INTERVIEW - Rob Boffard, Author of Tracer meets Stephen Leather, Author of the Spider Shepherd Novels

Rob Boffard (Nicole Simpson)

Rob Boffard, author of the upcoming debut thriller set on a space station Tracer, interviews Stephen Leather, one of the UK’s bestselling thriller writers, best known for his Spider Shepherd novels.

Stephen Leather

Rob: What’s Spider up to in White Lies?

Stephen: In White Lies – the 11th Spider book, Dan 'Spider' Shepherd has to rescue one of his former apprentices who has been kidnapped in the badlands of Pakistan. The mission goes wrong and Shepherd ends up in the hands of al-Qaeda terrorists. Shepherd's MI5 controller Charlotte Button has to get her man out of harm's way, but her only hope is to bring in America's finest - the elite SEALs who carried out Operation Neptune Spear - in a do-or-die operation to rescue him.

White Lies was the book for 2015 and this year’s book – Black Ops, which is published on July 16, continues the story. In Black Ops Shepherd discovers that Button has gone rogue and used government resources to get revenge on the men who killed her husband. Spider is told to betray her which he hates because he has worked with her for many years. At the same time he has to fight to stop the assassination of a head of state on British soil.

Rob: You’ve been living with Spider for a long time. What do you know about him that you didn’t know when he first walked in your door?

Stephen: I’ve been working on a series of eBook short stories about his SAS past, and that has been a revelation. It allows me to show how his personality developed over the years, and also allows me to show how he met many of his friends.. The first Spider book was Hard Landing and Spider had already left the SAS and was working for the police as an undercover agent. Going back and telling stories from his SAS life helped me address his past – why he left the SAS, for instance, why he named his son Liam and how he met the people who appear in the later books. It was quite a learning experience!

I knew that his moral centre was always one of his most important characteristics but in recent books he has chosen to break the law to help his friends. Generally, though, I know everything about Shepherd – I created him. I’m not a believer in letting characters write themselves!

Rob: Your books are rooted in current events. What sort of research do you typically do for a new book?

Stephen: The internet is a big help, obviously. When I first started writing thrillers, more than 25 years ago, there was very little information online and most people didn’t have emails. If you wanted information you needed to go to a library or talk to a human being. For my book The Vets I needed to know how to strip down a Vietnam War Huey helicopter and I visited the Maryland National Guard and spoke to a pilot there. For my book The Long Shot I needed information on a sniper rifle and I had to write to the manufacture of the rifle I was interested in and they sent me details and a video. I wrote a book called The Tunnel Rats and went to Vietnam and down the tunnels of Cu Chi myself. These days all that sort of information is online and available at a few keystrokes.

I still travel a lot and visit the places I write about. But I do more research online these days. That’s for basic information. For plot ideas I still rely on people – police officers, special forces guys, and villains. It’s only by talking to them that you get information that isn’t available online. I was with an SAS sergeant last week, I’m seeing a senior police officer on Monday and a Border Force agent later in the week. I’ve known them all for years and they trust me so they are happy to tell me the real story behind the events you read in the papers.

Rob: Do you think there’s a formula to a successful thriller? I’m not sure there is, but what do you think?

Stephen: Maybe not a formula, because then anyone could copy it and write a bestseller, but there are definitely techniques that work. Always start with a bang, with something dramatic. Don’t over-describe, you’ll find the reader will fill in the gaps. In all my twelve Spider Shepherd books I doubt that I‘ve used more than a dozen words in total to describe him. Try to start scenes, or chapters, when something interesting is happening and leave before it gets stale. I tend to write shorter sentences and shorter scenes the closer I get to the end – that way it appears to the reader that they are reading faster.

Rob: I’m a working journalist, and one of the things I get asked is how that translates to writing novels. I’ve got my own theories, but I’m curious to hear yours. What in your journalistic life helped or helps you write novels?

Stephen: I think journalists make the best thriller writers, no question. Frederick Forsyth and Gerald Seymour, for instance. I think a journalistic background is the best training for writing thrillers - you learn to write clean, uncluttered copy and to keep it simple. Newspaper writing has to flow, you have to keep pulling the reader through the story and that’s important in thrillers too. Any tendency to over-describe is beaten out of you by the sub-editors, and the use of quotes (only including them if they add to the story) pays off when writing dialogue. It’s important to meet deadlines when you’re working as a journalist, and that discipline has carried over to my fiction writing. I always deliver my first draft on time and am never late with rewrites. I’m proud to say that in 25 years I have never missed a book deadline.

One of the most important journalistic skills is the ability to get a stranger to talk to you, and to give you information. That comes in useful when you’re doing research for a book. I have to say I always find it easier talking to strangers now that I’m a thriller writer. People are always wary of talking to journalists because they are worried about what will appear in print. But if they have read one of my books – or if I have given them a copy – they are more often than not more than happy to talk to me.

Rob: I’m coming up to the release of TRACER. It’s my first novel, so I’m freaking out a little bit! Do you remember how you felt on the day before your debut? What was it like?

Stephen: I guess the nervousness is because you’re worried about how the book will be received. Once the glowing reviews are in you’ll feel better! My debut was a book called Pay Off, published by Collins almost thirty years ago, and I knew it was only going to be a very small print run (fewer than a thousand hardback copies) so really I wasn’t expecting too much! At the time I was Business Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong which was quite a high pressure job so I was more worried about my career than about the book. These days writing is my full-time job, and there is such a long gap between the delivery and publication that by the time a book is published I am well into the next one. When I first started writing I produced a book a year – these days I write three books a year so I have less invested in the publication and more in the writing of the next one. But yes, the first one is unforgettable – there’s nothing like opening that first box of authors copies from your publisher and holding your own book in your hands. I had a silly grin on my face for hours and I’m sure you’ll be the same!

Thanks to Clara at Little Brown for allowing me to publish the interview

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