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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Tony Auffret talks about the inspiration behind his new book, Unsavoury Business, and his creative writing process.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Tony Auffret about his life and career, what inspired him to start writing, and the story of his new book, Unsavoury Business.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I am, supposedly, retired though my brain can’t quite wrap its neurones around that still surprising fact. Over the years I have had a number of jobs all in the bioscience and biotech business, working for universities, research councils and a range of companies from multinationals to my own one man business, working alongside many people from Nobel laureates to young people taking the first step on their career path. Probably never achieving anything I set out to do, but a wise old friend once said, ‘So what? Did you have fun trying?’ Originally from the north east of England, I now find myself in the south east, and somehow I seem to have become an author, a writer of espionage mysteries.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
There was, as I have mentioned in a previous Table Read interview, no one moment when I realised I wanted to write a book. I am not sure if I ever felt that I ‘wanted’ to write a book. It was just a thought that grew. Others have done it, can I? The answer was probably yes, but a less certain question was can I get some-one interested in publishing it?
When did you take a step to start writing?
My computer files tell me it was ten years ago, back in 2013, though it really doesn’t seem that long ago. I was running my own one man consultancy business and, as such things go, you have either too much to do, or nothing at all to do. My wife had some health issues which meant that there were times when I was al looking for something to do for a few hours in the mornings. Writing a book seemed as good an idea as anything as it is something that, to a great extent, can be put down and picked up at will.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
That’s a question that has two answers. The most literal answer is almost 30 years. My first book, The Death of a Smoker, was inspired by events that happened when I was working for a small biotech start up in the 1990s. I often though they would make a good basis for a spy thriller, but it was more or less twenty years before I actually started writing. A more practical answer would be about nine years. That was five years of writing, which started as part time and occasional, three years trying to find an agent or publisher, and about nine months from contract to publication day.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
Unsavoury Business, my second novel has taken just over four years from starting to it’s release date, though it has lain dormant during that time. It was more or less finished before The Death of a Smoker was accepted for publication. The writing, which again was not full time, took between a year and a year and a half. I waited until The Death of a Smoker had been released before submitting the manuscript to my publishers, Cranthorpe Millner. Thankfully, it was accepted with little delay.
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Unsavoury Business?
I have to put my hand up and say it’s confession time. The truth is, I had never found a satisfactory way of dealing with the suspected villain in The Death of a Smoker. As a result there was always an option for a follow up, and when I had the very bare bones of how it might end, I started writing. There was, I suppose, a need to find some closure. What worries me is that two people have already asked about the third volume in what they see as a trilogy. So, it would seem, the closure is not to everybody’s satisfaction.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Unsavoury Business?
The initial draft was quite straight forward, the characters had already been defined in The Death of a Smoker. The challenges arose during reviewing and editing. As a sequel, when characters in Unsavoury Business referred to the events in The Death of a Smoker I had to be consistent with the original plot. It was all too easy for me to forget small details. There was also a consistency challenge that, unintentionally, had been created as the plot developed. Part of the suspense depends upon who knew what and when, and it is easy to get that wrong.
There was a third challenge, related to writing a story that was based more or less thirty years ago, which was being accurate about the state of technology. There was a section of dialogue about using the older style UK public telephones which had Button A and Button B. It was quite late in the editorial process when I did some checking and found that, despite my fanciful memory, in 1995 they had long since been replaced in public phone boxes.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
The answer, I suppose is the common man. I knew, with Harry Nevile, I did not want a gung-ho James Bond type but a believable character who said you too could be running an MI5 group. Intelligent and diligent, yes, but with human foibles and capable of getting things wrong. I think to some extent all characters in novels can be regarded as skeletons upon which the author adds various attributes of people that have met.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
Quinton Bickley-Morris is an almost wholly fictional character. I think my original idea was a character who by way of lineage or ability had the opportunity to have been a hero, but chose to use his talents and connections to further his own selfish interests. Given the time line of his history and his early post war experiences, he had to have had opportunities that were not generally available to the working class. That fixed his background, everything else is my imagination and perhaps my prejudices!
What is the inciting incident of Unsavoury Business?
Inciting is a curious word, suggesting some kind of encouragement to get up to mischief. In that sense, the villain has been incited by his own selfish greed. In the sense of what persuaded me to write the book, and perhaps risk doing the reading public a disservice (hopefully the critics will disagree with that suggestion), it comes back to not being entirely happy with the ending of The Death of a Smoker, as mentioned above,
What is the main conflict of Unsavoury Business?
Whilst there is an obvious conflict between wanting to pursue the sighting of Bickley-Morris and a more pressing threat of a bioweapons attack, there is another underlying conflict that takes a different and more sinister form. When an organisation operates on a need to know basis, if you can’t remember who knew what and when, then conflict arises.
Did you plot Unsavoury Business in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
Definitely a seat of the pants development of the plot as I was writing. I had a vague idea of how the plot ended with a better idea of where, and I did a little research to find a credible but unsuspected bioweapon. The story line developed from that rather rudimentary framework.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Unsavoury Business need?
Yes, and lots! Having sat upon the manuscript of Unsavoury Business whilst trying to find a publisher for The Death of a Smoker, I had plenty of time to review what I had written, and was quite convinced that the manuscript was flawless and bound to impress any potential publisher. The editor burst that bubble, well and truly. Even after the initial editing, there were numerous imperfections, which did, I think, move away from simple typographic errors to matters of plot consistency and style. Even so the ‘final’ draft became the ‘final final’ draft and even the ‘final final final’ draft. The skill and the patience of the editorial team at Cranthorpe Millner are both of the highest standard.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Without a doubt, just do it.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I had thought that Unsavoury Business would bring this storyline to a close, and I have two half finished, but resolutely stuck, detective mysteries with a new set of characters. Then again, two people have already asked me about the third installment of the trilogy. I hadn’t planned for the Tufton Street saga to be a trilogy, but a plot is beginning to form. Sadly one of the team doesn’t make it beyond chapter one and somebody really, really is not the person they appear to be.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Definitely, but you have to realistic. Writing one book, let alone two, and having it published is an accomplishment to be proud of. Recognition, reward, best seller status and the like are more fickle and down to chance. None of them alter, in any way what-so-ever the intrinsic value or worth of your book.
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