Stephen Franks' fantastic debut, The Milan Contract was recently enjoyed.
Stephen was kind enough to submit to a bit of gentle questioning for the blog....
I’m surmising that the writing’s not full-time? If not, what’s the day job and can you give us a quick biography of yourself?
Writing is sadly only part-time at the moment although I have ambitions in that respect! I am ex-forces (both Royal Air Force and British Army). I then trained as a barrister and was called to the bar five years ago. I own a couple of legal consultancy businesses and also offer advice to families of disabled dependents regarding probate and trust matters.
I recently enjoyed The Milan Contract. Was this your debut publication or have you other stuff out there?
The Milan Contract was my debut novel although I have written a couple of plays (as yet unpublished) in the past – as well as some pretty awful poetry.
Can you pitch The Milan Contract to a new reader in fifty words or less?
A sort of Italian Maigret with its roots in the cold-war. A tale of two immigrant families living in Milan who manage to get caught up in an international story of betrayal and murder.
How long from conception to completion did The Milan Contract take?
From the first time the story came to me – about twenty-five years! However, from writing the first chapter to publication, around three months.
Was there one seed or spark of inspiration that set you off and got you started on this book?
The book (almost entirely in its published form) came to me as I stood on the steps of a Milanese hotel one sunny morning sometime in the nineties. On that fateful day, a lone cyclist rode by carrying a large pannier of bread….and the story was born!
Has the end result mirrored your expectations at the start of the process, or is it a very different book to what you imagined?
It is almost entirely as I had first imagined it, with some minor changes – particularly the ending.
Were there any bumps in the road along the way?
Not really. My first draft was way too long, and I spent a couple of weeks cutting it down, but generally it went pretty well. One of the issues I came across was re-reading everything (multiple times) and not seeing where the faults were.
How did you set about getting the book published?
I tried a few agents without any luck (along with half a million other wannabe authors), so I formed my own publishing house (Mooncat Books Ltd) and set about trying to break into the market. I am still open to agent offers, but I don’t hold my breath. I’ve learnt an enormous amount about writing and publishing over the past year and the one thing I am sure about is that it is a highly congested market and you need a large slice of luck to get your book noticed (or you could work as a quiz show presenter on the BBC – then it’s fairly easy!).
Have you spent any time in the locations that feature in the book, or was it researched, or have you just winged it?
I have spent time in all the locations mentioned in the book, so much of the places reflect my personal memories. However, I did carry out some research too.
Do you have a typical writing schedule?
No – I just tend to ‘splurge’ what is in my head at the time and then edit later. I tend to write chapters in the order that I think they will appear in the book, which means that with several ‘flashbacks’, I am not writing along a linear timeline. However, I prefer to do it this way as I want to write as I believe others will (hopefully) read.
Do you insert family, friends, and colleagues into your characters?
Not directly, but I do model nearly all my protagonists physical and/or emotional characteristics on real people who I know (or have known) well.
When you have an idea and you sit down to construct your stories – do you know what the end result is roughly going to look like? Are you a plotter, or do you make it up as you go along?
For The Milan Contract I always knew how it would end (although it was adjusted somewhat during editing). I tend to have the whole story in my mind, but it does sometimes ‘bend’ with writing. In my new book, I have followed the same formula – I know the beginning and end in detail and the middle in loose terms. I genuinely follow where the characters take me. It’s an odd process – almost as if it is they who are telling me the tale and I am just recording it.
Are there any subjects off limits?
I don’t think any subjects are ‘off-limits’ but I would never feel comfortable writing about something that I hadn’t experienced or researched.
Are there any unpublished gems in your bottom drawer?
A couple of plays maybe, but they both deal with matters that are too close to my own life, so they will probably stay there!
What’s the current project in progress?
The new book (as yet unnamed) is about one-third written. I will never be the sort of author who can churn out 10 books a year. The writing experience is a very personal one to me. I need to invest a part of me in each word, chapter and character and that takes me time.
What’s the best thing about writing?
Getting to tell a story that hopefully people will love. I have always been a reader and I appreciate the craft of story-telling. I genuinely consider it a privilege to have strangers read my tales.
The moment after publication when you have to wait while others judge you and your hard work. I would love to be the sort of writer who doesn’t care what others think, but to me, what others think is the entire reason why I started writing.
Our Game – John le Carré
Ordeal by Innocence – Agatha Christie
The Jurisprudence of Lord Denning – Charles Stephens
Kissinger’s Year: 1973 – Alistair Horne
Elizabeth – David Starkey
Who do you read and enjoy?
I am a massive John le Carré fan and re-read his books on a regular basis. Ironically, The Milan Contract was first published on the day le Carré died and the fatalistic side of me sometimes dreams that a tiny fraction of his indomitable brilliance was gifted to my debut novel as he passed by on his way to authors’ heaven.
I love Agatha Christie and hold both Christie (for her narrative prose and le Carré for his ability to evoke tension) as the royal family of story-telling. I also read quite a bit on historical figures: William Wilberforce, Disraeli, Churchill, etc.
Is there any one book you wish you had written?
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy by John le Carré
Favourite activity when not working or writing?
I still play the odd game of cricket and I have always been a keen follower of both county cricket and football. I also love watching my sons playing for their respective county cricket teams. My wife and I owned and ran a restaurant once and I still love to cook when time allows.
What’s the last film you watched that rocked you?
Never Let Me Go. It genuinely shocked me how much of an affect that film had on me. I still think about it when the ‘black dog’ barks.
TV addict or not? What’s the must watch show in the Franks household?
I’m not a great TV watcher, but I enjoyed The West Wing series and felt a little empty when it concluded. I think the writers were blessed with a touch of genius. I do like Morse and Endeavour and was hooked by Game of Thrones. Other than that, I watch quite a bit of football and cricket when time allows. I avoid the news (especially BBC News) but will watch crime drama on occasions.
While writing this, I have just listened to:
Comfortably Numb – Pink Floyd
All Rise – Blue
Baker Street – Gerry Rafferty
RANDOM TRIVIA FUN QUESTIONS
What’s your favourite vegetable?
Parsnips and sprouts – no, I really do! My wife is a vegetarian and I have acquired a keen taste for vegetables of all shapes and sizes, although she has failed to overcome my loathing of fennel.
When did you last have a fist fight?
I had to fight my way out of a street mugging in Paris about four years ago! Three lads tried to snatch my backpack and passport. I ended up with a bruised face, but I think one of them went home with a broken nose.
Have you ever been thrown out of a bar or a club?
Stringfellows 1979…but it’s a long story which I won’t bore everyone with.
Do you have any tattoos?
No – but many years ago I went with a friend to have a tattoo done but his took so long we had to leave to catch a flight. I still think about doing it - my boys would love it.
What was your first pet’s name?
Mauser - my pet tabby (Mauser was the name of the cannon that was carried by the Tornado F2/F3 in which I flew during the nineties). She lived for 12 years and was my closest buddy for much of that time. She was an enormous comfort when my father passed away and I genuinely believe she understood that I was grieving.
What’s the worst meal you have ever eaten?
I have had a few! However, the one that immediately springs to mind was a supposedly Indian dish served on a cruise ship – the chef had used about a kilo of cinnamon, and it was inedible as a result. I have no idea what he was thinking but he certainly couldn’t cook! I made the restaurant manager taste it and he nearly puked…so funny!
I also had an Andouillette sausage in France that tasted of poo…no really – apparently, it’s supposed to!
Do you have any irrational fears?
Flying – which is crazy considering I have 2500 hours flying in my logbook! My long-suffering wife says it’s a power and control thing and who I am I to argue…
What’s your favourite holiday destination?
Love the Greek islands, Canada, the Rhineland and Norway.
When did you last tell a lie?
I have never told a lie (except that one).
Many thanks to Stephen for his time.
You can catch up with him at the following haunts....
Website - https://mooncatbooks.com/
Twitter - @LtdMooncat