Tell us about your journey from studying at Oxford to where you are today.
I left Oxford in the year 2000. My favourite part of my French and Italian course was the literature, so I thought I’d try to do something in the world of books afterwards. I ended up getting a job in TV, while writing novels that were never published. After a while, I panicked and trained to be a lawyer, but while doing the law conversion course, I managed to get a literary agent to take me on. I then paused the law studies, and published my first novel in 2012.
What were the highlights of your time at Oxford?
I greatly enjoyed the St Catherine’s College bops, during which the ceiling of the JCR would drip with perspiration, so that it felt like you were in a rainforest. Or perhaps that is only enjoyment in retrospect... The third year abroad while studying Modern Languages was pretty amazing too – I got to live in Paris and Venice.
What is the best piece of advice that anyone gave you in Oxford?
My friend, Lewis Crofts, pointed out that, if you write 1000 words a day, you can complete a novel within two and a half months. He then wrote, and published, a brilliant novel after we graduated (called The Pornographer of Vienna) which inspired me to have a go myself.
How has Oxford changed you?
I think it gave me the confidence that I could try and participate in the rarefied world of letters, and not be completely laughed out of town.
Was becoming a crime writer ever at the back of your mind when you were training as a lawyer?
It was a bit, as I was simultaneously sending out my latest book effort to literary agents. The criminal parts of the law conversion course were also stuffed with potential novel material, much of which found its way into my crime series about Gibraltarian lawyer, Spike Sanguinetti. Forget creative writing courses—do a law conversion course instead!
What would be your advice to anyone wanting to switch from a traditional career, such as law, to something more creative?
Bring the discipline of that career into your writing – force yourself to plot the book out, then to write 1000 words a day, and before you know it you’ll have a novel.
How do you gather inspiration for your novels?
I think you always have half an eye out or ear open for a plot idea. 'What would happen if…' always seems to be a good question to ask. Also, discovering something you never knew about before can be a good pointer towards an intriguing backdrop for a novel.
What is the most difficult part of writing a crime novel?
Definitely the plotting. It’s like creating a machine in which all the cogs have to turn perfectly.
What three tips would you give to anyone writing their first novel?
1. Plot everything out – write a breakdown of your story, listing all the events that have to happen to make it work. If any of those are irrelevant, get rid of them.
2. Remember that it’s the characters that will keep people turning the page, as well as the story.
3. Try to write 1000 words a day.
How do you deal with writer's block? Any tips?
If you’ve worked out your plot beforehand, and every event that happens in the book is essential to the story, then you ought not to get blocked. It’s feeling that the next scene doesn’t really matter that makes it hard to keep going.
How did the idea for The Plant Hunter come about?
It was really through hearing the phrase ‘plant hunter' and thinking – what on earth is that? How do you hunt a plant, something that is literally rooted to the ground? The most enjoyable part of the process was learning about real-life plant hunters – adventurers who risked, and sometimes gave, their lives, so that we could have a pretty acer or viburnum in our gardens.
How long was the writing process?
It took longer than it ought, as I ended up writing three versions. One from multiple perspectives, one in flowery Victorian vernacular in the first person, and one (the last) from a single perspective in the third person using more neutral, unadorned language.
What would be your 30 second elevator pitch to encourage Oxford alumni to join Book Club and read The Plant Hunter?
I’ll try for three seconds. Indiana Jones… with plants.