How did you become a writer? I used to work in documentary film. I loved the idea of bringing unknown stories to light. My first job out of college I got involved in a decent sized project for PBS. I was there from start to finish and the thing that amazed me was the constant compromising. We ended up with something very different from what we’d set out to do. It occurred to me the only medium I could have complete control in was the world of books. I wrote at night and then (25 rejections later) sold my first book and shook the hand of my new editor. First thing he did was cut out my opening five chapters.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.). There are two ways to learn. First read. Then reread the good stuff. Once you’ve written for years, you know all the story-telling tricks out there. There is always plenty to learn. For narrative I always look at Dickens and William Boyd. To remind myself there are no limits, Italo Calvino. I always think about “voice,” so I read the strong ones, from Marquez to Philip Roth, to Nick Hornby to Carl Hiassen.
When and where do you write? I have a small office at home that I find hard to use. I have young kids and a dog that wants to play fetch with my laptop. So I walk uptown to the New York Public Library and use the “Rose Reading Room.” I love it in there. It’s a strange combination of med students, writers and the homeless.
What are you working on now? For a while now I've been working on a book tentatively titled Ping Pong Diplomacy, which I sold to Scribner. It's a piece of history that ties together a British spy, World War Two, China's Great Famine and Cultural Revolution and Mao and Nixon's “Week that Changed the World.” Oh yes, and table tennis. Just one of those stories that slipped through the gaps that I was lucky enough to see clearly.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? No. Choosing a subject is the most difficult period for me. Sometimes stories are thinner than you think they are. You start breaking down a plot for a novel or a history and then realize that what you’ve really got is 40 pages. I file these ideas away and then think of myself as a mad scientist. Every now and then I scroll through the story ideas, throw them all together and occasionally the chemicals react to produce something half-decent.
What’s your advice to new writers? I think every writer was probably told not to write at some stage. I remember the one novelist I knew in my mid-twenties almost begging me not to start writing. His warnings were all true. It’s an unpredictable game, you’ll be struggling for fresh ideas all your life, the money will probably be poor and if you sell a book and your publisher gives you a reading, only your friends will come. My only advice is, it should take more than encouragement from friends. Take a course, get a bit of professional advice from somewhere. There are fresh voices lurking all around that we need to hear, but there are also plenty who will be wasting their time. My brother-in-law once sent me a chapter written by a close friend of his. It’s probably the worst thing I’ve ever read. I thought I was having my leg pulled. Luckily, my sister was soon divorced, so I never had to meet the guy.
Bio: I was born in England. Came over to the States aged 18 for college. Have lived in NYC since then and written six books, including Dizzy City, The Requiem Shark, The House of Sight and Shadow, Caucasus, the Masquerade, plus the Kindle Single Before the Swarm. Ping Pong Diplomacy should be out in January 2014.