Peter Hanington & Alan Judd: The Art of the Thriller

Festival review by Bridget Osborne

September 2019

Photograph above: Left Julian Worricker; Centre Alan Judd; Right Peter Hanington

Broadcaster and journalist Julian Worricker discussed the art of writing thrillers at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival with one veteran and one fairly new writer of the genre: Alan Judd, (real name Alan Petty) and Peter Hanington. Alan is a former soldier and diplomat who writes both fiction and non-fiction, with ten previous thrillers under his belt. Peter worked as a journalist for over twenty-five years, most recently at The World Tonight and Newshour on the BBC World Service. He has one previous novel to his credit: A Dying Breed.

Spoiler alert

Julian Worricker, who broadcasts on the BBC’s News Channel and on Radio 4, used to present the Breakfast show with Victoria Derbyshire on Radio 5 Live. Discussing the release of the film Titanic, they had been careful not to let slip what happened to Leonardo diCaprio and Kate Winslet’s characters, he told the audience at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival. He did however say that the Titanic had sunk, and received an angry email from a listener greatly irritated that he’d given away the end of the film!

Mindful of that, he was careful not to give too much away about the plot of either book, but rather focused on strategies for writing a thriller. Alan said he always set out with a beginning, an end and a ten point plan, so he knew how he wanted to finish but he didn’t necessarily stick to the route he’d planned to get there. Peter on the other hand is a writer who develops the plot as he goes along. Interestingly both said they’d had whole chapters ruthlessly chopped by their editor. In Alan’s case, his first editor told him he didn’t need the last chapter of his first book. “As she said it, I knew she was right” he said. Peter’s editor “tends to remove the first two or three chapters”. A thriller is like an engine. It has to motor on.

Both authors have read a lot of thrillers themselves. Alan reminded the audience that Raymond Chandler famously said that if you were stuck as to how to develop the plot, just have a character come in to the room with a gun in his hand.

Photographs above: Alan Judd; Accidental Agent book cover

The importance of speaking with an authentic voice

They both also have a perfect background for writing thrillers. Alan had served with the British army in Northern Ireland, so his chief character, Charles Thoroughgood was introduced in his first novel A Breed of Heroes, as an army officer in Northern Ireland. You can write a perfectly plausible story, he said, as long as people don’t know the circumstances in which your story is set. He worried about his peers in the army and later in the diplomatic service finding his plots plausible. Authenticity is important and it is appreciated.

British historian Peter Hennessy described A Breed of Heroes as ‘one of the best spy novels ever’. Alan brought back his character twenty years later, by which time he had graduated to the diplomatic service. The problem he’d found with his most recent novel Accidental Agent, was that he’d painted himself into a corner by promoting Thoroughgood to the head of MI6. “The trouble with the head of MI6 is that they just go to meetings all the time. They don’t have assignations in back streets”.

Photographs above: Peter Hanington; A Single Source book cover

Peter’s character William Carver is the ‘dying breed’ referred to in the title of his first book. An old hack who is set in his ways, cannot be doing with meetings, BBC bureaucracy or internal politics, and cares only about the story. He’s grumpy, he’s difficult, does not suffer fools gladly and is a damn good journalist. Peter was a senior editor on the Today programme and had ample opportunity to work with such reporters. “I used to ride the tube home after a 12 hour shift and fill notebooks full of jottings” he said. He took aspects of character and experience from a pool of journalists. I interviewed Peter about his first book at the 2016 Chiswick Book Festival. You can watch the interview here.

His second book A Single Souce has chapters set in Eritrea and in Egypt during the rise of the Arab Spring. Kevin Connolly told him he had to use an inhaler when reporting on the events in Tahrir Square in Cairo, as tear gas brought on his asthma. The Eritrean part of the story has to do with “one of the greatest moral crises of our time”, said Peter, the movement of people as refugees and their treatment as they crossed borders. He and his wife have hosted three Syrians and a Ugandan for the charity Refugees at Home. Eritrean refugees had told him first hand accounts of the conditions they had risked hazardous journeys to escape.

Photographs above: Julian Worricker; Alan Judd; Peter Hanington

A sense of place

Physical locations  are hugely important, they both agreed. You have to describe them correctly if they are to be recognisable. If you manage that, you can set the scene and create the atmosphere you want for your characters to be at home in and your plot to develop. Georges Simenon once started a story with a man on a barge coming on deck in the early morning and lighting up a cigarette. “He had you right there” said Alan.

Language can get in the way of creating the atmosphere you want. Asked if he’d had any disagreements with his editor, Peter said he’s been determined to keep in the description of a fountain ‘plashing’ instead of ‘splashing’. His editor had been right, he admitted, that such poncy use of language made the reader aware of the writing and distracted from the creation of the scene. An editor’s job is to ‘kill your darlings’ – a phrase attributed to William Faulkner. Or as Peter put it “an editor’s job is to tell you to get over yourself”.

Inspiration to write

Peter grew up in Chiswick and went to Chiswick School. When asked what inspired him to write, he said: “my English teachers at school”.

Success

What does success look like? Why do they write? Lee Child apparently sells a book every nine seconds; that’s certainly one incentive. “I’d be happy with one every nine months” said Peter. “It would be nice to have a better bank balance” said Alan, but mostly what he hopes for is respect for his work, or appreciation. “I’m trying to make sense of the world” he said.

“It’s amazing when someone says they like one of my phrases” said Peter. Alan read out one of Peter’s descriptions, of a man with spiky black hair, gelled so he looked like ‘an oil stricken sea bird’. If someone praises his syntax Peter said, “it’s like someone has paid a compliment to one of your children”.

“Better” said Alan.