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19 May 2020

Three-book deal for CBC’s first writing duo

by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From Our Students, Writing Tips

Barney Thompson and Christopher Rickaby met on our first-ever novel-writing course in 2011. Now they’re a writing duo and they have gained an exciting three-book deal with Welbeck for their jointly-penned ‘Revol Rossel’ thriller series.

We caught up with Barney and Chris to discuss their time studying with us and what inspired them to become a writing team. Read on to find out more about their book deal and how they approach writing jointly as as ‘Ben Creed’ …

You were both students on our inaugural novel-writing course in 2011. How did your time on the course impact your approach to writing?

Barney Thompson: Several things have stuck with me about that course, but I remember a session with Jojo Moyes in particular. I think she said she had written two books that hadn’t found a publisher before she dejectedly submitted the opening of a third to her agent, who immediately knew it would be a hit and replied: More! Plenty of writers have tasted failure before success but it was reassuring to actually meet one… The second lesson she gave us was: write out a full CV of your main characters – date and place of birth, school, that job they had pulling pints, favourite food, which team they support… all the way up to their top secret mission/coruscating love affair/fight against a global pandemic. Doing that gives you story ideas as well as stronger, deeper characters.

Another memory was being grilled on my novel by CB agent Felicity Blunt, who kept asking ‘why?’ ‘Why does that happen? Why does s/he do that?’ I had some really wishy-washy motives and plot lines in there and she picked them apart within 20 minutes. All chastening stuff, but invaluable.

Christopher Rickaby: Jake Arnott was one of the main tutors. I’d read a few of his books before I attended and loved The Long Firm, in particular. So, it was really interesting to meet him and hear his views about the craft and process of writing. He is a very smart guy and gave excellent advice.

I was working on an experimental novel at the time which involved a lot of interlinking stories. I’d already done a good few drafts but after I did the course and read a lot of other people’s work and gave critical feedback I realised that lots of things I was saying about their stuff were also true about mine. It’s a lot easier to read other writer’s work and see where things can be tightened up. On your own book you’re more connected/defensive so tend to be less brutal in terms of taking out chapters, scenes and lines. After I did the course, I started to chop into my own work more aggressively and, hopefully, make it better.

Your deal is particularly special for CBC because you’re our first-ever alumni-writing duo to gain a major book deal! Can you tell us a bit about how you work together and what inspired you to work as a team?

BT: Chris is the ideas factory! He sees everything through a writer’s prism and comes up with all sorts of connections and characters and plots. I just piggyback on that. He came up with the central idea for City of Ghosts that involved two things I know a bit about: music and Russia (I studied conducting for two years at the St Petersburg Conservatoire before wisely deciding I wasn’t good enough). He messaged me on Facebook and asked if I was interested in collaborating since these were my ‘fields’, and I thought the central premise of the book was so great I leapt at the chance.

Chris comes down from Newcastle to London and we have gruelling sessions bouncing around ideas, thrashing out story lines, looking at Google images to help us think about our characters, writing biographies… We take up residence in the Royal Festival Hall or the National Theatre and do a lot of scrawling on notepads. Then we allocate chunks of the synopsis – usually fairly large chunks – and one of us will edit what the other has written. What’s great is that if I get stuck I can just hand over to Chris, or take up the challenge if he gets stuck. There are lots of phone calls, too.

I doubt collaborating is for everyone. The other person will inevitably rewrite your words of genius and kill a fair few of your babies and you have to be OK with that – although in some ways it’s easier when Chris does it, because then I don’t have to. But if you a) like your co-author and b) respect their writing abilities and judgment, which I do, then it’s a lot easier.

CR:  City of Ghosts is a book I couldn’t have written on my own. When I had the initial thought that became the book I realised straightway that there was the basis of a good thriller in it but it probably wasn’t one I could write. So, at first, I just filed it away. But it kept nagging at me and then I remembered Barney had lived in Russia, trained to be a conductor, and liked to write thrillers. So, I got in touch, fully expecting him to say no. But he said yes. And here – after a lot of hard work – we are with a deal.

My background is in advertising where traditionally creatives work in teams of two – art director and copywriter. So, for me, writing a novel with someone else probably seemed less of a radical step than it would be for a lot of people. The key to it really is just trying to take your own ego out of the dynamic and completely focus on delivering a great end product.

I’m someone who is guilty, at times, of overwriting. Barney has worked as a sub-editor and has a beautifully simple and clear storytelling prose style. I think the way the book is written, which evolved over time and quite a few drafts, is a lot closer to his natural prose style than mine. And that’s a good thing.

Many of our students find their community of writers on our courses – are you still in touch with any of your other course mates?

BT: To begin with we remained a very tight group, but many of us now live in different parts of the country so I keep in touch with three or four of them on Facebook. Loads of them have been published, which is brilliant. I’m still in touch with the amazing Anna Davis, who was one of the first people we told about our deal.

CR: I really enjoyed meeting all the people on the course. Many of them had a very different background to me but because everyone had one simple thing in common – love of books – it was really easy to chat and get on with people. Initially, I did keep in touch on Facebook but I have stopped doing Facebook these days. Apart from Barney, the only person I’m in regular contact with now is Gill Foreman who is in the process of setting up her own small publishing company.   

Now you have an amazing three-book deal with Welbeck for your thriller novels. How did you two celebrate the news?

BT: I think Chris was on holiday at the time, so to begin with we celebrated with some euphoric text messages. Later we had a beer or two with our agent, Giles Milburn, who has a disconcerting amount of faith in our thriller at the same time as homing in on its weak points and suggesting great improvements.

CR: The first good news we got – even before the UK deal with Welbeck – was a three-way auction for the German rights and then an eventual two-book deal with Droemer. After that, I just went for a pint at my local. Which I know that doesn’t sound particularly exciting but after all the knockbacks I’d had to negotiate to get a novel across the line that pint tasted just as good as the one John Mills drinks after crossing the Egyptian desert in the film Ice Cold in Alex. It went down a treat!

Who are some of your crime and thriller influences? 

BT: Martin Cruz Smith has way too big an influence on me and I should stop trying to imitate him. I love Alan Furst for style and atmosphere, and John Grisham for the way he throws out all the rules and still ends up with gripping stories. Ian Rankin, Jo Nesbo, Val McDermid, Raymond Chandler… I’ve just watched a series of online lectures by James Patterson, and while his style is different to anything I would attempt, I learned a huge amount, especially about planning and “playing cat and mouse with the reader” (and when someone has sold 350 million more books than you have, you should probably listen.)

But I’m probably more influenced by other genres – I spend a great deal of time now thinking back to all my favourites I read a long time ago (A Fine Balance, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Any Human Heart) and realising how many lessons I should have learned from them. Mostly about great characters.

CR:  I have read most of Phillip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series. I love the characterisation and the dialogue in them. Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen mysteries is also a series I really enjoyed. They have fantastic mood and atmosphere. The Name of the Rose made a huge impression on me when I first read it – an exciting, page-turning thriller, with great characters that also has interesting philosophical ideas in it, and is thematically rich.

Lots of TV series today have amazing plot, characters and dialogue in them. The second series of Boardwalk Empire is one of my favourites. The creators of that write from inside the skin and behind the eyes of the characters. They set a very high bar. 

Can you tell us a bit more about your debut novel?

City of Ghosts is set in Stalin’s Russia in October and November of 1951.

Without wanting to give too much a way at this stage, we pitched it along the lines of it’s Amadeus meets Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44. In the middle of a bleak Soviet winter, Revol Rossel, once a Conservatoire-trained classical violinist, now a humble state militia cop is called to a vast frozen lake. There he finds five blackened corpses and the beginnings of a murder trail which lead him upward into the very highest echelons of Soviet society, and back to a mysterious singer he once loved during his days as a music student at the Leningrad Conservatoire.  

 Do you have any advice for writers who are just starting out?

BT: We’re just starting out, so no! I’ll pass on one from Meg Gardiner, who did a fantastic one-day course at CBC: create sympathetic and interesting characters and put them in danger. I’m having that as my first tattoo.

 CR:  Not about writing, just about sticking at it. Being determined when things don’t turn out how you hoped. One of my aunts used to say that in life you have to be like those wobbly-man dolls with a rounded base – every time you knock them over they pop straight back up again.She was right about that.

Finally, what’s next for your writing journey – what are you working on now?

BT: Book two of the Revol Rossel series. Again, Chris had the big idea, and again it’s a brilliant one. I’m just running with it.

CR: As Barney says, book two. But he’s being too kind to me here. The initial idea is 1% of a book like this. 99% of making it work is in the execution – creating convincing characters, strong scenes, plot twists, and interesting dialogue. And that’s something we will be doing together.

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