Wednesday, September 28, 2016

My Guest: Robert Wilson

My Guest this week is a bestselling, award-winning author who has even had some of his books picked up for TV series. He's here, however, to talk about something far more provocative...  Ladies and Gentlemen...

Robert Wilson

Where are we now?

The world is in the process of an extraordinary upheaval. We are living, perhaps, in a period of greater uncertainty than at any time since the end of WW2 and the onset of The Cold War. Never was the world economy so precarious as more and more people question the neoliberalist ideas that have informed the basis of global economic strategy. Never was the world in such a state of inequality. Never has politics been so divisive and people so divided. Never have we felt so threatened by implacable terrorists and the insoluble problem of climate change. Never were there so many world powers capable of destabilizing global peace. This should be an era for great crime and thriller literature.

Amazon Link
Great work comes from digging deep to describe a new world where a different, pervasive attitude is prevailing. John Le CarrĂ© memorably achieved this in ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ where he managed to depict not only the protagonist’s struggle in dire circumstances, but also a new global battle hidden from us all.

The publishing industry was different then. Put simply: there was no internet. Publishers were small companies producing books they wanted readers to read. They were supported by reviewers who drew readers to new books in the culture pages of newspapers read by significant numbers. They sold to bookshops that knew the titles, authors and their readers and could recommend.
Most of that has disappeared. Publishers are now huge conglomerates with accountants and shareholders who demand profits. Editorial teams no longer decide on what books will be published, but rather pitch their titles to sales and marketing who judge whether they’ll sell in the market place. They have no mid list, just best sellers and rookies. The few reviewers that remain in the diminishing culture pages cover the books that follow the trend so that their newspapers can maintain their dwindling readers. Readers have so many avenues through the internet to find out about new books that it’s impossible to quantify their effect. 75% of sales are made through Amazon who hoard all the information about their buyers, so that publishers can do little but follow trend. Fashions become imbedded and are much more difficult to break as we’ve seen from the present wave of ‘psychological thrillers’ prompted by the success of ‘Gone Girl’. The self-publishers are numerous, have no quality filters and sell their books at rock bottom prices. Amazon are only concerned by numbers, not caring if a thousand writers sell three books each or one writer sells three thousand. Bookshops are heavily demarcated and have little relationship with their customers. Everybody is following and nobody is leading.
This is the industry with which writers now have to engage.

Amazon Link
Six years ago, talking to a friend and her intelligent, 28 year old, high-achieving daughter, I was recalling times in the 80s, working in London, when all I wanted to do was read. I would get up early, read on the way to work, read in breaks and get back home to read. I was reading in order to get to grips with the strange world in which I was living. Books like ‘Illywhacker’, ‘London Fields’, ‘Schindler’s List’, ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, ‘The Confederacy of Dunces’ and ‘The Book of Evidence’ had done that for me. I asked the daughter, a Londoner at the time, whether the same had happened to her. Her mother said: ‘Am I going to tell him or are you?’ The answer was that it had happened to her and the last book that had done it was the latest Harry Potter. Puzzled, I asked her why? She told me she’d wanted to escape from her complicated, stressful life back into the simple pleasures of her childhood. She wasn’t alone. I was talking to a sophisticated, intelligent and well-off reader in his fifties who recently told me that he, too, reads ‘to escape’. Not Harry Potter but crime novels like Craig Johnson’s series featuring the wryly amusing Walt Longmire in the culturally unfamiliar surroundings of the wilds of Absaroka County in Wyoming.
I’d always wanted to be a travel writer. I’d travelled a lot, had strong descriptive powers and thought that this was the road for me until the travel writing industry collapsed in the late 80s early 90s. I turned to crime as a way of using the settings and my experiences to describe and understand the countries in which I was living in the context of a rapidly changing world. As my first book was published in 1995 the Fantasy wave was on the rise. By the end of the 90s children were into Harry Potter, teenagers were wrestling with vampires and the world seemed to want to revisit Middle Earth. We are still in the grip of that colossal trend.

My point here is that those of you who are thinking that the best way to bring readers on board is to attempt to explain the complex, uncertain world in which we are now living, as John Le Carré did back in 1963, then think again.

Unless, that is, the current change induces such a level of discomfort that readers feel they’re in need of new tools for this brave new world.


Robert Wilson has written thirteen novels: four West African noir, two WW2 Lisbon, four psychological crime novels set in Seville, and three international thrillers featuring kidnap consultant, Charles Boxer. A Small Death in Lisbon, won the 1999 CWA Gold Dagger. The first two Seville books were filmed by Sky Atlantic in 2012. The first Boxer book, Capital Punishment, was nominated for the 2013 Ian Fleming Steel Dagger.Stealing People is out in paperback now.

Thank you Robert, for an interesting post. As my own fans will already know, one of my own formative influences is Charles Dickens, a master of wrapping stinging social comment in to entertaining tales. They will also know that I strive to do this with my own novels - entertain while taking pot-shots at all kinds of issues. One of my favourites, again as my readers are aware, is the abuse of electronic surveillance in our present society, but everything from money-laundering by Vatican banks, through questioning what information our governments have the right to withhold, to the criminal side of the Internet have all come under my critical pen whilst entertaining with my tales.

What do you think? Do readers need new tools in our frenetic times? Opinions in the comments below, please. I'll figure out a prize for the best one.

Eric @