Once I’d recovered my breath after reading Robert Goddard’s new novel Fault Line, I asked myself where to begin an interview with an award winning author of so many fine crime thrillers. The press seem to have said it all: unputdownable, master of the clever twist, second to none in intrigue and plot manipulation, immaculate sense of place, well-drawn characters and much, much more. Answer: by saying that Fault Line is an outstanding novel, taking the reader from Cornwall to Capri and from the puzzles of the present back to the dark secrets of the past with the author’s usual beguiling ease. There’s only one problem with a Goddard novel: does one go with the fast flow and whip over the pages to find out what happens, or force oneself to read more slowly to take in the strength and detail of his writing and plot? And I answered that by reading Fault Line twice.
Photo © Graham Jepson
Your novels have a wide range of settings both here in Britain and elsewhere. How do you pick your locations – or does the location pick you?
The location picks me if, as is often the case, it’s part of the idea for the story. I’d long wanted to use the Cornish china clay industry and district in a novel, because it struck me as an unexploited setting for a story, with bags of atmosphere, history and authenticity. Capri was no hardship to visit, it’s true, but I wanted somewhere hot and Mediterranean as a counterpoint to Cornwall and it had the additional advantage of being right next door to Naples, with all its criminal potential available to be fed into the works.
Fault Line is set in Cornwall and so are some of your previous novels: Name to a Face, Days without Number, Beyond Recall etc. Is there are a special atmosphere in Cornwall that suits your style of writing – the sense of the past that lingers over the county?
I think Cornwall does have a special atmosphere, yes, and one which involves the past being very close to the present, which is a theme that crops up in a number of my books. I suppose the other factor where Cornwall’s concerned is that there’s just such a wealth of material, not to mention hazardous geographical features – cliffs, mine shafts, china clay workings – for characters to come to grief in!
I read on the web that you work out every detail and twist of the plot before you begin to write the novel. As Oliver says in Fault Line, ‘You have to play the game in your head before you move a single pawn.’ Do you ever find that you want or have to change a plot strand or even character as you write the novel?
Oh yes. I have my plans, but so, it turns out, do my characters, who don’t always cooperate. As a result, the road we follows diverges quite regularly from the one I map out at the start. Once you invent a character, you have to give them the freedom to do what’s right for them. I pose the problems, but they have to come up with the solutions.
You carry your research deceptively lightly through your novels, but it’s clear how much work you must put in before you begin writing. Do you research for more than one novel at a time or is the research all part of the plotting process?
I definitely don’t research more than one novel at a time. That sounds like a nightmare to me. The research is dictated by the plot and is essential to get the story and characters grounded in a convincing place or period. But I don’t want to start overloading the actual book with the result. I’ve read a few books where the author’s made that mistake. Let’s just say research should be felt not read.
Most of your novels are standalones, but you also have a series character, Harry Barnett, who appears in three novels. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages for an author. Do you plan to return to a series character or do you find standalones are your preference? Or do you not plan but choose your approach novel by novel?
Harry has appeared in three novels – so far – because he rather insisted on it, in his amiable sort of way. Readers like him, I like him, and Harry-related ideas have come into my mind. I keep in touch with him, of course. You just never know what might happen to him. The sort of ideas for books I’ve had have rather suited a standalone format, but my ideas are becoming, if anything, larger in scale, so … watch this space.
Some of your novels are written in the third person, but in most the main character narrates the story. Is the latter your preference, and what advantages does it give you?
I think a tightly focused point of view offers the reader a good way of navigating a complicated plot. You discover what’s going on at the same time as the central character. And of course that means you’re surprised when he or she is surprised. So, whether it’s first person narration or third person narrative, the effect should be the same: you’re tunnelling straight into the story.
‘Master of the clever twist’ is one of the plaudits given to you in the press, and this is obviously a lynchpin in your plotting strategy. Do you find that this comes easily or do you agonise over the conundrums that this must give you while you are trying to get it ‘right’?
Twisty plots are what my mind produces. It isn’t really a strategy, rather a reflection of how my imagination works. Many of the twists are actually created by the story itself, once I’ve set it going. The characters and their difficulties generate more complications than I could ever anticipate at the outset. That’s part of the fun.
You began your writing career with historical settings and returned to them in Sea Change. Most of your novels however have either used the two-period approach or have, as in Fault Line, had a contemporary setting interspersed with period scenes as layer by layer the secrets are explored. Do you have a preferred approach or do you decide as best suits each plot?
I wouldn’t rule out any approach. It all hinges on how the story is best told. I find a lot of inspiration in history – it’s a treasure trove of material, actually – but how I shape that inspiration into a story varies from book to book. The secret to writing stories like this is to allow them, in a sense, to write themselves. I don’t really feel I invent them so much as discover them.
Each of your plots is a puzzle maze – do you have a favourite amongst them?
Whenever I finish a novel, I always feel there might have been some way I could have done it better. Whenever I start one, I always feel it’s going to be the best ever. I think you have to be both arrogant and insecure to thrive as a writer. So, my favourite is naturally the next one, on which I’ve already embarked.
You said in an interview on the web that in addition to Conan Doyle and Wilkie Collins, John Fowles was an influence on your writing. I can see that the sense of mystery your novels convey as the plots twist and turn is also present in a different form in Fowles’ The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, although it must be your own writing ability creating this extra layer of suspense in your work. Is this what drew you to John Fowles’ novels?
Fowles was a great stylist and a wonderful handler of atmosphere and he was at the top of his game when I started thinking seriously about becoming a writer. I certainly aspired to emulate him and it’s disappointing to see how his reputation has rather languished in recent years. He’s overdue for re-evaluation, I think. There’s no doubt his later books became almost wilfully hard to enjoy, though. That’s a warning I mean to head, because I want my readers to enjoy reading my books as much as I enjoy writing them.
On the web you memorably describe how you foresaw your future career as ‘emerging from steam-wreathed railway stations in exotic locations with a typewriter and a whisky bottle in my bag, a knowing smile playing around my lips’. Has it worked out that way?
No. I emerge quite frequently from railway stations during publicity tours, but the rest is a reflection of how writers are often represented in films. It’s beguiling, but it is of course a fantasy. Writers work alone in small rooms and the whisky bottle generally stays in the cupboard, otherwise little useful writing gets done. The odd exotic location does feature in research trips, though. We have to get out sometimes!
Very many thanks for agreeing to answer my questions, and all good wishes for the success of Fault Line – not that I think that’s in any doubt. It’s awinner.
Thanks very much.
FAULT LINE Hbk published by Banatam Press 30th March 2012
Read SHOTS’ review here
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