Interview: Ben Aaronovitch

Ben Aaronovitch is sitting in a coffee shop in Covent Garden. “I can give you my lesson on how to be a writer if you want?” he asks. Aaronovith is the author of the successful fantasy novel Rivers of London, and the sequel Moon Over Soho released on April 21, so he should know what he’s talking about.

“Please do,” I reply.

“Ok: You go out and buy this book called How Not To Write A Novel. You then read the book How Not To Write A Novel, which will tell you how not to write a novel,” he says.

It makes sense so far.

“You then write a novel, following the points made about how not to write a novel, or rather not following them. Then when you’ve written your novel – all the way through, don’t stop after three chapters, write the whole thing – you go out and get the latest edition of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook; you then go to the agents section and you essentially apply to every single agency that will have you.”

Is it really as simple as that?

“I see a lot of people get this wrong. Your job is to write the book. It becomes the agent’s job to sell the book. They want to sell it because they don’t get money until they do.”

Aaronovitch, 47, is sharing his thoughts in a vivid, passionate manner, literally next door to the bookshop where he worked while writing his debut novel. It’s a colourful cop drama centred in Covent Garden, twisted with a humorous story about wizards. He seems proud of his book and he’s not alone. Rivers of London is on display in his old workplace window, signalling how chuffed they are to have the creation of a former employee on sale.

“I used to be a television writer, but then my career went bump so I ended up selling books,” he says. “But I couldn’t make enough money. You have to make a certain amount of money to live in central London.

“I was running the Science-Fiction section and saw all these authors I had never heard of before. So I figured, ‘that’s it, I’m going to go off and write a book’,” he says when, “Ah, fuck”, he spills out his cup of hot chocolate all over his notebook.

“Well, if I forget who you are, that’s why,” he says.

Even if he does, it’s unlikely Aaronovitch himself will be forgotten anytime soon. With Moon Over Soho, the sequel in his series surrounding the life of PC Peter Grant, released in April and the third one out in the autumn, his personal tutorial on how to become a successful writer seems to be up to par.

“I was ahead,” he says. “I’d been a professional scriptwriter and the principals are exactly the same for scriptwriting as for novels.

“This story really appealed to me. I like cops, I like thrillers, I like police proceedings. The fantasy genre tends to be told by the outsider’s point of view. But I thought, ‘What if you’re a police officer? What if you’re actually part of a system?’

“And I wanted to avoid most of the cliché. Grant gets on well with his superior, he doesn’t fight with him,” he says.

Although he makes it sound easy, Aaronovitch admits there’s a certain obligation authors have to fulfil when writing about different cultures. Peter Grant is mixed race, something that could have become an issue if not dealt with correctly. He believes that authors are allowed to write what they want, as long as they stand by their words.

“If you write about a racist character, you have to be responsible for that. You say, ‘Yes, that might be racist, sue me’, not ‘oh no, that was just a mistake’. Tough. You should have worked harder.”

Culture, in both senses of the word, is something that’s portrayed in great depth in his work. Grant’s parents are of Middle Eastern and African decent – his mum a cleaning lady; his dad an old jazz musician. And Aaronovitch assures this melancholic music genre will have a significant meaning in his second book.

“There will be lots and lots of jazz music, a bit of history, sex. I felt that my hero didn’t get enough sex in the first book. He’s very frustrated,” he says. “Grant’s 25, it’s just unrealistic to expect him to go without sex for that long time. So I thought he has to have sex so that it doesn’t become a feature that he never gets laid. Then I’ll be stuck with him never ever having a relationship.”

As he speaks, Aaronovitch’s descriptions reveal an awareness of his own strengths and flaws. Even though he seems genuinely infatuated with the work he’s created, he knows what it will take to keep the story moving forward.

“If you look at a series of novels you’ll notice how they get thicker and thicker and thicker, and one of the reasons for this is that everyone wants their favourite character to have their little life in the book,” he says.

“And the temptation is always to do a little cameo with these characters. So you have to be quite ruthless about it.”

That ruthlessness he will have to keep up for the three next books, which he’s got planned for the series. Then, when it doesn’t matter if it sells or not, he might challenge himself to writing something different. As long as he can afford “having that big house in London”.

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