By Daniel Ford
I'm fairly certain I would have enjoyed Tom Claver’s debut thriller Hider/Seeker even without the rabid endorsement of my jewelry biz buddy Peggy Jo Donahue.
His main character, Harry Bridger, makes a living helping people run from their enemies, however, his life becomes endangered after he arranges for Angela Linehan and her son to disappear abroad from her violent husband in London. Throw in a ticking clock, an ex-wife, and a Central American location and that’s a novel I’m going to finish in two nights (one with the right blend of coffee).
Also, first lines in a thriller tend to be even more important than in literary fiction and Claver lands a beauty: “Harry had sat in the restaurant for over an hour, bloating his empty stomach on grissini and cold Prosecco.” Yes, please.
Claver recently answered some of my questions about how he first became interested in writing, his writing process, how the idea for Hider/Seeker originated, and how he went about getting his work published (He also earned Writer’s Bone favorite status by referring to me as a journalist).
DF: Did you grow up wanting to be a writer, or was it a desire that built up over time?
Tom Claver: I always wanted to make films since I was small. I used to like drawing comic strips, mainly about the U.S. Cavalry as I was mad about cowboy films, particularly those made by John Ford. But it was not until I was studying for an economics degree in London that I became interested in writing. I enrolled in a creative writing course set up by Dr. Rod Whitaker, a visiting U.S. professor from the Department of Radio, Television, and Film at the Austin School of Communications in Texas. His opening line in his first class caught our attention immediately. “Sorry, I’m late, but I’ve just been on the phone to Clint Eastwood.” Needless to say, I was all ears from that moment onward as he told us about a blockbuster thriller he’d written called “The Eiger Sanction.” Eastwood had just bought the rights and was going to make a film of the book. I think it was right there and then that I wanted to write a thriller as it was something I’d never contemplated before.
Whitaker was quite a character who wrote under the name of Trevanian, although he had several pseudonyms and wrote across different genres. He kept his identity a secret, but didn’t seem to mind sharing it with us in London. Despite achieving best-seller status he avoided interviews and publishers promotions that would reveal his true identity. Sometimes he would send imposters to represent him at interviews, just for fun. However, in 1979 he publicly revealed his true identity in an interview with The New York Times Book Review. He scotched a long-running rumour that Trevanian was actually the thriller writer Robert Ludlum. You can read more about him at my website.
After finishing my degree, my interest fell more in the direction of making films. One 30-minute film I scripted was distributed in British cinemas while another short I wrote and directed was sold to Central Television in the U.K. I started writing feature length scripts, one of which formed the basis of Hider/Seeker. It had another title and was genuinely in an awful state, but the BBC saw something and invited me to discuss it. Nothing happened. I then decided it was time to stop writing and raise a family.
But the desire to write a book never left me. The turning point came just over ten years ago when I decided to teach myself to write a thriller, more as an academic exercise. By reading books about writing and by sending my work for professional critique, I gradually improved. Two unpublished books later, I decided to take another look at the film script I’d sent to the BBC. I re-worked it into Hider/Seeker.
DF: Who were some of your early influences in the crime genre, and which modern crime writers are you currently hooked on?
TC: This is not an easy question to answer. I read thrillers as well as other books of fiction while I was growing up and I think subconsciously they determined the style of writing I have today. It was anything from Raymond Chandler to Philip Roth. I also liked John Updike a lot.
Ian Fleming was compulsory reading for young boys wanting a bit of titillation and action. I also enjoyed the adventures written by Alistair MacLean. But when I discovered Len Deighton, I think that brought it full circle. Deighton’s sardonic hero in the Ipcress File was a bit like Chandler’s Marlowe.
But it was much later in life that I started reading Dashiell Hammett who I then realised was the grandfather of these types of thrillers. The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man are effortless reads. Such perfect economical sentences. It’s something that American writers are good at in my opinion.
But I’m fundamentally a Hitchcock fan and when I saw “The 39 Steps” as a young boy, I thought it was the most exciting film I’d ever seen. It was only when I was on holiday in Scotland in later years that I read John Buchan’s book, which incidentally is a 100 years old this year. I admired the book tremendously because the set-up used by Buchan had such a contemporary feel, providing you could ignore the anachronistic characters he describes in Edwardian Britain. You can read more about Buchan’s impact on thriller writing in a blog I’ve written.
Buchan was the first modern thriller writer and Hitchcock’s rebooting of the story years later paved the way for the chase thriller. I’m a sucker of the man-on-the-run theme and in my debut thriller, Hider/Seeker, I have used it in an inverse way.
Among the contemporary writers, I like Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series. I’m also a fan of Olen Steinhauer and his creation of Milo Weaver. Similarly, I have a soft spot for Martin Cruz Smith’s Russian investigator Arkady Renko. If anyone ever thinks of remaking Gorky Park as a film, they might like to focus on the second half of the book, which was totally ignored in the original film.
DF: What is your writing process like? Do you listen to music? Outline?
TC: I work from one-line plots that I collect and file. When starting a new novel, I’ll try out a few of the plot lines to see how they feel. I might play around with the angles or setting, but once a story obviously has legs, I go for it. But I normally want to test out the early chapters and send them for critical appraisal along with a synopsis. I just want to see how the story is coming across to an outsider and whether they flag up something serious that I’ve not thought about. Once I’ve written the book, I don’t look at it for a minimum of six weeks, then read through it again. It then goes to another editor for critical appraisal. A long period, and I mean a long period, of re-editing the book follows until I’m ready to send it to an editor for editing.
You are the second American journalist to ask me if I listen to music while writing. The answer is no! I don’t like my thoughts being influenced by someone else’s mood or words. And it is also a big no to outlining. I prefer my characters to work out the story for me.
DF: Where did the idea for Hider/Seeker originate?
TC: As I mentioned earlier, it started as a film script some 30 years ago. I vaguely remember watching a television documentary where a divorced father who had been denied access to his son by his ex-wife enters his son’s school unannounced and takes him away. It frightened me at the time, as the boy was clearly alarmed, and I thought it was definitely a scene I would like in my film. Then I worked out a story about why someone would need to take a boy out of school in that way. My aim was to have a story with a 1950s feel but in a contemporary setting. You’ve probably gathered I like older crime novels. However, I feel strongly that novels should be written in the present as this is our time to reflect what is going on around us.
DF: How much of yourself ended up in your main character Harry Bridger?
TC: I’m short and bald. Harry is tall with a mop of blond hair. Perhaps I share his North London wit.
DF: The crime genre has certain built-in tropes that can deter some writers from taking the plunge. How did you ensure that your tale was original?
TC: Bertolt Brecht, an aficionado of the thriller genre, once said that the aesthetic quality of the detective novel is derived from the variation of its fixed elements. Yes, there is a formula to crime novels but the fun is using these same building bricks that have created this formula in a different way each time. The originality is what the writer does with the bricks that have been passed down to him or her by previous writers. To those of us who love this genre, we know that not all crime books are the same as some literary snobs enjoy pointing out.
The Coen brothers’ “The Big Lebowski” is a slobbish reincarnation of Marlowe. They not only rebuilt the character on a familiar likeable guy, but they also borrowed the premise of the story, i.e. one of mistaken identity, from Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, which Hitchcock also reused in “North by Northwest.”
DF: When you finished your first draft, did you know you had something good, or did you have to go through multiple rounds of edits to realize you had something you felt comfortable taking to readers?
TC: I knew the story was good when it was in a film script form because the BBC invited me to discuss it. So I was pretty confident that people would like it. My main concern was the style of writing. You could present the same story different ways. In the end, I chose a simple linear story as that helped to speed up the action as there were no distractions of sub-plots. This made it feel like the story was being told in real-time. I would not have published Hider/Seeker if the editor said it was not of a publishable standard. I didn’t prompt him, he just came out with it in his final report.
DF: Now that you have your first novel under your belt, what’s next?
TC: Everyone is asking me this. Let’s just say it is set in a very cold place.
DF: What advice would you give aspiring authors?
TC: Don’t give up like I did. It’s a big regret of mine. But at the same time don’t starve or you’ll never write your first book.
DF: Can you please name one random fact about yourself?
TC: I’m a coffee addict. I have a fantastic Italian espresso machine that makes coffee that would wake up the dead. My favourite brand of coffee is Kimbo Espresso. I recall visiting Balzac’s house once while holidaying in France many years ago and being more fascinated by his coffee machine than his books on display. I know, I’m a complete philistine. Perhaps I am more like Harry Bridger than I thought.