To celebrate the launch of Neil Robinson’s outstanding spy thriller, The Other Side of Trust this week, we took some time to sit down with Neil in an undisclosed location to talk about him, his book, and what inspired him to write.
Tell us a bit about yourself – how did you start writing and why?
Both my parents were great readers so I grew up with a love of books, but I wasn’t the sort of prodigious child who was writing stories from the age of eight. I did my first real writing at university, reviewing music for the “alternative” student magazine Hull Free Press. After I graduated, I had a couple of articles on cricket published, but the world of cricket journalism looked like a bit of a closed shop at the time and I had no desire to become a mainstream news reporter so I went into the civil service instead. After six years I’d had enough of that; I did some travelling and some very bad travel writing and then worked part time for an Australian cricket website while I retrained as a librarian. Coming to work at Lord’s was actually very helpful because I finally had an outlet for writing through my job: research papers, captions and interpretation for displays and articles for MCC Magazine, which I ended up editing. It also led to the opportunity to publish my first book: Long Shot Summer (Amberley, 2015). That was a breakthrough for me. Although it was non-fiction, it gave me the confidence that I could develop a full-length narrative.
With no spoilers, tell us a bit about The Other Side of Trust, and what prompted you to write it
The Other Side of Trust is really based on two real-life espionage operations, one quite recent and well-known, which appears in the early chapters and one from the very early years of the Cheka the secret police introduced in the Soviet Union by Lenin and the ancestor of the KGB. To say much more about the plot would be a spoiler. The major theme of the book – and the idea behind the title – derives from the most commonplace trope in espionage fiction: “trust no-one”. But of course if you take that to its logical conclusion and really trust no-one, and trust nothing anyone tells you, there’s not much point running an intelligence service. Every service has sources they trust to differing degrees. The question is how far do you trust them and how much do you exercise your critical judgement of what you’re being told? Is there a line you can cross where you trust a trusted source too much and become dependent on them?
The title itself, by the way, is lifted from a title used by two of my favourite authors, Ted Allbeury and Philip Kerr: The Other Side of Silence.
Your knowledge of ‘tradecraft’ (i.e. spy stuff!) is seriously impressive; were you actually a spy?
No, I mentioned working six years in the civil service but not as a spy. I was in front line immigration work with what’s now known as Border Force. We did share information with the intelligence agencies and worked very closely with Special Branch, who had an office next door to ours. I once attended a briefing day at Thames House (HQ of MI5) but that was as close as I got.
Seriously, though, were you actually a spy? You can tell us, we can keep a secret 😉
No. Although I am still bound by the provisions of the Official Secrets Act…
Is Sebastian Friend – the main character in The Other Side of Trust – based on anyone you knew?
Friend’s character isn’t based on anyone in particular. I wanted to create a protagonist who was a bit more cerebral than the standard action hero, without being as lived-in as George Smiley, for example. I wanted him to be versatile enough to be Bond or Smiley as the story demanded. The name came more or less out of thin air: I was watching some cricket during my lunch break at Lord’s one day while thinking about developing the character. The batsman at one end was Sebastian something and at the other end was somebody Friend. After that I was stuck with him.
The Other Side of Trust is set in the secretive world of spies ad intelligence agencies, who are your favourite authors in this genre?
I suppose my love of espionage fiction grew out of the adventure stories I loved as a teenager. My mother bought me a copy of John Buchan’s Prester John for a birthday present and although it was years before I actually read it I quickly moved on to the Hannay books and from there to Ian Fleming. My Dad usually had some Len Deighton lying around so I got into that too. Those writers and Le Carre are probably the foundation of it all. Among the modern novelists Mick Herron and Charles Cumming obviously head the field. I met Mick a couple of years ago and he was charming (a fellow Geordie too); Charles and I have a couple of mutual friends but have never met. Henry Porter deserves more attention – start with The Dying Light which is quite brilliant. David Downing is another favourite for his Berlin series. Then there are those who transcend espionage and crime, like Philip Kerr whose Bernie Gunther novels were terrific fun. Michael Smith is better known for non-fiction, but his fiction debut Ritter is in the same vein as Kerr and well worth checking out. Which reminds me, next on my list is John Fullerton.
Tell us about your writing routine and where you tend to write
My routine was very different for this book, as I wrote the whole first draft while on furlough. With other works it’s been a case of grabbing a couple of hours here and there at weekends or in the evenings. Given a free reign, I would probably settle down for two or three hours after breakfast and then do another couple of hours after lunch. But you have to factor in thinking time as well. Long country walks are part of the process.
How did you find the editing and publication process? (Don’t worry about hurting our feelings – we’ve got thick skins…!)
The process was actually good fun and really productive. I tried to go into it with an open mind. It probably helps that I’ve had some editorial experience already so I’ve seen how a little gentle editorial guidance can really bring a piece of writing to life. Burning Chair are really good to work with in this respect because they offer suggestions and ask probing questions which often bring to the surface a niggling doubt that you couldn’t bring yourself to address earlier in the process. Usually because it seemed like too much work. The tricky thing when dealing with a complex plot is to make sure the reworked sections don’t throw some other section out of balance or, worse, make it completely non-sensical. In a way it’s a bit like rehanging the pictures in the Pavilion at Lord’s, which I also did this spring: you put a set of knew pictures into the Long Room but leave a whole load of gaps that you need to plug where they used to hang. At least with pictures on walls the gaps are easy to spot: it’s not always so easy with plot points in a novel. I think I managed to address them all.
What’s next in the pipeline for you?
There are at least another two Sebastian Friend novels in the pipeline…
What is your best kept secret?
Probably that I’m hopeless at keeping secrets and would have made a very bad spy.
QUICK FIRE ROUND (One or two word answers only):
Plotter or pantser? Plotter
Smiley or Bond? Smiley
Pen or Keyboard? Keyboard
Character or Plot? Both!
Early bird or night owl? Early bird
Crossword or Sudoko? Both hopeless!
Sausage or bacon? Sausage
Asking questions or answering questions? Avoiding questions
The Other Side of Trust is published by Burning Chair on 19 May 2022 – you can find out more by clicking here, and order your copy from Amazon today!