What did I bring to the role? Not snappy dressing, for sure, since the tan uniform trousers never did fit me quite right. But boy, I was fast on a till. Most shifts saw me working the single cash register next to the newspaper stands and I liked to keep things moving as quickly as I could. Maybe there wasn’t smoke coming off the till buttons – just as there’s rarely smoke coming off my keyboard when I’m writing – but I like to think I didn’t keep customers hanging around.
I ended up working in the Taunton branch of WHSmith for six years or so, returning in my student days to work during the holidays. Sometimes I found myself on the pen and stationery counter. Most years, I helped with the annual stock count (which was the fastest way I knew of funding my book buying habit).
And honestly, working in WHSmith and writing books for a living are the two best jobs I’ve ever had. True, the competition isn’t all that tough when you factor in working as a chemical cleaner in a meat factory or pulling long hours as a commercial lawyer, but I have fond memories of my time in the shop, the friends I made, the laughs we shared.
I was still working in WHSmith when I started to write my first novel. I didn’t tell anyone about it at the time, which turned out to be a wise move. I figured I had a long way to go – and I did. It took me three novels, a whole bunch of rejections and ten more years before I got my big break with The Good Thief’s Guide To Amsterdam, which won a publishing competition run by Susan Hill.
Now my latest thriller, Long Time Lost, is about to be released. It’s the story of Nick Miller, who sets up his own highly bespoke, highly illegal service relocating at-risk individuals across Europe with new identities and new lives. Nick excels at what he does because he understands how to survive on the run – he’s spent years living in the shadows under an assumed name. But when he steps in to prevent the attempted murder of witness-in-hiding Kate Sutherland on the Isle of Man, he triggers a chain of events with devastating consequences for everyone he protects – because Nick and Kate share a common enemy in Connor Lane, a man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, even if it means tearing Nick’s entire network apart.
Witness protection is a subject I’ve written about before in Safe House and it’s one that continues to fascinate me. I love stories about people in hiding, people who have gone missing and people who, against all odds, find their way back. And what better way to explore that, I thought, than by creating my own witness protection network with its own rules, its own quirks and specialisms, and no government safety net if things went wrong?
While Safe House was set almost entirely on the Isle of Man, this time I wanted to write a globetrotting thriller that took in multiple locations throughout Europe. By the end of the book, Nick and Kate visit the Isle of Man, Weston-super-Mare, Hamburg, Rome, Prague, Arles, Switzerland and Dubrovnik (plus a few more locations besides). I took a trip to some of these destinations while I was writing the book but others, like Hamburg, Prague and Rome, I first visited as a backpacker when I was eighteen, during a fun few weeks before I spent the rest of my summer working at WHSmith.
So I can’t pretend the thought of seeing Long Time Lost on a shelf in WHSmith doesn’t bring a smile to my face. After all, who knows if it would even exist if I’d blown the interview for my very first job?