By Tanvi Pahwa
Far from being the reclusive stereotype of the crime writer, Matthew Richardson is wry and self-assured. The Durham graduate and former Editor-in-Chief of Palatinate sits down with Tanvi Pahwa to discuss writer’s block, his debut novel My Name is Nobody, and what literary success means to him.
How was your experience at Durham?
Brilliant. I hugely enjoyed my time at Durham… they were some of the best three years of my entire life. I enjoyed the course, it offered a range of all the different time periods of literature, so that was great. I loved the smallness of it, you know, how contained it is, it was nice and I really enjoyed doing Palatinate, so that was my main source of enjoyment. It was good, I really enjoyed it.
I hugely enjoyed my time at Durham… they were some of the best three years of my entire life.
Since you intend for this series to be a trilogy, do you feel any of pressure for your next book to live up to the success of the first?
Certainly. Hopefully what you do is keep writing and perfecting the construction, as well as improving and getting better. It’s important to know what specific things you do well, to understand how to differentiate and isolate what it is you do really well and then perfect it. I often thought that writing fiction would be different to writing academic pieces, but actually they’re quite similar because you have to become an expert on a particular type of story and idea. Someone like Alfred Hitchcock is a good example in that he’s made the Hitchcock thriller his own and just perfected it. That’s the holy grail for me, that’s what you’re trying to do.
Who are some of your literary inspirations?
I did my dissertation at Durham on Evelyn Waugh so I really enjoy his work. He has a great novel, Scoop, which is a satire piece on the journalistic world … I have a huge respect for Dickens and Shakespeare. Graham Green, John le Carré … I especially like the authors that manage to bridge the gap between entertainment and high art. I prefer Dickens to Henry James.
It’s important to know what specific things you do well, to understand how to differentiate and isolate what it is you do really well and then perfect it.
Is there a book that you felt has shaped your 2017?
I would have to say something by George Orwell. Nineteen Eighty-Four was another key piece for me because it showed me how you could write about a political subject in a way that lasted. One of the key problems you have with political fiction is that it dates quite quickly, yet he managed to write fiction that was eternal. Actually, the Literary Agency I’m represented by is the same one that represented George Orwell! Nineteen Eighty- Four and Animal Farm would have to be two of my favourite books because they reflect how, in today’s world, that comfortable sense of linear progression has been disrupted because political systems are volatile. Orwell is an incredibly lucid writer and I really feel those two books reflected 2017 for me.
Tell me a bit about the inspiration for your book, where you drew out character details from, and if any of it is from real life.
What I wanted to do with the book was investigate those institutional tropes that you get, such as characters in spy novels coming from difficult backgrounds… John le Carré had a hard childhood, Bond was an orphan. I wanted to focus on that institutional life and how it moulds people, by investigating those tropes of the spy novel and updating them for a different time period. I wanted to pit the two main characters in the novel, Solomon Vine and Gabriel Wilde, against each other, as they’re from polar ends of the social spectrum. What they’re united by is that fierce, restless intelligence. I would say it’s all partly drawn from real life, partly from tradition that I’m working in, and partly from imagination. One thing that stayed the same over the course of the novel was those two characters… I used to wander home from the day job at Westminster and try and think about what I’d like to write. I started with those two characters… I’m fascinated by those sort of mythic archetypes there and using those underlying structures and making them fresh.
I used to wander home from the day job at Westminster and try and think about what I’d like to write.
Your book is set to be adapted for television. Does it feel as though you’re giving up a piece of yourself, will seeing someone else’s interpretation be difficult for you?
I think I’ll probably struggle a bit, because you’re giving up something born out of you in a way, and, yes, getting a TV show made is even more difficult than getting a book published because there’s no guarantee it’ll even reach the screen. I think I will struggle with that, I know there are a lot of authors who don’t watch the adaptation of their work because they can’t bear to see the interpretation, but I think curiosity will compel me to watch it.
Would you consider writing in different genres, or is there something that particularly draws you to the spy thriller?
I’d definitely consider it, certainly if you branch out to do TV writing, it’s much more open to writing between genres. If the idea came to me and was really strong, then I would. I think what’s so great about the crime genre is that it’s so adaptable. If you get to grips with it, it gives you a ready-made structure – shape can be difficult to form. The crime thriller gives you so much, it’s so varied, anything from Hamlet to Agatha Christie, all the way back to Oedipus Rex.
Don’t be put off if you find writing difficult, because everyone does.
Having graduated from Durham, is there any advice you’d like to give students who are interested in pursuing a career in writing?
I’d say practice. Certainly, the different paths I’ve followed, speech-writing, journalism, writing books, all require different skills. Speech-writing requires speed: in Westminster, there’s no such thing as writer’s block. You need to be able to write fluently. But with novels, you’re trying to find your own voice. Mainly it is just getting completely at home with producing material, which comes from writing a lot, and then you’ll find out what you do well. Don’t be put off if you find it difficult, because everyone does. One thing you have to do is get used to criticism and feedback, you won’t ever quite welcome it, but it’s just part of the process. If you can’t cope with notes, I don’t think the profession is suited for you because it’s just too agonising. Trust your own voice and your own instincts and be prepared to see your writing out in the world.
Photograph: John Cairns