How did you become a writer?
I was 29 and working as a bond trader in a bank in the City of London. The most I was ever writing were my initials on the bottom of a dealing ticket. I wanted to do something creative – I could have chosen sketching or photography – but plumped for “creative writing”.
So I bought a couple of “how-to” books and decided to do a couple of exercises. My first exercise was to write the first chapter of a novel. I wrote a scene involving a 29-year-old bond trader doing a massive bond trade and making lots of money. And although it felt very strange to be writing fiction, I loved it. So I decided to screw the exercises and write a novel.
It took me nine months. I showed the result to some friends and there were problems: with the style, the characters, the plot and the ending. So I put the novel away. But after three months I missed it, pulled it out, and reread it. There was a good story in there, I was sure, so I rewrote it. A year later, I rewrote it again. And finally I had the finished article: a financial thriller called Free To Trade.
Then I got lucky. I sent it off to an agent, Carole Blake, who became very excited and sold the novel for a large sum at an auction. It was published in 1995 and spent three months at the number two slot in the UK bestseller list. The book was eventually published in more than 30 countries.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
There are several. I had a particularly good history tutor named Philip Waller at Oxford University who taught me to write clearly and concisely. In the City I used to deal with a bond salesman at Salomon Brothers called Michael Lewis who announced one day that he was going to quit and write a book. The result was “Liars Poker”, a brilliant book. And finally, there was Dick Francis. I loved the way that he managed to use the world of horseracing as a backdrop to his thrillers. So, whenever I was puzzling over how to deal with a particular problem, I would think: what would Dick Francis do?
When and where do you write?
I am fortunate in having a study on the top floor of the house, out of the way of children. I have a desk, from which I can watch the H2 bus drive around our square once every fifteen minutes. I usually write between 8am and 12 pm: I try to avoid scheduling anything in the mornings. If I keep to this regime a book will eventually be written. I often have a break mid morning to walk down to the local Starbucks for a coffee. The walk and the break helps me think about what I have written and what I am going to write.
What are you working on now?
I am just finishing off the fourth book in the Fire and Ice series about the Icelandic detective named Magnus Jonson. The book will be called “Sea of Stone”. In the first three novels I developed and increasingly complicated sub plot about Magnus’s grandfather who is a grumpy farmer in Western Iceland. I realised that I was going to have to devote a whole novel to tying up this sub plot, which is what “Sea of Stone” does. It will be published in Britain next year.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Yes, frequently, but I don’t accept it. Unfortunately my ability to see what is wrong with an idea is much more advanced than my ability to find a solution. At times like this it can look as if I am stuck with no way out.
So what I do is spend some time thinking about how to break the problem down into a s series of between one and five questions. I write these down, preferably on a Friday afternoon, and then I forget about them. On the Monday morning I write out the questions and then quickly write out answers, and then go with whatever I have committed to paper. I can always change it later.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Rewrite. It is through rewriting that you improve your book. It is through the rewriting process that you learn. Also, publishers don’t want promising material, they want polished material. If I had not spent two years rewriting “Free To Trade”, it would never have been published.
Before becoming a writer, Michael Ridpath used to work in the City of London as a bond trader. He has written eight thrillers set in the worlds of business and finance, but then turned his hand to something slightly different. Where The Shadows Lie, the first in the Fire and Ice series featuring an Icelandic detective named Magnus Jonson, was published in 2010, and was followed by two more. Traitor’s Gate, a spy novel set in Berlin in 1938, was published in the UK in June 2013. Michael was brought up in Yorkshire, but now lives in North London. www.michaelridpath.com