Tom bale, a
Sussex-based writer, is about to shatter some illusions about that fair county
with his first thriller, Skin and Bones, which is published by
Preface/Random House in January 2009, and has nasty things happening in nice
places. I caught up with Tom, and asked this quietly-spoken man about his
writing and how he does it.
Your story is set in
genteel Sussex, moving from town to county. As a local, is it as pleasant as we
think or is does it have a darker underbelly?
Sussex has some dramatic
contrasts. Itís got beautiful scenery, picture postcard villages and a lot of
very wealthy residents. But it also has areas of serious deprivation,
particularly in the larger towns like Hastings and Bognor. And of course
Brighton is a fascinating place to live, famous for its cosmopolitan nature and
seedy history. You canít grow up in Brighton and not be aware of the dark
Give us a run-through
of the basic story Ė a sort of extended elevator-pitch, if you will.
fast-paced thriller about a young woman who gets caught up in a shooting spree.
After being chased and nearly killed, she discovers something that no one else
knows: there was a second gunman involved. She joins forces with the son of one
of the victims, and together they go in search of the truth about what really
happened. But as they uncover the conspiracy behind the massacre, they realise
the killing didnít begin on that cold winter morning, and worst of all, it wonít
Skin and Bones
(herein S&B centres on ordinary people with extraordinary things happening
to them (dare I mention, like Harlan Coben?) - especially with the electric
opening chapters, which set the tone of the story. Is the theme of
ordinary-mortals-in-peril the basis of your writing or will that change?
I definitely prefer to
focus on the way ordinary people cope in extreme situations, in the manner of
Harlan Cobenís standalone novels, rather than follow the professionals Ė
detectives, pathologists, etc - as they go about their work. To my mind, itís a
lot more fascinating to explore how people react when their normal, comfortable
lives are suddenly thrown into chaos.
character is a woman. What made you decide on her as a character?
I had no choice, really.
The entire opening sequence came to me in a dream. The details were so vivid and
so complete that it never crossed my mind to change anything. If not for that, I
think I would have been daunted by the idea of having a female protagonist,
although once I was underway I found Juliaís character surprisingly easy to
The police in ĎS & Bí
arenít all crispy-clean and driven by conscience, are they?
I suppose not. It was
never my intention for the police to play anything but a minor part in the
story, but there is one rather unpleasant detective who ended up taking a larger
role than Iíd planned for him. It was one of those cases where the character
grows on the page and refuses to stay in the background.
ĎS&Bí tackles the
topical and knotty question of development of rural areas into housing Ė needed
or otherwise. Will such themes form the basis for future writingÖsay, scratching
the itch of local issues?
Itís possible. Although
I enjoy reading books about sociopaths and serial killers, in my own stories I
prefer to explore the very real reasons why people commit crime. The motives are
often pretty mundane things like jealousy, rage, greed - so in a situation like
land development, where thereís the potential to make a lot of money, criminals
are usually not too far away.
Why crime writing?
What started you on that road?
What I write has always
been hugely influenced by what I enjoy reading, and for me thatís genre fiction,
starting with the superhero comics of my childhood. In my teens I loved science
fiction and horror, although even then I was reading Ian Fleming and Leslie
Charteris Ė and I should mention Herge, because the Tintin books are wonderful
thrillers. In my twenties I gravitated more and more towards crime, and
nowadays, aside from some non-fiction here and there, I read very little else.
Who do you read and
what, if any, are you influences?
It always feels unfair
to start naming influences when there are so many, but in the early days Iíd
have to single out Stephen King. Also Hemingway and Graham Greene, who were my
two favourite literary writers, and then lots and lots of crime writers, many of
whom are American: John Sandford, Michael Connelly, David Lindsey, Martin Cruz
Smith, Carol OíConnell, Ian Rankin, Mo Hayder, Mark Billingham, Lee Child and
many, many more.
You had a book
published prior to S&B, didnít you? Tell us a little about that, and why you
decided to use a pseudonym this time round.
Thatís right. My debut
was actually a crime novel called SINS OF THE FATHER, published by CrŤme de la
Crime in April 2006 under my real name, David Harrison. After it was published,
I discovered there are numerous other writers with the same name, including one
who writes travel books about Sussex. When I signed with an agent, she suggested
I should consider a pseudonym, and hence ďTom BaleĒ was born. It felt a bit odd
at first, but I rather like it now.
Thereís a visual
quality to your writing Ė especially, but not only in the opening chapters. Do
you see it that way as you write?
I suppose I do tend to
see the story unfold in a fairly cinematic way, but itís not something to which
Iíve ever given a lot of thought.
What films influence
Actually, I canít say
film has been a major influence at all. I think itís more that I admired and
learned from writers with a great visual sense. As Iíve said, Stephen King was a
huge early influence on me: not just for the wonderfully cinematic feel to his
books, but also his skill at characterisation Ė the way he makes you care about
everyone, no matter how minor their role.
Whatís the next book
about, and is it a follow-on or standalone?
The next one is a
standalone, although it actually introduces what I hope might become a series
character. The provisional title is TERRORíS REACH, and my elevator pitch for
this one is ĎDie Hard on Sandbanksí! The setting is a fictional island off the
West Sussex coast. A criminal gang take control of the island, with much more
than just robbery on their mind, and the only person who can stop them is a
disgraced former undercover cop, now working as a bodyguard to one of the
You use some real
locations in your story, but are more vague on others. Do you find it easier to
write about real places or the imagined?
I prefer to use real
places, although for SKIN AND BONES I had to create a fictional village, because
of the high body count! But even that is placed in a setting I know well, and of
course the other locations like Lewes, Rye and Camber Sands are real, albeit
sometimes tweaked with a bit of artistic licence.
What sort of research
do you do?
I visit all the
locations, sometimes more than once, and take lots of photographs. I also do
most of the initial research on the Internet, and then try to corroborate what
Iíve found by speaking to experts. One great discovery Iíve made is that, if you
ask around, itís amazing how often a friend of a friend can provide exactly the
kind of information youíre after.
Pen or computer?
Computer. Years ago I
wrote in longhand first, but that was when I was still conditioned to writing
essays at school. Nowadays I suspect my aging fingers would give up after a
couple of hundred words. And my handwriting is dire, anyway.
Do you enjoy writing
more about heroes or villains?
Villains, probably. I
always tell myself Iím going to create a bad guy (or gal) who is just pure evil,
with no redeeming features whatsoever. But as Iím writing I invariably start to
bring out whatever humanity exists in their character, and I usually end up
feeling sympathetic towards them.
Who do you aim the
book at, if anyone? (apart from film or television producers and directors, of
I donít think Iíve ever
consciously aimed it at anyone. For a start, until now Iíve always written
without a publishing contract, so there was never any guarantee that what I was
writing would see the light of day. I think itís more the case that, once a
compelling idea for a story is lodged in my brain, I have to get it out - either
for the sake of my sanity, or simply to make room for the next one.
At the centre of
ĎS&Bí is an undercurrent of family relationships, whether daughter/parents,
son/father or nephew/uncle. Do you find that something which draws you?
Again, not consciously.
But I suppose I do often explore family relationships. I always find it a bit
odd when I read novels where the characters only seem to exist to serve the
story Ė none of them have parents, siblings, friends or colleagues. Most of us
donít tend to live with that degree of isolation, and I think it strengthens the
story and the characterisation if you can include those family bonds.
Will you keep your
plots Ďlocalí or will you move to even more exotic locations (Sussex being, of
course, extremely exotic, as the tourist board will point out).
Of course they would!
For now I love setting my stories in places I know well, or can easily explore.
But I certainly wouldnít rule out more exotic research trips in future.
Are you a
push-with-the-nose sort of writer or a planner?
I used to plan a lot
more than I do now. I think Iím learning to trust my subconscious. Itís
wonderful when youíre stuck, as I was for a while just before the end of
Skin and Bones,
and then suddenly an idea pops into your head and it all slots into place. So I
tend just to sketch out a few chapters at a time and leave it at that.
How has your family
reacted to your writing success?
I think theyíre pleased.
My daughter is certainly happy to tell people what I do, whereas my son is now a
teenager, and communicates mainly in grunts. Overall itís probably more a case
of relief that Iíve finally managed to prove that all the years of collecting
rejection slips werenít a complete waste of effort. I know my mum is very proud,
and since she works in a library she has ample opportunity to publicise my work!
I saw you on a panel
once, and you were very laid-back. Is that you or are you paddling madly
Paddling madly. And Iím
very surprised and flattered that anyone would think otherwise, so thank you for
countryside and those beaches must make for great walking-and-plotting moments.
Donít forget pub
lunches. An absolutely essential part of the research process.
Where do most of your
ideas occur Ė bath or bed?
Very often itís late at
night, while Iím brushing my teeth and just about to go to bed. So then I have
to rush off to find a pen and paper and jot down the idea, otherwise itíll be
gone by morning. Although I wouldnít say no to a few more dreams like the one
that inspired S&B....
When can we expect to
see the next Tom Bale title?
Early in 2010, I hope.
Thank you, Tom, for your
time. Good luck with everything.
Read Adrian's review of
Skin and Bones
If you would like to
read more about Tom Bale and
Skin and Bones, go to Tomís
http://tombale.net - where you can read the opening chapter and find a link
to a trailer on YouTube.