Thursday, November 16, 2017

Q&A with Ben Lyle

South London resident HB Lyle joins us today for a special Q&A about his new novel, The Irregular. After a career in feature film development, he got an MA in creative writing - then a PhD - at the University of East Anglia, an experience which led to the creation of The Irregular. He also writes screenplays and teaches undergraduates. He believes that it's time for work class spy fiction

Can you give us some background on how The Irregular came to be?

I had the idea for the novel in 2009, when I was doing an MA (MFA equivalent) at the University of East Anglia.  Around that time, there was a good deal in the media here about the secret service, in its centenary year.  I’d been doing a lot of film work (in my role as a development executive) on spy novels and spy stories, and I’d always been a Sherlock Holmes fan.

When I found out that the secret service was set up in 1909, I realized that Wiggins would be about the right age to be its first – and greatest! – agent. 

It took me a while longer to start writing the novel, as I was writing other stuff, including a PhD. It then took quite a long time to research, and I plotted the book in conjunction with the research. 1909 in London was an absolutely fascinating time, with so many parallels to today. Once I started looking into it, I couldn’t believe that this era wasn’t a more popular source of mystery, spy and thriller fiction.

 Why did you decide to pick Wiggins as your central character in The Irregular?

Who wouldn’t love Wiggins? Seriously, he only has about three or four lines in the whole of the Conan Doyle canon, but he is cheeky, quick witted and unforgettable.  And who better to be a secret agent than a former street kid, trained by Sherlock Holmes?

On a more serious note, spy fiction in this country normally revolves around the higher echelons of society – James Bond and George Smiley are privately and university educated for example. I wanted to write about a hero, who is as talented as anyone, but who comes from the wrong side of the tracks. 

Britain in 1909 was a two tier society, and it’s fun to write about someone besting the upper-classes when he can.  

You’ve done an incredible job melding real-life historical figures with fictional ones. How did you create such a believable blend of characters?

Thank you. My aim was obviously to include real history, and real people, in as seamless a way as possible. 

One of the inspirations for the book was the Flashman series of novels, by British writer George MacDonald Fraser.  In that series, he took the Flashman character from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and gave him an entirely fictitious military career that was nevertheless set amongst almost wholly real events, and likewise populated by real people.  

As a teenager, I loved those novels and one of the reasons was that they gave me a working knowledge of Victorian history, wrapped up in a very entertaining and ironical page-turning novel.  

That said, when it comes to the characters in The Irregular, they are by and large my creations (or at least my interpretations of real people, rather than painstaking recreations of them.) I think this helps with the blend. 

Can you give us an insider’s look at your Sherlock Holmes/mystery novel collection? (Pictures would be great!)

Ha! That would be hard, as my bookshelves are chaotic and are not  arranged in any kind of thematic order. Generally, my reading isn’t confined to the mystery genre, and I haven’t read much on Sherlock Holmes, other than the original stories. 

If anything, I’m more likely to be found reading Ian McEwan or Philip Roth, or a historical novel rather than a crime fiction. However, I do have a soft spot for spy fiction at the moment, and my to-read list includes: Real Tigers by Mick Herron (the third in the Slough House series), Waiting for Sunshine by William Boyd (one of my favorite authors), and the last George Smiley novel from John Le Carre, A Legacy of Spies. 

[NB I have included a picture of one of my bookshelves, so you get the point!]

Can you tell us a little known fact about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?

He was a keen amateur cricketer, although not very good. His claim to fame as a player, was that he took the wicket of WG Grace – the greatest player of the Victorian and Edwardian age. 

This is the equivalent of Raymond Chandler turning up to pitch at Yankee Stadium and striking out Babe Ruth five times straight. 

What are you working on next?

I am currently editing the second Wiggins novel, which continues his adventures in London and Europe a year after The Irregular (i.e. 1910.)

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