Article published on September 12, 2011.
Neil Cross is the author of several novels including Always the Sun and Burial, as well as the bestselling memoir Heartland. He has been lead scriptwriter for the two most recent seasons of the acclaimed BBC spy drama series Spooks and continues to write widely for the screen, most recently Luther. His most recent book is a prequel to that show, Luther: The Calling, and is published by Simon & Schuster.
Are you a bookgeek?
Since I was dangling upside down from the midwife’s fist.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given (and do you follow it)?
There’s only one useful piece of writing advice. It comes wearing various masks; sometimes compassionate, sometimes pitiless. But it always boils down to this: if you want to write, just write.
And yeah. I follow it every day.
Which authors do you find most inspiring as a writer?
Patricia Highsmith. Raymond Carver. Grahame Greene. And about ten million others I’ll think of as soon as I’ve posted this interview.
Do you have an audience in mind when writing, or do you just write for yourself?
Well, this is a slightly loaded question because there’s a big difference between a market and an audience. You should never write to a market. It’s contemptuous and always ends in failure because your readers are smarter than you; they can spot a liar a mile away. You have to write the books you’re compelled to write, whether that’s a historical romance, a workplace comedy, a thriller set on a nuclear submarine or a forensic examination of a middle-class marriage in the process of collapse.
But the purpose of writing — all writing — is to be read. It doesn’t matter if it’s an instruction manual or a novel: it needs to be crafted with a reader in mind. Even Joyce was acutely aware of his audience, idealised and confounded as that audience may have been.
A novel written in the name of “self-expression” is usually the opposite — it’s actually a wretched, adolescent attempt to impress the unwilling. Like some domineering bore on the bus, yelling into his phone about what he plans to do tonight.
As if we gave a shit.
Where do you write, and why?
At home. I write pretty much all day, every day. I work half days at the weekends, although that’s a recent habit and I’d like to break it.
I travel a great deal, so I’m also obliged to write in various hotel rooms around the world, but I don’t mind this. Being superstituous about where you write always strikes me as being another of those self-consciously “writerly” affectations. As long as I’ve got a desk, a chair, a laptop and a ready supply of coffee, I’m okay.
Tell us the book you most wish you had written.
It’s enough for me that the books I love exist in the world.
To wish I’d written them sounds a touch egomaniacal.
(Although it’s also a weird form of self-negation: in order to wish you’ve written someone else’s book, you’d also have to wish you were the person it was necessary to be in order to write it. I love Wuthering Heights and Catch-22 , but not enough to wish I were dead.)
Luther: The Calling is a prequel novel. Did you have the plot in mind before writing the TV series, or was it borne out of a desire to better understand the character?
While I was developing the TV show, I did quite a bit of background work into Luther; his relationships, his world. Things I didn’t get the chance to tell as a story. But other than that, not really. I knew the killer was a very bad man, and I knew where he ended up … but I didn’t know how he ended up where he ended up, if you see what I mean. It nearly killed me, I’m immensely proud of the novel that resulted.
Dogs feature heavily in the book, both as victims and aggressors. Was this solely because they were needed to further the plot, or were you deliberately making a point about man’s bestiality to man?
Writers often populate their fictional worlds with superficially disguised portrayals of friends and family. I spend all day alone with two dogs, so that probably accounts for some of it.
Other than that, I’m interested in dogs because their best attributes so closely mirror ours, not least their inexhaustible capacity to love and their absolute loyalty. But their worst characteristics mirror ours, too; any dog is three hungry days from reverting to wolf.
Plus, I just seem to have this thing about dogs. Recently a reader reminded me that Very Bad Things happen to a dog in a previous novel of mine, Always the Sun. I’d completely forgotten about this and would like to take this opportunity to apologize to all dog-kind, all over the world.
Both the series and the book push the envelope in terms of violence. Was this a goal in itself, or was it necessary to add weight to the psychological drama?
Well, a bit of algebra did go into those decisions: the killer’s actions had to be bad enough to merit Luther’s reaction to them. And as I say, I knew where the killer ended up, so ….
But yeah, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a certain joy to be had in terrorizing the reader.
The villains in Luther tend to be human boogeymen, or monsters, but the book and the show are also well-grounded, functioning police procedurals. How do you manage to square the two?
As I write, an entire family has just been butchered in Jersey. Elsewhere on the same day, a father decapitated his disabled son and left the child’s head by the side of a road. To say nothing of last month’s massacre in Oslo.
None of which is an attempt to make the case that Luther depicts the everyday lives of London police officers: the things that happen in Lutherland are absolutely fictional. But the kind of things that happen? They happen all the time. And real police officers have to deal with those real horrors.
That thought fascinates and terrifies me … which is why I’m so compelled to write about it.
You mention in your acknowledgements that Idris Elba “made Luther.” Would it be accurate to say John Luther is now as much Elba’s creation as your own?
The way I see it, we’ve got joint custody.
Additional questions by Mike Stafford. You can find Neil on Facebook.
You must be wondering who I am… I am The Stranger You Seek
Stef Penney on The Invisible Ones
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