Cambridge's Golden Child

6 March 2008

Cambridge alum Tom Rob Smith’s first novel, Child 44, was released in the UK this week to huge hype, fueled by a bidding war amongst UK and US publishers and in Hollywood, where a team led by Ridley Scott won the rights to make the movie. After a lunch and signing with collectors at Heffers, he spoke to Ryan Roark about his writing habits, his time at Cambridge, and his work on the first ever Cambodian soap opera.

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Monday saw the UK release of Tom Rob Smith’s debut thriller Child 44, which has already received rave reviews from critics and become a best-seller in Germany, where is was first released. The novel takes place in Stalinist Russia and follows MGB officer Leo’s attempts to track down a serial killer, at a time when murder was not acknowledged to exist in Russia and officers spent most of their time arresting innocent people who had been branded enemies of the state.

The crime is based on real-life serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, who murdered over fifty women and children in the 1980s in Russia. Smith came across his story while researching for a screen adaptation of Jeff Noon’s short story “Somewhere the Shadow.” In the world of this story, criminals are “rendered safe by removing the things that are dangerous from their brains.” Smith tells me, “When I was reading the case files on Chikatilo, it just struck me that he wasn’t a criminal mastermind. He wasn’t a Moriarty-like figure who evaded capture through ingenious means. The reason they didn’t catch him was because of the way the system was set up, the prejudices, the lack of knowledge, the refusal to get knowledge–those things I thought made it an interesting starting point, because you have a situation where the crime is to say that a killer even exists.”

First he wanted to write a screenplay, but his film editor advised him otherwise: “He said, ‘It’s set in Stalinist Russia in the 1950s; it’s going to cost $100 million to make; you’re an unknown writer. It’s going to be a hard script to sell; think about writing it as a book.’ My first response was, ‘I don’t know, it hasn’t come from a book place in my brain,'” but he tried it out and soon found himself writing Child 44.

He decided to set the story in Stalinist Russia, rather than the 1980s. When writing a thriller, he says, “you’re trying to find extraordinary circumstances, but most of our lives are relatively safe and routine. In Stalinist Russia, everyone’s life was under extreme pressure and extreme danger.” He has already been praised for his attention to historical accuracy–though he is quick to point out that “the story is the main thing, and research is in the background”, as it should be in a page-turning thriller.

Smith did his research at the same time as his writing. He found that the most valuable research was in the written documents. Though he did visit Russia while he was writing it, “it’s definitely a book built on books. It’s not a book that came out of traveling around Russia. It was much more about the memoirs, the histories, the diaries, the real-life accounts.”

Like a well-trained academic, he is skeptical of the Internet for research purposes, though it does have its uses: “The Internet is brilliant for specific things, like if I want to find out what a specific truck looks like…. What the Internet is not good for at the moment is really substantial pieces. If you look up famine in the 1930s, you tend to get little paragraphs and pictures, and the information is pretty similar on lots of the stuff, whereas in a book, you have 100,000 words on the subject. You never get that kind of detail from the computer. Also, because I work so much on the computer, I don’t want to sit and read more on the computer. I want to read on the page.”

Smith says he owes his ability to research quickly and effectively to his time at Cambridge, where he studied English at St John’s and graduated in 2001. During his time here, he wrote dissertations on Raymond Carver and the use of melancholy by writers including Conrad and Beckett, and he wrote film for The Cambridge Student, which his friend Zoe Trodd founded.

Reminiscing about his university days, he says, “I really enjoyed living with my friends and learning things that you just stumble across. You get your lecture list of subjects, and then suddenly you’re listening to one of the world’s experts in the subject…. Nothing really compares to life at university–specifically to Cambridge, with the size. London is so big, and Cambridge is all kind of together. That’s an advantage and a disadvantage, or at least I thought it was-you can feel at times that it’s intense, a bit too intense.”

Smith is reluctant to give advice for student writers because, he says, “Looking back on my journey from being in Cambridge to selling this book, I’ve been given such a range of advice, lots of it contradictory. The problem is that some of the advice is good, but not good for everyone…. I was told ‘you should write what you know,’ and that for me was terrible advice, because that’s not the kind of writer I am. If you told that to someone who wants to write sci-fi, it just doesn’t make any sense. But I could see it being great advice for someone else. Writers, or people who are trying to become writers, are almost over-advised.” As he tells me, one of the most important things an aspiring author needs to learn, “knowing when to stand fast and knowing when to drop something that isn’t working”, varies from writer to writer, so that can’t really be taught in a general sense.

Smith’s own writing routine is quite disciplined. He writes at home, where it’s calm: “I couldn’t imagine writing outside of a space I can control. I always start very early in the morning. My worst time is around lunchtime, and then I kind of kick in again later in the afternoon…. As a writer, it’s not about saying this is when you should write, but about learning what’s good for you and then being really disciplined and making sure you protect those hours.

“When I’m writing, I tend to close down a bit. I don’t tend to write during the day and then socialise at night. I basically go into a tunnel until the book is finished, and then I catch up with everyone I haven’t seen in months and months. It’s a very sedate existence.

“As a writer, you never really shut down. You’re not just looking for new ideas, but always reworking things in your brain. Until the book is handed in, you’re always sort of writing, even when you’re sitting on a train. When you get some distance to something, like literal distance to your computer, you start having new ideas. So the idea of relaxing is pretty difficult in a way, because you always carry on in your brain. It’s the same thing with a dissertation–it’s hard to turn it off.”

Much of this discipline comes from his years as a TV writer. In the UK he wrote story lines and scripts for Doctors, Family Affairs and Bad Girls. His most challenging–and interesting–job came when he signed on with the BBC World Service Trust and moved to Cambodia to write the story lines for the country’s first soap opera. “It was great,” he says, “because we were really free in terms of what we could do. I felt really inspired by the people and the stories out there.” Because the show was shot entirely on digital camera, they could do things that wouldn’t be possible on a UK soap, like going on location into the countryside far away from Phnom Penh, where most of the action took place.

Working on the Cambodian soap, Smith found that he had to re-examine a lot of his preconceptions about television and plot, which are ingrained in Western consciousness but not natural to uninitiated TV watchers–as he found out when the pilot episode was screened to a test audience. “The climax involved a car crash between one of the teachers at this nursing college and two of the students who are on a motorbike. The sequence building up to the crash was cutting from the car back to the motorbike, back to the car, back to the motorbike. When I first saw it, I said, it’s so obvious they’re going to crash, maybe too obvious…. When we aired it to the test group, they were really bored. While they were watching it, I was wondering, why are they so bored? Do they also think it’s too obvious? Then suddenly the crash happened, and they were all absolutely shocked. They weren’t used to putting together these events, so when they saw the car, they were like, ‘oh, it’s just a car driving’, and when they saw the motorbike, they were like, ‘it’s just a motorbike driving’. They didn’t link, as we would, that these two would crash, just because they weren’t used to watching those kinds of TV shows. So we realised that to make this work, we were going to have to cut back all that buildup.

“There were differences in terms of the culture as well. When I was working on Family Affairs, when a couple got together, they would kiss very quickly, within a week. In Cambodia, that’s just not going to happen. By week 40 the main couple held hands. By the end of the series they first kissed, whereas in British TV by the end of 60 weeks, they would have broken up and gotten back together a thousand times or something.”

For now, Smith has put aside screen and TV writing to concentrate on the follow-up to Child 44. Could a classic detective series be in the works? “Possibly there’s a third book there, it’s not something that could go on for, say, seven books. It’s not like you have a protagonist and everyone else disappears and you have a new book with a new adventure and all new people, like a James Bond. The first book is about Leo’s relationship with his wife; the second book is about the family–there’s only so many times you can twist those relationships.” Moreover, he doesn’t see himself specifically as a crime writer: “If I was going to talk about the future, what appeals to me is a good adventure.” He cites Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, and Graham Greene, as well as filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, as influences. “The crime element might be important, but the adventure side is the key.”

Meanwhile, Child 44 is being adapted for the screen by Richard Price, to be directed by Ridley Scott. Smith himself won’t be involved in the writing, but he has complete faith in the team at Fox 2000: “I feel like it’s in the safest possible hands, so I’m very excited.” It sounds like this is the beginning of an extremely exciting career.