Q&A with Mike Grist

Today I’m pleased to be taking part in the blog tour for Saint Justice by welcoming author Mike Grist to Portable Magic. My post is written with thanks to Emma Welton of damppebbles Blog Tours for inviting me on the tour and, of course, to Mike Grist for answering my questions.

Have you always wanted to write?

Since as long as I can remember, I’ve written. Getting a good grade form the first few chapters of my first novel at age 10 was a huge boost. I still remember clearly how proud I felt that the teacher remarked on my use of ’emitted’ to describe a laser shooting out of a War of the Worlds-style alien machine. 

I kept on writing since then, sporadically at times, completing my first weird dystopian novel at 19 during a 2-term exchange trip in the US. After that I wrote short stories for years, trying to get published. Once I’d achieved some strong credits, I started in on novels. 

What were your previous jobs? Have they helped you with your writing process?

I worked in a range of pubs, restaurants, book stores, clothes shops, accounting offices and summer camps before I settled into my real vocation – teaching academic writing skills. I taught in Japan for 11 years, to kids, adults, professionals, university students, everything. The main thing I’ve learned from teaching how to write essays is clarity and conciseness.

As a younger author (and also now sometimes) I would get lost in my love of words and wordplay. I could write pretty much meaningless passages, full of repetition, and just luxuriate in the sound and flow. I often made up words, ignored grammar rules, and didn’t think about the audience.

Academic writing is the absolute opposite of that. Every word has to do work to advance the thesis of a piece. Too much ‘creativity’ is frowned upon. Grammar rules are strict, and invented words are right out. 

It’s the same with narrative fiction. People want the story, and the words exist to serve that story. There’s plenty of room for creativity, but it has to be bounded and controlled. The story must march forward. Race forward at times. I bristled against these kinds of restrictions at first, but now I’ve come to love them. Storytelling is an act of communication, and I aim to always tell my stories in better, more accessible ways.    

What was your inspiration for Saint Justice? 

I’ve always been fascinated by psychology – I studied it at university, largely out of fascination, not really because I expected to a pursue a related career. Learning about ingroup-outgroup dynamics, things like the bystander effect, definitely influenced everything I wrote since. 

With Saint Justice, I wanted a hero who understood psychology well enough to use it as a kind of weapon. The trickster/magician Derren Brown is a great example of this – he has a show called PUSH, where he rigs a whole set of events around specially selected ‘contestants’, who are completely ignorant of being filmed. Actors drive the events, and at the end of the experience try to persuade the contestant to kill someone by pushing them off a rooftop. 

Some people do it. That’s fascinating. I wanted a hero who could take skills like that and marshal them for good. 

How do you construct your characters? Do they have traits of people you know?

I never consciously draw on real people for my characters. Not for names, appearance, or personalities. There’s no special reason for this, it just hasn’t come up. 

So where do they come from? This is a great question. Probably some amalgam of all the TV shows, movies and books I’ve read. 

Wren came from the idea described above, a Derren Brown like figure. Physically he has to be impressive too, like Jack Reacher, so he’s big and strong. I made him mixed-race just to up the challenges he’s going to face. His cult survivor background gave him an intuitive understanding of how people can be manipulated by a charismatic figure. His emotional pain grew out of that experience, and became his desire to make things better for other ‘weak’ people, through his own cult and the coin system. 

His sense of humor is probably like mine – irreverent, a bit surreal at times. He’s definitely smarter than me. When I write him into a corner, it only takes him seconds to figure out what to do, while it’ll take me days and even weeks sometimes. 

What does your writing process look like? Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I plot broadly – both each individual book and the larger arc of the stories. Before I set down to write a new book, I’ll have the inciting injustice. In Saint Justice, hundreds of homeless are kidnapped violently off the streets. Then I look for where Wren is at that moment, usually doing something unrelated that leads him directly to the injustice. 

After that it’s all pantsing through the middle, as Wren investigates, bounces off the bad guys, they make plays against him, he makes plays against them, until the end. I usually have an idea for the ending in advance, but not exactly how it’s going to turn out.  

When I set down to start writing, the first thing I’ll do is write the blurb – the 3-paragraph text that goes on the back cover. This follows a kind of formula, and really helps guide me later on. If the opening injustice can’t make sense or link up to Wren well, it’ll be obvious at this stage. I work on that for a while, then I’ll dive in. 

How did you research Saint Justice? Did you enjoy it?

Aside from reading books on cults and the CIA, and watching documentaries on mind control and psychopathy, the most interesting research I did was speak to cult survivors directly. One of these, Claire Ashman, survived two doomsday cults and went on to write a book and give multiple TED Talks on the subject. 

She was fascinating, and helped me really get some insight into why cults work, why people stay in them, and what everyone is getting out of it. I documented our talk on my blog here  

Who are your favourite writers? Are you influenced by them?

My favorite author when I was younger was David Gemell. He wrote ‘heroic fantasy’ about lone heroes facing impossible odds, who often met their enemies with overwhelming, slightly amoral force. My favorite character of all was a gunslinger, who would always shoot first. As soon as an enemy began a provocation, he would take it immediately to the end of the line. 

It caused a lot of problems for him. It definitely inspired Christopher Wren. He is always first to detect a threat, and won’t wait around for it to manifest itself,. He addresses it head on, always with an escalation, until it backs down or dies. His vision of morality is pretty simple, though he certainly understands the complexities. I admire that certainty, even as I try to challenge it constantly. What right has Wren got to be a lone vigilante executioner? 

One important thing in my writing – nobody, not even Wren, can expect to escape the consequences of their actions forever. 

If you could invite three people, living or dead, to dinner, who would they be and why?

I’d love to get together some of the greatest minds, from recent history as well as antiquity, and see what they have to say about our society and world today, where we are, the issues we’re facing, and how we can improve. I’m a huge proponent of embracing diversity as humanity’s greatest strength – with such a range of perspectives, I think we could reach new understandings. 

So, Socrates would be good. He comes from such a different culture and time, but as one of the founders of Western philosophy, I think he could get up to speed pretty quickly on where we are, and offer a long view of where we might be headed. 

Abraham Lincoln is a figure I admire immensely (we’re actually very distantly related). There’s the anecdote that whenever he was angry with a general, he’d write a letter, then put that letter in his drawer and think about it. Often, he wouldn’t send it. That emotional maturity, combined with the will, wisdom and morality to take his country to war in order to free the slaves, would mean he’d have plenty to say about our current world. 

Thirdly, I need an interlocutor who can challenge these two liberal-minded men. Not necessarily one I’d agree with politically, but one who was undoubtedly bold, powerful and intellectually impressive. Let’s go with Margaret Thatcher. I think there are going to be fireworks around this dinner table. 

Who would you least like to be stuck in a lift with and why?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson. I don’t think we’d get on. 

Who would you like play the main character of Saint Justice in a film or TV series? 

I’d love to have Idris Elba. He was brilliant in Luther, displaying strength, gravity, but also moments of vulnerability, in a show which goes dark in ways similar to the Wren series. Elba was up to be Bond for a while. To snag him for Wren would be a major get. 

What do you like to do in your spare time?

When not writing I lift weights, jog and do HIIT exercise, watch TV and movies, read, take trips to stately homes in the countryside with my wife, run my writer’s marketing group, mentor other authors, and occasionally bake. 

What is next for you?

I’m working on the Christopher Wren books for the foreseeable future. I have the next couple loosely planned, book 5 Firestorm is out as a pre-order for Dec 2020 now and I’m starting work on it.  

Favourites:

 

Book? The Killer Collective by Barry Eisler. Super cool, the Avengers of off-book contract killers.  

Film? – Interstellar. I love the awe and complexity of this sweeping epic. And one heck of a score.

Band/Singer? – Right now, I’m listening to the Lumineers a lot. Heartfelt folk rock.
TV show? – Breaking Bad. My wife and I are re-watching the season currently. It’s so dark but compulsive.

Colour? – Pale blue

Place? Land’s End in Cornwall, UK. An incredibly rugged cliff landscape, truly fantastic vistas, which if you walk some distance from the tourist hotspot, you get all to yourself.

Biscuit? – Milk chocolate hobnob. 

***

Saint Justice is available from Amazon.

You can follow the rest of the blog tour here:

 

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