Interview: Stephen Leather [Tango One]

Based on the gripping novel of the same by best-selling author Stephen Leather, British crime thriller TANGO ONE is available now on DVD and Digital platforms courtesy of Universal Pictures UK.

To coincide with the release, we caught up with Stephen Leather to discuss the film, his writing process and his hugely successful career to date.

Stephen Leather Interview:

You graduated from Bath University with a BSc in biochemistry, how did you then move into writing full time?

I realised at university that I didn’t want to be a biochemist. I started writing for the student newspaper and applied for most of the journalist training schemes in the country. I was offered a place on the Daily Mirror Graduate Training Scheme. I always wanted to be a writer and had many failed attempts at novel-writing, but after ten years as a journalist I had the skills to make a go of it. My fourth book, The Chinaman, was bought by Hodder and Stoughton and they paid me enough of an advance that I could write full time.

Did the transition from journalism to novels feel like a natural progression?

Very much so. As a journalist I learned to write simple economical prose and that is what makes a good thriller. My journalism training also came in handy research-wise as a big part of journalism – and thriller writing – involves collecting and checking factual information.

How did your experience in journalism help with the creative process in writing full length novels?

As a journalist I would write between 1,000 and 2,000 words a day. Every day. Writing fiction is a different process, but if you can write just 1,000 words a day you will have written a book in three or four months. That discipline is a great help. Also, as a journalist you are used to your words being rewritten by sub-editors. You realise that the opinion of others can always improve your work.

What was the inspiration behind your first novel?

Pay Off is a revenge story set in Scotland. I was working for the Glasgow Herald at the time and had just been on a tour of Scottish distilleries. I set the ending in a distillery and since then I have always tried to visit the places I write about.

What is it about the Thriller genre that first attracted you?

Thrillers are the genre that I most enjoy reading so it was the natural choice when it came to writing.

Who were the authors you grew up reading?

I read pretty much everything by John Le Carre, Jack Higgins and Gerald Seymour. Great thriller writers and I learned a lot from them.

Was there one particular book that made you want to write full time?

Not really! When I read John Le Carre’s books I thought I could never possibly write books as good. I still think that. When I read books by Jack Higgins I naively thought that I could write books similar to the ones he wrote and that’s what encouraged me to start writing fiction. In fact his books are deceptively simple – it takes real skill to write the way he does.

What is the hardest part of the writing process?

Editing and proof-reading. I hate both; they take all the fun out of writing.

Publishers are famously inundated with submissions. What is the key to getting noticed?

Write a good book. It’s as easy – and as difficult – as that. I can tell from just a few paragraphs if a story is well written or not. Publishers are always looking for books they can sell so they will notice a good one. The problem is that most submissions are mediocre at best and many are just awful.

You’ve become hugely successful in the Amazon Kindle market. How important is self-publishing?

It’s not as important as it used to be. When self-publishing started a lot of writers assumed it would change publishing forever. But actually it hasn’t. There was a surge of interest from readers but unfortunately there are so many awful self-published books that readers have turned back to traditional publishers.

What is the secret to a successful marketing campaign for independent writers? Which recent authors have impressed you?

There is no secret. A good book will sell, a bad book won’t. There are people who will tell you – usually for a fee – how to magically boost your sales with Facebook ads and marketing campaigns, but in my experience they don’t work. There is a self-published writer called Mark Dawson who does very well, but he is an awesome writer and would do just as well if he was traditionally published.

Tango One has just been released on DVD. How much involvement did you have in the film process and do you feel it stays true to the novel?

It’s fairly true to the book, but it was shot on a very low budget so a lot of the big set pieces had to be toned down! I had pretty much no involvement, although the writer and director did send me various drafts of the script.

Do you write with a cinematic vision in mind?

I do tend to write very visually. I picture the scene in my head as a movie and then describe it. I’ve always written that way.

Crime, the military and terrorism are frequent themes in your work? Where does the inspiration come from and how much research is required?

I like to think that all my books – with the exception of the Jack Nightingale supernatural detective series – are based on reality. I talk to people in the know and pick their brains. In my book Soft Target I wrote about multiple suicide bombers on the London Tube – it was published almost a year before it actually happened. I have a lot of very good contacts within the police and the emergency services.

How does the process of writing a screenplay differ from that of a novel?

They are very different skills. With a screenplay it’s all about the action and the dialogue, whereas novels have much more description and getting inside the heads of the characters. There aren’t many writers who are adept at both.

You are predominantly known for your crime thrillers, but you had a lot of success with your vampire novella Once Bitten. Is that a genre you’d like to explore further? Might we see you exploring other genres in future?

I mainly write thrillers but I love vampires and the supernatural. I have written seven novels featuring Jack Nightingale, supernatural detective, and hope to write more. I will almost certainly do at least one more vampire story – maybe TWICE DEAD, a sequel to ONCE BITTEN. And I’d love to write a zombie novel.

How do you unwind when you’re not writing?

I’m leaning to play the saxophone, and as I have absolutely zero musical talent it is proving to be a challenge.

What was the last film you saw?

The last film I saw was The Foreigner, the movie based on my book The Chinaman starring Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan.

What was the last album you bought?

The last album I bought was a vinyl, PARALLEL LINES by Blondie.

Five desert island books?

The Bible, The Quran, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, The Encyclopedia Britannica and How To Build A Boat From Scratch.

What is next for Stephen Leather?

I am putting the finishing touches to a novel about a murder in a mosque. Then I will start plotting out the new Spider Shepherd book, which might be called SHORT FUSE.

TANGO ONE is out now on DVD and Digital platforms from Universal Pictures UK

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