Simon Mayo interview: Blame, writing, Kermode, Stephen King

Simon Mayo chats to us about writing, the importance of Stephen King, politics, Blame, and Basil Exposition...

Simon Mayo is a man of many talents. To cinema folk, he’s one of the two voices behind Wittertainment, the BBC’s flagship film programme (wassup, etc). To others, he plays choice songs on Radio 2. To me: he was also chairman of Melchester Rovers. And to a growing number of people, he’s the author of some really fine works of fiction.

His latest, Blame, sees him heading into the world of Young Adult. And over a hot drink (him: civilised green tea, me: coffee caffeine rocket fuel concoction, no biscuits) we had a chat about what could almost be an accidental shift into non-fiction…

The last time I interviewed you I messed up my opening question when I tried to follow the Simon Mayo interview handbook, but I think I’ve got this nailed now.

‘Tell me a little bit about Blame’…

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You can’t go wrong with that!

Why did you mess up?

It was when I chatted to you for The Movie Doctors book, and I said I thought I had a Mayo-style opening, and it got a little ramble-y. You told me to start with something soft and gentle to open things up. Mine was too wordy!

[Laughs] Blame is set a few years in the future. It’s mostly set in prison. It’s an adventure involving a sister and a brother. She is called Ant, and he is called Matty. She’s 16, he’s 11. And they’re in prison with their foster parents, not because of anything they have done wrong by our rules, but the one change between where they are now and where we are now is that ‘heritage crime’ has been introduced.

It’s the major idea behind the book. After a major recession, heritage crime has been adopted by most of the major countries in the world, and it says that we are all to be held responsible for any crimes committed by our parents and grandparents.

Society is looking for a scapegoat, as it tends to do when things go bad and looks for people to blame, so heritage criminals are blamed for ‘having got away with it’. They’ve lived a good life while everyone else has suffered, and so we need someone to pay the price. Ant and Matty find themselves in prison, HMP London, an amalgam of Pentonville and Holloway, in a new family wing which is called Spike. The name comes from the Victorian name for workhouse.

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It sounds grounded in reality already. We have tabloids who, if they want to discredit someone, they’ll say that their uncle did this, or their friend did that. But did you find deeper, modern resonance to heritage crime? What was the spark for you?

The actual spark was, very bizarrely – and your readers will have to take it as true! – it came from a dream! I’d written a piece for a World War I book, that was edited by Michael Morpurgo, and I wrote about my great uncle who died in 1916. I was writing it for Michael, so wanted it to be as good as it possibly could be. I found a photograph, sent the article off, and forgot all about it.

But that night I had a dream, and in the dream I was in a queue going to prison, with a bunch of other people. And I was going to prison because it had been discovered that my great uncle was a deserter, and had got away with it. It wasn’t true, but that was the dream. And everyone else in the queue was going to prison for things that their family had gone. It was a very oppressive image, and I don’t normally remember my dreams, but I remembered this one. My wife said that it sounded like the beginning of something, and I should write it down. So I did.

The phrase ‘heritage crime’ came to me quite quickly, and it sounded believable. To make it believable in the book, the test I set myself was it had to be defendable on Question Time. You had to be able to imagine a politician standing up and talking about it on Question Time, and getting a round of applause.

I spoke to a couple of politicians. I spoke to Douglas Alexander and Charlie Falconer. I came up with a construction that I think a tabloid newspaper would defend, and it would be popular. Here are people who have a very nice life, they’ve had money they shouldn’t have had, and now is the time for someone to pay.

Charlie Falconer said to me that slavery could be considered as a heritage crime, because if your bank or large corporation did well out of slavery maybe they owe a debt to people who suffered. All of a sudden, it turned it on his head. A politician goes on Question Time, that’s where they start. That was the key construct to make it work.

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How did you go about turning this into a book though?

I wasn’t originally sure what shape the story would be. It was originally going to be an adult novel, with the foster parents taking the lead. But it’s not really dystopian fiction – well, it’s dystopian-lite really – and that seems to sit quite well in Young Adult, for some reason. Ant and Matty then became the two central characters.

My favourite books of recent times have been the His Dark Materials Philip Pullman books. A work of extraordinary imagination. I loved the idea, as many others did, the idea of having a demon that somehow reflected your personality. Which you can’t be separated from. Ant and Matty work together as a pair. When they’re separated, she gets into trouble. When they’re together, he’s her conscience. So that was the idea, really.

You started this story three years ago, but it’s landed at a point where Blame seems strangely prescient. Blame is everywhere right now, and nobody believes anything.

Yeah. We’ve just had the Chilcot report too. It’s timely, but hopefully not too timely! It took three years. Partly to get it right, but I also co-wrote The Movie Doctors in the middle.

We go through spasms of blame. It happens all the time. The left will have their particular focus, and will blame Thatcher, or the Mail, or the Murdoch press. The right will have their things that they have a knee-jerk response to: blame the state, or whatever. So I wanted to touch partly on that.

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But it was far more our inclination to blame groups in society: immigrants, migrants, black people, Jewish people, all of whom have been affected. All of that was in the background. The main point was to write an exciting story. The main point was to find a hero who you could follow, who was believable, who was awkward and difficult and annoying. Because I think Ant is all of those. I wanted it to be a page turner, but feel like it has some heft.

On page 351, one of your characters sits down and says ‘A little boring would be fine’! It felt like a real breathe-out moment in the story, as it’s a very fast and ferocious piece of work.

[Smiles. He does anyway. But notably smiled extra there] There is a point where my editor said we needed to slow the pace a bit. It’s there, but not for very long. There isn’t really much let-up. Once [plot spoiler redacted] happens, that’s the rocket fuel for the rest of the book. I didn’t want it to let up too much, and I like the feeling of ferocious power that takes it to the end.

It’s sort of out of control a bit, and I wanted it to feel a bit like that, because they’re teenagers, and they’re desperate. It isn’t under control, they are acting stupidly, they do mad things. And I wanted it to feel unpredictable and dangerous.

Where did the character of Ant come from then?

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The original construct was that the foster parents would be the lead, and Abigail – as she is to start with – and Matty would be in the background. Then I completely turned it around and she was the main character. And some things about the story changed, and some have stayed the same, right from the beginning. She was always going to be biracial. She was always going to be a foster kid. And she was always going to be in prison. And she was always going to have a shaved head, goose tattoos. She was just one of those characters… she’s fiercely loyal, very brave, but you might cross the road to avoid her. But she has every reason to be messed up.

Where she came from, I don’t know. But she came fully formed as a damaged 16-year old who had every reason to be damaged because of biological parents and what society has done to her.

One of the key reasons I bought into the vision of the future you put on the page was that nobody really seems to fully buy it, but they go along with it. Go to the original Alien film, and they’re all realistically moaning about work. Go to Independence Day: Resurgence, and they’re all talking in plot narrative points. You have two characters later in the book, Denholm and McTavish, who just appear to have been hired because they put in the lowest bid, and they couldn’t give two hoots about the job.

You’re right. The prison system is corrupt. There’s been a big prison building programme, and inevitably what happens is money is thrown at building prisons, and the system is corrupt. To make the riot in the book feel real, I had to read a lot about prison riots. It’s almost like an equation. One of the things that has to be in place for there to be a riot is an incompetent and corrupt prison. Or the perception of one. Therefore, the prison officers had to be disillusioned. They had to be short-staffed, there had to be corruption at the top… these all feed the resentment of the prisoners. Denholm and McTavish are the face of a prison officer system that is completely messed up.

I read a fantastic book called Newjack by Ted Conover. He’s an investigative journalist, and he wanted to write a book about Sing Sing, one of the most notorious prisons in America. He wanted to get alongside the prison officers and spend some time with them, but they wouldn’t let him. So he jacked in his job and became a prison officer. For a year, he volunteered to work in Sing Sing, and wrote this book on the back of that. It’s an amazing book. He talks about what prison officers are like, what they want, what their concerns are, what they’re worried about. That, alongside another book called The Devil’s Butcher’s Shop, gave me a feeling as to if it’s going to blow up, this is the kind of prison that’ll blow up.

Well-run prisons, properly staffed? It may well be that it’s oppressive and unjust, but if it’s properly staffed and well-run, you’re not going to have a riot. It had to be a crap prison, run badly. It had to be scary, too. I wanted it to feel like a zombie attack. The women are coming in from one side, the men from the other, and the prison officers in the middle.

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Susie Dent says you have a clear love of language.

She told me that strutter-filth was her favourite insult of the year! I was extremely gratified, as you could imagine!

She described your writing to me as Rowling-esque in your use of language.

There’s no higher praise!

Could you talk a little about how you crafted the language of the book?

I was trying to get away with not swearing too much! One of the genius words that J K Rowling came up with was mudblood. Because it still had power to offend, and yet obviously she’s created it, and she can throw it around as much as she likes. With prison slang, and prison officer slang, everyone has words and phrases. And I found it a way of giving character to the prison.

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What happens in a prison? Sex, drugs, violence. There’s no sex, there are no drugs, but there’s a lot of violence. Yet nobody gets to the end of The Hunger Games and says ‘you know what, that really suffered from a lack of swearing’. Because the story is so amazing, you’re so shocked by children killing children, you just go with it. But also, you know that if the dialogue had been realistic….!

The German and the Haitian and the slang I used combined, the purpose was to make it sound as though these people had been institutionalised. There is some bad language, but not very much!

My degree was history and politics, and my thesis was Nazi persecution of the Jews, 1933-1945. The whole scapegoat thing I’m very familiar with, as many people are. The idea of heritage crime therefore meant that it was obvious to me that the one country that wouldn’t buy in would be Germany. Which then logically meant that the resistance groups would identity with Germany, or would speak German, or their own version of it. I read an article on German slang, and it said there was this thing where a German teenager will say “na”, and the reply would be “naa”. And I thought, I love that.

My daughter has just come back from university, and she uses words I have no idea what she’s talking about. Which is, of course, the whole point. I thought there are so many different layers to their conversation, but if two kids can greet each other in a way that identifies their age, and their resistance to the system, that would be quite a near thing.

You talked on the film review show when you were chatting about a film, and you talked of the difficulty of Basil Exposition when you were writing a novel. Can you talk us through the writing challenge of getting across the necessary exposition to put us into the world of Blame?

Basically, the world is exactly the same. The only change really to the one your readers is in are heritage crime, and drones. The drone technology is moving very fast, so that seemed to be a logical evolution. Not only for the plot, but also so I could buy a drone, which I did. And I experimented with it. If you put it down as research, you can get away with anything!

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Anthony Horowitz said to me that I’d built this extraordinary world, which coming from him was praise. But I never thought of it like that. It’s really a tweak. The prison system, the language that goes with it, the strap that everyone has to wear.

I don’t think I could write a book where you have to have a map at the beginning. For me, it was just a legal device, and then following the logic of that through.

Can we talk about the strap? The idea of young prisoners who have a painful-sounding physical device basically welded into their skin? It’s a very 12A moment in the book. And I know you’ve been asked about the target age for Blame a lot.

Yeah. 12A is useful, because cinema folk get it, and 12A can be pretty tough. I was amazed that the Tom Cruise War Of The Worlds was a 12A. There are scenes in that where they’re harvesting the blood, that’s a 15 for me.

But nothing in my mind has been as shocking as children killing children in The Hunger Games. The key I found with The Hunger Games was that the violence was brutal, but the book had its moral compass, very firmly. And I hope the sense comes across with Blame that things aren’t there for the sake of it, there’s a moral compass there, there are injustices that will be tackled.

I always think, at public Q&As, that it’s children who ask the best questions, and so not for the first time, I’m shamelessly borrowing a question I heard asked by an 8-year old once. Do you like your book, and is it what you envisaged?

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You go through a love hate relationship with a book, particularly one that took as long to write as this, and was as complicated as this! I do really like Blame, and I’m really proud of it, and Ant as a character has stayed with me. I would love to write a follow-up, but that depends on how many people buy the first one!

I get people saying that Matty is their favourite character. I do think that he’s easier to like, because she’s so spikey!

And is it what you envisaged?

I think it is. I always knew where it would end up. Things emerged: the relationships, the Haitian stuff, the German stuff, the character of Max. Matty’s diaries, the idea of Matty’s writing being important to the story. The major twists I hadn’t worked out. Yes and no, really. The major architecture of the book is how I envisaged it, but everything else is a surprise.

Itch had characters based on the likes of Jason Isaacs and Michael Sheen in there. But your main villain in Blame is Mark Kermode, isn’t it?

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[Laughs] Yeah. Interestingly, yes and no. There’s one other Wittertainment reference that some people have been Tweeting me. There’s a scene where the family are fantasising about what they’ll do if they ever get out of prison, and they talk about going to the movies, and eating pizza. And Dan says you can’t take pizza into the movies. So there’s that!

There is an element of Mark. But mainly it’s Michael Gove. The physical appearance is similar, although Assessor Grey [the villain] is shorter. The reason why Gove works better, is that he’s clearly a zealot.

Assessor Grey comes from Edinburgh, Michael Gove is from Aberdeen. He has a Scottish accent. The main point was to have a reformation purity zeal, a Cromwellian passion for morality. Although there is the slicked-back hair and the glasses, he’s actually more Gove-ian than Kermode-ian!

I bet Assessor Grey likes Pirates Of The Caribbean movies.

Do you think? [Laughs]

He’s an evil bastard!

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What’s been the impact of writing on you, then? I spoke to you just after you’d written Itch, your first novel. And you weren’t sure which way this would go. Then I read a subsequent piece where you talked about how you never saw all of this coming. To be a successful author, standing at the front of a class of children, sharing with them a story you created while they took in every work. Can you encapsulate for us what becoming a successful author has done for you?

It’s weird. I certainly didn’t see it coming, and I’ve interviewed hundreds of authors. They all say, all of them, they had either always written, or always wanted to write. It never occurred to me to write, ever. Until I was 50 and my son, Joe, had come back from school talking science [which led to Itch].

I struggled with English at school. But I wrote one essay that was good enough for the English teacher to read out in front of the class, which was a description about some shopkeeper in Bath or Bristol, starting the day and opening the shop. I remember writing it and thinking this is quite good. And I remember Mr Knox reading it out. Everything else was terrible after that, but then I wondered if there was something there.

But radio was always such a passion, so I went in that direction. When Itch happened I was the most surprised person in the world, apart from my mother. She was like, really, you’ve written a book?! But I find it’s one of those things where whatever story I’m writing is the last thing I think about before I fall asleep, and the first thing I think about in the morning.

The radio, I can do it. I know I’ve reached a standard with radio where I don’t need to be told if a show is any good, because I know. Whether it’s the movie show or Radio 2, I know what I’m doing. Some are great, some are less great. I don’t have to work as hard. I work hard at everything, but it’s what I do.

The writing has become a painful obsession, I’d say. It doesn’t come naturally, I have to work very, very hard at it. To write 1000 words can take a whole day. There are many times, even in the middle of this one, when I’m thinking is it actually worth it. I’m not comparing this to childbirth, just that you do hear some women say that if I remembered how horrible and terrible it was, I would never do it again. If I’d remembered how painful it is to write a book, I’d never go back and do another one!

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But this is the best stage. The book is there, it’s finished, people are saying nice things about it. And even though I finished it about a year ago, I’m going back into it, and I know exactly what I’d do with a follow-up!

You’ve talked in the past that when you’re broadcasting, you imagine it’s to one person. With writing, you’ve said you do it just for you. Is that still the case?

It’s certainly a very vulnerable place to be. If it’s terrible, there’s nobody else to blame. If people like it, that’s great, and you get all the credit! It’s the complete opposite of radio work, in that radio is disposable. I will go and do a show tonight, and I’ll forget about it. Tomorrow I’ll do another one. Then another one. Then another one. This book, though, has been a part of my life in a way that a singular radio programme hasn’t.

It’s a lonely place to be, in that you can’t share it with anyone. You do have an editor. But if I’m trying to work out what to do in a relationship between two characters, that’s your problem. Nobody else’s. You can’t farm that out, and it sits with you.

It’s true that when you hand in a piece of work, which is what it feels like, when it comes back, I’m paranoid because it’s so personal. When the editor comes back and says this character wouldn’t say that, that scene wasn’t right… which of course, they’re supposed to do. But my instinctive reaction was to bristle. These are my characters! How dare you! But they know what they’re doing.

It’s intensely personal. It’s very lonely. You write for yourself, you have to. Itch, I wrote ostensibly for my son, but after a while I wrote it for myself. Blame is the same. I wrote a book I would really happily pick up and stumble upon, and nick from my teenage kids.

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I remember earlier in the year, you interviewed Leonardo DiCaprio on the Kermode & Mayo Film Review, and at the end, he praised you for asking proper questions. But I also recall that you turned around to him and said that you can do that with radio. Why, then, are radio and the written word – two fairly analogue disciplines – so important to you personally?

I think in an interview, the most satisfying thing from my point of view is not what the interviewee says. There’s great joy in the well-honed question. If you can ask the right question at the right time, that’s the most important thing. It’s down to words again, choosing the right words in the right place. And I ask ramble-y questions, everybody does. And I wish that I didn’t. Particularly in radio, you hear it in a lot of people where they try and show how much they know about a subject by putting it all into the question.

Larry King, when he was on CNN, asked the shortest questions. Genius. They’re very unsettling. When I was doing Prime Minister’s Questions for Radio Five Live, it was always the case that if you asked the Prime Minister a short question, they haven’t got time to build their defences. If you ask a great long question, they know where they’re going to go with it.

Asking the right question… if you can get to the end of the interview and say, yes, that worked, that’s really good. With the book, it’s word selection, sentence construction. I write ramble-y prose, which is where the editing has to come in! But there’s joy in a great question, and if you get a section of dialogue that’s believable, it’s joyful to write.

I was writing Matty’s diary in the book, and was listening to Paul Gambaccini on the radio. And he played These Are A Few Of My Favourite Things from The Sound Of Music. And it is a lightbulb moment. It perculates through: that’s what he might do, this is how he can stay positive. Those moments: they’re joyful, you go okay, that actually works. There are lots of moments where it doesn’t, but it’s a nice feeling to have!

What’s next for you, then? Are the radio programmes set for the future? Do you know what you want to write? Are you still cruising around the world?

The Wittertainment cruise carries on. The film show carries on. Radio 2 carries on. That really should be enough, shouldn’t it? But my next story is already underway… it’s not Blame 2, but I’d love to write that. The new book is very different, it’s historical fiction.

Aimed older?

Yes, I think so. But that’s a matter of dispute at the moment! I wrote a synopsis of this over four pages, and the film rights sold off the back of that.

Literally on the four pages. I’ve come across a story that is so extraordinary that it was bought straight away. It’s going to happen, and I haven’t written the book! I came across the story when I was researching Blame. It’ll still be a novel, but it’s set in the middle of a story that really did happen, and I’ll make a piece of fiction out of it. It’s going to involve some extraordinary characters.

This is the problem of a written interview: just trying to get across the relish in your voice for this…

My agent says she can’t remember movie rights selling off the back of four pages.

Joe Eszterhas used to do it in the 1990s, but he was selling seedy erotic thrillers.

It’s not that. At least it’s not at the moment!

One last question. What would you say to readers who have ideas for books, who may have been missed at school, may not have any kind of mentor, but feel they have a book in them?

What happened to me is obviously not typical. Having a profile only meant that I could get to first base. I wouldn’t still be writing if that was all you needed. If Itch had been rubbish, nothing would have happened.

The bit of my story that I would heartily recommend – and this isn’t a cop-out – is Stephen King’s book On Writing. It was the biggest inspiration to me. I read that and when I finished it, it was so thrilling that I thought maybe I can do it. It’s not a how-to book. It’s not a self-help manual.

On the one hand, the technology now means that if you have a great story, you can get it up. My son writes stories on Tumblr. He won’t tell me what his name is though! But he’s writing it and putting it out there. The facility is there. If you have an idea, write something and put it out.

But there’s so much of that. How do you get your stuff noticed? Very difficult. But Jason Isaacs says this. If you’re an actor, you can now more than ever buy a camera, get some mates together, film it and get it out there. Whether you can get noticed is entirely different. The technology, though, is working for you.

Read Stephen King. I found what he suggested was enormously do-able, it was a pattern I could follow. I read his books now in a different way. I’m looking for adverbs! It’s tough, but if you think you have an idea but don’t think you could, then Stephen King, Stephen King, Stephen King…

Simon Mayo, thank you very much!

Blame is available as a book and ebook, from Corgi.