Death in Profile, the first crime novel from Guy Fraser-Sampson, is a great read and I was really pleased to be able to interview Guy a couple of weeks ago.
Guy is – or was at any rate – best known for his career in the financial sector, his work as a senior Fellow at the Cass Business School in London and his non-fiction writing in the fields of economics and politics. His first piece of fiction was Lucia on Holiday – a follow-on novel in the Mapp and Lucia series by EF Benson, promptly followed by Major Benjy and Au Reservoir in the same series. Death in Profile is his first crime novel and is the first in a planned series.
Q: Why do you write?
This sounds corny, but I write because I feel I have something to say which can add to people’s understanding of a subject (when I write non-fiction), and because I wish to entertain (when I write fiction). I think I’m also a naturally creative person in search of an outlet, and since I cannot draw, paint or play the piano there isn’t much left!
Q: Were you a childhood scribbler or was writing something you came to later in life?
Like many writers (I suspect), I have always been a voracious reader. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house without television and so I haunted the local library. It was a family joke that I always had my head stuck in a book. Perhaps because I read quickly, I always read beyond my age, as well. I read ‘War and Peace’ over an Easter weekend when I was twelve, for example.
I never wrote when I was young, something I now bitterly regret since I realise that being a writer is my natural metier, but then I would have written differently to how I did when I actually started (in my mid-forties).
Q: How did you get your big break?
My initial break came when I was approached by Wiley to write a finance book based on a speech which I gave to a pensions conference in Edinburgh which got reported by the Financial Times. Then I wrote another for them, which was very successful, becoming the standard textbook on the subject (Private Equity). Naively, I assumed that because I wrote good prose and had proved I could write to a deadline then publishers generally would be queuing up to discuss new book ideas with me. Sadly, of course, the publishing industry doesn’t work like that.
Later, another big break was being invited in for interview by Mariella Frostrup on Radio 4 about my Mapp and Lucia novels. Although I had already spoken at several book festivals, including Oxford and Dartington, that definitely provides a huge shot of validation and credibility. It induces people to be polite about your books even if they don’t like them!
Q: How do you begin a new project? Do you plan in detail or just start writing and see where the story takes you?
If it’s non-fiction then I plan in advance, although I often have little more than the subject matter headline of each chapter, and I do change the balance of a book as I go along. With fiction I just start writing and see where the characters take me. I realise this goes against everything they teach in creative writing courses, but it’s the only way I can write. With my first Mapp and Lucia novel I had only the opening scene. With the second, I had only the basic idea of transferring the action to Italy. With the third, I had the ending but not the opening or the middle. Basically, you have to trust your characters and faithfully record what they show you.
Of course with detective fiction you don’t have quite that degree of freedom, but I still try to follow the basic principle. In the case of both of them so far I didn’t actually know when I started who the murderer was or what their motivation was, nor did I have any of the plot devices. They just came to me as I was writing.
Q: What’s your writing routine? Bustling cafe or silent solitude? Crack of dawn or midnight oil? Laptop or pen and paper?
I need peace and quiet generally, but particularly when I write. I have recently moved to Winchelsea in East Sussex in search of a more tranquil environment, although I find that there seems to be more traffic noise here than in my quiet street in North London.
I write in concentrated burst of between about one hour (for fiction) and two hours (for non-fiction). I type rather than write, partly because nobody can read my writing (occasionally not even me), and I need a proper standalone keyboard.
I usually have a mug of tea at my side, and I know things are going well when I find that it has gone cold while I have been working.
Q: How polished is your first draft?
Having spoken to other writers who re-write their entire novels, sometimes twice, I realise that I am incredibly lucky. My first draft is my final draft; it comes off the keyboard exactly as I would like it to. I have never re-written anything in my life (I have written fifteen books and published twelve) except to correct mistakes or make a slight change of emphasis.
Q: What writer do you most admire and what would you like to ask them?
My favourite novelist is Lawrence Durrell and he would be a fascinating person to be able to talk to; a good example of a great writer who was also a great reader. I sometimes feel that I have almost ‘spoken’ to him as I have read and re-read his collected letters, particularly to Henry Miller and Richard Aldington (the latter a very neglected writer, by the way). I would love to get his opinion on some of the novels that get written today.
Q: What book would you most like to have written?
‘The Alexandria Quartet’, though I fear Durrell would struggle to get published today, with most publishers looking for words of less than three syllables and sentences of less than ten words.
Q: Aside from writing, what skill or achievement are you most proud of?
I seem to be a natural speaker with a gift of making people laugh (intentionally rather than unintentionally, I hasten to add) and I enjoy entertaining people in this way at festivals and conferences.
I think this also helps me in my periods as a lecturer at Cass Business School, where I am a Senior Fellow. I was recently awarded an Academic Prize for excellence in teaching and I have been very happy and proud to have been able to guide people through a potentially life-changing period of studies.
Q: What talent or ability do you wish you had?
I would love to be able to play the piano; if I could, then I would happily spend hours playing it (mostly Schubert these days, I think). I never had the discipline to practice my scales or exercises, and as a result my technique fell off a cliff somewhere around Grade Six. I do sing, but it’s not quite the same thing, not least because you cannot do it on your own.
Q: What is true happiness for you?
Sitting in the sun somewhere in Italy with good company and good wine having an unhurried meal while looking out to sea, or perhaps over a lake. Or, less realistically, being able to afford tickets for the ‘Ring’ at Bayreuth.
Q: What aspect of the publishing industry would you like to change?
Oh dear, where shall I start? Having taught at Business School for eight years, watching publishers allegedly run a ‘business’ is a pretty painful experience. I should say at once that I have been lucky enough to encounter a few very honourable exceptions to the rule, not least Urbane Publications, but most of them are pretty dire.
Having worked in a business (investment fund selection) which actually has very similar drivers, though you might not think so, I would be looking for a small number of authors who do not have agents but who write excellent prose and can be relied upon (1) to meet a deadline and (2) to play a full part in promoting a book. I would not have an office or a large staff. I would not pay advances, but would cut the author in on a profit-sharing basis. I would then spend all my available budget (hopefully about 90%) on promotion.
Instead, of course, most publishers do exactly the opposite, spending their money on big advances to so-called celebrities, many of whom will not actually write their book themselves anyway, and a large central overhead created around a swish office in some terribly fashionable part of Soho or Bloomsbury.
In editorial terms, I really don’t think that things are much more intelligent. Everyone seems to be looking to publish the same sort of thing, exactly the same sort of thing that is already being published by everybody else. If your book doesn’t tick their boxes, then they don’t know how to deal with it. It never seems to occur to them that their boxes may need changing. What happens when readers get fed up with ‘noir’, for example?
Which brings me to the final problem, which again prompts the question ‘why does nobody in the publishing business have an MBA?’ (the answer, incidentally, seems to be because they don’t actually see it as a ‘business’ in the first place). One classification of a business calls for you to identify between two types: ‘market led’ and ‘sales led’. All publishing companies are sales-led. You pay a vacuous TV presenter a large advance for their life story, or for their diet tips, and you then go out and sell this.
A market-led approach is different, and is what I would pursue if I was running a publishing company. You go out to readers in focus groups, and perhaps book bloggers, book shop staff, and librarians. You ask them what they would like to read, and then you go out and commission it from authors. This is what I have done with ‘Death in Profile’; I may have got it wrong, but at least I tried a different approach. What I heard is that most crime fiction readers in the UK are middle-aged and middle class, and tend to listen to Classic FM, The Archers and the Today Programme (which I have appeared on a couple of times, by the way). They are tired of being bombarded with bad language, gratuitous sex and extreme violence. They are looking for likeable characters about whom they can care what happens next. They are looking to be treated as intelligent, mature and well-read. They like characters and story lines which develop from book to book, as for example Patrick O’Brien wrote but as crime writers tend not to.
So, to the best of my knowledge, this is the UK’s first ‘market led’ book!
Q: What piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Be resilient. If you cannot handle unintelligent, irrational or even malicious negative comments, then please do not become a writer. I know some people who have been terribly upset by all this, to the extent of actual mental illness.
If you are not prepared to spend huge amounts of time promoting your book, then please do not write it in the first place. Do not naively assume that the book will be published one day and you will wake up a star the next. Most publishers are useless at promotion, partly because they devote so little budget and resource to it (and, perversely, the bigger they are, the worse they seem to be), so if you do not promote your own book then nobody else will do it for you.
Recognise that you will have to write the sort of books that publishers want to publish, rather than vice versa.
Recognise that you cannot make a living as a writer. Do it for the fun of it, not the money (because there isn’t any – Amazon has seen to that).
Q: What are you working on at the moment?
I am writing the second in the Hampstead Murders series, the working title of which is ‘Miss Christie Regrets’, and yes, that does mean Agatha.
I am also working to complete a novel set in the Second World War which features a Ripley-like character, a coward who pretends to be a hero and just happens to be a murderer as well. If I can find a publisher for this, then it could turn into a series.
At any one time I am usually also working with three or four ideas which will hopefully turn into books. These include a Bertie Wooster type detective investigating a missing person case in Southend, a very dark sex murder (‘noir’?) mystery set in the First World War, a narrative history of the Plantagenets, a series in which real life Golden Age writers investigate crimes, and a serious ‘literary’ novel about Gabriele d’Annunzio.
Thank you so much for finding the time for this.