Boris Starling is a British novelist, screenwriter and newspaper columnist who’s been a reporter at papers like The Sun and The Daily Telegraph and also worked for a company that specialised in kidnap negotiations. He was able to put that writing skill and personal experience dealing with the seedy underbelly of society to create several brilliant crime thrillers. He has written seven crime novels, four under his own name and three under the pseudonym Daniel Blake.
His biggest success under his own name is arguably his first novel Messiah (1999) which appeared on both The New York Times and official UK bestsellers lists and was adapted for television with the first series being a direct adaption of the book, whereas the follow up 2nd, 3rd and 4th series were original screenplays that used his characters. The books written under his alias were met with big success, particularly in the American Market. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review said that the books “captures the essentials of Pittsburgh better than most natives could… This is a well-imagined thriller, a nice addition to the crowded police-procedural genre, with vivid characters and nimble-but-fitting plot twists.”
Now that I’ve introduced him properly here’s my Interview with Boris Starling:
Tell me a little about what you enjoy reading, and are there any authors that you like to read?
I spend so much time reading non-fiction stuff by way of research that I don’t get much time to read for pleasure, but when I do I find myself jumping genres quite a lot. Of books I’ve recently read and enjoyed – A Foreign Country by Charles Cumming (espionage), Me Before You by Jojo Moyes (I suppose technically chick-lit, but actually a rather brilliant book about love and loss), and This Is Not A Test by Courtney Summers (YA). I’m currently reading Reviver by Seth Patrick, which is crime mixed in with a bit of sci-fi.
What attracted you to writing in the first place?
I always enjoyed writing even as a child, and I have a vivid imagination, so it was a natural thing to gravitate to. In terms of becoming a professional writer, i remember sitting in the pub after playing football one night, and four of us were talking about book ideas we had, and I remember thinking that probably only one of the four of us was ever going to get published and I was determined it would be me! At the time I was working for a political risk consultancy, and I went part-time for six months so I could write Messiah.
Did you have any idea that your books would be as big at they are?
I had no real expectations either way, but I hoped that I would be able to write commercially enough to make a living out of it. My books aren’t literary fiction, they’re not designed to be deep musings about the human condition: they’re stories, and I hope they rattle along and keep people entertained for a few hours. You realise after a few years that so much of it is about luck. For example, I got very, very lucky with Messiah being a big hit and being turned into a TV series too. By luck, I don’t mean that the book wasn’t any good: I mean that there are thousands of books out there at any time which are just as good and for one reason or another just don’t get the breaks.
Can you think of a few tips of the top of your head for writing the perfect antagonist/protagonist?
Make them complex and flawed. Too many writers have impossibly perfect heroes and impossibly evil villains. In real life, people like that are very rare indeed. In particular, most villains don’t think of themselves as villains: they don’t go round cackling and rubbing their hands. The great villains think they’re doing necessary things which most people don’t have the courage to do.
To take three at random from book and screen:
- Noah Cross in Chinatown – he’s a monster who rapes his daughter, but he sees himself (not without cause) as a visionary. ‘The future, Mr Gittes! The future!’
- Hannibal Lecter – He’s cultured, he’s intelligent, he’s amusing. He’s better company than anyone else in that book. You root for him.
- Satan in Paradise Lost – The archetype of why a well-written antagonist is the best character imaginable. You understand him, you feel his pain and fury. Hence the theory that he, not God, is the main character in the book, and that, as William Blake said, Milton ‘was of the devil’s party without knowing it.’
So after a few years in the creative industry, do you have any tips for newcomers?
The industry has changed so much since I started. I wrote my first book in 1997, when I did most of my research in libraries – the internet was still a fringe thing (we had one online computer in a department of 30 people at work), and the main search engines were altavista and lycos – good luck finding them now! In terms of research, the internet has made everything so, so much easier for writers. The other big change, more recently, is of course the drive towards e-books, which both democratise the publishing process – literally anyone can get published nowadays and dilute it, as there’s an awful lot of shit out there now because of that.
But though the arena has changed, the basics haven’t. To write well, you have to read well – look at the big names in your genre and work out why they’re as successful as they are. Why does Harry Potter appeal to so many people? Why Jack Reacher? In both cases, because they strike an emotional chord in their readers – the boy who’s special, the wandering man with no ties to anyone.
And when you write, listen to feedback. Give your manuscript to people whose judgement you trust and ask them to be honest. They won’t be right about everything, but they probably will be about more things than they aren’t. A writer who thinks they always know best and won’t listen to anyone else is a pain in the arse. As a general rule of thumb, for every bunch of editor’s comments I get about a given manuscript, I agree with about 50%, disagree with about 25%, and the last 25% agree with their assessment of the problem but fix it in a different way to the one they’ve suggested.
Do you have any rules for writing that you think have served you well?
Treat it as a job. If you wait for the muse to strike, you’ll never write anything longer than a shopping list. Some days it flows, some days it doesn’t. Some days it starts off like treacle and then gushes out. But once it’s up there on the screen, no matter how rubbish it is, you can start making it better. You can’t make a blank page better.
That said, sitting at your desk is not always the best way. It is if you’re actually writing, but if you’re thinking or planning or plotting, sometimes it’s better to go do something else and let your brain go into neutral. I run a lot (also good for staying in shape when you’re middle-aged!) and there are very few runs when I don’t manage to resolve a plot hole or have an idea. Similarly when walking the dogs. The book I’m working on right now, for example, I could never get the central premise to work properly – and then one day walking the dogs, I realised how to do it, and in the time it took me to walk across one field, I had the whole thing mapped out.
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