In conversation with… author and screenwriter Tom Rob Smith
Author Tom Rob Smith tells us about his Antarctica-inspired novel and how he ended up working on Cambodia's first soap opera.
Tom Rob Smith is an award-winning novelist and screenwriter and the creator of the internationally bestselling Child 44 Trilogy, voted one of the top 100 thrillers of all time.
Born to a Swedish mother and an English father, Tom studied English Literature at university. One of his first writing jobs was storylining Cambodia’s first soap opera before he went on to write his first novel at the age of twenty-six. We caught up with him to chat about his fifth novel, Cold People, which is set in Antarctica.
Cold People is set in Antarctica, what inspired you to set it there and have you visited the continent?
Across history, people have had their lands taken from them, and been given tougher lands to live on, either in terms of agriculture, or natural resources. I was interested in exploring the most extreme version of that idea, all of humanity allowed only the most inhospitable place on earth, the most challenging place to live, in terms of climate, resources and psychological pressures. This is a desert island story, except the desert island is Antarctica, and the whole of humanity is the castaways.
Cold People is set in Antarctica (Credit: Simon & Schuster)
I was booked to visit the Peninsula when the pandemic swept the world and the trip was cancelled. By the time restrictions were lifted, I was back in the States making a television show. It's the first time I've written a novel without visiting the place where it's set. I could now go, but it would feel different visiting after the novel is finished. It meant that this is a novel which stands on the shoulders of all the wonderful accounts of other people's travels there, it was a joy doing the research for Cold People.
Cold People is quite different to your previous books. Why the departure?
A very difficult question to answer, in some ways it doesn't feel much of a departure for me, I've always loved research and world creation, and this was the kind of story I loved growing up, a sense of adventure and wonder. But yes, I agree, it does seem quite different to my previous books. Perhaps the honest answer is that it's hard to explain why some stories take hold of your imagination and feel urgent, and need to be written, I've never had a plan or a strategy. Perhaps I should. No one believed in Child 44 until it was written, so it's always been an act of blind faith in a story that guides me.
I heard you were involved in Cambodia's first soap opera. How did that come about?
Again, this is an example of the unpredictable path of being a writer, I saw an advert for a storyliner, working on a new show being created by the charitable arm of the BBC, using the popular medium of soap opera to help communicate health messages about HIV. It seemed like a fascinating premise, creating a show in a hospital, and using great stories to hook an audience in while threading in important medical information that would hopefully be of use to the audience. I was interviewed by a brilliant producer, Matthew Robinson, and hired to work in Cambodia, where I lived for around six months. It was an incredible experience.
Tom is an author and screenwriter (Credit: Tom Rob Smith)
Do you prefer writing screenplays or novels?
They're so wildly different, they present very different challenges. A novel is like a marathon, long-distance running, on your own for two years or more, and the only thing stopping you from achieving your dream are your own limitations, which is both beautiful and high pressure, because, in the end, it's all on your shoulders to get it right.
Screenplays are collaborative, even at the writing stage, there are so many people involved, and once it moves to production, there are hundreds of people picking over it, the very opposite of the isolation of writing a novel. Screenplays aren't lonely experiences, but the interpersonal complexities are much greater.
What's next for you?
We'll see about the adaptation of Cold People, it would be enormously expensive and complex. Another advantage of novel writing is that your imagination is limited by a budget. Next up in terms of a book, is a love story, my first, although there have always been love stories at the heart of every story I've written.
Finally, what’s your favourite species of penguin?
You're the first person to ask me that. Recently my hairstylist asked me what my favourite season was, which was the first time I'd been asked that. I think I might have a mild and totally unimportant preference for the smaller penguins, so I think my favourite species of penguin is the Adélie.
Tom is a fan of the Adélie (Credit: Dominic Hall/Shutterstock)
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