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Interview with the Australian Book Channel

During your childhood, you describe that you were in 'near-total immersion in English post-war cinema classics'. How integral was your interest in war films to your progression as a writer of thrillers?

War is an extraordinary distillation of experience and a conflict as huge as the Second World War had dragged in an entire generation. My dad was a RAF navigator on Beaufighters (a twin-engined beast which specialised in night interceptions against incoming bombers), while my mum and my grandparents had sat out the Blitz in London. My mum and dad married in '42 and I arrived in '46, so by the time the Brit film biz was churning out all those amazing war movies, I was ripe for a seat in the stalls. 

What I chiefly remember, and still prize, was the emphasis on story. Things don't always happen in war (remember the 90/10, boredom/terror ratio) but when they did, and when they finally made it to the silver screen, it was impossible to stop watching. When the 'Compass Rose' set sail in The Cruel Sea, you just had to find out whether she (and they) survived or not. Ditto Guy Gibson and his Dambusters. And the blokes who set out to spike the guns of Navarone. And the Cockleshell Heroes in their heroic canoes. And all those officers banged up in Colditz. 

Movies like The Wooden Horse and Bridge on the River Kwai were a celebration of all kinds of virtues - but of narrative as well. They were beautifully constructed. You knew you could step into the darkness of the cinema and settle down for a terrific story. The boys' toys - planes, ships, high explosives - made these movies all the more compelling but what stuck with me - and what sticks with me still - is that marvellous opportunity to watch character expressed in action. These were not deeply introspective movies of the kind that prosperity and long periods of peace can produce, and to me they were/are all the better for it. No surprise, then, that I became a writer of thrillers. Stuff happens in my books. Characters find themselves trapped by circumstance (another word for plot). And they either grow or perish in the process.

From your Cambridge University days, you were determined to become a novelist. How important was this journey before hitting the big time?

Strictly speaking, university was a bit of a detour. I read English at Cambridge in the mistaken belief that exposure to all those giants of Eng. Lit. would somehow turn me into a novelist. That's naive, of course, and pretty silly as well - given my fascination for story and the unfolding of events, I'd have been better off reading history - but what was critically important was the business of putting words on paper. 

I'd written three of the world's worst novels (all mercifully unpublished) before putting a foot inside Cambridge but looking back I now realise how important that apprenticeship was. Writing is a craft. You need to work at it really hard. At 16, you've got nothing to write about (though you kid yourself this isn't true) but it's still vital to learn how to get people into rooms, how to manage dialogue, and how (again) to strike that tricky, tricky balance between interior monologue and exterior action. A well-told story will engage at all kinds of levels and the only way to crack this narrative secret is to keep on bashing away.

As a director and producer of documentaries for ITV to writing a documentary account in print, 'Airshow', did you find any changes to the method of storytelling?

I guess to no one's surprise (given the above) I was always an extremely traditional documentary maker. The key, to me, lay in finding a really good story, a sequence of events that could survive as well on paper as on the screen. This laid an enormous emphasis on research and to this day I still contend that the documentary battle is won or lost before a single inch of videotape has gone through the camera. You have to find the right people, make the right kind of relationship with them, and do your very best to let them do themselves - and their story - justice. 

To that degree, I always believed that it was the documentary maker's duty to level the ground between his chosen subject and all those millions of viewers who - if you'd done your job properly - would find the story just as compelling as you once had. 

It was exactly the same logic that took me to the Royal International Air Tattoo. I'd watched this monster develop in 1997, I'd buddied with a lot of the key characters, and given the right kind of access I knew I could turn the making and shaping of the '98 event into a compelling read. Wherever you looked, there was drama. And drama - character expressed in action - makes for a great story.

Your novels are set on a worldwide stage examining worldwide events. Does this enable readers to discover a different view of the events addressed?

My early published thrillers were extremely ambitious pieces of storytelling, partly because I was ambitious myself and partly because the publishers (Macmillan) had badged me as an international thriller writer. To be honest, I loved the feeling this gave me - and I loved, too, the challenge of trying to thread made-up characters and fictitious narrative through real events (the Northern Ireland conflict in Reaper, the international menace of terrorism in The Devil's Breath, Desert Storm for Thunder in the Blood, the minefields of Southern Africa in The Perfect Soldier). Whether or not these books offered readers a different take on yesterday's headlines, I'm not sure, but they certainly did it for me.

By drawing on this global resource how much scope is there for unexpected twists in the plot?

Plot twists are undoubtedly important, and writing big, wide-screen thrillers might well give you more scope, but - again as a reader - I have profound doubts about overwrought plotting, and books that turn themselves inside out to prove how bloody clever the author is. 

Raymond Chandler is a writer of immense vividness and grace, a terrific observer of the way things are (or were), but his plotting loses me entirely. In his case it might be laziness rather than exhibitionism but the very real line-by-line pleasure I take in his writing is too often jeopardised as I stumble around in that thick peasouper that is his plot. 

As a writer, especially recently, I try and keep plot twists well buried, so they come at you like sudden bends in the road, totally unexpected but - had you bothered to look hard at the map - retrospectively obvious.

What ingredients make up a best-selling thriller?

For me, as a reader as well as a writer, it's character and narrative tone of voice. I don't read thrillers to find out the truth about particular events or to eavesdrop on secret worlds (hence my indifference about Forsyth or Tom Clancy) but I love that moment, ideally on page one, when you hear this voice in your head, a new voice, and you just know that you've got to stay the distance. 

That happened for me with the novels of Martin Cruz Smith, and with Le Carre's Smiley, and Len Deighton's glorious trilogies. It's just happened, as well, with Robert Wilson's extraordinary A Small Death in Lisbon. When books like this come along, I find myself slowing up - simply to better savour the pleasure of the read.

In Nocturne and Permissible Limits, the story is narrated in the first person. What made you take on a more personal approach to your work?

To be frank, I got a bit fed up with trying to be lots of different people in the big 'international' thrillers. It's very odd, as a 50-something living in Portsmouth, to wake up one wet November day and realise that you've got to spend the morning pretending to be a CIA operative in Saigon, a Palestinian terrorist wrestling with the chemistry of Sarin nerve gas, and a German prostitute charged with seducing a corrupt businessman - all in the course of the next four hours. 

There's an element of trespass here - what do I really know about any of these people, any of these worlds? - and the moment I stepped into first person narrative, much of this angst dissolved. A lot of people raise an eyebrow at my decision to use a woman's voice for first person narrative but my only defence is that I find it immensely liberating, chiefly - I suspect - because I believe that women have a far more interesting take on life than men. 

PS The gender therapy sessions are going well.

As with Permissible Limits and other works, the world of flying is a recurring theme. Why does this world fire your imagination?

I've always loved flying, partly because my dad dragged me into an aeroplane at the tender age of seven, and partly because - even now - it seems such a bold defiance of the natural odds. Aviation also breeds - in my experience - some extraordinary men and women, not simply the guys up the sharp end but all those designers and engineers who just keep saying no to gravity. 

For me, the real hero from The Dambusters was Barnes Wallis, not Guy Gibson. Michael Redgrave was never better.

Your latest novel, Turnstone, crime thriller series, gives the reader profound insight into Portsmouth. As this is where you're based, what qualities about Portsmouth were you enlightened about that you hadn't considered before?

'urnstone - and the decision to step into crime fiction - has been a true liberation. When Orion opened this genre-box for me, I thought it would clip my wings but exactly the opposite has happened. The key here is the fusion of strong central characters with a fundamental sense of place. 

Faraday, Winter and the rest of the gang in my mind are part of the flora and fauna of Portsmouth, indivisible from the city they police. The one springs organically out of the other, and my sense of the city has grown and changed as the books begin to lead a life of their own. I've lived here for more than 20 years now - and all the Pompey cliches are truer than ever. It really is insular, inward looking, rough, aggressive, occasionally forgiving, always busy, and still - despite the best efforts of all sorts of business people - uncursed by money. But there's also a kind of gruff and frequently brutal beauty about the place that I'd find hard to live without. 

Portsmouth is the kind of city where you are what you are, not what the aspirational label on the box says you want to be. And I like that.

With the immense research that must have gone into Turnstone, did you approach your work in a methodical way?

The answer is yes. I set out to write the kind of crime thrillers that any serving CID officer would recognise as totally authentic - and that meant virtual immersion in the world of the working Pompey detective. Lin and I have had drinking buddies who happen to be drug squad detectives for years but the Faraday books have compelled a step-change in terms of research. Police, especially detectives, are extremely wary of outsiders. Trust doesn't come easy and there's a definite feeling of isolation, even paranoia, amongst many of them. Breaking those barriers down hasn't been easy but they liked Turnstone a great deal - and headquarters made my year by inviting me to shadow a long-running Portsmouth murder investigation on the strength of that first book. Operation 'Becton' was truly an eye-opener, and it'll be entirely my own fault if the books to come don't reflect that level of access.

With the number of novels you have written, would you say you're a prolific writer?

I've now written eleven novels, and am halfway through the twelfth. I've got four other non-fiction books in print, and have written a number of plays and screenplays. That kind of strike-rate sounds prolific, I know, but I'm lucky enough to be able to write very quickly once the pressure's there, and I can't think of a year in the last decade when I haven't had at least six months off.

Describe your working day.

When I'm writing, and it's going well, I aim for a chapter a day. That's about 4500-5000 words. I only write during the winter because I'm pathologically incapable of doing anything but sit on the beach if the sun's out. 

Just one reason why I'd doubtless find it hard to make a living in Oz.

What accomplishments would you like to achieve in the future?

Fluent French, Spanish, and Italian - plus enough time and money for us to take a train to any beach in the world.

What's next for Graham Hurley?

Four more Faraday novels…..making six in all. And after that, who knows????

Graham was talking to Jaisal Sonale.