An Interview with Simon Tolkein
It seems that it might be difficult to write from a fictional,
outside perspective on your own profession. Did you find it challenging to not
unconsciously revert back into your professional mindset or "role" of a
barrister while writing this novel? Any surprises in the way being a lawyer
affected your persona as author?
An important challenge for me in writing courtroom drama
is to know what to leave out. Parts of the trial process are obviously boring
and yet the reader must have the illusion that he is seeing everything. With Final
Witness,I tried never to lose sight of the fact that I was writing a
story which is only partly told through the courtroom medium. I cut the trial
scenes with flashbacks seen through the eyes of the main protagonists, and with
action outside the court so that the legal drama never became monotonous. Being
a criminal lawyer helped me enormously, but only so long as I treated my inside
knowledge of the courts as a writing tool rather than an end in itself.
Of course, almost all reviewers have mentioned your grandfather,
J.R.R. Tolkien. You must have known that that was going to be a big topic of
interest to a lot of people. How did you prepare yourself for the inevitable?
I am lucky because I have always enjoyed The Lord of the
Rings, and in fact four years ago I read it aloud to my son, which took
nearly a year! I think that Final Witness has given me the
confidence to believe that I am more than just the grandson of a very famous
man, and this means that I can really enjoy my relationship to my
grandfather and be comfortable answering questions about him and his books.
You also mention in your authors note that the connection
dissuaded you from writing for a long time. What finally made you decide to go
This is a question which I have often puzzled over during the
last three years without coming up with a really satisfactory answer. I think
it's interesting that I never wrote any fiction at all before January
2000 but that I had kept a daily diary for the preceding ten years. It was as if
I was unconsciously preparing myself to be a writer while at the same time
maintaining a constant mantra that I couldn't write fiction. Turning forty and
the millennium were important milestones, but deep down I think that I had a
need to create something outside of myself and to prove just what I could do. As
a barrister I would put everything I had into writing a closing speech for the
jury, but after I had given it the writing went into the dustbin. A novel lasts
a lot longer if you can get it published! I do also think that my
grandfather's huge achievement did keep me back from writing for a long time,
but eventually my inner need to create burst the flood walls that I had set up
The widespread success of John Grisham and Scott Turow, in
particular, in America has made the legal thriller a big-bucks kind of book to
write. Did you consider your American competition at all when writing Final
Witness? Have you read Grisham and Turow? What do you think differentiates Final
Witness from other legal thrillers out there on bookshelves?
I have enjoyed reading both these novelists and I loved the film of Presumed
Innocent. There are more actual courtroom scenes in my book than in John
Grisham's legal thrillers, and his fictional world is very contemporary whereas
I have tried to construct a traditional rural environment in Final
Witness which is attacked from the outside by killers coming from a corrupt
urban world. The clashes between old and new and between town and country are an
important ingredient in my novel. There's something of this in Presumed
Innocent, I think, with Sabichs beautiful East Coast home and his
marriage torn apart by the consequences of his obsession with his beautiful
amoral work colleague.
The character of Thomas Robinson is particularly insightful and
finely wrought. Did you begin the novel with an idea of him as a character and
build the novel out from there? If not, what was your starting point and in what
ways did the novel develop from that nexus?
My novel began with the simple idea of a home being broken into by
armed strangers. This is hardly an original idea, but I lay awake at night and
thought of what it would really be like for the people inside. The murder scene
with the terrified boy standing petrified in his hiding place metres away from
his dead mother while her killers ransack her bedroom, grew out of this
first thought, and from there I had the genesis of the character of Thomas
Robinson, who is only fifteen and burns to avenge his mother's murder. So yes,
Thomas was the first character and my planning began with his terrible
life-changing experience, which incidentally explains the quotation from Doctor
Zhivago at the beginning of the book. I think that I knew soon afterwards that Thomas's
father was a cold repressed man and that their relationship would be crucial to
the book's plot. The father's beautiful new wife, Greta, whom Thomas accuses of
his mother's murder, came out of my imagining the father, and then she
quickly took on a life of her own. I have to say that I always really liked
Greta, and found I could see her more clearly in my mind's eye than any of my
other characters, even though she began in my imagination later than them.
Any surprises along the way - i.e. you thought the story was headed
somewhere and ended up somewhere else. Where in your writing process and/or the
book did that happen? How did you reconcile yourself with the developing arc of
The overall plot did not change during the writing, but the detail
was often difficult. For instance, the stepmother is found in possession of
a locket that appears to connect her to the killers of her husband's first wife.
For a long time I could not work out what the object should be. It evolved from
a torn piece of paper into a wedding ring and finally became the locket
containing the pictures of Thomas's father and mother. I had also plotted a
chapter in which the police set up a meeting involving the stepmother at which
she incriminates herself, and Thomas's psychiatrist was to appear as a witness.
These scenes were jettisoned at a fairly late stage. It was important for me to
learn to be able to abandon material that had initially seemed rich in promise
but was now just getting in the way of the plot's development.
Writing suspense has always seemed really hard to me! I always wonder
how authors manage to build and build and build, all the while carefully
revealing certain salient details, and then wrap it all up in the conclusion.
Did you write and/or plan the ending first, and then work your way back? If not,
how did you manage to plot it all out? And, how did you approach the suspense
aspect of the book in general?
Your question highlights a crucial problem with the type of book I
write. The maintenance of suspense requires that I do not reveal too much
about my characters, but at the same time I see myself as writing family drama
in which well-formed characters have important choices to make. Development of
character and suspenseful plotting thus pull in opposite directions. For me the
solution lies to some extent in presenting events through different characters'
eyes at different times, and then the courtroom scenes are essentially pure
dialogue where the witnesses may or may not be lying. That is for the jury and
the reader to decide.
Any tips for burgeoning authors on how to write suspense?
As an author, I have found that the most useful approach to writing
courtroom drama is to put myself in the position of the jury. To keep them
undecided and in suspense the evidence needs to point in both directions -
innocence and guilt. A good example in my book is Thomas's evidence that his
mother's murderers returned to his home to kill him a week before his
stepmother's trial and mentioned her name while they were there. This might be
seen as strengthening the prosecution case, but in fact it is too much of a good
thing. There is no evidence to support Thomas's account and the defense is able
to punch it full of holes when Thomas goes into the witness box.
The American legal system and the British legal system are quite
different in some ways. Did you find this a challenge to deal with, especially
for your American audience? Or did you feel comfortable assuming readers would
follow along pretty easily?
I wrote Final Witness specifically for an American audience,
and so I consciously tried to make the English settings and the courtroom scenes
as accessible as possible. I did this by explaining things that are different
without making it obvious that I was doing so. There is thus reference in my
book to how the defendant felt intimidated by the barristers' wigs and gowns,
and the defense counsel is described as wishing that the American system of jury
selection applied in England so that he could get rid of a particularly
nasty-looking juror. I also tried to keep the law as simple as possible.
The courtroom scenes in Final Witness are about the evidence and not the
law. The clash between a witness and cross-examining lawyer is, of course, the
same on both sides of the Atlantic.
A lot of our readers are aspiring writers. Insight on
process is always welcome. What kind of process do you use to write? Any advice
for struggling writers?
Final Witness is my second novel. My first remains
unpublished. It's a black comedy, and it suffers from having been written with
little or no pre-planning. Its rejection led me to spend many months plotting Final Witness
before I began any actual writing. Planning is essential for a suspense drama
but it also makes for a much better book. I don't want to be in the middle of
writing a book waiting for inspiration, wondering what is going to happen next.
I do less work on nailing down the characters in the planning stage. I know what
they have to do, but I want to let them develop their personalities as I
write. I also now make sure that I have created very detailed location
plans and timelines before I begin writing. I write with a pen longhand,
and periodically send chapters to my wonderful typist to type up for me. I try
to ensure that I write at least 800 words each day, and get discouraged if I
haven't reached this target. I found with Final Witness that my daily
work always turned out to be better than I thought it had been when I came
to correct it in the evenings under the stars in my garden. The rejection of my
first novel by a succession of literary agents was a terrible experience for me, and
getting back on my feet to write Final Witness was in some ways the most
difficult thing I have ever had to do. I am sure that talent alone is not enough
for a writer, - you also need extraordinary amounts of luck, determination,
endurance and what the English call "bloody-mindedness".
Was the book also published in England? What kind of reception did it
get there? How was the reception in England different or similar to that in
The book is being published by Penguin in the UK at the end of
February 2003 so it's too early to know what reception it's going to get over
here. Interestingly, Penguin has kept my original title for the book, The
Stepmother, whereas Random House wanted the new title - Final
Witness. This is because there is a huge crime section in bookshops in the
UK and Penguin wanted a title to stand out from the rest. There is not the same
departmentalisation by genre in the States so that Random House wanted a title
to tell the reader what type of book this is.
Will you be going on an author tout and doing readings in the U.S.?
No. I would really like to do this but Random House has told me that
a tour is not economically viable for a debut novelist like me. I hope that the
position will change as Final Witness takes off. I love reading
aloud, and I went to Michigan last month to read my book for audiotape for
Last, but not least, whats next?
I have been planning my next book for most of 2002 and I hope to
start writing it in January. There will be the same mix of courtroom drama and
family breakdown, but there is also a wider cast of characters and suspects than
in Final Witness. Additionally new themes lie at the heart of the plot.
I have long been interested in the idea of historical events affecting present
lives, and in my new book, a murder in a manor house outside Oxford is connected
to events in France at the end of 1944 when a family was murdered by soldiers
searching for an ancient crucifix of great value and religious significance.
Sounds wonderful! Good luck-- and thanks for taking the time to talk
Interview reproduced by permission of the publisher, Random House.