Tom Bale, a Sussex-based writer, is about to shatter some illusions about that fair county with his first thriller, Skin and Bones, which is published by Preface/Random House in January 2009, and has nasty things happening in nice places. I caught up with Tom, and asked this quietly-spoken man about his writing and how he does it.
Your story is set in genteel Sussex, moving from town to county. As a local, is it as pleasant as we think or is does it have a darker underbelly?
Sussex has some dramatic contrasts. It’s got beautiful scenery, picture postcard villages and a lot of very wealthy residents. But it also has areas of serious deprivation, particularly in the larger towns like Hastings and Bognor. And of course Brighton is a fascinating place to live, famous for its cosmopolitan nature and seedy history. You can’t grow up in Brighton and not be aware of the dark underbelly.
Give us a run-through of the basic story – a sort of extended elevator-pitch, if you will.
It’s a fast-paced thriller about a young woman who gets caught up in a shooting spree. After being chased and nearly killed, she discovers something that no one else knows: there was a second gunman involved. She joins forces with the son of one of the victims, and together they go in search of the truth about what really happened. But as they uncover the conspiracy behind the massacre, they realise the killing didn’t begin on that cold winter morning, and worst of all, it won’t end there…
Skin and Bones (herein S&B centres on ordinary people with extraordinary things happening to them (dare I mention, like Harlan Coben?) - especially with the electric opening chapters, which set the tone of the story. Is the theme of ordinary-mortals-in-peril the basis of your writing or will that change?
I definitely prefer to focus on the way ordinary people cope in extreme situations, in the manner of Harlan Coben’s standalone novels, rather than follow the professionals – detectives, pathologists, etc - as they go about their work. To my mind, it’s a lot more fascinating to explore how people react when their normal, comfortable lives are suddenly thrown into chaos.
Your central character is a woman. What made you decide on her as a character?
I had no choice, really. The entire opening sequence came to me in a dream. The details were so vivid and so complete that it never crossed my mind to change anything. If not for that, I think I would have been daunted by the idea of having a female protagonist, although once I was underway I found Julia’s character surprisingly easy to write.
The police in ‘S & B’ aren’t all crispy-clean and driven by conscience, are they?
I suppose not. It was never my intention for the police to play anything but a minor part in the story, but there is one rather unpleasant detective who ended up taking a larger role than I’d planned for him. It was one of those cases where the character grows on the page and refuses to stay in the background.
‘S&B’ tackles the topical and knotty question of development of rural areas into housing – needed or otherwise. Will such themes form the basis for future writing…say, scratching the itch of local issues?
It’s possible. Although I enjoy reading books about sociopaths and serial killers, in my own stories I prefer to explore the very real reasons why people commit crime. The motives are often pretty mundane things like jealousy, rage, greed - so in a situation like land development, where there’s the potential to make a lot of money, criminals are usually not too far away.
Why crime writing? What started you on that road?
What I write has always been hugely influenced by what I enjoy reading, and for me that’s genre fiction, starting with the superhero comics of my childhood. In my teens I loved science fiction and horror, although even then I was reading Ian Fleming and Leslie Charteris – and I should mention Herge, because the Tintin books are wonderful thrillers. In my twenties I gravitated more and more towards crime, and nowadays, aside from some non-fiction here and there, I read very little else.
Who do you read and what, if any, are you influences?
It always feels unfair to start naming influences when there are so many, but in the early days I’d have to single out Stephen King. Also Hemingway and Graham Greene, who were my two favourite literary writers, and then lots and lots of crime writers, many of whom are American: John Sandford, Michael Connelly, David Lindsey, Martin Cruz Smith, Carol O’Connell, Ian Rankin, Mo Hayder, Mark Billingham, Lee Child and many, many more.
You had a book published prior to S&B, didn’t you? Tell us a little about that, and why you decided to use a pseudonym this time round.
That’s right. My debut was actually a crime novel called SINS OF THE FATHER, published by Crème de la Crime in April 2006 under my real name, David Harrison. After it was published, I discovered there are numerous other writers with the same name, including one who writes travel books about Sussex. When I signed with an agent, she suggested I should consider a pseudonym, and hence “Tom Bale” was born. It felt a bit odd at first, but I rather like it now.
There’s a visual quality to your writing – especially, but not only in the opening chapters. Do you see it that way as you write?
I suppose I do tend to see the story unfold in a fairly cinematic way, but it’s not something to which I’ve ever given a lot of thought.
What films influence your work?
Actually, I can’t say film has been a major influence at all. I think it’s more that I admired and learned from writers with a great visual sense. As I’ve said, Stephen King was a huge early influence on me: not just for the wonderfully cinematic feel to his books, but also his skill at characterisation – the way he makes you care about everyone, no matter how minor their role.
What’s the next book about, and is it a follow-on or standalone?
The next one is a standalone, although it actually introduces what I hope might become a series character. The provisional title is TERROR’S REACH, and my elevator pitch for this one is ‘Die Hard on Sandbanks’! The setting is a fictional island off the West Sussex coast. A criminal gang take control of the island, with much more than just robbery on their mind, and the only person who can stop them is a disgraced former undercover cop, now working as a bodyguard to one of the island’s families.
You use some real locations in your story, but are more vague on others. Do you find it easier to write about real places or the imagined?
I prefer to use real places, although for SKIN AND BONES I had to create a fictional village, because of the high body count! But even that is placed in a setting I know well, and of course the other locations like Lewes, Rye and Camber Sands are real, albeit sometimes tweaked with a bit of artistic licence.
What sort of research do you do?
I visit all the locations, sometimes more than once, and take lots of photographs. I also do most of the initial research on the Internet, and then try to corroborate what I’ve found by speaking to experts. One great discovery I’ve made is that, if you ask around, it’s amazing how often a friend of a friend can provide exactly the kind of information you’re after.
Pen or computer?
Computer. Years ago I wrote in longhand first, but that was when I was still conditioned to writing essays at school. Nowadays I suspect my aging fingers would give up after a couple of hundred words. And my handwriting is dire, anyway.
Do you enjoy writing more about heroes or villains?
Villains, probably. I always tell myself I’m going to create a bad guy (or gal) who is just pure evil, with no redeeming features whatsoever. But as I’m writing I invariably start to bring out whatever humanity exists in their character, and I usually end up feeling sympathetic towards them.
Who do you aim the book at, if anyone? (apart from film or television producers and directors, of course).
I don’t think I’ve ever consciously aimed it at anyone. For a start, until now I’ve always written without a publishing contract, so there was never any guarantee that what I was writing would see the light of day. I think it’s more the case that, once a compelling idea for a story is lodged in my brain, I have to get it out - either for the sake of my sanity, or simply to make room for the next one.
At the centre of ‘S&B’ is an undercurrent of family relationships, whether daughter/parents, son/father or nephew/uncle. Do you find that something which draws you?
Again, not consciously. But I suppose I do often explore family relationships. I always find it a bit odd when I read novels where the characters only seem to exist to serve the story – none of them have parents, siblings, friends or colleagues. Most of us don’t tend to live with that degree of isolation, and I think it strengthens the story and the characterisation if you can include those family bonds.
Will you keep your plots ‘local’ or will you move to even more exotic locations (Sussex being, of course, extremely exotic, as the tourist board will point out).
Of course they would! For now I love setting my stories in places I know well, or can easily explore. But I certainly wouldn’t rule out more exotic research trips in future.
Are you a push-with-the-nose sort of writer or a planner?
I used to plan a lot more than I do now. I think I’m learning to trust my subconscious. It’s wonderful when you’re stuck, as I was for a while just before the end of Skin and Bones, and then suddenly an idea pops into your head and it all slots into place. So I tend just to sketch out a few chapters at a time and leave it at that.
How has your family reacted to your writing success?
I think they’re pleased. My daughter is certainly happy to tell people what I do, whereas my son is now a teenager, and communicates mainly in grunts. Overall it’s probably more a case of relief that I’ve finally managed to prove that all the years of collecting rejection slips weren’t a complete waste of effort. I know my mum is very proud, and since she works in a library she has ample opportunity to publicise my work!
I saw you on a panel once, and you were very laid-back. Is that you or are you paddling madly underneath?
Paddling madly. And I’m very surprised and flattered that anyone would think otherwise, so thank you for that.
The Sussex countryside and those beaches must make for great walking-and-plotting moments.
Don’t forget pub lunches. An absolutely essential part of the research process.
Where do most of your ideas occur – bath or bed?
Very often it’s late at night, while I’m brushing my teeth and just about to go to bed. So then I have to rush off to find a pen and paper and jot down the idea, otherwise it’ll be gone by morning. Although I wouldn’t say no to a few more dreams like the one that inspired S&B....
When can we expect to see the next Tom Bale title?
Early in 2010, I hope.
Thank you, Tom, for your time. Good luck with everything.
Read Adrian's review of Skin and Bones here
If you would like to read more about Tom Bale and Skin and Bones, go to Tom’s website – http://tombale.net - where you can read the opening chapter and find a link to a trailer on YouTube.