NTN: Niall Leonard interviewed

The Guardian has called him Mr Fifty Shades, but EL James’ husband Niall Leonard is an accomplished writer in his own right. He’s worked on numerous TV scripts but last year he took part in National November Writing Month – the challenge was to write a novel in a month. Crusher was the result of his effort and in September this year the finished book was published by Random House. Set in London, it’s a gritty crime thriller for young adults featuring Finn Maguire, a dyslexic juvenile offender investigating the murder of his father. We invited this new author over to Crime Fiction Lover, during New Talent November, to talk about his arrival in the genre…

You are a successful screenwriter with a long list of credits including Hornblow, Wire in the Blood and Monarch of the Glen. What made you decide to write a YA crime novel?
Writing for TV means being part of a collaboration, with a lot of different people having an input, and as a writer you just have to hope that the emotion you originally intended to convey makes it to the screen. The work pays well, and it’s kind of glamorous – in the sense that people outside the industry think it’s glamorous – but every TV writer secretly wishes they could tell the story they want to tell, the way they want to tell it, with no-one else sticking their oar in. I had been meaning to do that for years, but Crusher was my first successful attempt.

Did you find it more challenging to write a novel compared to a screenplay? What was different?
It’s a rule of screenplay that action is character. Your characters are defined by what they do, and that’s largely because there is no way for the audience to see inside their head and understand their train of thought – you have to express their thoughts and emotions externally and visually. That’s a quite a fun challenge but it’s also restrictive. With a novel you have total freedom. You can have characters do things, or just think about things, and if the story is well told either will be just as much fun and engaging to read. Novels offer, in theory, total freedom – but ask any writer: total freedom can be intimidating. If you can depict any time or place or thought where do you start?

Your wife is EL James, the woman famous for the Fifty Shades Trilogy. As novelists is there competition between you? Has she given you any advice on writing a novel?
There’s no competition at all between us, which is just as well, because I would surely lose against a worldwide bestseller like Fifty Shades. My wife and I think and write in very different ways, so we long ago stopped trying to solve each other’s writing problems; what we do offer each other is encouragement and support. The best advice she has given me is to believe in your story and your characters and let them take you on a journey. As long as they are true to themselves you can’t go too far wrong.

Crusher came about when you took part in the 2011 NaNoWriMo novel writing event. What were the challenges of writing a book within a month, and how surprised were you that it’s been published by Random House?
The biggest challenge of writing a book in a month is making space in your day to write and not to let yourself get distracted or waylaid by everyday nonsense like cooking or changing lightbulbs. It can make everyday life very difficult if your family relies on you to cook or change lightbulbs, but hey, that’s why takeaways and flashlights were invented. Most TV writers work to a tight deadline anyway, so in fact writing a book in a month was pretty close to the way I was already used to working. That said, I was astounded when I found out Random House wanted to publish Crusher. I had written the book purely to please myself, with the vague thought I might self-publish it myself someday. Being part of an organisation like Random House whose people are so brimming with excitement and enthusiasm about books and writers is a refreshing change from the rather cynical and ephemeral world of TV and film.

Who are some of the other crime writers who inspire you, and why?
I read a lot of Raymond Chandler before I started writing Crusher because I wanted some of that cynicism, that loneliness, that sense of doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. The genre is often satirised, with actors in hats and trenchcoats growling manufactured wisecracks, but I didn’t want to write a satire, I wanted to re-invent the gumshoe novel in a modern context, where everyone has mobile phones and you can’t follow people in cars because the traffic makes it impossible.

Apart from that, I don’t read a lot of crime. Writers should read broadly, and steal material from all sorts of genres, like magpies.

What’s next for you?
Next for me is writing a sequel to Crusher. I’m keeping my fingers crossed it works out, although that does make it tricky to type…

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