A Conversation with Simon Lelic

Simon_LelicSimon Lelic’s third novel The Child Who is a complex psychological thriller that revolves around the shocking murder of young girl by one of her male classmates.  Told entirely through eyes of the solicitor tasked with defending the child, the novel takes a thought provoking look at society’s response to the crime and questions the laws put in place to punish the young perpetrator.

We’re extremely grateful to Mr. Lelic for taking the time to answer a few questions for us, but we’re even more excited that he’ll be joining The Opinionless Virtual Book Club for a live, online discussion about The Child Who on the afternoon of March 25th. If you’re not a member of the club, what are you waiting for? Sign up is quick, easy, and best of all free, via the GoodReads website.

What follows below is a spoiler-free discussion about Mr Lelic’s background, the inspiration behind his novel, and the ways in which society and the law choose to treat juvenile offenders.

SIMON LELIC has worked as a journalist and currently runs his own business. A Thousand Cuts, Simon’s first novel, won the Betty Trask Award and was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey New Blood Dagger Award, the Galaxy National New Author of the Year Award, and was longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. He lives in Brighton, England with his wife and three children. (Official bio)

TE: Who is Simon Lelic?

SL: Well, my Twitter profile says, ‘Author and tin man’. Which, in a fairly abstract way, at least describes what I do. Other than being a husband and father of three, of course, which probably defines me best of all.

TE: How did you first get started with writing?

SL: In a professional sense, I started as a journalist. I took a post-graduate course after completing my MA, and from there dabbled in sports writing before settling in business-to-business. But I’ve written for as long as I remember. My first ‘book’, written when I was about eight, was a story about a teddy bear who escapes his owner and visits a funfair. It was entitled, imaginatively enough, ‘Ted Visits the Funfair’. It came complete with illustrations and a cover, and totalled, I imagine, something like 500 words. During a couple of months of illness I in fact settled on turning the idea into a series. I wrote a prequel and had two ideas for sequels – but then got better and went back to school.

TE: Where did the idea for The Child Who come from? Was this a story that was “ripped from the headlines” or something that you developed more organically?

SL: The James Bulger murder (a very high-profile case over here of two ten-year-olds, in 1993, murdering a toddler) was at the heart of my research for the book. I’d been mulling a story on the subject for some time before I eventually started The Child Who, but had never found a satisfactory ‘way in’. That is, until I heard one of the defendants’ solicitors talking about the case on the radio, more than 15 years after the event, and something – the solicitor’s tone? The fact that his life had obviously been so profoundly affected? – just clicked.

TE: The Child Who makes for an interesting title. It seems that depending on what verb you choose to follow the title with that you could be talking about any one of the children in the book. Was this a conscious play on words or was the title intended to focus strictly on young murderer Daniel Blake?

SL: The title is such that readers can make of it, I hope, what they will. It began, for me, as a reference to Daniel – and the fact that he is only ever defined in the public mind by a single, terrible act – but, as you say, it also has a broader subtext. Choosing a title for a novel is often a torturous process, but this one came quite early . . . and stuck.

TE: I have to admit that I as an American I did have to do a bit of Google searching when it came to some of the more British aspects of the law. For example, what is the difference between a solicitor and a barrister? They both seem to be lawyers. Is the minimum age that someone can be tried for a crime as an adult in England truly ten?

SL: They are indeed both lawyers. There has been a blurring of the boundaries between the role of a solicitor and a barrister in recent years, but essentially a barrister specialises in courtroom advocacy. A defendant would typically be represented by a solicitor, who would in turn (usually) instruct a barrister on the defendant’s behalf should the case be likely to come to court. And yes, the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is ten (in Scotland it was recently raised from eight to twelve). Despite repeated and continued calls for it to be raised in England, there seems to be no political will to bring the country into line with international standards. The age of criminal responsibility varies from state to state in the US, I believe, but it is generally higher than it is over here.

TE: It seems that in this day and age that society expects children to grow up faster than ever and we chose to inflict harsh punishments on them when they can’t adapt to the expectations we’ve placed upon them. Should we be more lenient on those that are still developing and learning what it means to be an adult or do you think they should be held accountable for their actions regardless of age?

SL: I think accountability is a vital lesson for anyone to learn, at any age. But in virtually every aspect of life except crime, society agrees that children do not have the emotional or intellectual capacity yet to take important decisions by themselves. About smoking, for example, or voting. The only mistakes they are allowed to make are the most heinous. This, to me, feels like an abdication of responsibility on behalf of the people around them. The children who commit crimes are accountable, yes, but they are not the only ones. And it is how they are taught that lesson of accountability that upsets me most of all.

TE: The book hints at the fact that some members of society think that the institutions that have been built to house young offenders are a bit too posh. Should juvenile offenders be forced to endure the same living conditions as those of their adult counterparts?

SL: It depends, I suppose, on what one considers the point of incarceration to be. If the only concern is to extract some form of revenge – to punish for punishment’s sake – why not just chain offenders, young and old, to a dungeon wall? If, on the other hand, the aim is rehabilitation, I would argue that anything that will help facilitate this process should be provided. The chances are this will anyway work out cheaper, if cost is the concern, in the long run.

TE: The line “He goddamn nearly raped her” is a phrase that is repeated several times over at the start of the novel. Why do you think society feels that rape is a worse crime than that of murder?

SL: I’m not sure it does, to be honest, but rape is certainly – and rightly – considered to be among the most odious offences a man (or boy) can commit. In the context of the novel, the victim is a young girl, and I suppose the uproar the crime creates has a lot to do with the inherent, and enforced, loss of innocence.

TE: With the exception of perhaps Megan, all of the major players in the novel seem to be struggling with daddy issues. Being a dad yourself, do you think the role that a father plays in the life of a child is somewhat underappreciated or undervalued? Would you say that it’s better to have a bad dad then no dad at all?

SL: No, I certainly wouldn’t. Plenty of children who grow up in single-parent households develop into enlightened, engaged adults, at no comparative disadvantage to the child down the street who was lucky enough to grow up with both a mother and a father. But I think the role of parents generally – both mother and father – needs to be more widely appreciated. Being a parent is hard. It is the most important job we, as adults, can do, but it is so often secondary to the pressures of daily life. Achievement in our society is typically graded against job title or salary, when it is the work we do at home, which so often goes unrecognised, that creates the most enduring value.

TE: This story feels unique in that the reader isn’t really privy the thoughts, emotions, and feelings of the victim’s family. Was this a conscious decision on your part from the start or something that just happened as the story evolved?

SL: This was a deliberate decision at the start. In fact, it was one of my main motivations for writing the book. There have been plenty of accounts – fictional and true-life – of how victims’ families are affected by crime, but I wanted The Child Who to explore things from a different angle. I was more interested in how a crime as terrible as murder can contaminate the lives of people it doesn’t necessarily directly touch. Also, Leo’s perspective in the novel is inherently more objective than the victim’s family’s would be. This allowed me, in the writing, to explore subjects surrounding the crime that would otherwise feel too emotionally loaded.

TE: With this being your third novel (second in America) I think it’s fair to say that you’re a writer who isn’t focused on the more cheerful side of life. Do you find that it’s harder to write happy or is it simply more interesting to explore the darker side of our nature?

SL: I’m a cheerful person – honest! But I do struggle to remain interested, when I’m writing, if a subject doesn’t have a challenging moral issue or two at its core. That these first few books are slightly ‘dark’, for want of a better term, is more an accident of timing than anything else, I would say: I wrote about to the topics that most engaged me at the time. Who knows, maybe the next thing I write will be a romcom.

TE: Are you working on novel number four yet? Are there any details you can share with us?

SL: I can tell you that I’m working on something. I’m not superstitious, but some instinct or other prevents me from talking too freely about a book until it’s written. Following on from your question above, I can tell you that I’m hoping it will be more cheery than the three I’ve had published already!

TE: What was the last great book you read? Thank you by the way for the Twitter tip about A Monster Calls. What a fantastic book!

SL: Delighted you enjoyed A Monster Calls as much as I did – it’s definitely up there as one of the best books I’ve read over the past twelve months. Another great book I came across recently is A Good Father by Noah Hawley. It’s one of those rare beasts: a literary book that is utterly compelling. I’m not sure whether it’s out yet in the US (it’s published in March in the UK), but I strongly recommend you get hold of a copy.

Simon Lelic’s novel The Child Who is published by Penguin Group (USA) and is available wherever fine books are sold. For more information about Simon Lelic, visit www.simonlelic.com. Follow him on Twitter @Simon_Lelic.

In addition, Mr. Lelic will be joining The Opinionless Virtual Book Club to take part in a live online discussion about The Child Who on the afternoon of March 25th. We hope that you’ll join us for what should most certainly be a interesting event.

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.