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An accidental thriller: Stronger Than Skin

All books should be thrillers, shouldn’t they? Of a kind? Even the novels of Brontes. Even those of Jane Austen (Will they get all the daughters married off before penury overtakes them) I’m being a bit facetious, but only a bit. I do believe all decent books need to have some propulsion, some reason to keep turning the pages. ‘But what happens next?’ is the principal motivating question for every reader whether the book in front of them is the Bible or Jilly Cooper’s Riders. I would also argue that most good books should contain love, romance and desire too. It should be as hard and as painful to contemplate a book without these elements as it is to think of a life without them.

Having said that… I never set out to write a thriller. And I never set out to write a love story either. I actually wanted to write a book about growing older in contemporary Britain; a book about that uneasy period between the emphatic end of youth and the creeping numbness of middle age. A book about the time when you might be busy busy busy with the every day (children, work, life partners, aging parents) but a time when, sometimes, in the quiet pause when the wine is poured but before Netflix fires up, you find yourself wondering where your life went. Is this really what you had planned? When did you go from being ‘promising’ to being that tired guy whose face stares back from the mirror? When did all that potential morph into just about getting by and what were you doing while it happened?

I guess I wanted to explore answers to the question posed in that old Talking Heads song: ‘How did I get here? With my beautiful home and my beautiful wife? What is this highway made of?’

So I had a subject but I didn’t really have a story and, as I said at the top of this piece, I like a novel to have a story. Other writers seem to get by without one (Yes, I’m looking at you Donna Tartt) but I think books should have fierce forward motion. A bit of poke.


I wasn’t worried about not having the story however. I knew I’d find it. If you keep showing up for work, then your unconscious (which only listens to the things you do, not the things you say) will help you. If you procrastinate your unconscious will find seductive things for you to waste time on. It will think you want to fritter your time away. Keep writing – trying, failing – to write your novel and your unconscious will lead you to the things that you need. Or to put it another way, to put it Picasso’s way – ‘inspiration exists, but it’s got to find you working.’

So then, eventually, the unconscious led me to pick up a paper I don’t normally read, where I found the seed of the story that would allow me to dramatise the things I was interested in.

In an old copy of The Sun I read of a man who walked into a police station and confessed to a murder that had been filed as an accidental death. He also said that he hadn’t acted alone he named an accomplice – who denied it – and so the police, after some persuasion (all the flipping paperwork) eventually re-opened the case.It wasn’t the details of the crime that interested me as much as the potential ramifications on the person not confessing. Those involved had led blameless exemplary lives since the crime. They had got away with it. And yet here they were, suddenly up to their necks in it.

So then I was immediately playing the game that all writers play. The game of What if? What if when the police went round to speak to the he took off and went to ground, hiding from the police while also trying to get to persuade their one-time friend to retract the confession? And what if that accomplice was a former lover? What if their affair had ended badly? What if the accusation was the most serious there could be and want if my protagonist was someone fundamentally ill-equipped for life on the run?

And that, in a nutshell, is Stronger Than Skin. (The title comes from the idea that scar tissue is tougher than undamaged skin. That the damage life deals out, makes you more robust – it’s not actually true by the way. In fact unwounded is 70% stronger than that which is scarred)


In each of my novels there are subjects I return to again and again. One is the emotional turmoil of adolescence, another is family life. The latter is often avoided by male novelists. I don’t know why. The conflict, the shifting alliances, the compromises, the small – and sometimes big – betrayals, the secrets, the power struggles. The difficulties and tensions of family life, Every ordinary family has enough drama for a dozen novels. Every family contains as much intrigue as the court of Henry 8th.

There is no point fighting my attraction to these subjects. As someone said ‘ignore your obsessions at your peril.’ There’s a sense in which you don’t choose your subject, it chooses you. For the same reason all more protagonists have been from small towns because for me, that’s where the UK is. It’s not in the big cities or the rolling countryside. It’s in the small or middling sized towns like Bedford (where I grew up) Colchester (where I went to University) or Burntisland (where my father comes from).

So in my novel we have two strands. We have the story of a working class kid – trying to adjust to life at Cambridge University in 1990 and he is wondering why life amid the dreaming spires isn’t quite the glittering prize he imagined when he meets an enigmatic, sophisticated charming member of the upper classes who turns his life upside down (and yes, before you ask, I am a fan of Brideshead Revisited) and as they embark on a passionate affair my hero, Mark, gets sucked into events he can’t control and revelations about this time are drip fed through the narrative which is otherwise concerned with his efforts to stay away from the police long enough to contact his former lover and get her to withdraw her police statement.

Balancing these two stories was a bit a high-wire act, and like any circus performer I broke quite a few bones while learning how to manage it, but I think, finally, I nailed it. It took a while. I have the bruises (and yes, the scars) but in the end I hope the book has the propulsion of the best thrillers, the erotic tension of the best love stories and also explores what it means to be experiencing the gradual invisibility what seems to be the fate of the middle-aged. It also allowed me to write about pubs and, in passing, about the absurdities of the life we live now. Most good writing – whether ostensibly a thriller or a love story or a cookbook come to that – is about looking hard at what other people don’t bother to notice. It’s about paying attention.

Posted on Linda's Book Bag, 19th March 2017

Stephen May

Stephen May