August 11, 2022

Mick Herron: “I’m interested in incompetence, in things that go wrong” | Detective novels

Mick Herron, 58, is the author of 19 books, including the most recent bad actors, the eighth novel in his Jackson Lamb series about a group of demoted MI5 agents. In 2013, he won the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger for the second installment, dead lionswhich Herron’s original publisher rejected due to poor sales of the first book, slow horses, now an Apple TV+ drama starring Gary Oldman and Kristin Scott Thomas. It is shortlisted (for the fifth time) for Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel Award of the Year (announced July 23), for swamp house, the seventh in the series, released in paperback. Herron met me in Oxford, where he has lived since leaving Newcastle to study English in 1981.

What led you to write a spy series?
I had read quite a few spy novels but hadn’t written any, largely because I felt there was no point in not having the knowledge of having actually worked in this field. When I decided I could write about people who were [themselves] excluded from greater knowledge [of espionage], I understood that it was an entry in the genre. The whole premise of the show is that they’re not allowed to do anything; I mainly write about people who are in an office. It was making limitations a virtue, really. A surprising number of readers say, “Oh, I used to work in this world and it’s pretty realistic”, which I suspect isn’t entirely the truth, but probably not everyone working in it is. no matter what type of organization has this experience of middle management and such goes wrong.

The massive success of the series, after your original publisher dropped it, has to be pretty justified.
I guess I have my moments. I know I was extremely lucky, but one of the ways I was lucky, against all odds, was that it took me a really long time to gain any kind of readership. If it had been immediate, I probably wouldn’t be on equal footing now. I was already established in what I was doing; success has given me the freedom to write full time, but the problems and joys of sitting down to continue the work remain the same. If success had been the primary goal, I probably would have given up when slow horses has done nothing. I mean, it wasn’t a hit then [in 2010]. It is now. But it’s the same book. So I tend not to pay too much attention.

For a novel written in 2008, when Labor was still in power, it was surprisingly prescient, from Brexit to the rise of Boris Johnson.
I was conjuring up the worst-case scenarios and made a few lucky shots in the dark. I was drawn to politics as a backdrop because it seems to go hand-in-hand with the kind of spy thriller I’m interested in. I don’t want to write a big, conspiratorial, evil spy novel; I’m interested in incompetence, things going wrong, poorly motivated stuff, and that’s basically our political reality now. It gives me a lot of leeway, but I don’t feel good about it. We have a Prime Minister who acts with the worst possible intentions because he only cares about himself. As a citizen, I deplore this; as a writer, I rub my hands.

Are readers telling you how they think the series should develop?
A little, yeah. I’m always thrilled, because it shows that books have life, but some sort of imp of the perv in me means that when someone says, please don’t kill [such-and-such], I think, oh, that’s what I’ll do then. I don’t take it lightly; I’m sad to kill off characters not because I feel they’re real but because they each provide an individual perspective and if I kill one I can’t access that voice anymore which makes me limit. My storylines are basically a MacGuffin to give them all something to do – they can’t just sit around and laugh at each other all day, which is the part I really enjoy writing.

Where do you write?
I have an apartment where I go Monday to Friday, nine to five. It’s quite private with no internet so there are no distractions unless there’s a cricket match on and I’m listening to the radio. When I work in an environment that has wifi, half the time I check email like everyone else, I see what’s been happening around the world, I look at book reviews, that sort of thing . In my own space, it’s not like I’m constantly working, but I’m constantly thinking about the book, even if I’m walking around the room, laying down, whatever.

What have you read lately?
The Collected Poems of Derek Mahon [The Poems (1961-2020)], which he founded just before his death. That’s all he wanted kept in one volume; he tinkered with the first poems at the end of his life. I still read a lot of poetry and like to look up quotes when I write; I’m not trying to put down roots, it just comes out of the rags and bones store of the mind after reading for so many years.

What first made you want to write?
I always felt that I was a writer and that’s always what I wanted to be. I wrote stories in school and poetry for quite a long time after college. I guess it’s an escape. I had a very happy childhood in a big family, we all got along very well and it was lovely, but I’m an introvert by nature and I need to spend some time sitting at a table with a book. That’s what I did when I was little.

What did you read as a child?
Everything I could get my hands on; quantity makes the difference rather than quality when you are young. I moved into adult fiction pretty early on, kind of from Enid Blyton to Agatha Christie, which was, like for thousands of people, the bridge. As a child I loved The wind in the willows and would read it again and again. I reread it a few years ago. It’s not just about talking about badgers; a lot of it is about the home – the homes you leave behind, the homes you aspire to. Ratty thinks about joining a ship and traveling the world, can’t wait to be gone, then can’t wait to be back, and of course [Toad has his] house supported by a load of stoats and weasels. Reading it as an adult, I feel a deep response to the cravings I see in this book. The idea of ​​a writing place of my own where I can go, where no one else is… the seeds were probably planted back then without my realizing it.

  • swamp house is published by John Murray (£8.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

  • bad actors is published by Baskerville (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply