INTERVIEW: From soaps to Soviet murder mystery

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Tom Rob Smith doesn’t believe in stereotypes, particularly the one that says a gay, former TV soap writer can’t pen an intense, hard-hitting Cold War thriller.

Child 44 counfounds assumptions about gay writers.

His first novel, it caused a fierce bidding war at the London Book Fair and was eventually sold to 22 countries.

It is no surprise that film rights to this powerful piece of fiction have just been snapped up by Ridley Scott.

Set against the bleak backdrop of 1950s Russia, the thriller follows respected secret policeman Leo Demidov and his wife Raisa.

Leo struggles to track down a child-murdering serial killer whilst facing the Soviet system that refuses to believe crime exists unless committed by so-called ‘deviants.’

In the poverty-stricken era of Stalin’s cruel regime, homeless drunks and homosexuals are arrested for non-existent offences while paranoid citizens are pressured into denouncing suspected criminals, including friends and family members.

Since the release of Child 44 in February, Smith has been thrust rather rapidly into the limelight of the literary world.

But while the success of the book has spiralled, its appeal comes as no great shock to the 29-year old.

“I was always passionate about the story and I always believed in it, so I guess a part of me did think it would be successful. Of course, there was another part of me that did wonder how the rest of the world would take it.

“The information I accumulated during the research period was vast, and I did stop and think to myself, ‘am I capable of writing this?'” he told

“I wasn’t sure how people would react to the material, whether they would be interested or whether there would just be too much to take in.”

Although he has visited Russia, Smith’s research was based predominantly on textbooks, memoirs and diaries.

He initially comprised a 14-page outline of the complex plot, improvising and altering the plan as the story progressed.

“I wrote as and when I could fit it in.

“I wasn’t being paid and had no idea of how successful the book would be so I was really creating artificial deadlines for myself.

“I was freer in a sense as no one but me would care if I didn’t meet the deadline, although it did motivate me to keep going.

“A lot of the book is based around the frustration at the politics of the time.

“It was a period when individual prejudices were more important than real crimes.

“Being gay myself, reading stories of people getting arrested for being homosexual did resonate with me, although I think all readers regardless of their sexuality will find themselves emotionally affected by the concept.”

Smith loosely based the story on real life ‘Butcher of Rostov’ Andrei Chikatilo, who was convicted of the murders of 52 women and children between 1978 and 1990.

While he wanted to capture the impact of the gruesome deaths, Smith was keen to move away from the clichéd portrayal of a cold serial killer.

“I wanted to make the murderer human; I didn’t want to him to be a typical callous killer.

“It was important for me to get under his skin and see what he was really like as a human being.

“The description of the murders is quite dark, but I didn’t want them to become repetitive.

“The danger when writing about serial killers is that the same thing is happening again and again and I didn’t want the deaths to start becoming too statistical.

“When seeing pictures of Chikatilo’s victims during my research, it struck me how these people all had mothers and fathers and their own lives.

“I wanted the reader to feel the emotional impact of each death in the story.”

The quality of this first time novelist’s work is quite remarkable; particularly considering his writing background is in television scripts.

Raised in Norbury, south London by his antique dealer parents, Smith first started writing plays when he was at school.

After graduating from St Johns, Cambridge, he became an assistant story editor on Channel 5’s now defunct soap Family Affairs and worked briefly on Bad Girls before landing a job with the BBC on Cambodia’s first soap opera.

Although he is currently working on the follow-up to Child 44, Smith says he is keen to write more scripts in the future.

But with the release of Child 44 the movie pencilled in for 2010, he admits he is happy to let someone else take the reins on the adaptation.

“Script writer Richard Price will be adapting the book and I’m excited to see how it will be reinvented.

“I’ve been working on the story for the past two and a half years so it really does need someone else to give it a new burst of life.

“I feel that I’m too close to the characters and the plot to adapt it to its full potential.

“I have become very attached to the characters.

“In my mind, Raisa’s voice was very clear to me.

“She’s very smart, sassy and strong, whereas Leo is simpler, more of an every man sort of character.

“It’ll be interesting to see who plays them on screen.”

For now, Smith is working on the follow-up to Child 44, which picks up where the last story left off.

But with Hollywood beckoning, it’s doubtful he will be returning to write in soapland any time soon.

Child 44 is published by Simon and Schuster, £12.99.