Theres a sci-fi geek inside Tom Rob Smith -- the author known for his hair-raising novels, 2008s Child 44 and its sequel, The Secret Speech -- and hes unleashing it for a film adaptation of the futuristic Japanese franchise, Robotech. We recently caught up with the 28-year-old English author, who landed in last years Out 100, to chat about the Robotech screenplay, his revenge-thriller series (hes currently working on the third book) and why crime makes for such good stories.
Out: How was your recent trip to the states?
Tom Rob Smith: It was good, but short. It was only four days. It was for a meeting on a movie Im writing, so it was pretty in and out. I sold an original screenplay to Universal [an as-yet untitled film based on Child 44]. Its a thriller, contemporary, sort of a twist on the revenge genre, which I really like. Scott Stuber is a producer; he did The Break-Up and Role Models recently.
The revenge genre seems to be your niche, both books -- Child 44 and The Secret Speech -- contain elements of it. What inspired the first book in the series?
Child 44 is based upon a real killer -- Andrei Chikatilo -- who murdered in the 80s. He started murdering in 79. I think he was caught in the early 90s, and he murdered something like 65 people. I believe he was convicted for that. What was interesting for me about that case was not that he was some criminal genius, and thats the way he managed to kill for 10 years, but because the state denied that he could even exist. And the way in which they went about dealing with these murders was completely opposite from how you would logically go about it. Theyd much rather blame it on certain people rather than try and catch the real person, so the crimes continued. I thought this is an interesting way of looking at a crime story.
How did you decide on post-Stalinist Soviet Union as the setting?
It was a crime story that was about the society rather than being another case -- it couldnt really be moved to any other world. The politics and the story were sort of intertwined; I couldnt really transfer it, so it never really crossed my mind to set it anywhere else.
Have you always been interested in crime stories?
What I often find interesting about any crime story is what it reveals about the times. It seems to be that most of these investigations are kind of like a sponge, and they soak up something of the prejudices and the peculiarities of that society. And so from that point of view, yeah, I have always been interested in crimes, but I havent been exclusively a crime reader or one to only watch crime movies. It wasnt as narrow as that.
There had to have been a good deal of research that went into these books, or were you just that good of a history student?
Yeah, I was a pretty good student. I really liked reading, and I really liked academia -- and history particularly. History and reading, I guess, were my two favorite subjects, so they married well for this book.
Do you have a partner?
Is he as much into history as you are?
I wouldnt say as much, no. Hes a controller of BBC drama, so hes more into TV.
Have you been together for a while?
Yeah, pretty long. I dont know -- five years, six years. I should count them, but Im not an anniversary kind of [guy] -- I actually havent got a clue. A long time.
What unpublished piece of writing are you most proud of?
I guess, in a sense, the screenplay I just sold to Universal. That would be the thing that Im most excited about, and the thing Im really hoping gets made. I think its got a really good chance now, and its got a good home.
Were you writing prose before screenplays, or vice versa?
I mean, I was always writing prose, but I never made any money from it. I started making money from TV and that was professionally. That was the first thing that caught. Then after TV I managed to get some screenwriting work, and that sort of caught. And then I got Child 44, so I guess I was writing prose long before I was writing screenplays.
What are you currently reading?
I just read a book -- not a very good book if youre a screenwriter -- but its called The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made. One of them, The Stars My Destination, which I hadnt ever read or which wasnt even on my radar but its by Alfred Bester, is meant to be one of the best science fiction books. Im enjoying it. Its like The Count of Monte Cristo, basically.
A change of pace from what you write, huh?
Well, no -- yeah, I guess. Ive just been also hired by Warner to write Robotech, which is the Japanese anime series from the 80s that kind of involved these robots. Basically like Transformers, but with people inside them. It was a very popular Japanese show, and theyve hired me to adapt it, which is obviously a piece of science fiction. The Robotech forums were all like, Who is this British guy? Hes never written science fiction before, but in fact Ive loved science fiction since I was -- what, 6? I just dont have any science fiction credits, thats what they mean.
Well, now you will.
If they make it, yes. Theyve tried for quite a few writers, so its a bit of daunting. Well see how it goes.
So are you a Transformers fan? Have you seen the movies?
Yeah, I have seen the movies. I think they did a really good job at turning something that was kind of quite 80s and almost old fashioned, very particularly dated to that time, and making it new and fresh and popular.
Were about the same age, so the action figures were big when we were kids. Were you a fan?
I think I quite liked them.
I was more into Barbie dolls. [Laughs.]
[Laughs.] They can transform, too.
Child 44 and The Secret Speech are available at your favorite book retailer.