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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Simon Marlowe shares what inspired him to write his new crime thriller, Medusa And The Devil, and his creative writing process.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Simon Marlowe about his life and career, what inspired him to start writing, and the inspiration behind is new crime thriller, Medusa And The Devil.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I am the sort of person who raged against the inequities of the world and then got married, with two kids and a mortgage. However, I suspect I raged for a lot longer than most and reignited my interest in writing in my late forties. Since then, I have been slaving over the laptop, learning and developing, and finally submitting and publishing my books as an independent author since 2017.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
My writing ambitions started when I was a lot younger than I am now. In fact, if I was to put an age on it, I would say that, by the time I was 16, I was convinced I should become an author.
When did you take a step to start writing?
So, aged 16, I committed to writing and, by the age of 19, I was reeling from an avalanche of difficulties and growing pains that meant I ditched writing for playing very loud music and radical politics. However, fast forward some 20-odd years and I found myself reflecting on a life well lived and felt a need to rekindle my earlier ambition. With some serious life lessons behind me, I enrolled on a creative writing course, realized I had lost none of my talent and forged ahead, benefiting from the support and stability that had been absent as an angry young man.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
It took eight years! However, it was a learning curve, full of pain and anguish, joy and self-realization, that goes with understanding the demands of applying a craft to talent.
What made you want to write Medusa And The Devil?
My latest novel is book two in a darkly comic, mystery crime thriller trilogy. So, to some extent, I was rather committed to writing it! But, as a better answer to the question, I would say that I had sketched out the three books in my mind and knew exactly where I wanted the narrative to go, the themes to explore and essentially the journey that the central character, Steven, was going to go on. I suppose I felt I had an anti-hero whose ambiguity perfectly suited the contemporary social and political issues that I was confident would still be relevant over the next three or four years. And, I must say, I think I’ve hit the zeitgeist on that one!
What were your biggest challenges with writing Medusa And The Devil?
Well, I had previously relied on my own life experiences with my fiction—although please don’t think that means I have lived a life of crime! But, in general, Medusa And The Devil is pure fiction that uses a great deal of news events that may or may not be obvious to the reader. Initially, I was slightly anxious, but that soon dissipated, as the novel felt like a natural roller-coaster ride through the murky world of organized crime and political corruption. I discovered, even at those moments when characters and events were completely alien to me, that I had sufficient skill to get the scenes over the line. Well, at least I hope so—the proof will be in the reviewing pudding.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
As I have mentioned, the protagonist is an anti-hero, a young career villain called Steven Mason. I can specifically remember the time and place when Steven popped onto the page (also known as the Word file).
I was working away from home, living in one of those well-known budget hotels, and in the evenings applying myself to my craft after a hard day’s work. At the time, I had just finished the first draft of a novel and had the creeping suspicion that, over the course of 100,000 words, it just didn’t work. I was also spending long hours on train journeys going to and from my home and my work site, and I had this voice, like a person trapped inside my subconsciousness, who desperately wanted to get out and be heard. I suppose it came from the combination of the creative process and anxieties about not having written the right thing, but also from the imagination needing to be freed from preconceptions and restraints. I think it had been bugging me all day and so, when I got into the hotel room, I abandoned the usual script and just let this voice pour out onto the page.
And that was that. I knew that, after a few paragraphs, I had made a breakthrough, not just in terms of finding a character, but also in terms of method. I have stuck to this approach ever since, and it is what I call finding the voice. Once I have the voice of the central character, everything flows.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
The antagonist in Medusa And The Devil is a man (or is he?) called Max Schmidt.
I tend to take my literary inspiration from those pre- and post-war crime and thriller novels written by authors like Eric Ambler and Patrick Hamilton, and I had just read Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios, in which the central character is fixated by a devil-type antagonist. I wanted to use that approach with Steven but to extrapolate, so that Steven reflects on his own moral purpose and code, juggling the intricacies of being a criminal whilst trying to do the right thing. And, because of Steven’s past, and his almost Shakespearean interactions with family members, it seemed only fitting that there should be a character who appears to embody the essence of evil.
Beyond that, we seem to be in an age where there are extremes that have no boundaries (I will leave that to your readers to speculate on), and I wanted to have a character who was capable of anything, whose behaviour was inexplicable, beyond the pale and a danger to us all if left unchecked and unchallenged.
Perhaps we don’t need to know why people do evil things, because they will never tell us, but maybe we do need to make sure, when we can, that we don’t let it happen.
What is the inciting incident of Medusa And The Devil?
Well, Steven is six feet under, but he has enough time to think back over how he got into this situation before he runs out of oxygen. The trigger, as in the first novel, is a phone call from Steven’s boss, nicknamed Grandad.
Steven has been squirreled away on a Mediterranean island, part of a deal he secured to escape from the mess left on the Essex coast, and has been laundering money into property deals. It is a halfway house for Steven, living on an island but still tied to a life he was keen to get away from. One of Grandad’s men, Tony, has arrived to take back a small statue, called Medusa, a stolen artefact that has just arrived in port on a Russian cargo ship. However, things don’t go according to plan when Steven arrives to collect it, and he is presented with two dilemmas: the delivery man, who had a passage on the ship, is Max Schmidt, who has jumped ship with the statue, and there is only one way to identify him on the island, and that is if Steven takes in a woman and her two kids who are fleeing a war zone.
So begins Steven’s search to find Schmidt and the statue, house the family and her two kids, get them to ID Schmidt and explain to the local police why, at the end of a difficult night, one of Grandad’s villas has been bombed.
What is the main conflict of Medusa And The Devil?
At the heart of the story is the internal conflict our central character Steven is faced with following the events of the first story, The Dead Hand of Dominique. I would also quickly add that any potential reader can read Medusa without having to read the first novel—although I would highly recommend doing so of course.
This internal conflict is externalized through the tracking down of Max Schmidt, who has a strange omnipresence, seems to know all about Steven and, like a devil, enjoys teasing and threatening him. All this is tied up with Steven’s need for some kind of redemption following his role in the killing of his thoroughly unpleasant half-brother (see book one!). Steven is constantly being tested, either by Schmidt or by the need to do the right thing by the kids he feels obligated to care for. Or are Steven’s actions driven by the needs of his criminality, and is there no room for kindness and sympathy? It is this conflict that pushes the story forward, unpeeling a complicated plot of corruption and greed, whilst forcing Steven to confront the very human needs of children, who are so often the victims in the machinations of a deadly, uncaring adult world.
Did you plot Medusa And The Devil in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
I am always thinking about my writing and I keep a notebook in which I jot down ideas that permeate my brain throughout the day. Usually, by the time I come to write a novel, I have sketched out the narrative and plot, written about a 5,000-word sample to make sure it works and have left space in the process for things to occur that I haven’t yet thought of. In other words, whilst writing there must be a structure, or else I get lost and wander off on a tangent and end up with a fragmented and incoherent failure. However, to predetermine everything would ruin the joy and excitement of writing.
I like to have the risk of not knowing exactly all of the characters or what might happen in between the classical plot scaffolding. I’ve always found in the writing process, mainly in the first draft, that characterization and narrative can be enhanced through the act of writing. Things occur that would never have surfaced if I had just relied on pre-planning a novel. So I do like to know where I’m going, but there is always scope to visit other places before I get there.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Medusa And The Devil need?
I rely on my dearly beloved wife and partner, who helps in the early stages of writing—before it is pinged off to the publisher. I found out early in my writing career that having someone you trust is more important than them having any sort of expertise when seeking another opinion. And credit to my wife, Christine: she is always spot on. After that, there are the publishers’ editors and, with Cranthorpe Millner, they’ve been very good at giving me plenty of space to fulfil my artistic vision, i.e. I get to keep my content! I also have another editor who I use for short fiction and articles, Derek Collett, who has been an excellent editor for me when work has been required on an occasional piece.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
It’s never easy to give advice, because there is so much to give, and for every piece of advice you give there is always the exception. But, if you are starting out, I would suggest you write from experience. And don’t worry about whether it is fiction or not. By just retelling the experience, you will have come up with a story.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
Well, I am currently about two-thirds of the way through the first draft of the final book in this Mason Made trilogy. I also have a collection of short fiction that just needs a novella to support it. On top of that, I have half a dozen novels in various pre-writing stages. Ideally, I would like to get it all done in the next six months, but it’s looking more likely that I will be rather busy for the next six years.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
To be honest, I wish I had taken more time to pat myself on the back and say, ‘Well done!’ I should probably do it more often, but I fear that would induce some kind of complacency and that I would not be fired up to get things done. But, yes, to realize an artistic vision is supremely satisfying, but it only happens through a lot of hard work. Talent, unfortunately, is not enough.
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