You are a case study for what an editor’s faith can do for an author. Your brilliant, best-selling, award-winning Slough House series, about failed spies, was ironically dropped by one publisher before another rescued it. How did Mark Richards champion your writing?
By believing in it, essentially. That and conducting, with the rest of the John Murray team, a series of wide-reaching publicity campaigns.
The Secret Hours is a sort of prequel to the series, unravelling a mystery or two. Did you start from scratch or had you sketched it out long ago?
“Prequel” is overstating it somewhat. When I began the book, it was about a man roused from his cottage in the middle of the night and pursued down Devon’s green lanes by unknown assailants. Everything else developed from there.
The Secret Hours is partly set in Berlin, Cold War spy central. Has that city always exerted a hold on your imagination?
Not especially, or I’ve never thought so. But when it came to writing the Berlin scenes, I found the visual part of my imagination – not the part I lean on most heavily when writing – coming to the fore. I enjoyed writing them a lot. So perhaps I’d been secretly yearning.
It could indeed be argued that [Boris] Johnson personifies much of what has gone wrong with Britain. What’s more pertinent is that he caused a lot of it
How did you conceive of the joyous juxtaposition of disgraced spies and cranky office politics?
Experience, I suppose. I’ve never been a spy, but I have worked in offices. Putting spies in offices made it easier for me to write about them.
You went from a Newcastle comprehensive to Balliol College, Oxford, where a contemporary was Boris Johnson, who bears a resemblance to the detestable Peter Judd in your books. How much does he personify all that is wrong with Britain?
He was a near contemporary. We overlapped for one year, I think. We never met, never spoke. It could indeed be argued that Johnson personifies much of what has gone wrong with Britain. What’s more pertinent is that he caused a lot of it.
The Slough House series is also a brilliant satire of British politics. Does satire have an effect, other than to relieve the satirist’s anger?
Hard to tell. Ask me again in a hundred years.
How important is friendship as a theme in your work?
It’s not one I’ve focused on in the Slough House books. It’s important in the Oxford novels, where the relationship between Zoë Boehm and Sarah Tucker drives much of the series.
You originally envisioned Timothy Spall as Jackson Lamb. What do you make of Gary Oldman’s interpretation and the Apple TV adaptation of the series, Slow Horses, overall? What stands out? When can we see series three and four?
I didn’t really envision Timothy Spall. When I referenced him in my original introduction of Lamb, I was simply copping out of providing a full-on physical description, which has never been one of my strengths. In fact, I’ve always had Lamb as a voice in my head, not an image. Gary’s portrayal of him is masterful, as you’d expect from one of the finest character actors of his generation. To my mind, he manages to indicate that he’s carrying a huge amount of baggage, without ever having to spell out what it consists of. I’m delighted with the show. Series three should be available towards the end of 2023; series four some time in 2024.
Given the stellar, albeit slow-burning success of the Slough House series, do you dream of your Zoë Boehm series being similarly rediscovered?
It’s unlikely to discover such a receptive audience, I’d have thought, but it’s enjoyed a second wind already: the books have been nicely reprinted. And the first of them, Down Cemetery Road, is currently in development for TV, so if that comes to fruition, Zoë might enjoy some more limelight.
Which projects are you working on?
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I’ve visited Joyce’s grave in Zurich. I wasn’t in Zurich for that specific reason, though, so I’m not sure it counts as an actual pilgrimage.
What is the best writing advice you have heard?
Don’t give up.
Who do you admire the most?
Given how much time I spend admiring them, I’d have to say: our cats.
You are supreme ruler for a day. Which law do you pass or abolish?
I abolish the one allowing anyone to become a supreme ruler.
Which current book, film and podcast would you recommend?
Zadie Smith’s The Fraud is a wonderful novel. I’m a bit behind on the latest movies – the last time I went to the cinema was the most recent Bond film – and I’ve never listened to a podcast. Possibly I’m the wrong person to ask about such things.
Which public event affected you most?
Probably Brexit. I’ve certainly spent enough time banging on about it.
Your most treasured possession?
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
I don’t dream about dinner parties. I prefer the idea of a lock-in somewhere – all writers welcome.
The best and worst things about where you live?
Well, it’s handy. But the traffic’s a problem.
What is your favourite quotation?
Larkin: “What will survive of us is love.”
A book to make me laugh?
Barbara Trapido, Brother of the More Famous Jack.
A book that might move me to tears?
Barbara Trapido, Brother of the More Famous Jack.
The Secret Hours by Mick Herron is published in trade paperback by Baskerville, €18.99