Novel beginnings

October 2, 2020

Writing a book is something many of us aspire to, but for one reason or another, we never find the time and the inner workings of our imaginations remain unexplored. Even when we put pen to paper, we often find that it is much easier to start a novel than to finish one. Well, Richard Osman found the time, overcame the challenges and produced The Thursday Murder Club, which in the short time since its release back in September, has become a bestseller. Richard Dawson sits down with the quizmaster general to find out how he managed it

Timing is everything, or so they say.

When Richard Osman took six months off from filming TV mainstays such as Pointless and House of Games back in January, he could not have predicted that the rest of the country and indeed the world was about to be joining him in isolation.

“You’ve got to be careful what you wish for, don’t you?” says the television presenter, producer and now, novelist.

Richard’s self-imposed lockdown was implemented to grant him the time and space to write the second instalment of his brand-new crime fiction series – The Thursday Murder Club.

The first novel, released on September 8, has already become a bestseller, garnering plaudits from top British authors such as Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Adam Kay.

I spoke to Richard in Durham at a filming event for Durham Book Festival, which is taking place online this year between October 9 and 18 and features a range of interviews with writers from all over the world.

Durham Book Festival is organised by New Writing North, a regional writing development agency committed to creating opportunities for writers from all backgrounds.

This is something Richard is incredibly passionate about.

He says: “I run a TV production company called Endemol and my goal has always been to try and make it more open because there’re parts of the television industry that are open only to certain groups.

“We have intern schemes now where it doesn’t matter what your background is, we’ll pay for you to live in London for six months.

“It’s the same challenge with writing. It’s fine for me to say I’m going to take six months off and write for three hours a day because I can afford to, but most people can’t.

“So, anything that lets people find a way to tap into their creativity, that gives people the space to write, I think, is important and the Durham Book Festival seems to be incredibly strong on opening up access.”

Originally from Haywards Heath in West Sussex, Richard grew up in a single-parent low-income household where his mother, a teacher, raised him alongside his brother Mat Osman, who is the bass guitarist in the rock band, Suede.

He says he would not have become the dizzyingly successful person he is today were it not for the grant funding that enabled him to go to university and other support structures, which have been slowly eroded over the years.

“I was very, very lucky and the truth is, you shouldn’t have to rely on luck,” he adds.

A graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, which is where he met Pointless co-host and North East native Alexander Armstrong, Richard’s success is no doubt also down to his penchant for hard work and dedication.

Now in his late 40s and with a little bit more time on his hands, an opportunity presented itself to fulfil a lifelong ambition and write a novel.

The process of writing a novel is one that is fraught with challenges and most authors will confess that the first book can be most difficult of all.

Despite having written scripts for television for many years, this was also Richard’s experience.

“It turns out writing a novel is really, really hard,” he admits.

“I nearly gave up two or three times so if anyone’s reading this and has thrown a novel in the bin, just get it back out again because it is worth it.”

It’s reassuring to hear that the common fears we all experience when applying ourselves to something new – the fear of failure, imposter syndrome, self-doubt – were shared by someone who has enjoyed enormous success in their career.

Richard’s advice for getting through it is to set regular achievable goals, perhaps 1000 words at a time, and slowly work towards the 20,000-word mark, at which point the pain of throwing it away would be greater than the pain of continuing.

He explains: “There’s pain either way. It’s not fun to write. But the pain of wasting all of that time writing 20,000 words for nobody to ever see it is greater than just saying to yourself, “okay, I’m going to do another 1000 and another 1000 and another 1000”.

“Once you’re at 90,000 you just think well, this exists.”

One part of the writing process where you could say Richard did have an edge was on dealing with the fear of failure.

As a television producer, there were many flop TV shows Richard poured his time and effort into that just didn’t get off the ground.

He says: “Not everything you do is going to be a success, I mean, imagine how unbearable you’d be if they were?

“No one wants to read a book by someone who’s endlessly successful because what do they know about life?”

Writing a book also requires the writer to spend long periods of time in isolation, something which many of us have experienced this year, but which is part-and-parcel for the author.

What solitude provides is the space for absolute concentration, to get into that flow state, which allows writers to explore the deepest parts of their imagination and commit their thoughts to paper.

As someone who has worked in teams throughout his career, to be suddenly thrown into the world of solitude was quite a change for Richard, but one he adapted to well.

“My whole career has been in big teams,” he explains. “In TV shows, you might only see one person on screen but it’s a huge team of people.

“I’ve been behind the camera and in front of it and then this job, writing a book, it’s just me and the computer screen, which is really unusual.

“I have to say though I surprised myself at how much I enjoyed the solitude of writing a book.”

The Thursday Murder club follows four octogenarians living in a luxury retirement village in Kent.

The four retirees meet every Thursday to investigate unsolved murders until the murder of a local property developer finds Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron in the middle of their first live case.

It’s an unorthodox but thoroughly British approach to adult crime fiction, a genre which Richard loves for its mainstream appeal and the sense of satisfaction you get when there is a firm resolution at the end of the story.

“I love crime fiction because people get their ‘just desserts’,” he says.

“The format is just like our television programmes. We ask people questions and at the end, somebody is going to win, but along the way, we’ve got to make sure we’re entertaining people otherwise they’re going to switch over.

“It’s the same with the book.”

The early success of The Thursday Murder Club has ensured that writing will continue to be a big part of Richard’s plan moving forward.

“It’s not part of the plan; it largely is the plan,” he clarifies.

The second instalment of TTMC is due to be released in September 2021, after being written during the height of the pandemic in the first half of this year.

Rights to a third and fourth have also been snapped up by Viking Press, a subsidiary of global publishing giant, Penguin Random House.

While the next few years are mapped out for one of the nation’s favourite TV quiz show host, he is keenly aware of the fact that many other people’s lives are going to be turned upside down by the pandemic and its after-effects.

I ask if he thinks the world will recover?

He answers: “I think we’re all going to take a big hit, aren’t we?

“As always, the poorest will take the biggest hit of all. There’s going to be a huge amount of unemployment and I’m not entirely sure we’ve got the people in place at the top to care about that particularly.

“I fear for us for a little while, but in the same way we all looked after each other during the lockdown, I’m sure we’ll all look after each other afterwards.”

Richard Osman
The Thursday Murder Club, published by Penguin Random House, is out now.

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