I’m joined today by author Richard Whittle whose most recent novel, The Man Who Played Trains, was published earlier this year in paperback and an ebook by Urbane Publications. You can order a copy of that online by clicking here.
First of all, would you tell my blog readers a little about yourself?
I was born in Barton, on the south bank of the River Humber. I don’t remember anything about the place because my mother then moved to the South of England. I was brought up in Bristol, and educated at Bristol Technical School (Building Department – I am still a dab-hand at plumbing!). I Joined Bristol Police as a cadet and then became a constable, leaving after several years because I wanted to be an engineer. After a spell as an engine tester at R A Lister’s diesel engine factory in Gloucestershire, I moved to London to study geology at the Royal School of Mines.
I am a very lucky man. Not only have I had a successful career as a geologist and engineer, my recently published novel, The Man Who Played Trains, has had many excellent, 5-star reviews.
Because of my work I moved house within the UK several times. I now live in Scotland, not far from Edinburgh.
What inspired you to start writing?
One of my few talents at Primary School was for something they called ‘composition’. I got good marks for my stories. Real life then took over and it was many years before I put pen to paper in that way again.
My work took me overseas, to projects in many different countries. I usually travelled alone, and passed the dark evenings reading novels. Back in the UK I spent time writing scientific and technical reports. Much of my work was not that far removed from detective work – searching for clues and interpreting what I found. To me it seemed only natural that I should start writing novels.
Like many new writers I attempted short stories. Two were published. Inspired, I started on full length novels, the first few for my son, who was twelve at the time. I experimented with longer ones, often setting them aside half-written when new ideas came to me.
I have been asked what inspires my novels. So many different (and often frightening) things happened to me during overseas trips that it doesn’t take much imagination to expand them into fictional stories. My novels must have a plot; I enjoy having to reason things through. These days my mind always seems to be elsewhere, modifying my own experiences, enhancing them and twisting them, developing stories, plots, and original fiction.
Tell me about your journey to publication
My journey to publication was a difficult one. An early novel of mine, submitted to Random House, attracted a personal reply from a director, along with his red-penned edit of the first few pages (he had deleted about one third of it – a hard-learned but valuable lesson). The two-page letter accompanying the returned typescript ended with ‘You will get published. It may take you some time‘. Whether he was consciously misquoting the ill-fated Captain Oates of Antarctic fame I do not know. But he was certainly right about the time it would take. It was twenty or so years.
Further encouragement came when I submitted a different novel, under a pseudonym, to the Crime Writers Association and was shortlisted for their Debut Dagger Award. At the award ceremony I was presented, by Ian Rankin, with a runner-up prize. Rankin said ‘Just keep writing!’ (no doubt oft-said words of encouragement to budding authors). He also made a tongue-in-cheek comment not to set any of my novels in Edinburgh. My next one is set there, Doctor Rankin (but you did say that to me fifteen years ago).
Discouraged by multiple rejections I stopped submitting my work for publication. That does not mean I stopped writing, rewriting and editing. My hard drives and backups are a nightmare of novels and parts of novels – a sort of digital attic of good stuff, bad stuff, and indifferent stuff.
A few years ago I published my full length novel Playpits Park as a print-on-demand book on Amazon. It received mostly excellent, 5-star reviews. The Kindle version was downloaded more than 4,000 times (maybe 6,500? – I honestly can’t remember).
In 2016 Matthew Smith, at independent publisher Urbane Publications, agreed to publish The Man Who Played Trains. At the risk of boring you I’ll admit that this novel took many years to write. I researched it for two years, changed it from first to third person, from past to present tense and then back again. Then, in 2015, I decide that enough was enough. It had to be published. I rewrote it for the umpteenth time and submitted it to the amazing Matthew.
In a nutshell, what is your latest book about?
The Man Who Played Trains is a novel in two interwoven parts. One part, a contemporary story set in the north of Scotland, starts with an apparently pointless murder. The other part, set in wartime Germany, is a tale of conspiracy and intrigue that the reader will guess is backstory to the murder, but is at a loss to know how or why. The two tales come together gradually.
Setting part of a novel in WW2 is the bit that took two years to research. The war was such hell for so many people that I felt I had to portray locations and events honestly and accurately. Though time consuming and often tedious, I felt the time I spend researching vindicated by recent comments made by the Manchester Military History Society in a recent review:
“his writing keeps the pace up despite the 450+ pages, to an exciting and unexpected finish. I really enjoyed this well researched novel.”
What more could I want?
How did you come up with the title for your book?
Incorporating the word ‘trains’ into the title was a gamble, there was a risk that potential readers would think it a train-spotting story. It is anything but that. One of my protagonists (there are two, John Spargo in recent years in the north of Scotland and Theodor Volker in Nazi Germany) has no choice other than to play with model trains.
How did you celebrate publication day?
In fear and trepidation! How many good reviews would I get? Would it do better / worse / or the same as Playpits Park? The Man Who Played Trains is more important to me than Playpits because it has been published by a real-life, independent publisher – and without good results he won’t want my next novel!
Do you have a work in progress just now?
I have two (plus rewrites of the young adult stories I wrote for my son years ago). This isn’t a boast, it is how I like to work. Over the years I have found that if I get stuck on one novel (so-called writers’ block) I switch to the other one. After a while, my subconscious sorts out the plot problems of the first. Then, when I am more than three quarters of the way through one or the other of them, I concentrate only on that one.
What’s your favourite book you’ve read in the past few months? Or favourite three if you really can’t choose!
I have been working my way through Stephanie Merrit’s five novels written under her pen name S J Parris. An impressive amount of research must have gone into this series. The novels are so well-written, so well plotted and intricate that reading one can take me two or three weeks, even though they are real page-turners! I also have Michael Connelly’s latest in my to-read pile.
If you were on Desert Island Discs, what one book would you take with you?
It would have to be something long, a book that would keep my mind active. I’m not sure about War and Peace. I suppose I could read the Desert Island Disks complementary issue of The Complete Works of Shakespeare. I have only read half of his plays and sonnets (when I was a policeman in my 20s – we didn’t do stuff like that at school). Being stuck on an island would be a good opportunity to read the rest. Having said that, I would rather have notebooks and pens, or a sand-proof laptop and solar panels. Then I could write my own novels.
I’m not answering your question, am I? You asked what book I would take. On my bookshelves is a rather large paperback, The Spanish Civil War by Hugh Thomas. I bought it to read in Madrid when I worked there in the late 1970s and I brought it home, unread. I guess it would have to be that one.
Is there a book you’d like to see made into a film? Who would be in your dream cast?
Any of Robert Harris’s historical novels. The cast would have to be good. I was impressed by Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie in The Night Manager, so they would be my first choice (yes, I do know that The Night Manager was by John le Carré, not Robert Harris). And Judi Dench, of course. Every good film needs Judi Dench.
How can people follow you or connect with you on social media?
If they really want to, I am here:
I do not devote enough time to my blog. I would rather spend time writing.
And finally, if you could be a character in any book you have read, who would it be and why?
Because you said character and not person, I’m thinking Pooh Bear. Or perhaps Toad or Mole from Wind in the Willows – though I’m not at all like Toad, I would have trouble behaving that badly (but it might be fun?).
Having been a policeman for almost 10 years, I suppose I’m a bit like Badger. Okay… I have just been put in my place. I have just had a note from my granddaughter, saying it has to be Pooh.