Today’s guest on What Cathy Read Next is S. R. Wilsher, author of The Good Father. I’m delighted that Simon has agreed to answer some questions about the book, its inspiration and his approach to writing.
About the Book
Description (courtesy of Goodreads): In 1994, nine year old Effie and her twelve year old brother Ajan, endure the horrors of life in the besieged city of Sarajevo after the loss of their parents. Desperate to help preserve their city, Ajan becomes involved with a criminal gang among the makeshift defenders. When Effie is forced to flee alone, she must survive long enough to reach those outside of the city who have come to help. But the influence of those pursuing her is such that not even the soldiers of the UN might be able to save her. Any hope of a future for Effie eventually lies with only one man, Captain Nathan Lane. It is 2017, and an attempt is made on the life of Foreign Secretary, Caroline Hardy. As the Security Services hunt for her attacker, the reality she is only a bit part player in the affair doesn’t occur to anyone. Not until her daughter, Mia goes missing and is implicated in the disappearance of a well-connected lawyer. As the focus switches to Mia, a secret that Caroline has kept hidden for a long time threatens them both, until there becomes only one place she can turn, to the man who shares her secret.
- Format: ebook
- No. of pages: 434
- Publication date: 27th April 2017
- Genre: Thriller
To purchase The Good Father from Amazon.co.uk, click here (link provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme)
Find The Good Father on Goodreads
Interview: S. R. Wilsher, author of The Good Father
Without giving too much away, can you tell me a bit about The Good Father?
I’m always fighting against writing a novel length synopsis when I try to describe my books. But here goes. The story is told from two time points. The first opens in the present day with a car crash involving the Foreign Secretary and her daughter, Mia. When Mia goes missing after the crash, the presumption that it was a failed assassination attempt has to be rethought. As the search for Mia continues, it becomes unclear whether she wants to be found. Events also threaten to reveal a secret that the Foreign Secretary knows will end her career. The second part of the story meshes with the first, opening in 1994 with two children trying to survive the siege of Sarajevo. This part of the story moves forward in time until the point before the crash, and reveals the reason for the secret, and of Mia’s disappearance.
How did you get the idea for the book?
Originally, it was conceived as a dialogue between two fathers with different perspectives on the positive characteristics of their children. I wanted to explore what it takes to be a good father. I thought there was a good deal of potential tension between two fathers from either end of the parenting spectrum – with each taking credit for their child’s achievements; a pet hate of mine. A little piece of it can still be glimpsed in the scenes between Nathan Lane and Richard Osborne. But the original concept was never enough to sustain a novel, and my desire to write it as a thriller meant it became vastly different to how I originally envisaged. The story in its present format came from a front page image of a Syrian refugee standing behind the barbed wire of a camp in Greece, holding up a small girl for the press to photograph (presumably it was his child, although he’s not the Good Father of the title). It looked like he was offering the tiny girl to be taken. It was a pitiably sad image, and it made me wonder what might become of that child. Although that is not the final story either.
The book is set partly in Sarajevo in the 1990s. What made you choose that location and time period?
The siege of Sarajevo was a modern day tragedy that fitted with the timeline and the ages I had in mind for the characters. But, as a Civil War, it also offered a unique interaction between, and motivation for, the characters. History offers start and stop dates for a war, as if they begin on day one and everything returns to normal on the final day. But there is always a pre-war genesis and, for those involved, their effects never end. I’m intrigued by the way effects travel across time.
The book involves a secret long hidden by one of the characters. Why do you think secrets are so enticing to us as readers?
Secrets are intrinsically tied to intrigue, which, by definition, arouses our curiosity and interest. We can take pleasure in the discovery of a secret, especially one that is known only to us at the outset. Then, when we share it with others, that revelation of knowledge gives us another boost. As books are a solitary pleasure, we feel as if we are the first to uncover their secrets. I think the revelation of a narrative secret creates a bond between book and reader.
You’ve written that with books “a good ending is more important than a strong beginning”. Why do you feel that?
I do recognise why so much emphasis is placed on the beginning of a book. If it isn’t good enough then the ending will never be discovered. But I remember reading some advice many years ago, by a published author, who claimed to work and rework the first forty or so pages in order to excite his publisher. Yet, in revealing that, he implied that the rest was somehow less important. It struck me, even then, as limiting advice, and put me off reading any of his books for fear of what might happen after the first forty pages or so. For me, the ending is the emotional heart of any story. It is what creates the memory. It doesn’t matter whether it is happy or sad or ambiguous, as long it matches the tone of the story and stays with me afterwards. Conversely, a poor ending will undermine everything that has gone before. I think the ending deserves as much time spent on it as the beginning – and the middle! Although, having said all of that, I am aware how I’ve set myself up for a fall.
You’ve said that you like the challenge of making a story work. What was the biggest challenge you encountered when writing The Good Father?
Technology presented a particularly tricky area to navigate this time. Most of my stories are largely pre-internet, or off-grid, where it’s much easier to keep characters in the dark about developments, and also the readers if necessary. But as communication is so fast and all-encompassing now, it doesn’t allow for the actions of characters to go unnoticed for long. Instead of fighting it though, it has to be embraced, and it does speed up events. As a thriller, I was also mindful there would be certain genre expectations of the protagonist. Yet I didn’t want to create a ‘superhero’ type main character. It was a constant battle between making him real and yet capable, and more astute than smart-ass.
Your books are all very different and set in a variety of locations. However, would you say there is a recurring theme in your writing?
In my early twenties I found an author I particularly liked, and I read book after book of his. At some point, I realised that I was essentially reading the same story each time. When I started writing, I decided I didn’t want to do that. As I write for pleasure and can please myself what I write, it is easy for me to just see what I can make of different types of story, in different corners of the world with various voices. I can see how frustrating that might be for a reader, not really knowing what to expect from each book, and it’s probably not the best way to sell books. But then I’ve never had any idea who my readership might be. I can’t see somebody who enjoyed The Collection of Heng Souk, for example, thinking much of …was played by Walter Johns. But in experimenting like this, it stops writing becoming stale for me.
Yet there are still themes running through all of them. There is a ‘father’ theme in many of my stories. My own father died when I was eleven, which provoked a particular world view in me. And I am a father myself, which is the biggest role in my life, so it’s a relationship that I’ve given a great deal of thought to. Because of that, I’m much more fascinated by the micro-view of the interaction of a small group of characters, than I am the macro-view of the wider world. I do also like to slip in themes that concern me, such as: the abuse of power – with a small p – the hijacking of philosophies for self-interest; and the way that sometime in the future the decline of man/woman will be traced back to the introduction of multiple choice exams, and the training of people to become no more than inspired guessers! That last one is less a theme, more an example of why I tend to keep my real life opinions private – there are already too many in the world that nobody asked for (I guess that’s irony) – but they are often voiced by my characters somewhere.
What is your favourite and least favourite part of the writing process?
I like having an idea roll around in my head for days or weeks, trying to see if it will work, and looking for the originality in it. I like the beginning when I start laying out ideas and dialogue; building something from nothing. I like sensing a story come together, and when I finally ‘see’ the ending. And I love editing. I probably spend more time editing than I do writing; the words we don’t use are as important as the ones we do. I also love designing book covers. However, there are times when I’m defeated by a blank page, or I’ve painted myself into a corner, and then I go off and do something else. It is frustrating to hit a wall within a story, but great when you find a way through it. I think of writing a novel as a puzzle to be solved, and there’s always pleasure in finding solutions. But it is the post writing phase I really dislike. For me, the solving of the novel puzzle comes when I finally publish. But, of course, that isn’t the end of it. Then comes the marketing, and I don’t find anything much creative in that. Quite possibly the reason I’m not very good at it.
Which other writers do you admire?
As a child, I especially liked Anthony Buckeridge and Richmal Crompton, although they were very old-fashioned even then. Buckeridge wrote a series of books about two boys at boarding school, which always made me wish I could go away to school. As a teenager, I liked adventure stories with pace, such as Len Deighton and Douglas Reeman, or intrigue like John Le Carré. Although my tastes have changed a lot since then, those were the books that kick-started my desire to write. And, of course, two of my favourite books: John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men and Nicholas Monsarrat, The Cruel Sea. Nowadays I don’t read enough. I work full-time, so my spare time is spent writing more than reading, and I regret that. But recently I’ve enjoyed books by Kate Atkinson, Gillian Flynn, Sebastian Faulks and, several years behind the pack, I’ve discovered I like Neil Gaiman. But all writers inspire me. Not in an inclusive, ‘every one of us is special’ way. In the way that, if I read something I feel is poorly written, then it encourages me to write. And if I read a great book, then it encourages me to edit.
What are you working on next?
My next story is The Glass Diplomat. I wanted to write a love story, and so I’ve ended up writing about a young English boy’s relationship with the children of a Chilean diplomat. The story opens in 1973, at the time of Pinochet coming to power, and continues through the horror visited on that country by him and his kind. Because of that it takes place across a long time period, and I’ve enjoyed revisiting the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. This is already written, but I’m resting it before I return and view it with fresh eyes for a rewrite. In the meantime, I’m redrafting a children’s book that didn’t work the first time, and I’m mapping out two adult novels to follow The Glass Diplomat.
Thank you, Simon, for such a fascinating insight into your approach to writing. I’m really keen to read The Good Father and see how it deals with some of the themes you’ve mentioned.
About the Author
S. R. Wilsher says: I began writing when I was twenty, even though I was uncertain that I had a book in me. And I was so afraid of being a failed writer that, for a very long time, nobody knew I wrote. I’ve dealt with that fear of failing by always continuing to write. I figure that if I keep going I’ve not failed yet. However, I continue to write for no other reason than I enjoy it deeply. I like the challenge of making a story work. I get a thrill from tinkering with the structure, of creating characters that I care about, and of manipulating a plot that unravels unpredictably yet, hopefully, logically. I like to write myself into a corner and then see how I can escape. To me, writing is a puzzle I like to spend my time trying to solve. Publication is the deep sigh of setting the completed puzzle aside. The marketing bit beyond that is something else entirely!
Connect with S. R. Wilsher