interviews / Q&A's



Today, author Ian Ridley joins us in The Literary Lounge. Ian is a journalist and author/ghostwriter of several sports biographies. His first novel, The Outer Circle, is published this month by Unbound. It centres on a brutal attack on a central London mosque in the days after the 2012 London Olympics, as seen through the eyes of five characters caught up in it.


LS: Ian, a warm welcome to The Literary Lounge. Thank you for spending time with us and for answering some questions about The Outer Circle. So, to begin … you’re a journalist by profession, but have you always wanted to write fiction? Was that the dream?

IR: For many years I was vocational about journalism and newspapers and I loved covering sport, and writing sports books. It was genuinely what I wanted to do with my life. A few years ago, though, I became ill and simply couldn’t do the regular travelling the job demanded. I was also a little disillusioned with the way newspapers were heading. I felt ready to do something new and the novel began stirring in me. I do think many journalists, at least those who love words and turning a phrase, aspire to writing a novel. I’ve been gratified since it came out by how many old colleagues have told me that they admire the fact that I have written it and that it’s out there.


LS: Did you find differences in your approach to writing fiction vs non-fiction?

IR: Yes, they are very different, particularly in being more expansive in fiction as opposed to non-fiction. For me, one is about using imagination and the other presenting facts in a structured way, though you can be more creative with feature articles and columns. That said, they are also both about trying equally to engage and entertain a reader, and keeping them in mind the whole time. I also like reading novels that have detail and are properly researched so I found my journalistic training helped a lot there.


LS: Was The Outer Circle more difficult to write than the non-fiction titles you’ve penned before?

IR: I always find writing difficult to be honest, not least in the discipline of sitting myself down to do it rather than finding other things to do. Like making mugs of tea. This is where the deadlines of journalism help and focus me though. Sports books are my bread and butter; my novel was more a dessert treat. Once I got into it, I couldn’t wait to see where the plot and the characters led me. In the end – a very rare but wonderfully enjoyable experience – there were days when I couldn’t wait to get down to writing.


LS: The starting point of the novel is the day after the closing ceremony of the London Olympics 2012, which you experienced first-hand – is that when the storyline come to you?

IR: I did indeed attend a lot of Olympic events and saw so many people enjoying themselves, putting aside differences and united, that  the experiences seemed a natural fit and counterpoint to an act of violence as a starting point for a book that could combine the observations I wanted to make with what I hope is a gripping plot.


LS: Most authors have one protagonist, but you have five – six if you count London – how difficult was it to maintain a balance?

IR: I always felt my main character was the ageing Saul, with the relationship between him and Tom, the young man he befriends, being the mainstay of the book. As I was writing it, though, I warmed to the woman investigative journalist character Jan and earned the ultimate accolade from my wife – an avid reader and Eng Lit graduate – that I wrote women well. The other two characters, Rashid and Deena, weave their way through and I always wanted that element of diverse people existing separately but always linked. Balancing them was driven by the demands of the plot, and where it took me and them, rather than giving them equal profile.


LS: I believe it took three years to write the book – how much of that was research time?

IR: Three years was the planning, plotting and writing, with another year going through the funding, editing and publishing process with Unbound. I began by deciding where and when I wanted my novel to start and how I wanted it to end, and then structured it accordingly. It was like doing a scene by scene for a TV drama, which I learned to do when I wrote for the Sky One football drama Dream Team. I also wrote biographies of my characters and a timeline of the five days in which the novel is set so I knew where they all were at any given time. Only then did I start the actual writing process. A lot of the research for events was done during the writing as I went along. For example, I attended a course on Islam at the Regent’s Park Mosque and also a Muslim funeral.


LS: Which, if any, of your characters do you identify with most?

IR: I guess it has to be Saul, the older guy who is semi-retired and wants a quiet life of comfortable routine, involving books and the radio! He also owes a lot to a good friend who has imparted much wisdom on me down the years. I also identify a lot with Jan, my woman journalist, who is a mix of weariness with the modern media but still excited by its potential for good.


LS: London is almost as much a character as your five protagonists. What is it about the city that you find so special?

IR: I went to Bedford College, in Regent’s Park, which was part of London University. It is now merged with Royal Holloway College out in Surrey. At that time, in the mid-70s, London was much more raw, even dirty, and dangerous. IRA bombs were going off regularly and my hall of residence was 100 yards from the Balcombe Street Siege. l loved the Park and the capital was a playground for a lad up from the sticks. At that time, even as a student you could afford to go to see bands and football matches. Nowadays, the city is cleaner and more sophisticated – and expensive – but a more cosmopolitan place and thus such a rich source of action for writers. I spent hours in Regents Park thinking and making notes, and must have looked a bit weird walking the streets of Primrose Hill making notes.


LS: Do you think this plot would have worked as well in another Olympics-based country? For example, the heatwave in a city that doesn’t do heat well adds to the tension/suspense.

IR: Thanks, I’m glad you picked up on that. It is unashamedly an English novel, both in its locations and political, social and cultural concerns, so it probably wouldn’t have worked anywhere else in the same way. The Olympics really are just a device to get into the story, and I hope the novel also has universal truths to tell about relationships and people’s humanity, as well as the lack of it in some cases.


LS: Where does the title come from?

IR: The Outer Circle is a road around the outside of Regent’s Park, dividing the park from the outside world and making it almost a sealed location. It also refers to the five characters, all of whom are outsiders to some extent. The title came about because my wife thought my working title of Regent’s Park sounded like a travel book so we arrived at what sounded more of a thriller.


LS: Why did you decide to go down the Unbound publishing route? What have been the benefits?

IR: I tried traditional publishing routes but, in all honesty, couldn’t find an agent or publisher to take me on. My track record of 12 sports books, some best-sellers amongst them, counted for nothing. I could have kept going, tried more people, but I grew tired of not getting responses to emails. I was told about Unbound by Andy Hamilton, the comedian and writer and an old acquaintance, who also struggled to find a publisher for his novel but was taken on by Unbound. The best part of the Unbound process has been the editor, Claire Baldwin, who ‘got’ my book and my characters straight away then improved it with perceptive suggestions here and there. I thought my book was decent but it definitely became something finally I was very proud of and I’ll always be grateful to Unbound for that.


LS: Finally, if you could give future authors one piece of advice what would it be?

IR: It would be simply not to be perfectionist about a first draft. Once you feel you have the outline of a plot and know how you want to start the book, just write – just get words down on paper so that you feel you are getting somewhere. You can always rewrite and hone. There’s a great saying: I can fix a bad page but I can’t fix a blank one.


Ian, thank you so much from all of us at The Literary Lounge. It’s been an absolute pleasure.


The Outer Circle by Ian Ridley •  January 2018 • Unbound • Paperback •  £10.99

See review: ‘The Outer Circle – a tale of our times


Acknowledgements: Thank you to Ian Ridley and to Anne Cater. Photo: The author with Tony Adams, former Arsenal and England football captain, with whom he has collaborated before, at the book launch of The Outer Circle. Photo by Alex Ridley 2018.


Also of interest: ‘Meet John Fairfax – The Literary Lounge Q&A‘;  ‘Finlay’s last stand – Matt Johnson’s End Game‘; ‘The long road – John Fairfax’s Summary Justice’; Letters of Note‘.


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