I vividly remember hearing on the radio – when I was still living in Australia – the buzz around the acquisition and subsequent publication of Michael Ridpath’s debut novel Free to Trade in 1995. Michael went on to write a further seven financial thrillers. And then he changed direction … which once again proves that authors build their careers book by book. He comments on his website:
They say that you should write about what you know. It’s good advice, especially when you are starting out, and it’s why I decided to write financial thrillers. After publishing eight novels, I felt I had learned a lot, but I wanted to test myself in the wider world beyond my little domain of financial fiction. I found I wanted to write about what I didn’t know – subjects and locations about which I knew very little, but which would be fun to learn about. I have enjoyed reinventing myself, and I think the new challenges have prevented me becoming stale.
There are now three strands – so far – to Michael’s writing life: the financial thrillers, which might seem like historical novels but which are vivid and alive as ebooks; the brilliant contemporary Icelandic crime novels with a detective at the helm; and now spy thrillers, which actually are historical novels, such as Traitors’ Gate.
As always, I’m keen to know writers perceive the library of their own work, so here are Michael’s wonderful responses to my bookbybook questions …
1. What was the first book you wrote?
My first novel was Free to Trade. I was 29 and working as a bond trader in a bank in the City. I loved the job, it was intellectually challenging, but not very creative. The most I ever wrote was my initials on a dealing ticket. So I thought I needed a creative hobby, and I bought three books on ‘How to write a novel’.
The first exercise I tried was to write the first chapter of a novel. I described taking a massive position in a new bond issue, it going horribly wrong and then very right. I loved it. That is, I loved writing it. So I decided to forget the exercises and wrote Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 and then spent nine months writing the whole book.
I gave it to a select group of friends who said it was very good, apart from three small weaknesses: the style, the characters and the plot. And the ending. Proud that I had finished it, but chastened, I put the novel to one side.
But I missed it. So I spent a year rewriting it, and then another year rewriting it again, and then sent it in to a list of agents. One of these, Carole Blake, who sadly died recently, accepted it and sold the novel at auction to Heinemann. Free to Trade was eventually published in 35 languages and reached no 2 in the UK bestseller charts for three months.
2. For which book would you like to be remembered?
I think for one I have just finished: Amnesia. It is a novel about an old man who lives by a loch. He falls down, hits his head and wakes up in hospital in Inverness having forgotten everything. The niece of a friend takes him back to the loch to look after him, and tries to jog his memory. She finds a memoir, written by him, that tells of how he killed the only woman he ever loved. She realizes it is her grandmother.
I really enjoyed writing Amnesia, and I think it is my best book yet. I just need everyone to remember the title.
3. Is there a book you abandoned partway through?
I had half an idea for a book set in a gold mine in Uzbekistan. It seemed a wild and exotic setting, and the gold mining world can be quite racy, with fraud and murder not unknown. The trouble is, I had a great setting, but not a great plot idea, or even great characters and the more I worked at it, the worse it got. So eventually I gave up and wrote a book set in South Africa instead.
4. Is there a book you know you’ll never write?
My wife died in childbirth when I was thirty. I seem to spend my life trying not to write about that.
5. Which book do you believe should have fared better?
Shadows of War, which was my second novel set at the beginning of the Second World War. I am pleased with it, I think it addresses a fascinating period of history – intelligence in the phoney war – the characters were complicated and faced real dilemmas of war and peace, loyalty to family or to country. But nobody seemed to notice. I don’t take it personally, it can happen to any writer.
6. Have you been surprised by readers’ reactions to a particular book?
I have written a series about an Icelandic detective named Magnus. The first book in the series was Where the Shadows Lie, and it was published in Icelandic in Iceland. I had to do a little book tour there. I had spent ages researching Iceland and the book, but nevertheless I was scared about the trip. One of the reasons for picking Iceland was that it was so small a country it wouldn’t matter if I got it all wrong.
However, when I got there, they were all impressed by how accurate the book was, and they didn’t believe it was written by a foreigner. A rumour went around that I was actually half Icelandic. Which was a bit of a surprise.
7. What book do you wish you’d written?
My ambition is to write the perfect thriller. No one has written it yet, which is why it is a good ambition. There are a few that come close: Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene and Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith are high up on my list. And The Firm by John Grisham is a great plot of the kind I write. But I suppose the book I most wish I had written is Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow. The characters are great, the writing is elegant and the whodunnit element is brilliant.
8. What are you writing now?
I have just started the fifth book in my Icelandic series. I wanted to write about Gudrid the Wanderer, who was born in about 970 AD. She was born in Iceland, got married in Greenland, had a baby in North America, returned to Iceland and then went on a pilgrimage to Rome. It was quite difficult to figure out how to get her into a 21st century detective novel, but I have a plan that seems to be working. I’m on page 34.
Michael’s website contains fantastic background resources to his novels and much more about his writing career to to date – you can find it here. I’m looking forward to more Icelandic stories as well as Amnesia, a departure for Michael – but then, he’s proven he’s a master of departures. I always look forward to seeing what he will do next …
If you haven’t read Michael before, here’s a link to a free download of a new story.