Getting his thrills

Tom Rob Smith, a guest of the International Writers Festival, reveals why he embraces being labeled a genre writer.

TOM ROB SMITH 521 (photo credit: Jerry Bauer)
(photo credit: Jerry Bauer)
It would be strange if a writer didn’t feel at least some personal affection for their most popular creations. But when Tom Rob Smith talks about Leo Demidov, hero of his three books, it comes across as something much stronger, more intimate, even. Smith, one might say, admires his fictional construct.
“His voice is very different from mine, he has a sort of stoicism which is very different from mine,” explains Smith, speaking from his London home in a telephone interview.
“What I fundamentally love about him, what I really connect to is the sense of... that people tend to make mistakes, but what is really great about humanity in general is one’s ability to try and make things right. He never gives way to despair. Demidov has experienced enough of the terrible side of humanity, but he always looks for something better. There is a way around this: we can try and make this better.”
Leo Demidov is the central figure of Tom Rob Smith’s three novels, Child 44, The Secret Speech and Agent 6. When we meet him in Child 44, he is an agent with the MGB, the Soviet Secret Police that operated between 1946 and 1953; Demidov is a reliable cog in the oppressive mechanism with which Stalin’s Communist authorities keep the populace in check.
The plot of Child 44 is fixed around the desperate hunt for a sadistic child murderer, one whose existence is denied by the state; the book opens with Demidov convincing a subordinate that his child could not have been murdered but rather was the victim of a tragic accident.
There is no violent crime in the Soviet Union, after all, and to admit as much would be to suggest that the Communist ideology has failed. Demidov is loyal to his overlords.
But when events close to home force him to confront the cognitive dissonance of the regime, he embarks on a slow and tortuous emotional journey to reconfigure his personal ideology in the face of the overwhelming apparatus of a repressive state.
It is a journey that continues through the subsequent volumes, taking him from the Stalinist era to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
The thriller trilogy presents as a thoughtful and intelligent dissection of totalitarian ideology, and poses a fundamental question: is it possible for simple, genuine honesty to prevail – even to exist – in the face of concerted oppression?
But why start this dissection in the 1950s, one wonders, especially since the true story that served as the inspiration for Child 44 – the crimes of Ukrainian serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, the so-called “Rostov Ripper” – took place between 1978 and 1990? “In a contemporary thriller, you have to manufacture things because most of our lives are safe and pretty ordinary,” Smith says. “In this world, everyone was in danger pretty much all the time: if they said the wrong thing, if they put the wrong image up on the wall, if they didn’t clap long enough.”
The constant apprehension, the sense of fear creates a useful backdrop for exploring basic truths, Smith suggests. “The crime structure of this story offered a way of exploring the sort of strange insanity of these dictatorships, where they can make and rewrite the laws of truth.”
SMITH WAS born in 1979 and brought up in south London, the son of antique dealers. After taking a degree at St John’s College, Cambridge, he worked as a script editor and screenwriter for a number of popular daytime soaps in the United Kingdom and, for a while, with Cambodia’s first soap opera in Phnom Penh. Not quite the stereotypical background for a thriller writer, perhaps.
“Well, I’ve always been fascinated with dictatorships, for some reason,” Smith explains. “I think what fascinates me about them as a writer is... the way in which they created these fictions, the way in which they can spin something that is clearly a lie and turn it into truth. In a weird way, I think that’s why dictators are often hung up about writers.”
An interesting insight.
“I think it is hard as a writer not to be interested in dictators and the way in which they create fictive worlds.” Despite his astonishing success – Child 44 was nominated for 17 international awards, including the Man Booker Prize, and has been translated into 30 languages – and the evident sophistication of subject matter and delivery, Smith is sometimes referred to – slightingly – as a thriller writer or a genre writer. Not that he necessarily has a problem with this: it is, he argues, as much a question of what value people choose to place on these descriptors.
“I suppose I think about it more now than when I started writing Child 44,” he says. “And then when you’ve written the book, you see how it is packaged in bookshops, how reviewers and commentators approach it... I suppose I was a bit naive when I wrote it.”
In what sense, naive?
“Well, part of the reason is that there is far less baggage [attached to the notion of genre] in the film world. With a thriller, you can win an Oscar, you can receive critical acclaim. There’s no reason why a thriller shouldn’t be taken any less seriously than anything else.”
But there’s no reason for this to be taken negatively, Smith says.
“I think I would rather take on the prejudices of the classification, rather than shy away from them. For whatever reason, I do seem to write about danger, and I do seem to write about that tension.”
Readers, he says, have a right to know what to expect.
“I think when you write a thriller or any other genre, you are laying down a very clear proposition to the reader, that this is the emotion that will dominate the book, and it is a singular emotion that will connect it all.”
Now that’s a novel concept – an author taking his responsibilities to his readers seriously.
SMITH, WHO will be a guest of the International Writers Festival in Jerusalem later this month – uses his fiction very effectively as a means of exploring the tensions that are inherent wherever there is a clash of ideological principles. Child 44 and The Secret Speech, his first two books, are concerned primarily with the Soviet Union; but Agent 6 stretches further afield, taking in the tensions of the civil rights movement and the anti-communist sentiments of ’60s United States, and the cultural and political frailties that characterized Afghanistan – then, as now – at the start of the 1980s.
Central to the plot of Agent 6 is Jesse Austin, an African-American stalwart of the civil rights movement and a socialist, modeled on the activist and singer Paul Robeson. Austin – and through him, Demidov and his family – become pawns of the Cold War, and the reader is confronted by the deleterious consequences of controlled thought, no matter its origins.
It has been easy for some critics to accuse Smith of taking a political stance – specifically of drawing unfavorable parallels between the US and the USSR – but he argues that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I am always very skeptical of direct comparisons,” he asserts. “What I am saying, what was interesting to me of the American response [to the specter of communism] was that there was a real threat, there was a need for vigilance. But yet that’s taken into a extreme reaction, going against everything that is American, that whole idea of liberty and how you react against something by imitating it on some level.”
Smith confesses to being surprised at some of the more vitriolic comments that the trilogy has attracted – anti-communist propaganda in the case of Child 44 and The Secret Speech, or willfully un-American in the case of Agent 6.
“I mean, I thought the jury was in on this, I thought we all agreed that Stalin was awful,” he comments dryly. “I didn’t realize there was a debate on that. I thought we all agreed that the anti-communist measures in America were terrible, that lives were destroyed by this.”
The point isn’t one of drawing a moral or political equivalency, but of thinking about how patterns of oppression emerge and their capacity to repeat.
“I think what I was interested in was that there are very many ways in which these persecutions can come about. That is the danger, that they can arise again and how they arise, in small form or on a national level.
There is the need to be vigilant.”
IT CAN be difficult not to be forced into taking one side or the other, of course. There’s the question of self-preservation, an ever-present reality in the Soviet Union of Smith’s books; or it can be engendered by an ideological hermeticism that shuts one away from the reality.
Take Paul Robeson, the model for Jesse Austin in Agent 6. The travails he suffered at the hands of the American establishment as a consequence of his activism are a matter of record; so too his intransigence.
“There are very few people I am so inspired by, yet there are moments when I couldn’t disagree with him more,” Smith says. “Questioned [by Congress] about the Gulags, he said that the people who died there were fascists. How can this man who was so full of warmth and compassion dismiss these deaths as necessary?”
Demidov, Smith’s hero, personifies the struggle between the competing impulses, much closer to Smith’s sensibilities, one senses. The inspiration for the character comes from stories Smith read in the course of his research, of ordinary men and women struggling to maintain their humanity in the face of immense oppression.
“Warm stories of light pushing through the darkness. These are the stories to which I am really drawn to, and Leo to me is one of those stories: he gives up on the ideology but he doesn’t give up on the world.”
There is something remarkably personal about the way in which Smith speaks of Demidov – of Leo – that reflects in how he speaks about himself. Repeatedly, he returns to the issue of good luck and fortune: he was fortunate enough to have the chance to learn his craft as a screenwriter, fortunate enough to have a supportive family, he says.
Even getting to write Agent 44 he puts down to being in part the product of fortuitous circumstances.
“I’d been working in an office, it had been very difficult to write my own stuff,” he says. His contract ended, and “for the first time, I thought, if I could write anything, what stories would I naturally gravitate to?”
The loss of a job presented an opportunity: “This is my time, this is my space, my risk... I’m the person who is going to lose two years of his life if it doesn’t work. I need to find something that I love, that I am really passionate about.”
The passion – and the unassuming modesty that accompanies it – carries beyond the world of fiction.
Smith gives a 10th of the income from his books – as well as all prize money – to a nominated charity on a yearly basis. It doesn’t come up at all in conversation, but when asked waxes eloquently and enthusiastically about his current nominee, a charity for the homeless in the United Kingdom.
As he speaks, my mind returns once more to the relationship between Smith and Demidov, between the writer and his creation. It took Demidov three books and 30 years and immense emotional pain to find inner peace. Smith, a thoughtful and reflective conversationalist, seems to have achieved a similar state via an easier path, by writing about Demidov’s journey. It’s the easier path, no doubt, but then Smith doesn’t live in Stalinist Russia. And to be fair, this is an age where it is much easier to do nothing.
Perhaps we should all take up writing, try to make the world a better place.
Tom Rob Smith will be a guest of the International Writers Festival, Jerusalem, from May 13 to 17. He will also be in conversation with Alon Hilu at the Saloona Bar, Jaffa, on May 17, at 7:30 p.m. Further details and RSVP: [email protected] For more information about the Writers’ Festival, visit: