SIMON MCCLEAVE was born in South London. He worked in television, film development, as a Script Editor at the BBC, a producer at Channel 4 before working as a Story Analyst in Los Angeles. He worked on films such as The Full Monty and television series such as the BBC Crime Drama BETWEEN THE LINES.
Simon then wrote on series such as SILENT WITNESS, MURDER IN SUBURBIA, TEACHERS, ATTACHMENTS, THE BILL, EASTENDERS and many more. His film, Out of the Game for Channel 4 was critically acclaimed – "An unflinching portrayal of male friendship." (Time Out)
Simon is now a best-selling crime novelist. His first book, THE SNOWDONIA KILLINGS, was released in January 2020 and soon became an Amazon Bestseller, reaching No 18 in the Amazon UK Kindle Chart. His five subsequent novels in the DI Ruth Hunter Crime Thriller Series have all ranked in the Amazon Top 30 and are Amazon Best Sellers. Simon is currently in negotiations to make the Ruth Hunter books into a television series.
Simon and I met recently about the explosion in popularity of the Ruth Hunter series, writing a series with complicated characters, and the classic cinematic moment that still creates suspense today.
Visit his website here. Contact him at email@example.com
Dave Watson: Congratulations on the Ruth Hunter series. How did it come about?
Simon McCleave: Gosh, a long story but I’ll try and make it short.
I have a background in screenwriting for TV and film. I did that for a while in the U.K., but it is a tough, ruthless business. I burned myself out and got disillusioned with the entire process. Like the U.S. business, the writer is pretty low down on the scale of power, people will rewrite scripts for you, directors will change them, producers will change them. I moved to North Wales from London with my wife and became a teacher of lit. and media. After a few years, people said, “Why don’t you go back to writing?” After school, I’d stay after school, on lunch breaks, in between classes and after school I’d take out a pen and start scribbling. After about a year, I got a few people to read it and they would say, “Yeah, that sounds like the stuff we read,” and the rest is history.
The last eighteen months have become a complete whirlwind, writing and getting books out, my life has been upside down, but in a good way! It’s very different from one or two years ago.
DW: How did the character of Ruth Hunter come to mind?
SM: As a native South Londoner and moving to North Wales, I was aware of the cultural change of moving from a big city to rural Wales. Snowdonia is right on the border, obviously Wales is a completely different country.
Snowdonia is very sparsely populated and a strong, Celtic culture. It was quite a culture clash. I struggled to gain acceptance, especially with people in North Wales are naturally suspicious of Londoners as big city people are very different. I suppose it might be like the U.S. where if you’re from New York or L.A. and end up in the Midwest somewhere, people might be suspicious.
My character Ruth worked in the tough streets with guns and gangs of South London. She’s hitting fifty and remembers Wales as an idyllic place she went in her childhood. She gets transferred to North Wales where she thinks she’ll be chasing the odd tractor or after stolen sheep. She thinks it’ll be an easy few years before she collects her pension. She gets there and is plunged into a double murder, and from there a series of fairly brutal crimes, or else there would be nothing to write about. I have no idea why she’s a woman, just something about the zeitgeist made me as a man rush about her as a female character.
DW: You balance plot with character, and you weave the past with the present. Is it hard to weave backstory together with the plot? Does that come naturally?
SM: Plotting, yeah, when I first started, I very much found my way through the first two books. In the industry they ask if you’re a "Plotter" or a "Pantser," a "Pantser" being someone who writes by the seat of their pants and sees what happens. As I’m on book nine now, I’m much more plotting, and I guess, when I first started, I’d read so many crime books and watched so many crime TV series and movies, I had literally since I was fifteen, and had a huge wealth of crime stuff in my head that writing it sort of became organic and I trust my instincts.
When I was first in the industry back in the ‘90s, I got paid to write and develop scripts. I read thousands and thousands and worked with writers. I was around storytelling and dark storytelling and it became instinctive. There’s no mathematical formula, it’s just how I feel as I write.
DW: Is it challenging writing a series? Keeping characters consistent, interesting, yet unpredictable?
SM: Yes. It’s sort of a well-worn formula as I write each book as a standalone because each crime spans one book, though you’d get more out of it if you’d read from book one. The hard stuff to keep in my head are the ongoing personal stories of our two main characters because their personal lives are complicated, chaotic, and I have to keep that in my head where Ruth is going with her personal stuff and where Nick is going with his. When I start another book, I know the characters so well now that it’s an easier process in some ways.
DW: They’re similar, yet different. Who were writers and storytellers you admired growing up?
SM: Way back I read all the Enid Blyton books, they’re little adventure novels, the Secret Seven books.
As a teenager I read Ian Flemming, all the Bong books, they’re much darker and grittier than some of the films. Then I read Alistair Maclean, Don DeLillo, James Ellroy, George Pelecanos, American writers. And Graham Greene, I love Graham Greene, fantastic as British spy and espionage.
DW: And Richard Price.
SM: Oh yes, I love Clockers and read many of his. He and Pelecanos are novelists who write for the screen as well.
DW: When and where and how did you decide to become a writer?
SM: I really wanted to be a director as a teenager. I really wanted to be Martin Scorsese and win an Oscar.
DW: So did I! De Palma or Scorsese. It took him a few decades until The Departed to win. He was passed over a few times.
SM: Yes, as a teenager I watched all those guys, Coppola, Sidney Lumet, I just wanted to be a director of those dark American films. I wrote plays while at university, took them to the Edinburgh festival and won prizes, managed to get into the BBC working as a script editor, and I suppose as working with writers, I’d get an idea, we’d bring a guy to write it, and at that moment I thought rather arrogantly I could do it better than this. So I thought, okay, I’d better put my money where my mouth is and not do it better than the people I employ. That’s kind of how it came about.
DW: What's next?
SM: One of the main things is The Snowdonia Killings is being optioned. We have a very famous British actress lined up. She’s been in a few movies you would’ve seen and many British crime stuff. She instigated it, read it while on holiday and messaged me on Instagram. She said, “I read this, I love Ruth, I want to play her, let’s make this happen!” Agents were involved and we did a deal. I’ve been to Netflix because they’re doing all sorts of British stuff.
On the novel side I’m just talking to a couple of people about a one-off thriller at HarperCollins which is a big publisher over here.
Writing books nine and just finishing up book two, I’ve done a spinoff series. A lot of readers emailed and said, “Why don’t you write about Ruth in the met in London?” So I set out to do that, it’s called Diary of a War Crime, set in 1997, around the time Tony Blair had a landslide victory. That’s the backdrop. It’s actually about Croatian-Bosnian civil war.
Did you have Teddy Boys? In the U.K. we had Teddy Boys. In the 1950s we had gangs in London, biker gangs with razor blades, so that’s the backdrop to this book. Something completely different for me to go and research. Ruth Hunter number nine is due in June, so I’m pretty busy.
DW: No kidding! Finally, do you have a favorite cinematic moment?
SM: I’d have to say one that sticks with me is the opening of Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. It’s one continuous shot. You see a bomb put in a car, and then the camera pulls back and the shot goes on for something like three minutes and the whole time you’re going, “There’s a bomb in the car!” Absolutely brilliant.
Clip: Touch of Evil