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Friday 3 April 2015

Ben McPherson

Lynne Patrick talks with Ben McPherson

Ben McPherson was born in Glasgow and grew up in Edinburgh, but left Scotland when he was eighteen. He studied languages at Cambridge, then worked for many years in film and television in London.
In 1998, after working a forty-eight-hour shift, he went for a drink at the Coach and Horses in Soho and met the woman he would go on to marry. Similarities to the characters in
A Line of Blood end there.
Ben McPherson worked for the BBC as a producer for many years. He covered the Anders Breivik trial in 2011, and has a keen interest in the psychology behind family relationships.
Ben now lives in Oslo with his wife and their two sons. He is a columnist for
Aftenposten, Norway's leading quality daily newspaper.

Lynne: I’m intrigued – why Norway? It’s not a country many people choose to emigrate to, or a language many people learn!
Ben: I met a Norwegian: that’s the short answer. The longer answer is that Charlotte and I met in a pub in Soho, and very quickly fell in love; when we were discussing our first child, Charlotte was keen to be near family and friends.
For many years I was uncertain about Norway as a place to live and work. The Breivik murders changed that: I was surprised to discover how angry I was. Something very important was attacked on that day, and I realised that I had grown to love the country.
It can feel very far from the centre of things sometimes; but there are advantages to that too, from an author’s point of view. It’s good to be an outsider, looking back at your own country. It brings a new perspective.

Lynne:  Authors have to work hard to market their books these days, attending conventions and making themselves visible in other ways. You’re a long way from your publisher and your target audience, and also, you have to fit fiction writing around a demanding day job. How do you fit it all in?
Ben:  I’m lucky. Writing has become my day job. But after I had written the first four chapters of A Line of Blood I went back to the BBC for two years, and found I just couldn’t do both. Television is now something I do on the side, along with a little teaching.

Lynne: Do you have a regular writing routine? Take us through a typical day while you were in mid-novel.
Ben:  The only way I can write is to force myself to be disciplined. I need routine, much as I hate it! I’m half way through the first draft of book two, and my routine is very much the same as for A Line of Blood.
I write about 1,500 words a day while I’m drafting the book. I get up at seven and make breakfast for our older son, then take him to school. Then I go on to the House of Literature, or to a nearby cafĂ©, and write from 9 to about 1.30. I walk home, make lunch, and carry on writing at my desk until around 4.

Lynne:  TV production, directing, journalism: all require a team effort, whereas writing fiction involves shutting yourself in a room with nothing but your research and imagination. Does this represent two sides of you?
Ben:  Yes. I do sometimes miss working with other people: I miss the feeling that what you’re doing is better because you’re all working together, pulling in the same direction. Writing is not collaborative. Having said that, I get a huge amount out of having colleagues I really like and respect, both at my publisher’s and at my agent’s. I get the same kick of feeling that we’re all pulling in the same direction (only not as often!). I do like solitude, though.

Lynne:  I suppose that’s another way of asking what you get out of writing fiction?
Ben:  It’s the best job in the world. It’s very lonely, and makes you feel very exposed at times. But to be paid to write is a privilege, and I’ve never been happier.

Lynne:  How did A Line of Blood start in your mind?
Ben:  I can’t really discuss that - it would give far too much away!

Lynne:  Who do you write for? Who was the reader in your mind when you embarked on the novel?
Ben:  That’s a good question, and a hard one to answer. I don’t think I had a reader in mind when I started out. I knew I had something I wanted to say, and knew that it could only be said in novel form, but at the start I didn’t know who – if anyone – would want to read it. As I began writing, I thought that it was probably a story that would appeal more to men than women. Then I changed my mind. I still don’t know exactly: to say lively, engaged readers is a cop-out, isn’t it?
I will say this: people in television often write ‘down’. That’s to say, there’s a tendency for programme-makers and managers to think they’re making programmes for ‘punters’, and to treat their audiences as if they aren’t smart. That always worried me. I think it’s dangerous to assume your audience is less smart, or less sophisticated, than you are. I’m glad to say I’ve felt no such pressure since I began writing books.

Lynne:  How did you go about it? Detailed synopsis first? Just plunge in? Did you know how it was going to end before you began?
Ben:  I knew from the start how the book had to end. And I had a very clear image of what had to happen at the start. I then worked on the structure, before beginning to write. But I also redrafted and redrafted and redrafted.

Lynne:  ‘Domestic noir’ seems to be the sub-genre of the moment, but mainly it focuses on women – useful from a marketing point of view, since something like 80% of books are bought by women. You chose to buck the trend with a male protagonist; was this deliberate, or did it just happen that way?
Ben:  I never thought of it in those terms. Each time I redrafted I could feel the story becoming more of a mystery, but I had never heard the term domestic noir. I wrote a story that appealed to me and that happened to deal with family and marriage, and what these two things mean to people of my generation; the focus on the bad things that can happen in the home is very intense indeed, but that was only because it intensely interested me.
Alex, the protagonist, knows he must be a role model to his son, yet he has no real idea how to do this; that idea appealed to me, because it has huge dramatic potential. But I also think Alex represents something very common in my generation. We’ve become cynical. We’re suspicious of tradition but we’re also suspicious of hippy parents; we’re especially suspicious of categories like masculinity and maleness and duty. We don’t know what to do when bad things happen (and some very bad things are about to happen to Alex and the people he loves.)
I could have told the story from Millicent’s point of view, but it would have been a very different book, because she is more sure of herself than Alex is. Alex has allowed life to happen to him. That has worked well until now. It stops working at the moment where he and his son discover a corpse in the house next door.

Lynne:  Apart from the novelist’s desire to tell a good story, what are you aiming for in a novel? Do you set out to open eyes and minds? Or just to entertain?
Ben:  I want people to like the story, and to feel drawn into it. I want them to be frightened. I want them to like the central characters enough to be appalled at what happens to them and to want them to make it through. But above all I’d like them to think about what happens to the child at the centre of all of this, and how the actions of the adults around him affect him.

Lynne:  Is there anything you wouldn’t write, any line you wouldn’t cross?
Ben:  I don’t often like psychopaths in novels. I’m interested in people who do bad things while trying to be good.

Lynne:  What’s next? Are you working on a new novel at the moment, or is fiction out of your system for the time being?
Ben:  Oh no. No, I’m just getting started…

Ben’s debut novel A Line of Blood has been compared with Gone Girl, but there’s one major difference – both the narrator and his author are male. The story follows Alex Mercer, husband to Millicent and father to Max, whose family begins to unravel when he and his son discover their next door neighbour dead in the bath, apparently having committed suicide.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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