The Secret Niche


By Chris Azzopardi

There's a sci-fi geek inside Tom Rob Smith -- the author known for his hair-raising novels, 2008's Child 44 and its sequel, The Secret Speech -- and he's 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 year's Out 100, to chat about the Robotech screenplay, his revenge-thriller series (he's 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 I'm writing, so it was pretty in and out. I sold an original screenplay to Universal [an as-yet untitled film based on Child 44]. It's 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 that's 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. They'd 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 couldn't really be moved to any other world. The politics and the story were sort of intertwined; I couldn't 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 haven't been exclusively a crime reader or one to only watch crime movies. It wasn't 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 wouldn't say as much, no. He's a controller of BBC drama, so he's more into TV.

Have you been together for a while?
Yeah, pretty long. I don't know -- five years, six years. I should count them, but I'm not an anniversary kind of [guy] -- I actually haven't got a clue. A long time.