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Neil Cross - Burial: Get ready for things that go bump in the night!

Neil Cross, writer of Spooks and author of Burial tells us about his writing, how his latest book came to fruition, his very own ghostly encounter and what's coming up with the BBC Drama. You've often alluded to the fact you were a book nerd when you were growing up.  Do you think it was your destiny to write?

Cross:  Yes.  (and laughs very loudly!)

Cross:  My family was a very ordinary, in the early days anyway, a Bristolian working class family.  Books played no part in our family life.  There were no books in the house at all.  For some reason, I don't know why, I loved reading from the minute I first picked up a book and I can still remember now the first book I read cover to cover, it was The Purple Pirate.  I never seriously considered doing anything else but being a writer.  Even when it was considered by all who knew me to be the most absurd dream imaginable which was really for most of my life.

It's one of those funny things that if you can play the guitar, it doesn't matter if you've never earned a penny - you're a musician.  You're not considered to be a writer until you've sold a book.  A lot of people vaguely foster the notion that they would quite like to one day to like to write a book. If you tell people that you're going to be a writer, a novelist, you rarely get taken seriously.  I've met a few middle class kids whose parents were journalists and who grew up wanting to be writers and they're taken more seriously because it's more part of their culture.  If you're from a working class background it's considered faintly risible really. What do you love and hate about writing?

Cross:  What I love about writing is having written.   I love it when you've had a good day when the ideas and the words flow and everything comes together.  It's similar to what marathon runners or athletes say that you do get in the zone and you do shift into an alternative state of consciousness - when it all seems to come together and it seems to flow through you and out and you're kind of acting like a medium and those days are very few and far between but they're wonderful.  They are very few and far between but they are immensely satisfying.  The worst thing about being a writer is the opposite of that it's when the ideas won't come and then you're stuck, not so much for inspiration that sounds too airy fairy.  It's literally when you're stuck for ideas when you have no ideas when you have to get your main character from a car park to a Spanish beach and you can't work out how to do it.  That's the worst time. What's easier for you to put together, a novel or writing for TV?

Cross:  They are so different I couldn't say one was easier than the other.  They are just so immensely different. Which one do you prefer?
Cross:  Neither.  Writing novels is incredibly solitary, no-one knows what you're doing until it's done.  The trouble with writing a novel is that it is rubbish until it's finished.  On the second draft it's slightly less rubbish and on the third draft its slightly less rubbish until finally, finally you feel confident about letting someone else see it.  But by then you might have been living with this thing for a year or two years so it's incredibly solitary not just physically but it's psychologically solitary as well. 

I used to in the early days show my wife early drafts of things but I stopped that because I realised I was actually showing my wife something that wasn't at its best.  I was asking her to judge and criticise something that wasn't at its best which seemed unfair on her really.

Writing for TV is like being strapped to the cone of a rocket - it is going to take off on June 1st whether you're ready or not and there is a crew of 200 people.  You have that deadline to meet, regardless.

Cross: Yeah. What's your favourite novel?

Cross:  Oh gosh, that's a good question. Always the one that I'm writing at the moment I think.  Of the ones I have published, my favourite varies as I change my mind like the wind.  Who is your favourite author and why?

Cross: Gosh, that's the question above all.  I read omnivorously, I really do, but the writer who changed my life most of all would be Joseph Heller who wrote Catch 22.  That was the book that changed my life.  It's an unspeakably wonderful book and certainly I think the best novelist of the second half of the 20th century.  I would have to say because of that, Joseph Heller would have to be my favourite author.  But none of his other books matched up to Catch 22.  But there are a dozens and dozens of authors who I love.  Although you now live in New Zealand, your daily writing is based around London and Europe.  Do you have to fly back often?  And when you're here in New Zealand, how do you keep up to date with life on the other side of the world?

Cross: I do fly back to London frequently.  This year bizarrely I've taken fewer trips than in any other year, I don't quite understand why.  Certainly in my first year working for Spooks I was in England 9 times which was hellish. 

It was an untried thing.  They had never worked with somebody who lived on the other side of the world before so in the first year we had to pretend we didn't and I make a commitment to them that I would be as available to them as any other writer.  This meant I was there for rehearsals and I'd be there for the 2 weeks leading up to shooting and I'd be there to address any problems that might pop up.  And gradually, gradually, gradually over the course of the next few years, we refined how much I needed to be there.  And actually, you need to be present far less than we had imagined in the early days.  This year I've only been back to the UK once and that was for 3 days.  When you're here, do you read the newspaper every day?

Cross: One of the strange things about what the internet does is make distance a psychological distance.  I read all of the British press online and I listen to Radio 4 obsessively.  The strange thing is as soon as I became a full time writer I rarely left the house anyway so I'm as in touch with British culture from my little office in Crofton Downs as I would be if I was living in Finsbury Park. What's the nicest compliment someone's given you about your work whether that be TV or your novels?

Oh gosh, I don't know.  That's really tough.  People are very generous but I don't take them to heart because I think it's dangerous to do that so I take peoples compliments as they are meant and I'm very, very grateful but I don't commit them to memory.  As soon as you start to believe all the good things people say about you, you start to rest on your laurels and get lazy.  I prefer to be scared and hungry.

Burial  What or who inspired you to write Burial and how long did it take you to piece it together from your first draft to completion?

Cross:  The inspiration was a very simple one actually.  Most novels come together with a 'what if' question.  For me with Burial, it was the universal experience of waking up after being drunk and you have that few seconds of bliss when you wake up, and then that sudden cold rush of memory and you remember the things you did the previous night - the things you said, the way you behaved.  That sense of horror and humiliation and self-hatred that we've all experienced to a greater or lesser degree. 

So with those things coming together and with the statistic that, I'm not sure if you're aware of, which is that on first approximation of all murders are committed by people who are drunk - because booze dis-inhibits us.  I just thought those two ideas together...What must it be like to wake up one morning and remember that you're a murderer?  That was the inspiration for Burial.

It was a very fast book to write, it was probably the fastest of my novels.  From my first idea to completion was about four months.  It just came - it was a very, very fast book to write.  Did the characters Nathan and Bob evolve as you continued to write or did you know them inside out in your head from the outset? 

Cross:  I pretty much knew those two from the outset - they sprang to life in my head.  Does that always happen?

Cross:  Not always.  Usually in any book there's one or two characters possibility that you might struggle to bring alive.  You find something on the second or third draft and you realise you've got them wrong.  Often it's a something as basic as a name - often if a character's not right, I realise their name isn't right and soon as I re-name them they spring to life which is very odd.

I wrote a novel called Natural History where that happened with the main character, I wrote a very long first draft and everyone else around him was alive but the main character didn't spring for me and I just re-named him.  It's not like he's got an exotic name!  I just re-named him Patrick and as soon as he was Patrick he was real.  I re-wrote the book and he lived - it's a bizarre thing, I don't quite understand it.  Do you draw upon people that you know in your life - acquaintances, family and friends when you're writing characters with regard to character traits etc? 

Cross:  Not so much, partly because I don't know anyone (Laughs out a loud). If I did that I would have run out of books a long time ago!  There are moments - my wife often spots fragments of herself in different characters.  She noticed that Holly in Burial was wearing her pyjamas at one point.  There are little elements, fragments of people I know but I've never based a character on a real person.   I actually think the situation Nathan and Bob got themselves into is actually plausible.  You can actually see that happening and how one little mistake leads to another.

Cross:  So many bizarre things happen - they always start with something quite small.  One small mistake amplified by another small mistake and before you know it, you're in a terrible place so yeah, I love it when little things turn into very bad things.  Holly is very loyal, resilient and accepting whereas her sister, Elise, is the hedonistic one.  Was this intentional?

Cross:  I think you often get that in siblings - where there's one very grounded and trusting and the other one is the slightly wild one.  Holly is the more mature but less knowing in the way that sometimes people are.  There's a supernatural element to the storyline, do you believe in ghosts yourself and have you ever heard anything on an EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomena)?

Cross:  Ask me whether I believe in ghosts at 3 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon and you'll get two different answers.  The most autobiographical element of Burial is that I've got a very bad fear of the dark.  It's almost a pathological fear of the dark - I'm terrified of the dark.  If my wife is ever away, I not only have to have the bedroom light on I have to have every light in the house on - I can't stand the thought of darkness anywhere when I'm by myself. 

I'm obsessed with the notion of ghosts. I don't believe in the survival of the human soul because I don't believe in the human soul and I'm aware of many, many and very, very interesting and convincing scientific explanations for most ghostly phenomenon.  This is very technical and boring but there's a resonance of 18.5 hertz which is just on the end of subsonic, we almost can't hear it and it also happens to be the resonance at which a tiger or lion growls.  Any sound at this frequency creates within us a great, great sense of dread and unease and we don't know we feel uneasy, but we just do. 

It just so happens that that exact frequency is the frequency of the human eye.  So your eye actually starts to quiver a little bit which creates hallucinations in your peripheral vision.  There have been a number of hauntings where literally there's a bad room and people go into this bad room and it's got that feeling that everybody knows and more than once it's been a busted fan and the fan is resonating at 18.5 hertz.  The fan is fixed and the ghost is gone. 

William Friedkin put tigers growls on the sound track of The Exorcist and it's one of the reasons it's so terrifying and with such a powerful sense of unease in it. That's the scientific answer behind it. 

The other answer is that my sister's got a haunted house and my sister lives in a haunted house and my sister has seen the ghost in that haunted house.  Really?!   

Cross:  Yeah.  I was about 18 or 19 and I used to live with my sister in just a council house - just a bulk standard 1930's council house.  When I first moved in with my sister when I was 12 she had a boyfriend called Gary.  She knew I was scared of ghosts so she used to sing outside my bedroom door (Cross then imitates how it sounded).  So I used to lie in bed until I couldn't stand it anymore and then rush to the door and she'd always hear me coming and by the time I opened the door, she was gone and she'd run downstairs.  We'd have these big arguments about it and she'd say 'It wasn't me, it wasn't me I was with Gary'. 

So go forward 7 years and I was about 18-19 and I got a call from my sister and she was in hysterics.  She was literally in hysterics so I went round there.  The kids were at their father's and her partner was away working nights because he's an ambulance man.  She'd woken up alone in the house alone in bed and there was a woman stood at the end of her bed.  She stood rigid with long hair and the woman was just nodding backwards and forwards really, really quickly. 

She was terrified.  So I went round and chain smoked and drank coffee but she convinced herself by the end of it that she hasn't seen it - that she'd been half asleep, she'd been dreaming.  One thing we agreed on was that no matter what had happened or hadn't happened, we must not tell the kids.  They were 9 and 7 at the time so we didn't tell the kids but that Christmas Eve they both saw it. 

One of them woke up screaming and woke the other one, and in the middle of the room (they shared a room) the woman was stood there nodding.  It's astonishing but the really weird thing is, that was it.  You never found out about her or her connection with the house?

Cross:  I wrote a memoir and I mentioned this ghost in the memoir and I wrote to my sister and asked her if she'd seen anything else and she said no but we sometimes still hear her singing.  So it was her singing all along?!

Cross:  Yeah, it wasn't my sister at all so my sister was telling the truth.  That's so powerful, I'm a bit blown away. 

Cross:  It's the best ghost story and it's absolutely 100% true and that's why I'm very torn because I don't know what happened in that house.  I am very aware of all the scientific explanation but in no way can it explain everything.  I'm fascinated, fascinated but the thing is, I'll go to bed tonight terrified!  With a huge move in recent years towards the supernatural and the unknown (Most Haunted, Supernatural, Twilight etc) would you agree to making Burial a film?    

Cross:  I think it would make a pretty decent film.  I've already talked to a number of people about making it.  The big problem with Burial is to what extent do you emphasise the supernatural element?  To over emphasise it would spoil it but cinema is a different medium and being subtle in cinema is not always the best approach.  I'd very much expect burial to be a film in the next three years.  So what's next?

Cross:  I've actually left Spooks now.  I'm now writing exclusively for BBC Drama.  I've just had my own television show commissioned which starts filming on September 5th.  It's called Luther (at the moment it's called that) which is the name of the main character.  And you're obviously thoroughly enjoying it by the sound of your voice?!

Cross:  It's very, very hard work.  They've just given us the 'yes'.  The way it works at the moment is the 'yes' comes so far into the process that you're already exhausted by the time you get the good news.  So at the moment we're in the middle of casting and sets are being designed and I'm trying to get everything written for the rehearsals.

That will be on British TV in the New Year and hopefully it will make it down to New Zealand.  It's going to be a big high budget, high production value.  So you're going for it? 

Cross:  Yeah, it's going to be big.  

As the latest explosive series of Spooks comes to an end (the final episdoe is on Monday at 9.30pm) Click here to find out more about the writer Neil Cross who talks death, offending the Russians and smashing up hotel rooms.