Imran Mahmood is a practicing criminal defence barrister and the author of the excellent debut You Don’t Know Me. If you haven’t read it already, you should. You can read my review of You Don’t Know Me here: http://thecrimenovelreader.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/you-dont-know-me-by-imran-mahmood.html
I wanted to know a bit more about Imran’s writing process, in the shameless and undisguised hope that some of the magic that made You Don’t Know Me so special, might rub off on me. Luckily for me, he was happy to oblige.
Where did you get the idea behind You Don’t Know Me?
I have written jury speeches for years. But in every speech what I find that I have to do is to filter the defendant’s story through my own lens. I have to re-frame and re-tell the story. I must bridge the gap that lies between the jury and the defendant.
So, I wondered what it might be like if a defendant who had the skills to tell a persuasive story ended up telling it himself. What would it sound like? Where relevance and evidence matters to me, what would matter to him? So, the idea was born, and I thought I would give the chap some challenges to overcome in communication to see how he would resolve them and also give him some race barriers to grapple with. And in the end, it produced some interesting questions about the nature of truth and the nature of the narrative tradition – some of which was unexpected
How do you get your ideas? What’s the process and how do they go from vague inspiration to fully fleshed out notions?
It varies. Sometimes I get them from my wife. Other times I find myself listening to a snippet of conversation on a bus and my mind runs away with it and by the end of the journey it has become a story. Usually though it starts with a character I might have met. Then I imagine a life for him. And then make something interesting happen.
I know much of You Don’t Know is inspired by your work as a barrister. It is an amazing court room drama, as well as being a real insight into the challenges faced by young men in our inner cities. How much of it was based/inspired by true events/real people?
I think most of it. The issues that young men in particular have in their lives that bring them into the Criminal Justice System are those that I tackle in the book. There is a problem with poverty – social and educational and financial. There are pockets of the UK which have concentrations of under resourced populations and that usually leads to problems which find expression in crime. The book I wrote, although fiction, has its feet firmly in a reality that I see in my job every day.
Other than the cases you’ve come into contact with, did you conduct any other research for the novel?
To get the voice right I had to immerse myself in the home of the voice and the people who speak in it. That meant that I became very attuned to the voice when I heard it and would dissect it again and again so I understood the tone, the rhythm and the musicality of it. So, the research consisted of listening to clients but also witnesses and to youngsters on the bus when I was on the way to work
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’m more a ‘by the seat of the pants’ guy. At least, that’s what I thought, because I do not ever plot out story lines on a piece of paper. However, what I found when I paid attention to the process was that in fact I do plot – but only in my head and only in small chunks. So, I have a skeleton of an idea and then I plot each night when I should be sleeping!
Tell me about your writing, how do you fit it around your work as a barrister?
I write whenever I can. On the train to court. When waiting for juries to deliver verdicts. At the weekend. At night. When I’m not in court, I write in chambers. There’s always a way to find the time if you have the need as I do to write.
You Don’t Know Me is obviously a standalone piece of work. It’s hard to imagine a direct sequel? Or am I wrong?
A sequel as you say is pretty hard to pull off. BUT I have started to write a ‘spin-off’ which shares some characters from You Don’t Know Me. But I will have to wait and see if there is an appetite for that.
What other writing projects are you working on?
We are in discussion, my agents and publishers and I, we are working on some ideas. Despite that I write every day that I can still. There are 3 or 4 books I am working on and I am enjoying the process of bringing more ideas to life
Finally, I’m going to shamelessly poach two questions the author Mark Hill (author of The Two O’Clock Boy) used to put to writers on his blog. Like me, Mark was a book blogger before a successful author and I like to think that the answers to these questions helped him glean valuable help for his own writing. Certainly, reading them on his blog is helping me. So here goes:
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
That sometimes a great idea just doesn’t work on paper no matter what you try. But ultimately you have to keep trying in order to find that out
Give me some advice about writing?
I don’t feel qualified as a debut author to advise…
But if I have to, I would say, write the thing that excites you. If you don’t get up every day desperate to write a bit more of your story then it probably isn’t the right story to write. I knew mine was right simply because I kept getting the sensation that it was writing itself. If you get that – then you’ve found the magic spot!