- How long have you been writing?
I set myself a target of getting my first novel published before I was thirty. I missed it by a year. The Riot Act was published in 1997 by Serpent’s Tail. It was a dark tale of love, betrayal and espionage, set in Greenwich, where we were living at the time, and in Cornwall, where we still spend a lot of our holidays. I wasn’t paid very much for the book (£1,500), but it went on to be shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association best first novel award. A French translation followed but the book is now out of print. Since then, I’ve written four other spy novels, including the Daniel Marchant trilogy (HarperCollins, 2009-2012), the first of which, Dead Spy Running, was optioned by Warner Bros. Getting your first novel accepted is an extraordinary thing. I was living in South India at the time, working for a local Indian magazine, and when the blurred and stretched fax came through from Serpent’s Tail in London, having traveled 5,000 miles, I hugged my Indian colleagues, who were all a little surprised!
- What is your favorite genre to write?
Well, up until Find Me, it’s been spy thrillers all the way, but Find Me is a psychological thriller and I’ve loved writing it. There are certain conventions that need to be adhered to with a spy novel, and you have to stay on top of tradecraft, technology and global politics, but with a psychological thriller, it’s all about what happens in the human head.
- Which genre have you never tried before, but would you like to try out?
Literary fiction. I recently read A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride and absolutely loved it. A sustained and very unusual voice, with language that owes a lot to James Joyce.
- Please tell us about your book.
Find Me opens with a scene that has haunted me for many years. Jar, a young Irish writer, is on his way to work, taking the escalator down into Paddington Station, when he sees Rosa, his girlfriend from university, passing him on the up escalator. Except that Rosa died five years ago and Find Me is not a ghost story. A former girlfriend from my own university days died a few years after we graduated and I once thought I saw her on a crowded platform. I knew, of course, that it wasn’t her, but it got me thinking. Find Me follows Jar’s quest to prove that Rosa is somehow still alive. He suffers from post-bereavement hallucinations, but there’s something about the sighting at Paddington that convinces him that she’s still alive. It’s essentially a love story, a study of obsession and self-belief.
- Which character was your favorite, and why?
I enjoyed writing Jar’s scenes. He had early success as a writer – a collection of short stories was published to acclaim while he was still at Cambridge – but he has been blocked for five years, ever since Rosa disappeared. He’s writing ‘clickbait’ celeb stories on an arts website when he thinks he sees Rosa. I wanted him to likeable, well-read, interesting – readers have got to share his desire to find Rosa. I also love Ireland and its rich literary heritage and Jar is from Galway, where his Da runs a bar. His search for Rosa reminded me of the Wandering Song of Aengus, by WB Yeats, and I quote from the poem at the beginning of the book. (‘Though I am old with wandering/Through hollow lands and hilly lands/I will find out where she has gone/And kiss her lips and take her hands’).
- What was the hardest part about writing your book?
At one point in the story, Jar has to turn to The Dark Web, that murky corner of the internet that lies beyond the law and reach of search engines. 95% of the Dark Web is used for nefarious purposes – drug, gun and people smuggling, assassination sites etc – and I was terrified, like Jar, of making a wrong turning, of accidentally ending up in some dodgy sex chatroom or being on the wrong end of an FBI sting. Interestingly, I did discover that the Dark Web is also used for good purposes: The New Yorker magazine runs StrongBox, a site for whistleblowers, where people can leave anonymous messages about political or corporate malpractice. And participants in the Arab Spring turned to the Dark Web when they wanted to escape state censorship.
- What is your writing routine? Are there things you absolutely need to start writing?
I can write pretty much anywhere, using my trusty MacBook Air. (I’m lefthanded and my handwriting is terrible.) I have written several books on the train from Wiltshire to London, when I was working as a journalist at the Telegraph. I also like noisy cafes. Now that I’m a fulltime writer, I work from home and try to knock out 1,000 words a day. I will edit the previous day’s words, deleting up to a third of them, and then write 1,000 fresh words. Early mornings are particularly good. In winter, by the wood-burning stove, from 5am to 7am, before the house stirs. In the summer, in the garden, beneath the apple tree. Writing requires discipline and I approach it like any other normal office job.
- How long did it take you to write your book from start to finish?
Find Me took me three years to write, but I was holding down a day job at the same time, working of the Telegraph’s books channel and then editing the Saturday Weekend section. When I’m not doing anything else, I reckon it takes me a year to write, from first draft to final edit.
- Can you tell us about your editing process?
I like to hand in a fairly polished first draft. I edit as I go along and I guess my journalism background means that I’m quite a harsh editor of my own work. Each day I’ll go over the previous day’s offering before writing new words. My wife is always my first reader and then my agent. It’s important, when you are writing a book, to keep the momentum going and not spend all your time tweaking and admiring what you’ve written. You’ve got to move forwards each day.
- Is this book part of a series? If so, how many installments do you have planned?
I have contemplated a sequel to Find Me – it would be interesting if Rosa, with her own harrowing experiences, had to search for Jar – but I think my next psychological thriller will be another standalone. I have an idea that explores similar themes of identity and memory and loss.
- Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
There’s a very fine line between being published and not being published. A lot of bad books are out there and a lot of good ones never see the light of day. Self-belief is everything. These days, agents are the new gatekeepers. Unless you have personal contacts with a publisher, there’s little point in approaching them directly. Get an agent first – and only contact ones that specialize in the sort of book you are writing. Always write the sort of book that you would want to read. Don’t try to second-guess the market. If you’re not 100% committed to your book, others won’t be either. Many people write one book and give up after not finding a publisher. Your second book might be a lot better and couldn’t have been written unless you had got the bad stuff out of your system in the first book.
- Why should everyone read your book?
Blimey, I’d never expect everyone to like/read the same book! Literary taste is so subjective. I hope that Find Me will appeal to readers who like intelligent thrillers with well-drawn characters and a driving narrative. I also hope it says something about loss and love, and raises awareness of the disturbing role that science and psychology played in the US war on terror.
- If you could meet three authors, dead or alive, which authors would you choose?
I have been lucky enough to meet John Le Carré, ten years ago, and that was a real privilege. I remember him telling me that the times may change, but the nature of spying never does. Trust and betrayal are absolute human traits. I’d like to have a chat with Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl On The Train, and ask how her life has changed since was a journalist writing pension stories at The Times (and also how much pressure she felt having to follow up on her incredible success). I love Roald Dahl’s inventive use of language. I would ask about how he came up with his character’s names and also all those sweets (Whangdoodles, hornswogglers or snozzwangers, anyone?).
- What inspired you to write your book?
I think it was the experience of having lost a former girlfriend and my mother, who died when I was 17. I have only ever had one recurring dream in my life and it involved my mother returning to the family house a few years after she had died, wondering where she was going to sleep. My father re-married, to a wonderful woman I love dearly, but clearly my mother’s return would have caused problems. Maybe it comes from a forlorn sense of hope, but I’ve always been intrigued by the possibility of someone still being alive after everyone assumes they’re dead. I don’t believe in ghosts, so such a scenario would have to play out in another way. And that’s what I explore in Find Me.
- Are you working on something at the moment? If so, can you tell us more about it?
I have just written a spy novella, under my own name of Jon Stock. It’s been a very unusual, enormously fun project, commissioned by The Nare, an upmarket hotel in Cornwall. The proprietor is a spy aficionado – his phone extension is 007 – and he asked me to be writer-in-residence and come up with a short spy thriller set in and around his hotel. I love Cornwall and it’s a great hotel, so it’s been the dream writer’s gig. The book is called To Snare A Spy (see what we did there?) and it’s coming out at the end of April. The main character is a 15-year-old boy called Noah and the book is intended to appeal to teenagers as well as parents and grandparents. Extended families tend to stay at the hotel, particularly in the summer holidays, and they will be able to visit and interact with a lot of the local, very scenic settings in the book.
About the Book
“Intricately woven and heart-stoppingly believable, this has
bestseller written all over it.”
“Cunning, captivating and creepy – a beautifully-written thriller
with well-drawn characters and a twisting, gripping plot
that will keep you guessing until the very last page.”
“Gripping and deeply sinister… an intricate story that will stay with you.”
Five years ago, Rosa walked to Cromer pier in the dead of night. She looked into the dark swirling water below, and she jumped. She was a brilliant young Cambridge student who had just lost her father. Her death was tragic, but not unexpected.
Was that what really happened? The coroner says it was. But Rosa’s boyfriend Jar can’t let go. He hallucinates, seeing Rosa everywhere – a face on the train, a distant figure on the hillside. He is obsessed with proving that she is still alive. And then he gets an email.
Find me, Jar. Find me, before they do…
Jon Stock, now writing as J.S. Monroe, read English at Cambridge University, worked as a freelance journalist in London and was a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4. He was also a foreign correspondent in Delhi for the Daily Telegraph and was on its staff in London as Weekend editor. He left Telegraph in 2010 to finish writing his acclaimed Daniel Marchant spy trilogy and returned in 2013 to oversee the paper’s digital books channel. He became a fulltime author in 2015, writing as J.S. Monroe.
His first novel, ‘The Riot Act‘ was shortlisted by the Crime Writers’ Association for its best first novel award. The film rights for ‘Dead Spy Running’, his third novel, were bought by Warner Bros, who hired Oscar-winner Stephen Gaghan (Traffic, Syriana) to write the screenplay. It is currently in development. He is the author of five novels and lives in Wiltshire, England, with his wife, a photographer, and their three children.