For many years as an international news reporter for ITN, Gerald Seymour has covered conflict areas as varied as Vietnam, the Middle East, Londonderry and the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, to name a handful. He knows, therefore, of what he writes. His first book was the brilliant ‘Harry’s Game’ set in Belfast. Since then, he has gone on to write over two dozen thrillers, six of which, including ‘Harry’s Game’, have been filmed for television in the UK and US. After vivid settings in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Latin America among others, his latest book – ‘The Collaborator’ – takes us to Italy, to deal with the Camorra, the ruthless crime network based in the city of Naples, and what happens when one of the tight-knit clan members - the daughter of the Borelli family – rebels against their murderous deeds to become that most hated of all people – a police informer.
In an interview containing much laughter (which, sadly, not having a soundtrack, doesn’t really come out on the page) I asked Gerald about ‘The Collaborator’, and his writing in general.
AM: After all the other places in which you’ve set your books, the Middle East, eastern Europe, Latin America, Europe, why Naples and why the Camorra as a subject?
Gerald Seymour: Well, I feed off news stories. And about three years ago I read a news item about the gangs in Naples, and the Camorra, which runs all the crime down there. It’s nothing like The Sopranos, so you have to forget the stereotypes – on both sides. There’s nothing glossy about the Camorra; they’re the most vicious of organisations, and the police and justice officials who fight them are incredibly dedicated and tough. The location, too, is special. Naples is a place of great colour and light, but there’s great savagery, too. Its inhabitants believe very much in living for today… as if living under that massive great mountain (Vesuvius) means it could all blow up and end tomorrow in a stonking great traffic queue. There’s also the attitude which says if you don’t look after yourself, nobody else will. It’s incredibly fascinating and intriguing because, along with the colour and light, there are some very dark areas. It’s that combination which makes it an ideal setting for a novel.
AM: Like many of your books, this one has a lot of characters, each portrayed from their own point of view. How do you juggle them all so successfully?
GS: Well, it could be a weakness, I suppose. I tell myself I should perhaps do a bit more weeding with these characters, but I just love covering the many points of view within a story, because it allows me to work in the history of the people and the world they live in. For example, the older generation, the ones who started off the clans, although they’re in the background, much like gang leaders everywhere, whether it’s Naples, London, Frankfurt or wherever, they can never truly walk away from it. They know that if they allow the power of the gang to wane, the sharks will move in and the whole thing will fall apart. So they’re always there.
AM: Do you ever see your characters having potential for a series?
GS: Not really. I don’t write police procedurals, where the same people inhabit the same place. I prefer to start with a clean page every time, to invent new characters. I have a fear of the idea of coasting. Anyway, with the kind of characters they are and the situations they’re in, it’s not as if they always end up going off to live a cottage in mid-Wales!
AM: Yes, I’ve noticed your characters have a high mortality rate. In fact, I’m partway through your latest, and wondering which ones will actually make it to the end of the book!
Moving on from that, do you have a particular technique for building the characters as individuals?
GS: I talk to a lot of people. I also write a 500-word biography of each character… where they were born and went to school, where they live, what their parents did and so on. I even use photos of real people blown up to A4 size on the wall if I think it will help, to keep the image in front of me. I know what their attitudes are, how they will react to certain situations, although that may change along the way as those situations change and they take off and have their own heads. But these people will be with you for a year, so the detail does become a little obsessive.
AM: So you’re a planner more than a push with the nose writer?
GS: I suppose I am, yes. I make an A4 chart per chapter, and each character has a ‘corridor’, which is their place within the chapter. This means I know what follows, and on a Monday morning, whatever the weather, I know what the first sentence will be. With this process, I also know near enough what the ending might be… although that can be altered if necessary. Essentially, this process gives me the confidence to know where they’re all going. It stems from my days in the university dramatic society, when I had a fear of standing up there and experiencing ‘white-out’. But you have to believe in the end that it will be all right on the night!
AM: How far do you go to do your research? Not all your settings are accessible to the average punter, are they?
GS: Well, I’m very fortunate to know a lot of people, some of whom can introduce me to, for example, the Carabinieri. I was also lucky enough to meet and talk with a very skilled hostage negotiator a while ago, and then a priest in Naples who travelled from Rome in an armoured limo with two police bodyguards – because he’d chosen to speak out against the Camorra. A very nice, committed person. I have to say I greatly value the kindness of the people who confide in me, and I try to be positive about them and what they do, because they’re extremely dedicated and brave. You have to listen to people. I was once described as being like a sponge, and I would certainly agree with that. But I get a huge kick out of being where most people would never get to; with the Carabinieri, the Squadra Mobile – the Flying Squad – and others. (Researching) atmosphere and mood is just as important, too, as the people and events, and you have to get that out on the page.
AM: That comes out very strongly in this book – the back streets of Naples.
GS: The Forcella district, yes.
AM: Six of your books have been filmed. Do you have any input to that process?
GS: You get invited to the set, and everyone’s very kind, but you don’t get any input, not really. You inevitably notices differences between your creation and the filmed production, but in the end you have to shut up and enjoy it. After all, you’re very lucky if you get it done even once.
AM: Any favourites among the filmed versions?
GS: Yes. ‘Harry’s Game’ and the (US) production of ‘Field of Blood’. They’re probably my favourites, and true to the books.
AM: Who was your inspiration as a writer?
GS: Apart from the usual ones, Hemingway, Neville Shute and so on, I was flying through a thunderstorm in 1973 to Spain to cover the ETA trials, and I’d picked up a copy of a new book, ‘Day of the Jackal’ by one Frederick Forsyth. It was such a damned good read. That, if anything, was my kick factor to be a thriller writer. Not because I thought I could do it better, but to see if I could do it too and where it would lead. Then one day my wife brought home a pine table, and said, ‘There you are. Get writing.’ So I sat down and wrote the first chapter of ‘Harry’s Game’.
The thing is, I always wanted to be a thriller writer. I admired the story-telling ability of these people, with a solid beginning, middle and end to the books, and in my writing, I always have a strong picture-view of the story – perhaps from my days as a television reporter. For example, in ‘The Journeyman Tailor’, it begins with the bomb disposal man walking up a lane towards a device. That came from seeing that kind of situation in real life, such as the negotiator walking out to a hi-jacked plane, jacket off, arms out, so the hijackers could see he wasn’t carrying a gun. Very powerful images, those.
AM: And how do these ideas come to you – bath, bed or somewhere else?
GS: Not usually bath or bed, I have to say. Most often while walking the dog, I suppose, often alone. There will be the trees and the wind, and something will click. And then there are other things; I came across a news clip once, about a man released from a South African jail, and when he was asked what was the worst part of his imprisonment, he replied “The prisoners singing for the condemned man.” That image led to ‘A Song in the Morning’.
AM: Can I ask what you’re working on at the moment?’
GS: I’m putting the finishing touches to a story about Vukovar. It’s set in the present day but goes back to the period of the atrocities there.
AM: Do you do much promotional work?
GS: I do what I’m asked to do. I believe the publishers need my help just as much as I need theirs, so you need to spend time out there. And you meet some really wonderful people while you’re doing it. One chap came up to me, holding copies of my books, and said, “You don’t remember me, do you?” It turned out he was ex-Special Forces and I’d run into him on two separate occasions in different places while I was working on assignment, and I’d told him to ‘go away’ both times! (Laughter) Such a small world.
AM: What’s your view of current reporting?
GS: In print journalism, there are many more columns and opinion pieces now, which isn’t really news. In television, there are so many reporters interviewing each other, but I wouldn’t care for the constant contact by mobile phone that there is now, with editors chasing reporters for every tiny detail when nothing has happened. To show the comparison, when I covered Bloody Sunday in Northern Ireland, I had no calls from my editor; I was just left to get on with it, which suited me fine. We were very lucky back then, we had the freedom to work without all the committee meetings.
AM: Final question, if you have one piece of advice for would-be thriller writers, what would it be?
GS: Get on with it. Don’t show it to your boyfriend, girlfriend, family, friends; just go away and write. The other thing is, people say now how tough it is to write and get published. The fact is, it’s always been tough. Just do it.
AM: Gerald, thank for your time and generosity.
GS: My pleasure. God bless.
Read a sample from The Collaborator
‘THE COLLABORATOR’ – Hodder & Stoughton – h/b - £16.99 – September 2009
My thanks to Kerry Hood at Hodder for organising this interview.
More information can be found about Gerald Seymour and his books at: www.hodder.co.uk
WANT TO WIN A COPY?
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GERALD SEYMOUR BIBLIOGRAPHY
Harry's Game (1975)
The Glory Boys (1976)
Red Fox (1979) aka The Harrison Affair
The Contract (1980)
In Honour Bound (1984)
Field of Blood (1985)
A Song in the Morning (1986) aka Shadow on the Sun
At Close Quarters (1987) aka An Eye for an Eye
Home Run (1989) aka The Running Target
Condition Black (1991)
The Journeyman Tailor (1992)
The Fighting Man (1993)
The Heart of Danger (1995)
Killing Ground (1997)
The Waiting Time (1998) aka Dead Ground
A Line in the Sand (1999)
Holding the Zero (2000)
The Untouchable (2001)
Traitor's Kiss (2003)
The Unknown Soldier (2004)
Rat Run (2005)
The Walking Dead (2007)
The Collaborator (2009)