Alex Shaw, international bestselling author of the Aidan Snow, Jack Tate and Sophie Racine thrillers, speaks with Francesca Tyer about his writing career.
Living in Ukraine during the second half of the 1990’s, Alex Shaw developed a fascination for the country and its people. Ukraine became a central location in his first book and those which followed.
In this interview, Shaw speaks about Ukraine and the development of his writing career, from early writings to current publications. He comments openly on the challenges and setbacks, as well as the surprises and successes.
“I started writing as a kid but I never made enough time to finish what I wanted to write,” Shaw begins. “I didn't really start writing my first book until I was abroad and didn't have a TV. So it took me 12 years to write. Part of my degree was in writing for the stage and TV. I wrote a few stage plays but in terms of writing novels, it wasn't until I was in my early 20s.
“I also wrote the screenplay for a TV crime series, which was quite fun, although looking back on it now, it's probably very naive. When you’re that young, you think you can do anything. I am tempted to find it and rewrite it – probably with a lot more car chases and explosions.”
"When you’re that young, you think you can do anything."
After completing his PGCE, Shaw began looking for jobs outside of the UK. He moved to Ukraine after being headhunted for a job at a new international school in Kyiv.
“I did a drama degree and after that I did my PGCE so I could pretend to teach drama to people,” Shaw laughs. “I did that because I wanted to go to film school. When I finished my PGCE, I thought, Well, the world is a large place, I don't particularly want to stay in the UK. Once in Ukraine running a language school I was headhunted to join a new international school in Kyiv that had been started by the British and the Argentinian embassy.
“I went to Ukraine and on the first day I was there I met my future wife. We got married seven years later and have been together now since 1996. I was suddenly enamoured with Ukraine and the culture and the people and I suddenly had roots there. That's why I write about it. It's nice writing about places you know. When you write about places you don't know, you're looking at tourist information pages or using Google Earth. I'm lucky that the majority of places I’ve been to, I'm writing about.”
"The majority of places I’ve been to, I'm writing about.”
(Image supplied by Unplash)
When Shaw started writing his first novel, he realised that very few crime and thriller authors mentioned Ukraine in their work.
“At the time, I had started to read lots of espionage and spy books. They mentioned Paris, Moscow, New York – all the large cities that people visualise or have perhaps gone to – but nobody was writing about Ukraine. One book did mention Ukraine, but got it wrong. The author obviously hadn’t been to Ukraine. It didn't feel real to me. So, I started to write about Ukraine because I was there and no one else really had. Now, even though I try to write about other places, I'm forever being dragged back there. I just hope my readers don't get bored.”
To make a location believable, the background research needs to be thorough. For Shaw, making plots and settings feel as real as possible is an essential part of his writing process.
“I try to do enough research to make it believable, to throw in some details like the colour of a door or the name of a shop,” Shaw states. “When I was living in Ukraine, I used to go to places I’d seen, for example the old KGB headquarters, sitting in a cafe across the street and looking at the building so I could work things out. I try to do enough to make the reader think, Oh, I've been there.
“The issue I had with my first book was that I was writing too much about places. A couple of early reviews I had said that my first book could have been sponsored by the Kyiv tourist information office. Sometimes you can do too much research. There are certain authors who talk about the weapon, the type of ammunition and even the brand and that's fine, but the more information you use the more likely it is that you'll get it wrong. You can bet there’ll always be a reader who knows more than you.”
"Nobody was writing about Ukraine."
Creating believable characters is equally important. Too much or too little detail can quickly disengage a reader from the story.
“I try to make my characters feel genuine,” Shaw explains. “I'm trying to create characters that people identify with so that even if the situation is a bit far-fetched, people will buy it because they believe in the character. I don't like these paper-thin fictional characters you get. The good guy who is indestructible – unless he's a Marvel hero.
“An American reviewer told me my book was ok but there were too many European names. I realised I was writing Russian-Ukrainian names I could pronounce but because they had several different syllables, they were difficult to read. Ever since, when I use non-Anglo-Saxon names, I try to make sure they have as few syllables as possible. Otherwise, as a reader, it disconnects you from the story.”
"I try to make my characters feel genuine."
Character relatability is not only important for the reader, but also for the writer. Shaw admits that his protagonist Aidan Snow was originally based on himself.
“Aidan Snow has the same initials as me and is from my hometown. In Ukraine he lived in my flat and, like me, he's tall, dark and handsome.” Shaw laughs. “Aidan Snow was based on me when I started to write him because I was seeing things through his eyes. Then I had to make him less like me. I think you always identify with characters in your books, even when you're writing about the villains. They're not all bad; even Darth Vader wasn't all bad.
“I've got this villainess and I've just written a scene where she is remembering a childhood memory of being scared of the dark. This softens up the character, even though she’s a stone-cold killer. I'm always trying to think about how I can make people empathise with characters. I'm not a fan of football but when the World Cup is on I watch England and Ukraine. I won't watch any other matches because I haven't got a dog in the fight. It’s the same with readers, they have to identify with the character to care about them.”
"I think you always identify with characters in your books."
The best writers work to create characters that readers can relate to in some way. Shaw speaks about some of the authors he particularly admires, those who inspired him with his own writing.
“The issue is that I know and have met a lot of the authors who inspired me. If I give a long list, I’ll get a message saying, Why didn't you include me? For me to be in a position where I know these people – I'm blown away. If you're talking about some of the major authors out there: Wilbur Smith, Stephen Leather who’s been really supportive, Lee Child as well. I met Lee Child and I was like a rabbit in the headlights.
“It's nice being inspired by these people, but I think what you do is read other books in your genre just to make sure you're writing something a bit different. Since being published by HarperCollins, I’ve had many readers and authors contacting me asking for advice. It's very humbling to be in a situation whereby others are asking me for advice. I suppose it's Imposter Syndrome. It’s why I love doing the writing conventions because I think none of us are too big or too old to learn things.”
"None of us are too big or too old to learn things.”
Shaw explains that some of the most surprising moments of his career have been unexpected encounters with readers and authors.
“The first time I went to Crimefest in Bristol, I walked into the bar at the hotel and there were about fifteen people in there. I hadn't met any of them but they turned to me and waved or said hello. They knew me because of my social media presence. That was a really strange experience. I suppose the biggest surprise – and quite humbling –was going to Peter James's house. We're both members of an organisation called the International Thriller Writers Organisation, set up by several famous authors.
“The first UK ‘chapter’ meeting took place in Peter James' house. We sat around this huge table. There was another guy I recognised, a political correspondent for the BBC called Humphrey Horsley. Sitting around the table, we all had to introduce ourselves. I said, ‘I'm such and such, I’ve got my first two books out.’ It got Peter James and he said, ‘Twenty books.’ I was thinking, My total sales are probably £16.50 and yours are over 20 million.”
For Shaw, such a thrilling yet humbling experience demonstrated how great the sense of community can be amongst authors.
“It was quite an interesting experience but showed me what's possible if you write enough and try hard enough,” Shaw continues. “It can also show that even though there's somebody who's a multi-million author, the friendliness and the sense of community was great. That's what I tell people who are new to writing. From people like me who's still selling one book every 6 years to Lee Child selling a book every five seconds, everyone's the same.”
"The sense of community was great."
Shaw’s own career reached new heights when he joined HarperCollins in 2018. He had however already established himself as an accomplished writer, self-publishing his first books before moving across to a small imprint.
“If it wasn't for self-publishing, I don't think I would be where I am today. When I first started self-publishing, it was really the old model, where you write your book and pay thousands to editors and then get a print run and it's in the garage and you celebrate here or there. When I finished writing my book in 2007 – originally called Hetman, now called Cold Blood – in 2007, I tried for a year to find a publisher. I got rejections and I got some interest.
“Suddenly, I was on Amazon and I saw an ad for Createspace (now KDP), based in America. I thought, OK, well this isn't going to take off, but I then created a paperback and a Kindle version anyway. When KDP came over to the UK, I was one of the first British self-published thriller authors to have published through Kindle. Suddenly people were buying my book. Not because they knew my name but because it was there.”
"I tried for a year to find a publisher."
Having started out as a self-published author, Shaw is able to appreciate the benefits and drawbacks of choosing this particular path.
“For the first few years, self-publishing was really good for me because I made quite a bit and it let me develop my craft. It got my book out and made me write. The small imprint I was then with took my books and commissioned a third one. They gave it an edit and worked on the covers, but it wasn't really until I went to HarperCollins that I got into the real process of structural edits and making the book stronger. I look back on my old books and I think I was really lucky that I managed to write as well as I did at the time without much help.
“Self-publishing is great if you want to get your story heard and there are some very successful self-published authors who sell far more than I do as a traditionally published author. Self-publishing is right for some people; for others, that's not quite the right path. It’s very hard to do it all yourself. All types of publishing are equally valid, but I think you need to find the best for you. I genuinely do believe that most people who want to write could if they get over their initial hurdle.”
"All types of publishing are equally valid."
Shaw admits that procrastination has been one of his biggest hurdles, with multiple book ideas always fighting for space in his mind and other more domestic distractions.
“It's hard to focus on just one thing. The biggest obstacle has actually been getting my writing down. I've got several book ideas in my head and my brain keeps wanting me to write those. It’s like maths homework when you're a kid, you’ve got to do it but you also want to paint a picture for art. It seems a bit silly but that's how it is. As a writer, sometimes you have an urge, but there are so many things that prevent you from writing.
“I look back to the days before I had children, how I had more time and how much time I wasted. Now, I generally write during term times and in the day when I'm on my own. After and before that I'm the chef, butler, taxi driver, and I wouldn't change that for the world. The other obstacle for me was finding a publisher and finding an agent, but that was surmountable and wasn't my only option.”
“It's hard to focus on just one thing."
Speaking about his creative processes, Shaw refers to deadlines, focus and a helpful device called a Freewrite.
“I'm very lucky to be contracted at HarperCollins. You are given a certain amount of time to write. Some things take longer than others to write, sometimes I might not have an idea that's worth writing for the first three months or so. Sometimes, if I'm gazing wistfully out of the window, ideas come at random times. It's quite frustrating because I'm always rushing at the end. When I'm writing, I get other ideas, but I have to finish what I'm contracted to do.
“When I was living in Ukraine, I'd be writing longhand on paper with a pencil and then transcribe it later. When I'm in the UK, I generally write at home in the garden or in the house. I started to write more outside actually because I took the plunge and bought a Freewrite. It has a screen like a Kindle so you can write in daylight. If you take the plunge and use it you’ll find you can write anywhere.”
“I'm very lucky to be contracted at HarperCollins."
As the interview draws to a close, Shaw comments on his next steps and hints at new book ideas.
“I have an idea for a Nordic Noir book with a Finnish detective who goes to Kyiv. After I hand the third Jack Tate book in, I will sit down properly with my agent and publisher and we'll discuss things. They’ll say, ‘We'd like you to write this book next,’ and then I will. That's the thing that turns some people towards self-publishing. You can write whatever you want. With a traditional publisher, you have a say but you have less of a say because they have ambitions for you.
“I have a fantastic editor, Finn Cotton. He makes suggestions and sometimes I'll write a scene several times and sit back and think that's better. It's not because it was something I couldn't do, but it was something I didn't think of. It’s like a painting, when you start adding details. If I disagree with anything, I won't do it but I do like being given a bit of direction. I didn't have an agent until two years ago, but since having one things are even better. We’re sniffing radio and TV etc. Nothing's happened yet but you never know.”
With many thanks to Alex Shaw for this interview.
“Action, fast-paced, cerebral, descriptive, adventure.”
Author of the #1 International Kindle Bestselling 'Aidan Snow SAS thrillers'
COLD BLOOD, COLD BLACK, COLD EAST
The International Bestselling 'Jack Tate Thrillers'
TOTAL BLACKOUT, TOTAL FALLOUT
The International Bestselling ‘Sophie Racine Thrillers’
And the standalone
DELTA FORCE VAMPIRE