Frank Westworth’s new quick thriller, FIFTH COLUMNIST, is out this week. It features covert operative JJ Stoner, who uses sharp blades and blunt instruments to discreetly solve problems for the UK government. A bent copper is compromising national security and needs to be swiftly neutralised, but none of the evidence will stand up in court. That’s exactly why men like Stoner operate in the shadows, ready to terminate the target once an identity is confirmed…
Frank drops by to tell us a bit about the background to the Stoner stories and his full length ‘Killing Sisters’ novels.
Is the writing full-time?
Yes … and no. I’m a magazine editor, so in that sense I write full time … every single day, seven of them in every week, which is what editors do. When I don’t write magazine features I read and indeed edit them. When there’s a break in that happy treadmill, I write fiction. The more breaks, the more fiction. Writing grimy fiction is a great break from writing about motorcycles.
What’s been the most satisfying moment of you writing career so far?
That’s a tough one. There have been a lot of moments, and many of them have been satisfying. Staring at the first draft of my first full-length novel – A Last Act of Charity – and feeling unhappy with it. Remember that I’m a full-time editor here. Receiving that draft back from my own editor, with pages of suggestions / alterations and understanding that yes, it actually is a novel. A real one. That was satisfying.
In a petrol station on a rain-swept darkening evening faraway and a stranger walks over, shakes my hand and tells me how much he’d enjoyed that same novel.
That was satisfying.
Writing is always satisfying in its own way. If it wasn’t … I’d not do it.
What’s your typical writing schedule?
To keep the fiction apart from the technical writing, I tend to pile the laptop into my motorcycle luggage and head for the Welsh borders. Park up in a Travelodge or the like, dose up on caffeine and write through the night. Write until the movie in my head ends, then sleep. Next day, load up the motorcycle, ride to another lodge, preferably over howling mountains, thunderstorms and lightning, then park up, dry off, overdose on caffeine and write through the night. Repeat.
Do you insert family, friends, and colleagues into your characters?
Bits of them. No single character is based on any single individual. There are exceptions: the Hard Man character who’s in much of the series was based on an MD I worked for at a lively time. I wanted him to meet more than one sticky end, several times. I did tell him this. He bought a book … and did not read it.
You have two full length novels published – the Killing Sisters books - and five short adventures with JJ Stoner out there. Is the process the same when you tackle different length projects? Are you a plotter, or is it all made up as you go along?
I’m a studious plotter. And I make it all up as I go along. Everything I write is somewhere between those two extremes. I always start out with characters and a scene. I always have the end of the story in my head, whether I’m writing a short or a novel. The delight – the satisfaction, if you like – arrives when the characters refuse to follow the plot and go their own ways. I struggled against this for a couple of years, following advice from another novelist that I need to stick to the plot. Another, rather more successful novelist – RJ Ellory – told me as we sweated over two hot guitars that if characters go off on their own I must never stop them. I should encourage them. Treasure this, he said, because it doesn’t happen often. I do – and he was right, about that as much else.
A novel of 120k+ words is a vast luxury; a giant self-indulgence. There’s room to look around your set-up and consider the depths of your characters, and dream through the keyboard. Shorts are much more disciplined, but every bit as satisfying. They’re more like a long joke. At least … mine are.
Are there any subjects off limits?
Not really. I’ve mainly avoided drugs and religion. I’m relaxed writing graphic violence and graphic sex, mostly because I’m relaxed when reading them. Party politics, religion and bigotry are depressing, so although I’ll mention them if appropriate, I don’t enjoy it. The current attitude to recreational drugs puzzles me – I’d need to research more before feeling easy about writing it. I am of my late Sixties / early Seventies generation. Things have changed a lot in several subcultures.
What are the last five books you have read?
The Burning Man by John Connolly; IQ84 by Haruki Murakami; Mockingbird Songs by RJ Ellory; The Last Six Million Seconds by John Burdett, and Thin Ice by Quentin Bates
Who do you read and enjoy?
Too many to list! Everything by James Lee Burke, John Sandford, Janet Evanovitch, RJ Ellory, Karin Fossum, James Crumley, Fred Vargas, James Church, Haruki Murakami, Julie Zeh, Riu Murakami, Arnaldur Indriðason, Quentin Bates, Stephen Hunter, Lee Child, John Burdett. I read masses…
Mexican Tree Duck, by James Crumley. A Quiet Vendetta, by RJ Ellory. That may be more than one.
Favourite activity when not working (writing?)
This is for family reading? OK. Riding my motorcycle a long way, playing my guitar very loud, walking the cliffs of Cornwall with my wife, whatever the weather
What’s the current project in progress? How’s it going?
There are a few thing one the boil at once; the fourth novel in the Killing Sisters trilogy (yeah, yeah; I know). It’s going well. An out-of-sequence short set in the same fictional world using minor characters in major roles. Going well too. A scifi/vampire crossover is in the planning, and is a hoot, being a different genre
What’s the best thing about writing?
All of it! No, really. I’ve written fulltime since 1988 and have never regretted it. Sitting down in front of a blank screen and letting the movie in my head play, then writing it down while it happens. Tremendous experience.
When I explain the same thing to The Reader several times and understand that I got it wrong – that I had failed to communicate, failed to entertain, failed to share what I wanted to share.
What do you see yourself doing (in terms of writing) in a couple of years’ time?
I’d hope to be writing less technical copy and more entertainment, more fiction. I’d like to be onto the 5th or 6th novel in the Killing Sisters trilogy and to be well into the scifi / vampire thing. To do this, I’d need to have ridden my motorcycle a lot of miles and over many long hills…
Frank Westworth shares several characteristics with his literary anti-hero, JJ Stoner: they both play mean blues guitar and ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Unlike Stoner, Frank hasn't deliberately killed anyone. Frank lives in Cornwall in the UK, with his guitars, motorcycles, partner and cat.