Edinburgh University graduate and debut novelist August Thomas kick-starts Spyweek 2018 with an insight into the impact spyweek has had on her career.
This is a story about spies, Edinburgh – and homework.
In September 2014, I got a homework assignment that would change my life. And I almost refused to do it.
It was my first semester in the University of Edinburgh’s Creative Writing MSc. programme. My professor challenged each student in the Creative Writing seminar to write an “Alphabet Story” – a 26-sentence story in which each sentence begins with a successive letter of the alphabet.
I was skeptical.
An alphabet story? Bit silly, no? Cheesy, too. Definitely. Excuses bubbled up. Feels so awkward to write that way. Good stories need freedom, don’t they? However…the homework was due. I needed an idea!
My mind wandered back to Turkey. I’d studied Turkish since I was 16. I’d lived in Istanbul and Ankara. Only a few months ago, I’d reluctantly turned down a summer internship at the U.S. Embassy in Turkey. What if I hadn’t?
I imagined an embassy party. A young intern sees something she was never supposed to see. And then a bomb explodes…
My alphabet story was dreadful. (I definitely cheated on the letter ‘X’.) But the idea caught fire. Soon, I had the first chapter of a spy thriller. It was completely unlike anything I’d ever written before: rocket-paced, contemporary, laced with humor. The other writers in my workshop wanted to know what happened next.
That spring, at Spy Week, I attended a fascinating discussion with the bestselling spy novelist Charles Cumming – who, I was surprised to learn, had graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English Literature. That summer, I brought a signed paperback of one of his books with me to Istanbul, as I raced ahead with my own spy thriller.
After graduation, I kept working on my book. By spring, when I returned to Edinburgh for a visit, I had sent my agent the full manuscript, now titled Liar’s Candle.
While I waited anxiously for my agent’s comments, I enjoyed the delightful distraction of Spy Week 2016. Listening to Dame Stella Rimington talk about her series of Liz Carlyle spy novels was inspiring. Here was a real, live female spy novelist, the first I’d ever heard of – and she was another University of Edinburgh English Literature graduate! I just hoped being Director General of MI5 wasn’t a mandatory prerequisite.
Almost exactly two years after that fateful homework assignment, Liar’s Candle sold. Simon & Schuster is publishing it in the UK on May 17. One funny trace of the original alphabet story remains: a major character’s name still begins with a ‘Z’.
I’m proud – and a little startled — to belong to the third generation of spy novelists to come out of the University of Edinburgh English department. Maybe Spy Week 2018 will inspire a new crop.
Who knew Edinburgh was such a hotbed of (fictional) espionage?
August Thomas’ debut novel Liar’s Candle is a thrilling spy novel set in contemporary Turkey and will be released in the UK May 17th 2018. Pre-orders are currently available online!