Monday, May 6, 2013

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Crime Novelist Harry Bingham

Harry Bingham, Author

Crime novelist Harry Bingham is a best-selling British author whose latest novel TALKING TO THE DEAD  is the first to feature Fiona Griffiths, a Welsh detective with a secret. His reviewers compare Fiona to Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander.  In addition to his latest novel, he has written financial thrillers and historical romances as well as writing-tutorials.

Mr. Bingham gave up an investment banking career to become a writer. In addition to authoring, he also runs a business, “Writers’ Workshop.” He lives in Oxfordshire with his wife, is a dog lover, and is expecting twins!

Q: Your reviewers compare TALKING TO THE DEAD to Stieg Larsson’s books and Fiona Griffiths to Lisbeth Salander. They also suggest that Fiona is the real story of the book. Did you write your story to be about Fiona or is Fiona there to solve the crime?

Harry Bingham: Both. There are really three mysteries in the book. One is the crime. Two is the enigma of Fiona’s strangeness. And three – well, the reader doesn’t even know there’s a third mystery until the very last chapter of the book. It always seemed to me that crime novels were about puzzles, so it made no sense to have the main character be too easily read. Fiona is as much of a puzzle as any crime she tries to solve.

Q: How do you engage readers to care about Fiona?

Harry Bingham: I think the first person voice is a part of it. It places you so immediately inside the character’s head that the author has a huge headstart in gaining the reader’s engagement.

But I also had a really interesting insight from Kate Miciak, my wonderful American editor. She happened to mention that a lot of British crime novels don’t do well in the US, because they’re too dark, too complex and too morally ambiguous. I thought, huh? You just bought my book. It’s as dark, complex and ambiguous as you can get.

And so it is. But as Kate pointed out, Fiona wants to be normal. She strives to better herself, to seek the light. Kate thought that American readers would respond to that striving – and I think that readers more broadly are willing to forgive Fiona her character quirks because they see how hard she struggles.

Q: Why did you decide to write in the first person? How difficult is it to assume the persona of Fiona?

Harry Bingham: Most crime thrillers are written in the third person and flick around different narrative viewpoints. That technique makes it much easier to generate tension. (So you can see the bad guy planting the bomb. You can be with the investigator as they walk towards it. You can then flip to the viewpoint of the strange creepy guy with the long range surveillance equipment. And so on.)

But I wanted Fiona to dominate the book. Her voice. Her point of view. And nothing else. That approach certainly creates a kind of intensity, but I like it as well because of the mystery aspect. It’s a kind of trick: we’re in Fiona’s head the whole time. We’re privy to what she’s thinking, feeling, etc. And yet she’s hiding this huge secret and the reader goes crazy trying to figure out what it is. I loved setting up that mystery – it demanded some of my most creative writing - and I think readers are responding really well.

As for the difficulty of becoming her – well, it took me about two years to find her voice, her essence, and after that, I was away. When I lock into my Fiona place, it feels completely natural, as though I’ve got a brilliant-but-nuts, somewhat violent, always unpredictable, young woman inside my middle-aged male head. She and I get on very well. I love having her as a house-guest.

Q: How important is Wales as a setting for the story? Could Fiona exist outside of Wales?

Harry Bingham: Fiona could exist anywhere, I guess, but works well because it’s so nicely ambiguous. On the one hand, Wales is its own country – with a national Assembly, a language, a huge history, some proud traditions – but Cardiff is also, in the wider British context, just another provincial city. The part of Wales I write about is intensely urban, but just a few miles away, you have some of the most deeply rural parts of Britain. Wales is ancient – it’s where King Arthur and Merlin came from – but it’s terribly new too: the big coastal cities were essentially Victorian creations built to handle the coal and iron industries.

These ambiguities work well for Fiona, because her status is ambiguous too. On the one hand, she’s very marginal. (Young, junior, petite, kooky, provincial.) On the other hand, she’s the storming force who is going to blast any investigation wide open and wreak plenty of havoc along the way. And of course, I’ve got a lifelong relationship with Wales, so I always wanted to set a book there.

Q: What makes a good villain?

Harry Bingham: The villain in my story is strangely unimportant. I mean, yes, there are some bad guys and, yes, they get their come-uppance, but while the victims matter a lot to the story, the villains aren’t glamorized in any way.

So I think I don’t have a very good villain. It’s not part of my story particularly. More broadly, I think the essence of good villains is a kind of charisma. A dangerous attractiveness. Satan in Paradise Lost. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.

Q: Who are your target readers for TALKING TO THE DEAD? What are they looking for?

Harry Bingham: I don’t target readers! I can never really get my head around the idea that writers can set out to design a product the way a food manufacturer launches a new line of cookies. I just write a manuscript that is as good as I can make it and hope that my editor and ultimately my readers will share that assessment.

I think typically my readers are sophisticated ones who enjoy some real entertainment. So I guess my audience is going to be quite similar to Gillian Flynn’s: readers who might read Jonathan Franzen one day, and Harlan Coben the next.

Q: You have written both fiction and non-fiction across genres. What is the difference in writing approach? Do you prefer writing one over the other? Is crime your favorite genre?

Harry Bingham: I’ve written different types of fiction too: financial thrillers and historical romances. I think, when it comes to fiction, I’ve settled with crime. It suits me very well and I doubt if I’ll ever write a non-crime novel again.

As for non-fiction, there’s a lovely clarity about it. You set yourself a subject, then go after it. Facts constrain what you can do, whereas fiction feels scarily unboundaried by contrast. I don’t want to stop writing non-fiction occasionally: there are still a couple of books I want to write. (Trouble is, crime novelists really need to pump out one book a year and I’m not sure where that’s going to leave the non-fiction. Ah well …)

Q: In addition to being a successful writer, you run a business “Writers’ Workshop.” Can you tell us a little about it?

Harry Bingham: The Writers’ Workshop offers an editorial service for new writers. Basically, aspiring writers can bring their manuscripts to us and get the kind of editorial interaction that used to be available only to pro authors. We also run creative writing courses and host a big annual writing festival, which brings together a whole host of literary agents, authors, publishers and so on. I love doing all this because it reminds me daily about what brought me to writing in the first place. Really, it’s 100% about passion, 0% about money. You can find out about the manuscript assessments here, the creative writing courses here, and the Festival here.

Q: You used to be an investment banker. Why? 

Harry Bingham: From fairly early childhood, I wanted to be a writer but I knew that I needed some real job first. For various reasons, banking seemed like a good choice at the time –and really, I don’t regret it. For smart, ambitious kids, the industry offered an amazing level of responsibility and exposure to the wider world. I had fun for about ten years, then quit. I’ve gone from the least-loved and most-lucrative profession in the world to one of the most-respected and least-lucrative. But I love what I do now. Love it, love it, love it.

Q: Who is Harry Bingham? What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Harry Bingham:  On my website, I offer a twenty-five word bio, which runs in its entirety: “Forty-something. Married. British. Dogs. Living in Oxfordshire. Runs The Writers' Workshop. Used to be a
banker. Now a full-time writer. Likes rock-climbing, walking, swimming. Done."

That was reasonably complete when I wrote it, but I now think I need to squeeze in, “A few months away from having twins. Total chaos looming.” My wife and I have had problems conceiving and these kids are coming to us relatively late in our marriage. So we’re petrified, but delighted. We couldn’t be happier.

About Harry Bingham

Harry Bingham is a British writer, who lives in Oxfordshire, England. After working as an investment banker for ten years, he saw the light and turned to writing. He’s written a variety of fiction and non-fiction over the years, but has finally settled on crime. TALKING TO THE DEAD is the first in a series of crime novels, featuring a complex Welsh detective heroine, Fiona Griffiths.

Named one of the best books of the year by
The Boston Globe • The Seattle Times

She knows what it’s like . . .
At first, the murder scene appears sad, but not unusual: a young woman undone by drugs 
and prostitution, her six-year-old daughter dead alongside her. But then detectives find a strange piece of evidence in the squalid house: the platinum credit card of a very wealthy—and long dead—steel tycoon. What is a heroin-addicted hooker doing with the credit card of a well-known and powerful man who died months ago? This is the question that the most junior member of the investigative team, Detective Constable Fiona Griffiths, is assigned to answer.

But D.C. Griffiths is no ordinary cop. She’s earned a reputation at police headquarters in Cardiff, Wales, for being odd, for not picking up on social cues, for being a little overintense. And there’s that gap in her past, the two-year hiatus that everyone assumes was a breakdown. But Fiona is a crack investigator, quick and intuitive. She is immediately drawn to the crime scene, and to the tragic face of the six-year-old girl, who she is certain has something to tell her . . . something that will break the case wide open.

Ignoring orders and protocol, Fiona begins to explore far beyond the rich man’s credit card and into the secrets of her seaside city. And when she uncovers another dead prostitute, Fiona knows that she’s only begun to scratch the surface of a dark world of crime and murder. But the deeper she digs, the more danger she risks—not just from criminals and killers but from her own past . . . and the abyss that threatens to pull her back at any time.


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  1. Stopping by from WLC and visiting you wonderful blog. Great read!

  2. What an interesting interview! I am definitely going to check out this book. Will there be other books written about Fiona?

  3. Oh yes! In effect, you read book 1 and discover that you've actually read the prologue to a whole series. The second book (LOVE STORY, WITH MURDERS) is out soon. And I'm just putting the finishing touches to #3. I love writing em!