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How can experts enrich your writing? Part 2

In part one of this blog I described how, when researching a novel about cover-ups, I attended New Writing North’s Crime Story classes and got to play the role of a juror! In this blog I am going to look in more detail at how experts can inform a novel. The most obvious way they can be useful is as interviewees, and to make the most of them specific questions regarding details of the novel need to be prepared in advance. I found it useful to have a draft of the novel prepared- along with a list of questions that I would like an expert to answer- before approaching them. Previous experience had taught me that even when an expert answers your questions further questions will therefore arise so you need a good sense of the parameters of your enquiry before you speak to them. So in this blog I will recall the interviews I secured with a corruption expert who was on the brink of bringing down the head of the most powerful organisations in sports. But first of all I think it will be useful to mention how I laid the groundwork for such an interview.

For years I had been following certain cases in the media- regarding cover-ups- with a fervent interest. Whether or not it was corruption at the footballing body, FIFA, or cover-ups regarding famous celebrities and MP’s, I had kept on top of each case with daily internet searches. I was particularly interested in cases whereby a powerful figure had been exposed for wrongdoing, and yet held on to their position. Some figures- such as Sepp Blatter- seemed at that point to have developed an immunity from prosecution as a result of their bravado. His was a case that interested me, as for my novel I wanted to create a similar character. I watched youtube clips in which he, and similar figures, were interviewed. I took notes on their evasive speech patterns, and how they verbally expressed a sense of grandiosity. Translating these speech patterns into prose was not easy because they can appear cumbersome on the page. So if, for instance, someone notable stammered before boasting I would foreground such tendencies when the reader was introduced to them, but then let their dialogue flow once such points had been made. I also noted, for instance, how such figures often talked of their humble backgrounds as if it they deserved praise for now having influence. Yet they often did not concede that their meteoric rise might have been unjustified.

By the time I had secured an Arts Council grant to research a novel on this subject I had a thorough grounding of the work of Andrew Jennings, who had followed Blatter’s case for years. Whenever Blatter was found to have bullied whistle-blowers, or orchestrated bribing campaigns, Jennings was the man who found evidence of this and published it.

Jennings is a white-haired, seeming curmudgeon with a thirst for justice. Various Panorama documentaries have captured him- polite and yet dogged- asking questions of corrupt officials who variously ignore and demean him. Through tireless and diligent probing with sports officials, and by developing a confrontational manner with corrupt officials which was both charming and determined, Jennings had got hold of information which illuminated the process of bidding which led to Qatar being awarded the World Cup. Reading Jennings’ books on the subject I had been struck by how easy it was for institutions to dismiss allegations and carry on with their practices that questions had been raised about even when confronted with evidence. I contacted Jennings on Twitter and told him of my book and the grant, and asked if he would be interviewed. He seemed to like the sound of my book and the fact that I was so bothered my miscarriages of justice too. He said he wasn’t bothered about being paid for us to talk, either. I was not to know that I was about to interview him weeks before the corruption at FIFA would hit the news.

When our Skype interview began I was glad I had read of his books carefully. I soon realised that in order to get the information I needed from an expert to inform my book, I had to make the conversation interesting for them and I therefore had to begin the conversation by focusing on what they were working on now. To make the conversation interesting for them it was clearly no use getting them to detail the work they had already done in the past. A chat with me would only be of interest to such an interviewee if they could tell me the cutting edge stuff they were working on, which their mind would be trained on, so my own fascination with Jennings’ work had prepared me well. Jennings told me that he suspected his phone was tapped by agents operating on behalf of FIFA and that I should be aware our conversation would be too. He had and his family had noted handsets being replaced at the end of their phone calls from more than the two people engaged in dialogue. He told me his email account had been hacked a few times as well, as his password had been changed, so that third parties might well know about the information he’d be giving me. But it wasn’t only darker forces approaching Jennings as a result of his work. The FBI had recently been in touch to ask him to share his findings with them. This was to be confirmed once the story broke in various interviews Jennings gave. At the time Jennings said that he didn’t know the day the FBI would pounce on FIFA but that ‘it was coming’. It was a fast moving, extensive conversation in which I probed him for details about Blatter that I would use to flesh out my character. Jennings even told me private details he had gleaned about Blatter’s behaviour in his personal life (which I won’t be sharing!) that he thought would offer me insight into what made the man tick. All were used in the character I was writing.

By the end of the conversation I felt I had been given an insight into a dark underbelly of the world that had shaken me up.

I wasn’t sure how accurate Jennings’ information was, and if I should be keeping one eye on the news. Weeks later, a group of FIFA officials were arrested in a Zurich hotel and I realised I’d been given information that truly had been at the cutting edge.

Cutting edge research, unfortunately, can mean that your work may be of interest to third parties. For instance, whilst drafting the novel, I also edited the memoir of a banking whistle-blower who’d first exposed practice at the HBOS bank which he knew to be wrong. The book charted how Moore learnt of, and exposed, wrongdoing at HBOS. Paul Moore was a former barrister, and so the book had a forensic accuracy to it. So forensic that the book even stood up to scrutiny when it was used in evidence in front of the Home Select Affairs committee. I realised that empathy with the source I was interviewing was key to understanding their anger and their intense working practices. All this led to a memoir that became a number 1 bestseller on Amazon’s banking charts. Working with Moore, I also got to see first-hand the toll that whistleblowing takes on a person, the doubt it raises in them, and the emotional burden that they carry. These insights all then fed into the book I was working on, which was eventually given the title ‘An Honest Deceit’. It is out this October.

For me, the key lessons learnt are firstly not to lean too heavily on your expert to educate you. Make yourself familiar with their previous work so they don’t have to pass on information that is already in the public realm. Be specific about what you want to know. Try to have a good sense of your plot, and even a draft of your novel, so you can have specific questions prepared when you interview your subject. I think it is good to be empathic with them, and try to understand what is making them tick. That way your own sense of empathy, as well as your intrigue in the subject, will hopefully drive you on. Also, make your interview interesting by starting with what the interviewee is working on now. I think it is possible to tell when a novel has benefited from expert input or when a writer is ‘winging it’(guessing at details that they would not naturally be privy to). But do you agree?

Image Credit: OCA student Georgina Emmett

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