Interview with Ian | Ian Sutherland

The following interview was first published in The OpeningLine Literary ‘Zine in September 2013. Opening Line had published an extract of Ian’s work in the previous month’s issue and liked it so much that they kindly invited Ian back for their feature interview the following month.

“When Ian submitted an extract from his up-coming novel, ‘Invasion of Privacy’ to last month’s issue, Opening Line were fascinated and intrigued. We simply had to find out more, so James Harding tracked Ian down for an interview…

Welcome back, Ian! It’s good to see you again. First of all, tell us a little bit about yourself. How would you describe yourself as a writer?

My stories are so deliberately full of twists, turns, dead-ends, speed bumps and roundabouts that I guess I would have to describe myself as a Highway Engineer! I’m a huge fan of keeping the reader in suspense and then surprising them frequently through character and plot revelations. The only way I can make this happen is to plan everything in advance by writing a detailed outline of the whole novel to make sure that the intricate plot hangs together and the characters’ actions are believable and logical. Then, when I step up to write a specific scene, I plan it out in detail. Only then does the actual writing begin!

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I’ve wanted to be a writer from a young age. I know this because I still have a handwritten letter written to nine-year-old me from the late children’s author Malcolm Saville. I have no idea what I asked in my letter to him but his reply in wonderful fountain-pen scrawl says, “I’m sorry I can’t give you any ‘tips’ in your own writing except to read as widely as you can and work with your English teacher.” Good advice that I must have heeded, for I am a voracious reader and I took English Lit at A-Level.

I have always written for my own pleasure but the quality and quantity of my output has never matched my ambition of being a published author. My early work, much of which I still have, is unpublishable. Having now read lots of books that teach you how to write, the quality of my work has improved to a level that I’m now prepared to put in the public eye. I now understand that the craft of writing is something that has to be practiced, like a musical instrument, so that you can become proficient.

On that note there seems to be a knowledgeable musical undertone to your work, particularly in relation to the cello…

I don’t have a musical bone in my body! My eldest daughter is currently studying for a Music Degree, although she is a saxophonist and pianist rather than a cellist. I chose a cellist as the victim because I wanted to use the endpin of the cello as a murder weapon; something I believe has never been done in literature. Unfortunately since then, other plot requirements have meant that the cello’s endpin is no longer used in this way, but I liked the character I had created so she and the cello have survived numerous redrafts.

What is Invasion of Privacy about, and what inspired you for the story?

I am a huge fan of the crime novel, especially police procedurals. I read a lot of these, with Ian Rankin, Jefferey Deaver, Val McDermid, Michael Connelly and Stuart McBride being amongst the masters of suspense that I aspire to emulate. Invasion of Privacy is half police procedural and half techno-thriller, which I believe is a unique combination. It’s centred on a serial killer who selects his victims with no obvious common factors other than the style of murder and the fact that each victim was murdered in a meeting room in different corporate office blocks. Brody, a computer hacker, is trying to win a contest amongst his hacking peers to break into a strange website full of live webcam feeds and stumbles across the killer’s online hunting ground. Its only when he ends up forming an uncomfortable alliance with DI Jenny Price, who is leading the police investigation, that progress is made for Brody and Jenny.

I’ve had a wide ranging career in the IT industry — although I’m no computer hacker myself — so I’ve striven for realism in the depiction of the technology elements in the story, rather than the usual Hollywood style, which is little less than science fiction! I have been a computer programmer and so understand IT at a very detailed level. That knowledge certainly helps me maintain technical authenticity throughout. The original inspiration came from reading an article about wireless webcams. I ended up asking myself what if someone could watch you through your own private webcam without your knowledge? From there it was a case of finding a way to make this occurrence technically believable, the implications horrific and the overall premise as compelling as possible.

Do you think your readers will be able to relate to a hyper-intelligent, manipulative computer hacker?

I wanted to move away from the stereotypical computer hacker figure that permeates our culture. You know, a teenager with poor social skills, stays up all night drinking full-fat coke, has pasty-white skin etc. etc. If I wrote my book with this person as the main character no one would read it; it’s all be done before.

Brody is a special type of computer hacker, known in the industry as a social engineer: someone who hacks humans. The weakest link in most security defences are people after all, not computers. Social engineers are the ones who phone you up and trick you into divulging confidential information (like your bank account details and passwords) in order to either steal your identity or test your employer’s security. Once I discovered social engineering, I knew immediately that I had a unique angle for Brody’s character that I was confident would be accessible to the reader.

One of the things Opening Line loved about your extract in last month’s VILLAINS issue was your use of the rarely-seen second person narrative. Did anything in particular prompt you to choose it?

Invasion of Privacy is in fact mostly written from a third-person limited perspective. I first chose this because in the initial stages of the novel there are two main parallel story-lines each with their own lead protagonists. But I also needed to include four or five scenes from my antagonist’s point of view – a brutal rapist and serial killer. There were some specific objectives that encouraged me to write more boldly. First: I didn’t want to name the killer. Having the character refer to himself as “you” gets around this. The second reason is that it comes across almost as though he is talking to and thinking about himself as someone else, referring to himself as “you”. It helps to give him a slightly unhinged trait. The third reason, and probably the most important, was that I wanted to make it more uncomfortable for the reader to experience events or thoughts through the viewpoint of this character. On top of the fact that, his actions are horrific and spending any length of time in his frame of reference should be somewhat distressing, in modern fiction, second person narration is used so rarely that readers typically find it uncomfortable to spend too much time in its embraces.

And finally, how do you think Brody make best use of his instincts?

Brody follows his instincts despite the consequences, and in his case that’s a dangerous thing as most of his instinctive actions are illegal! Brody is an ethical hacker and a social engineer. It’s a bit like being a computer expert and conman rolled into one. And so, while Brody thinks of himself as a good guy, he’s forever faced with the dilemma that because he can do something doesn’t mean he should. And although logically Brody knows he shouldn’t do it he instinctively does, almost every time! Which makes him a fun character to write.

When can we look forward to Invasion of Privacy’s release? How might our readers get a hold of their own copy?

Invasion of Privacy will be released in 2014. I will indie-publish it and so it will be available to download on Amazon, Nook, Sony, Kobo, Apple and Google. I also hope to make it available in printed form. For all my background in technology, my long-standing ambition to write and publish a novel probably won’t feel complete until I can hold a real copy in my own hands!

by James Harding”