Interview with Richard Whittle
I’m delighted to have Richard Whittle on my blog. His new book, ‘The Man Who Played Trains’ is being published next month. I asked Richard some questions.
Can you tell me a bit about ‘The Man Who Played Trains’ please?
The Man Who Played Trains is a crime novel and thriller in which two stories, apparently separate, run side by side. In one, mining engineer John Spargo is distraught when his mother is attacked in her home and later dies from her injuries. In the other, wartime U-boat captain Theodor Volker, on leave after a gruelling mission, is accosted by a stranger while waiting for a train to take him to the south of Germany to see his young son.
Though the stories appear to be separate, the reader gradually becomes aware of connections between them. John Spargo, desperate to understand who murdered his mother, and why, finds a link between his late mine-manager father’s wartime mine and the wreck of a U-boat found off the Scottish coast. The connection deepens when he discovers the diaries of the U-Boat captain and a wartime mission to spirit Göring to safety, along with a fortune in stolen art.
A mysterious consortium contacts John to say they have abducted his daughter, Jez. Unless he can meet their unreasonable demands, her life is at risk.
When I first saw the cover I was fascinated by it and I still am. Where do those steps lead to?
The Man Who Played Trains has two main characters. Both are ‘underground men’. John Spargo is a mining engineer. The steps might well represent John Spargo about to come out from darkness in so many different ways. Also, perhaps, Theodor Volker emerging from a basement in Berlin. Or, possibly, from Hermann Göring’s Carinhall bunker…
Where did you get the idea for this book from?
This is a difficult one, and quite personal. Before WW2 my mother had a German boyfriend, the son of a ship’s captain. Just before the outbreak of war her father banned her from seeing him. I believe the boyfriend died in the war. I have often wondered what would have happened had my mother married that first boyfriend (apart from me being years older than I am now!). Having said all that, The Man Who Played Trains is not in the least bit autobiographical. Nor is it a war story. You asked me where I got the idea from. You will have to read the book to find out how that little bit of history fits the plot.
How long did it take you to write?
Several years ago, before setting pen to paper – or fingers to keyboard – to write The Man Who Played Trains, I did almost a year of background research. Then, after drafting around 50,000 words, I put it aside and started another novel, returning to The Man Who Played Trains some months later. It is difficult to say how long it took to write, as I rewrote it at least twice.
I always have two or three novels in the pipeline, revisiting them every few months to add chapters and to revise and rewrite. Writing this way has advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that I seldom get ‘writers’ block’. Almost invariably, in the intervening months, the next part of the set-aside novel has developed in my head. Another advantage is that when I restart, I have to read, and therefore edit, everything that I have written so far – though some would call that a disadvantage. Happily, it seems to work for me.
Can you relate to any of your characters?
I am always in my characters’ heads. I have to be, it is the only way I can see what they see, think what they think, and say what they say. I try to make my lead characters ‘victims of circumstance’, who become entangled in situations not of their own making. From a professional point of view I can relate to John Spargo: as a geologist and engineer I spent time working underground, in mines, tunnels and caverns.
Do you have a favourite place where you do your writing?
Always in coffee shops, seldom at home. I have a favourite café in a small, family-run garden centre south of Edinburgh, where they leave me alone and let me write.
Would you say that you are a people watcher?
Not really. I am more of a people rememberer. I have been a policeman, a diesel engine tester, a mature student, an engineering geologist and director. I can recall situations, individuals and conversations, even from way back. It is rather like having my own Aladdin’s Cave.
What has your experience of getting published been like?
The Man Who Played Trains will be published by Urbane Publications this April. Matthew Smith and his staff at Urbane have been a godsend because they have taken away the pressure I felt when I self-published my first novel, Playpits Park, with Amazon. For that novel I formatted the whole book, I even designed the cover. My previous attempts to find a publisher had elicited responses such as this does not fit with our current list. Or, more often, it is difficult to place your work in any genre…
Will there be any more books?
Undoubtedly. I am writing two others. In no way are they alike. Depending on my mood, I bounce between them. Is that weird? Maybe, but it works for me.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given about writing?
Just keep writing! – advice given to me by Ian Rankin when he presented me with a prize when I was shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association’s Debut Dagger.
Who are your favourite authors?
Kate Atkinson, Michael Connelly, Graham Greene, John Grisham, Robert Harris, Shona Maclean, Peter May, Ian Rankin. Note the alphabetical order, not order of preference.
Do you actually like trains?
I have always been interested in engines of all kinds. Like many boys of my generation I was a ‘train spotter’, standing on railway station platforms, ticking off engine numbers in a small book. Modern diesel and electric trains do not appeal to me in the same way.
Despite my novel’s title, railways play a very small part in the story, though the small part they play is crucial to the plot. Also, the man who played trains is not John Spargo…
Richard Whittle’s blog: https://playpitspark.wordpress.com/
Richard’s Twitter: https://twitter.com/richard1whittle