Today I bring you a guest post from Tom Cain, author of the Sam Carver thriller series. The series, which opened with the acclaimed The Accident Man, is now five strong – The Survivor, Assassin, Dictator and, this month, Carver. As part of Tom’s blog tour, he joins us with a piece about his Influences & Inspirations. Over to Tom…
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Which author, series, or novel was the most influential to you as a writer, publisher, or agent (or whoever)?
Hell, I could name scores. Tom Wolfe, Michael Herr and the NME’s Nick Kent all made me long to be a journalist – even if my youthful idealism about the trade received a bit of a hammering the moment I actually did it for a living. Anthony Powell’s 12-volume series A Dance to the Music of Time sparked a still-unfulfilled longing (you have been warned!) to write a biographical serial novel. I was gripped from the start because the first volume – A Question of Upbringing – was very clearly set at the same school I attended and as I’ve grown up; fallen in love; married; worked; seen my friends rising, falling and dying, so the continuing parallels between my real life and Powell’s fictional creation has given it an ever-deepening emotional power.
From a professional point-of-view, Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen made me appreciate the power of snappy dialogue and cutting satire as elements in books that were notionally thrillers. George MacDonald Fraser mixed history, humour, outrageous characterization and considerable formal subtlety (the carefully annotated memoirs of a fictional character created more than a century earlier – in ‘literary’ fiction that would be enough to get you a Booker nomination, no worries), and I’m currently applying a lot of lessons learned from him to a very different era, genre and central character. As a boy, I was reading Alistair MacLean’s thrillers from the age of 11 or so and those are probably the books that made me a thriller-reader for life, though I discovered the Bond books very soon afterwards and they were – still are – a huge influence: much more so than the films.
But as I’ve been writing this, it’s struck me that there’s one book that has far more influence on my thriller writing than any other: Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal. Although it was written 40-odd years go, the Jackal has not been a lifelong passion for me. I came to it relatively recently, when I was already starting to think about writing a thriller of my own. So I was blown away by the sheer bravado of telling a story in which there can logically be no tension – as a matter of historical fact, the assassination attempt on President de Gaulle of France cannot possibly succeed. I loved the astonishing innovation of a central character who ends the book as anonymous as he was at the start: a nameless blank to us, even after all those hundreds of pages. But above all I was awestruck by the technical mastery Forsyth displayed in this, his debut book. The pacing; the tension; the cutting from one character or storyline to another; the brilliant integration of fact and fiction; the way in which insider information is used to heighten atmosphere and character, as well as giving the reader the sheer pleasure of learning something new and esoteric without ever letting the author’s research becoming intrusive – in almost every element it’s a masterclass in how to do the thriller writer’s job.
At one point I actually conducted a scene-by-scene analysis of The Day of the Jackal, so as to track the path of every character and storyline. It was an incredibly useful exercise in giving a formal foundation to my own intuitive sense of pace. To me The Day of the Jackal is the literary equivalent to the Beatles’ Revolver, or Coppola’s first two Godfather movies, or the best of Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing scripts: a supreme distillation of everything that’s good about a particular medium. So all I can say to Frederick Forsyth is, thank you. I don’t owe it all to you, by any means. But I owe you a helluva lot!
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