THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND, my sixth novel, had a more difficult birth than any book I’d written before. In fact, it almost didn’t get written at all. The premise for the novel – a young man is released from custody seven years after he and his brother were convicted of murdering their foster father – had been with me for some time. The idea had first formed in 2008 or 2009, and I finally decided to commit to it in 2012. My agent sold the pitch to my publisher, everybody liked the concept, and all was right with the world.
As all dutiful writers do, I embarked on some research. Through a friend, I made contact with a probation officer, and invited him to lunch. I showed up with my notebook and pen and dug into some very good fish and chips while I asked the probation officer about the mechanics of a young offender coming out of custody after several years. The probation officer was generous with his knowledge, and I filled about a quarter of a Moleskine book with facts and procedures, all of which would be invaluable as I waded into the shallow end of the novel writing process.
The hot flush of excitement for a new project pushed me through the first few thousand words, but as is always the case, that soon faded and it turned into the familiar war of attrition, eking out sentence after sentence. Then, somewhere around 13,000 words, it ground to a halt. This far into my career, I’m used to a book stalling, but I’d usually expect it to happen around the 30,000 mark. Even so, I knew it was just a matter of taking a step back and seeing where the plot wanted to go.
A few days went by, then a few weeks, but when the weeks turned to months, I realised something had gone wrong. I read back over the 13,000 words I had so far and realised, to my horror, that I had written a dry-as-bones account of what happens when a young offender comes out of prison. Out of all those words, I only had about 3,000 that were actually story. It was then that I realised this book had died, and I set about the daunting task of telling my agent and editor that I wasn’t going to be able to deliver the novel I’d been contracted for. Thankfully, both of them were understanding, and left me to come up with something else.
That something else turned out to be my last novel, THE FINAL SILENCE, which introduced a new character, DCI Serena Flanagan. Hers was intended to be a supporting role in that story, but the more time I spent with her, the more I liked her. In fact, I might have fallen a little bit in love with her.
Once that book was done and delivered, I started to wonder once more about those two murderous brothers I’d abandoned a year or so before. Could their story be revived? Then something occurred to me: what if my new character, DCI Flanagan, were to be dropped into that world? Suddenly, a novel I thought would never get beyond an idea, sprang to life. I got to work, and now, here it is, THOSE WE LEFT BEHIND. If I may be so immodest, I think it’s the best book I’ve written so far, and it’s all thanks to DCI Flanagan, who proved that the most important element of any story is character.
Those We Left Behind by Stuart Neville is published by Harvill Secker