that his writing isn’t that good in the first place. And I think readers are stupid for buying books that he hasn’t written himself. He’s a brand, not a writer.
Michael: You have decided to embark on two thrillers a year. The thought of writing two books a year would paralyse some wannabe writers. Do you not think that this will be too much of an imposition and that the quality of your work will suffer?
Stephen: I can comfortably write 1000 words a day. That’s 360,000 words a year, which is actually three novels. So two a year isn’t a stretch.
Michael: Quote: “If I get any spare time I’ll be working on a new thriller set in the United States”. Do you eat and sleep during the day?
Stephen: Sure, but I try to sleep as little as possible!
Michael: You made a pretty strong comment a few years against literary agents. I won’t try to quote you, but do you need them now, either in Europe or elsewhere?
Stephen: I have an agent in the UK, Julian Alexander at the LAW agency in London. He’s great. But yes, I’ve had lots of bad experiences with literary agents, especially the ones in the States. Most of the US agents I’ve met have been arrogant, self-centred and mean-spirited. Horrible people.
Michael: Do you need an agent?
Stephen: With the arrival of e-publishing, possibly not.
Michael: You’ve advertised BANGKOK BOB on Kindle; a 63,000 word novel. Bit on the short side for you?
Stephen: The beauty of the e-reader is that the length of a book is less important. My Kindle bestseller is The Basement, which is just over 40,000 words long, a novella rather than a novel. I’m also selling short stories on the Kindle, a series of locked room mysteries featuring a Singaporean detective, Inspector Zhang. When a reader is in a bookshop looking for a book to buy they might regard the length of a book as important, probably because a longer book appears to be better value for money. But with downloads the reader doesn’t seem so concerned about the number of pages.
Michael: With the explosion of e-books and POD, can you see the major publishing houses trying to restore the status quo that existed in the literary world, and so avoid being undermined by on-line publishers?
Stephen: I’m sure they would like to restore the status quo but I’m not sure if that’s possible. The advent of e-publishing has changed the rules and publishing houses, and agents, are in heading for tough times.
Michael: Is there any realistic upper age limit after which a publisher or an agent will not consider an unknown writer’s work?
Stephen: I do get the feeling that publishers prefer their new writers to be younger, but the great thing about publishing is that generally people don’t know much about an author. I’m sure that when Harry Potter first came out most readers assumed that it had been written by a middle-aged man! I think agents might well be less keen on a 70-year-old who had written their first novel than a 17-year-old, but the beauty of the new phenomenon of e-publishing is that both the 70-year-old and the 17-year-old can publish on a level playing field.
Michael: You live, or have lived in Thailand. Is it your favourite place? Would this be where you would settle if you had to give up your writing career?
Stephen: Ha ha. Probably couldn’t afford to live in Thailand if I had to give up my writing career! Thailand is a great country but there are pros and cons. I’m not sure that I have a favourite place, but it’s hard to beat London on a spring day.
Michael: If all this had to stop now, where on the planet would you like to live, bearing in mind you have travelled all over the place?
Stephen: Probably London.
Michael: What reading material would you take with you if you were forced to spend a long period, say one year alone on an island?
Stephen: The complete works of Ed McBain maybe. Or Leslie Charteris (the Saint books). I have both in my bookcase but can never find the time to read them.
Michael: Judging from your website, you appear to be a very open person. Doesn’t this hinder you at all when so many fans would want a piece of you if they had the chance?
Stephen: Not really. I try to answer all emails that I get and interact with fans on Facebook. Usually people want to say how much they’ve enjoyed my work, so it’s not a chore. If I’m having a bad day, an email from a fan saying they loved my new book can really cheer me up!
I found Stephen Leather to be a very accommodating writer. Despite his very busy schedule, he answered my e-mails promptly and with no complaints. I find his thrillers are extremely well written and researched, and would put him among the top thriller writers of today. You can learn more about Stephen, his writing and his travel on his website: www.stephenleather.com