The Suitability Gap aka The Information Game

I had the good fortune to share a podcast episode with Nadine Matheson, best-selling author and lawyer. As is often the case with a fast-flowing and enjoyable chat, you find yourself discussing topics that hadn’t occurred to you until the alchemy of the moment created a spark.

As we were finishing our conversation, Nadine spoke about the ‘two’ authors that every writer tends to become. The first persona is really our natural self, whether that happens to be an introvert, extrovert, or ambivert. It’s the part of us who has developed a writing process and whose primary focus is producing the work.

The second persona, which may be as different from our true self as the cliffs of Dover are from a hardened dairy product, is the public author. It’s the Author who turns up to give a talk or writes a compelling article that also references their latest work. This persona is a mask, but it has its uses. In a social media age of greater public access to the person behind the page (or any other art form), it is also a convenience.

While many authors choose to write about subjects which connect with their private lives, or create novels that were inspired / triggered by personal experience, it is increasingly expected that any author will be able to justify their suitability to write a particular work of fiction.

When I spoke to Nadine I found myself drawing on what I like to call ‘pub stories’. They are true but that they are the kind of stories you would typically share in a pub with your mates. It’s testament to Nadine that she made me so comfortable that it didn’t feel as though we were discussing anything that would later be broadcasted.

You can listen to the conversation here:

The persona is a construct. Even my written intro is a construct. Again, it is true but follows the maxim:

Only tell people what you want them to know.*

Derek grew up in London and started writing fiction in his teens. After spending a year in the US, he returned to London and subsequently moved to the West Country. He wrote a commissioned piece for The Guardian in 2008 and entered the world of freelance writing in 2009. His short fiction has featured in both British and American anthologies, and can be found online. He has also written comedy material for live performance and radio.

No mention there of the terribleness of the teen fiction, the oodles of rejections, the specifics of that US sojourn from so long ago (a novel / script is still in the works), the issues with the article published by The Guardian (or the two anonymous pieces that followed – and why they were anonymous), or that I wrote much of the live comedy material as one of a pool of around 100+ contributors.

The point I’m making, if there is indeed a point at all, is that you can never take what you read at face value. Not entirely, anyway.

Some of the very best spy thriller authors have spent time working in the field of Intelligence. Names that come to mind include John le Carré, Len Deighton, Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler. They wrote about what they knew.

Disappointingly – for all of us – I don’t fit that mould. I did work for the civil service but, frankly, back in the 1980s they seemed to take anyone. In the building where I worked there was a former Vietnam War helicopter pilot and also a senior civil servant who had been a secret CND protestor while her sibling worked at Aldermaston. (I learned this when my choice of office wall poster resulted in a private discussion.) Interestingly, it was common knowledge (i.e. opinion) that a nearby shop selling Russian goods was a base for enemy surveillance (and Matryoshka dolls).

So, not a spy. I’ve never been engaged in surveillance either, although I worked on a project for Deep Packet Inspection, which, broadly, could be construed as data snooping.

I’ve not had any firearms training. However, I have experienced both ends of a gun – neither happily. Once was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and, in the other situation, it did not end well for a Victorian wardrobe mirror.

Man of mystery then? Hardly! I made three work visits to Belfast during the 1990s. On the first trip I thought I was about to be kidnapped when a stranger jumped into the taxi with me, and another time I dived under the desk because I thought the air-conditioning ‘pop’ was a bomb going off. Bizarrely, on one of those trips I was mistaken at the airport for a squaddie coming home. My only use to the armed forces would be as a sandbag.

I’ve no connections in the world of Intelligence. I do count three serving / ex police officers (including former military police) among my wider circle of friends and acquaintances, but that’s just a random statistic. The only time I’ve had an intelligence related conversation was when I requested a visit to a police station and had a fascinating chat about data extraction from mobile phones, as part of my research for a crime mystery.

What might my Author persona talk about then?

No idea. Knowing him, he’d make it up.

I don’t believe half his stories – and I was there!

Thomas Bladen Thriller – Book 6



*Okay, it’s my maxim, but the point still stands.

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