A little while ago, I wrote a festive gift guide for book lovers- and I'm back with an interview with one of the authors included in this Christmas guide!
Tom Vaughan MacAulay is a fantastic author living in the UK and working as a solicitor. He published his first novel, Being Simon Haines, in 2017, to high critical acclaim.
He released his second book, Countdown to a Killing in 2022. This new novel is an epistolary novel told from several points of view.
Below, read a full interview with author Tom Vaughan MacAulay, including the inspiration for his new novel, and some of his favourite books.
In short, what is Countdown to a Killing about?
It is a novel about human connection, and how every objective truth is lived differently by different people.
It is about different perspectives, and how it enriches us to understand how layered and complex we all are at heart.
What inspired you to write a book in the genre of literary fiction with elements of thriller, comedy and of course murder?
I’d given a lot of thought as to how literary fiction can compete with new media and stay relevant. I decided that key to this was the modern form of epistolary novel element but also that it was important that any narrative have impetus, and of course the thriller convention is all about impetus.
I enjoyed the whodunnit element but of course the point about this is that it is metafictional – one of the key characters is writing a whodunnit, and then decides to write a pastiche of a whodunnit; the editorial interventions are increasingly self-deprecatory; and yet, I hope, the impetus still remains.
Countdown to a Killing is written in the epistolary style; what was the driver behind this unique choice?
Yes, I felt that in an age in which we now rightly prize diversity and inclusion, then having multiple points of view, often with respect to the same set of facts, is a very powerful and topical narrative technique.
I also feel that the modern form of epistolary novel in literary fiction is hugely under-done and there is tremendous potential here.
Not least because we live in unique times, where we are giving written permanence, often recklessly, to what we are often fleeting thoughts which should be spoken, and which were never intended for permanence.
Was it challenging to write in this format, and what was your writing process like?
It was certainly different, as I needed to keep switching perspectives and following each character’s story – but I find the switch of perspective/narrative to be one of the most enjoyable parts of novel writing and reading generally.
One of the characters has been diagnosed with OCD in the novel, what made you want to explore mental health in Countdown to a Killing?
I think it is difficult to write a topical piece of literary fiction without exploring mental health. It is very much a positive of my generation, the focus it has.
I felt OCD was particularly important to explore because of three reasons: first, it seems underrepresented in literary fiction compared to, say, bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder; second, because it’s painfully misconstrued and sort of belittled by celebrities who say “Oh, you know, I’m a bit OCD”; and thirdly, and most importantly, it felt to me when researching it that even a basic understanding of OCD touches upon some deeply human conclusions.
How is this different to your first novel, Being Simon Haines?
Being Simon Haines, as the title suggests, was focused on the journey of the protagonist.
A superficial comparison would say they are very different novels both in form and content but I tend to think that on a deeper analysis they have similarities – I think both novels seek to explore the true feelings and motivations and to depict the characters with honesty.
Your professional expertise is in law, how much of an influence does your career have on your writing, and in particular the professions and experiences of some of your characters?
The law is very beneficial to some aspects of writing (precision, ruminating over the right word etc) but negative to others (being risk-averse etc).
I have managed to keep a duality of existences going quite well.
You explore many crucial themes in the book, such as sexuality, mental health, and ethnicity; has this always been an important element of your writing?
I think any piece of literature is necessarily going to touch on these issues either explicitly or implicitly – it is hard to write about humans while excluding mental health.
But certainly the explicit treatment of these themes was in this second novel a deliberate choice.
Countdown to a Killing is written from multiple perspectives; what was it like developing each of these distinct characters and their voices?
A wonderful experience, especially as they are all such different people! It was actually quite enriching for me personally.
If you had to summarise Countdown to a Killing in three words, what would they be?
Original, moving and compelling! Not so humble a response!
Who, or what, are some of your literary influences (extra points for epistolary novel writers) and in what ways may they have influenced Countdown to a Killing?
Ha! I read up a lot on current modern epistolary literature but having researched can’t really say I was influenced by any.
Instead I was influenced by two superficially different but highly relevant forms of narrative: first, the diary form and particularly The Diary of a Nobody.
I think some of the humour and warmth of that wonderful work was definitely an influence on one of the characters’ correspondence.
Secondly, and strange as it might be to say, I was influenced by any literature, including non-fiction, focusing on the previously marginalised and bringing their story alive and one piece of work that stands out, particularly as you know the ending – as you do in this novel – is The Five, which tells the intensely interesting story of very ordinary women who ultimately became victims of Jack the Ripper.
As for the metafictional element, I’ll put that down to my decades-long fascination with a certain Melquiades.
Do you plan to write more books in the future?
Absolutely – I am a good way through my third novel, again a piece of literary fiction.
And finally, what do you hope that readers will take away from Countdown to a Killing?
That they’ll fall in love with, be irritated by and angry with, care for and generally truly connect with the characters the way I did.
That they’ll be invested in their stories and appreciate how multi-layered each of them is, each with good and bad.
The novel is playing with the concept of thriller conventions, with one character writing a thriller novel about murder, there are wonderfully over the top editorial notes reminding the reader multiple times that we are reading about an imminent murder… what sort of feedback have you had from early reviewers about these comedic elements?
A former tutor of mine from uni, who for me is always a very important judge of my work, said early on that she adored the metafictional element.
Amusingly I’ve read the odd review that has concluded that this wasn’t the simple thriller that they had signed up for.
Which made me wonder how those editorial notes could possibly have been taken so seriously!
Thank you to Tom Vaughan MacAulay for this great interview! Let me know all your thoughts in the comments.
Love, Sarah xoxoxo