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Interview: August 27, 2004

August 27, 2004

Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek of interviewed David Wolstencroft, author of GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS. Wolstencroft talks about the difficulty of researching a spy novel in today's security-conscious world and the challenge of getting the reader to recognize his work as fiction and not as a possible threat to worry about. He also discusses the advantages and drawbacks of being a television writer/novelist and reveals that his second novel, CONTACT ZERO, will be released next year. The primary plot of GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS revolves around two friends --- both are British Intelligence agents --- who suddenly find that they have been assigned to terminate each other. You create a plausible reason for this in your novel; are you aware of such a thing actually occurring?

David Wolstencroft: As I'm not being kept entirely up to speed with all MI-5 operations (why don't they return my calls?) it's possible that one could have slipped through the net! In all honesty and seriousness, the idea came out of the sheer size and scope of the institution we're talking about. Intelligence Agencies are not small. And as we've seen in recent history, in large organizations, mistakes can be made --- big, ridiculous, first-grade mistakes --- and people's lives can be put into a spin as a result. I started with an agency that makes a bureaucratic error and went from there. I think that is terrifyingly plausible.

BRC: George and Charlie were a fun "couple" to read about. Who were the inspirations for these characters?

DW: Thank you. They were equally fun to write about. I have to admit that they simply "arrived" in my head on the same day. And, typically, they were arguing. I had passed a similar photo booth to the one in the book and there were two guys there -- a little closer in age than George and Charlie --- and they looked so thoroughly sick of each other's company it got me thinking. I wanted to explore two men in separate "seasons" of their espionage career: one in his spring, one in his autumn. I wanted them to find each other intensely irritating but yet develop a great fondness. I suppose Butch and Sundance were a classic mold to use there. I've always enjoyed buddy movies and I guess this is a buddy spy novel.

BRC: How did you research the British intelligence community? What challenges, if any, does the current war on terrorism pose for researching a novel on espionage?

DW: They are not as open as, say, the CIA. They do not welcome scrutiny. When I was developing my TV show "MI-5" (it's called "Spooks" in the UK) despite numerous attempts to gain access I think we only walked around the building once. And that was pretty much a corridor and an empty meeting room. They are, after all, quite busy at the moment. But neither do I have any interest in unveiling some arcane operational tactic that ends up messing things around for real people. No thank you. I think the main research point I had for this novel was the central idea of GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS --- that the training, the psychology, of this job is to weasel out the worst case scenario for any situation. Once you look at the world like that, it changes you. Professionally sanctioned paranoia seeps into your after-work psyche. Soon you can't help but see the bad news with the good. I developed it as well in my own way. When the book sold, I was ecstatic for about a millisecond. And then I started speculating on scenarios where a) it was a huge mistake; b) it was a huge joke; c) all of the above. It only took me three weeks before I was convinced my phone was being bugged.

BRC: Continuing on this theme, it seems that the threat of terrorism has everyone thinking that anything is possible. Do you think that the way terrorism has overtaken our lives makes it difficult to weave these plots into your fiction and ensure to a reader that they are reading something fictitious and not real?

DW: Yes, the world now has shadows lurking around every corner of our lives. I believe that thrillers have a very positive function in our lives, and that is to enable us to virtually experience pain, conflict, heartache, chaos --- and to then witness its resolution. We speculate as we read, we go through the terror if you like, page by page, word by word. The real world is now, of course, scarier than any book because it's happening to us --- it is OUR story, and there is absolutely no one out there mapping it out to a satisfying conclusion. It still doesn't mean there aren't important stories to be told that evolve from the landscape of terrorist threats that we now inhabit. It just makes authors like me more mindful that simply stating the threat is not enough to engage the imagination. They already exist and the imaginations are already engaged. It's about using them in different ways, lifting the whole thing out of a more documentary reality and towards, perhaps, something more fabular. At least in a small way. Life has become larger-than-life. So, we have to go one step further.

BRC: In the Acknowledgments to GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS, you state "Novels are a lot of fun, I've learned. To read." Can you share some insight into that comment?

DW: Well...the truth is I was extremely tired at the end of the copy edit, wait. That's not really fair. I truly enjoy the story side of fiction. I love jotting things down in longhand on a legal pad, having arrows and boxes and circles and underlines...that's all great. When the typing starts, my fingers hurt. It's as simple as that. I tried one of those speech-to-text things once and --- this is absolutely true --- I read to it for three days. Three days of ALICE IN WONDERLAND and WAR & PEACE and what not. Finally, I sat down to dictate my first document. I put my feet up on my desk, pretended I was the CEO of some vast corporation, and said "Dear John." My computer cogitated for about a minute and onto my screen popped up: "Dijon." As in the mustard. I threw the headphones across the room. So back came hunt-and-peck typing. I also believe that if you enjoy the writing too much, the quality descends. There are moments of inspiration, sure, and they're great. But every day means work. I've always been proudest of things in the short term I've come to loathe, and loathed the things at birth that turn out to be okay. I was somewhere in between with this, being as it is my firstborn.

BRC: What was your personal and/or professional impetus to write a novel after your experience with writing screenplays?

DW: I love TV and film, it's incredibly exciting to see so many people coming together with one goal in mind --- telling the story of what's on the page. But, of course, being ultra-collaborative, there are some decisions that don't go your way. And, to be fair, some mistakes that you can distance yourself from because they weren't your call. Being a writer and producer is immensely satisfying, but with every working day that goes by, you find yourself distanced a little more from what it was that you set out to do --- write a story. So when I came to write this, as I always knew I would, it was the most satisfying creative experience of my life. It was also terrifying, because I was suddenly director, producer, cinematographer, sound, set, costume, catering. There was, I confess, more than a few moments' paralysis as this sunk in. But then the fun stuff takes over and you get to make things up. Personally, it was also a homecoming because that's how I started writing --- short stories. By the ton. Never with a clue to where they would end up or whether anyone would even read them. Suddenly there's an editor and a publisher and my literary agent and this bizarre sense of a potential readership out there. But going back to prose, my first love I guess, was the main engine that kept me going. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to write. It was a bit like getting into a particularly hot bath.

BRC: You have worked in the television industry as a writer. What are the similarities/differences between TV writing and novel writing? What made you decide to transition into novel writing? Do you still work in television?

DW: Story is story, whatever medium you're in. The differences, apart from the sheer scale and scope of a novel, are in un-learning things. What I guess I didn't want to do was write a "treatment," or something that read like a linear movie script in prose. So there is some fun internal game-playing. And also the chance to explore deep into the psyche of my characters, which you just can't do. It's all outward symptoms of inner motivation, people defined by their actions. In a novel you can plunge right inside and see what's what. That is very liberating and hugely appealing to someone like me. I'm doing it again for the second book next year. I am also still very active in television both in the US and in the UK, where "MI-5" ("Spooks") is about to begin its third season. We won a BAFTA last year, which was fabulously exciting. I also have a movie shooting in Rwanda at the moment, which is an entirely different experience as well.

BRC: GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS and your show "Spooks," known in the U.S. as "MI-5," both deal with spies. What sparked your fascination with this type of story?

DW: I love secrets. I wanted to aspire to a show that dealt not with "spies" but with "secrecy" -- to be pompous for a second! When I was at Cambridge there were constant rumour mills about people being recruited, turned down, sent on missions whilst still studying --- classic urban myths...or in the case of Cambridge, market town myths. Before I did "MI-5" I created a show on British TV called "Psychos," which dealt head-on with psychiatric/mental health stories, and I think I became obsessed with the way that our behaviors map our interiors. So people keeping secrets is something universal and, of course, juicy and appealing to a writer. I also studied history and am very open to the idea of what lies beneath --- i.e. that the way we perceive current events isn't always the way it happened. History seems to be the consequences of a series of successful or botched espionage operations! George and Charlie's is definitely botched --- at least, at first.

BRC: Have you given any thought to basing a novel upon your "Spooks"/"MI-5" characters?

DW: There have been "novelisation meetings," yes. Nothing concrete and I'm not sure I'd be the best person to write it. It might be fun. It's a "wait and see" there I'm afraid.

BRC: What writers have inspired your work and/or continue to inspire you?

DW: The dream team of Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, Susan Cooper and Douglas Adams got me through seventh grade and have stoked my imagination ever since. I absolutely worship Graham Greene --- BRIGHTON ROCK is flawless. le Carre, particularly THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD and TINKER, TAILOR, is a favorite. Len Deighton is, too. Recently I've become re-addicted to Robert Littell and David Morrell. All the "ells." Jeffery Deaver is phenomenal, as is Thomas Harris. And Daniel Silva and Dan Brown I admire greatly for their very different, but equally effective, page-turning skills.

BRC: Did your television background make it easier or harder to find a publisher for your first novel, or did it have little impact? Share with us your road to publication.

DW: I remember the first letter my agent sent out about it. He'll kill me but it said: "The good news is, I have a first novel by a television writer. The bad news is, I have a first novel by a television writer." A double-edged sword, shall we say. I'd say on balance it couldn't have hurt. But people are on their guard when you're already a known quantity. I think they are more inclined to reach for a rock. The path to publication was one of pure denial on my behalf. My agent in the UK, Jonny Geller, basically badgered me into it, and I refused to believe it was happening --- because I think deep down I profoundly craved it. He was constantly encouraging me to write a novel as I think he knew --- as I did --- that I would have a great time. So partly for my own sanity, and partly to shut him up, I wrote four or five chapters and a synopsis. And after a small amount of back-and-forth, in the space of two days we sold the book in the UK, and with the amazing Jane Gelfman in New York sold the book here with Onyx Books. And about a million other places. This is the first edition to come out. The UK edition arrives in January 2005. Selling a book on a partial is both thrilling and utterly daunting. Suddenly you have an enormous amount of eyes on you, whereas a day earlier it was you, on your own, in front of a computer screen or a pad of paper, and a mug of cold tea. It gets your foot tapping. Not to mention your fingers.

BRC: What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?

DW: I am writing my second novel, again a spy thriller, tentatively called CONTACT ZERO --- it will be coming out same time next year! It's a whole new set of characters. And yes, I am enjoying it!