There are certain places in the world that are so full of stories, they become ‘catnip for a novelist,‘ as Layton Green talks about in this interview. We delve into the lure of far-off cities, why the occult draws us both, and how to turn a trip to a new place into a book.
In the introduction, I talk about my own experience of traveling for book research and how I find story ideas in new places including Amsterdam, New Orleans, and Bath, plus how synchronicity often happens when I delve deeper into history, culture, and religion.
Layton Green is the award-nominated, international bestselling author of the Dominic Grey thrillers, as well as the Blackwood Saga fantasy series and loads of other books.
- Researching The Summoner in Zimbabwe
- Why occult and religion continue to inspire stories
- Planning travel around book ideas
- Tracking ideas while traveling
- Writing about a place as an outsider
- Some of our favorite graveyards, cemeteries, and museums
- Why New Orleans inspires so many stories
- Recommended books with a sense of place
You can find Layton at LaytonGreen.com
Transcription of interview with Layton Green
Joanna: Layton Green is the award-nominated international bestselling author of the Dominic Grey thrillers, as well as the ‘Blackwood Saga’ fantasy series and loads of other books. Welcome, Layton.
Layton: Hi, Joanna. So nice to talk again.
Joanna: Oh, absolutely. So I wanted to ask first, so I first got to know you, I read The Summoner when it came out years ago now, and I knew I wanted more of your thrillers and we met later on.
Tell us about the origins of that book with your travels in Africa.
Layton: I will. And first off, I’m a fan of yours as well. I think it’s almost funny how our interest in fiction coincide over the years. When you came out with your…what was it ‘Mapwalker,’ is it the name of that series?
Joanna: Yes, ‘Mapwalker.’
Layton: I was like, ‘Did she just take that from my head?’ I mean, that is ridiculous. I love your ideas. But back to The Summoner. That was my first, really…not the first novel that I wrote, but the first one that came out. And after I had written my first novel called The Letterbox which is back out now, I just was thinking, I wanted to write a book that actually sold.
I was naturally drawn to mysteries and thrillers and I thought, ‘What would be cool and different and interesting?’ And my fiancée at the time, my wife is Zimbabwean, and I had been doing some travel there. And I thought, ‘Not a lot of people go to Zimbabwe,’ and I am a huge traveler, as you know. And I thought, ‘Okay. I’ll write about that.’ It was turned out to be a strength and a weakness. A weakness in that I had so many editors love the book but say, ‘No one’s interested in Zimbabwe so we can’t publish this book.’ And it turns out that they were kind of right. But it was also a strength. People who did like the book were the people that do love to travel to exotic places and were fascinated by that new culture.
So I am a traveler that is bored by going to the same place — I won’t say twice, I do like to do some repeat — but I really am intrigued by new and different cultures. And I consider Zimbabwe a little bit Africa light, but it was my first time to Africa. And I say that because the English were there for a long time and are still there and English is widely spoken, and the streets of Harare are wide and beautiful and it’s not a hard place to go, honestly, but then you go into the countryside, and you see the villages and the exotic flora and fauna. And there’s actually some really cool ruins there from the Shona culture. Think they’re around 800AD and the Portuguese claim they discovered them, but obviously, they were there for a very long time before that. So I think it was my first time to Africa and I was very excited to write about it and just explore that culture.
Joanna: And you also wrote about the occult in the area, or I guess, the local religion in the book. So tell us about that.
Layton: Okay. So another idea I had for this novel, I wrote about the Yoruban religion from Nigeria. But I wasn’t going to Nigeria and had no plans. I started reading about cults and how they disseminated. And as you know, at that time, and now again today, unfortunately, Zimbabwe is undergoing severe hardships economically. And when you have that sort of vacuum, almost in a culture, things creep in. There are a lot of evangelical churches that have filled that void. But back when I was there, it was a little bit more of the traditional religions.
I took that and ran with it. But the religion that I wrote about is actually the Yoruban religion, which is kind of the forebear of Juju and not exactly Voodoo, but a similar thing. So I took that and I set it in Zimbabwe.
Joanna: So why are you so fascinated with the occult?
It comes up in a lot of your ‘Dominic Grey’ books? What is it that attracts you?
Layton: I think everything about it and an interesting note about the definition. So when I was writing…well, I’m still writing the ‘Dominic Grey’ books, the occult in those books is the supernatural or quasi-supernatural, anything strange and mysterious.
We, you know, tend to think of it as vampires and werewolves and things that go bump in the night. And it can be that, but for the books I’m writing now, and I know we’ll get to this in a minute, we’re using a definition of the occult that just means all things hidden and mysterious. So there’s that as well, whether it be science or even history that just isn’t known to the general public. So I think the occult can have a broad definition. I’ve always been super fascinated by all things occult. I could have easily gotten a degree in theology. Not that it’s easy, but my interest was there, you know what I mean? In fact, I’d like to go back and pursue one. So anything to do with the unknown, I’ve always been fascinated by.
Joanna: Me too. When you travel, do you plan your travel around your books, or do you find stories when you get there? How do you research?
Layton: That’s a great question. And I’d actually be curious as to your answer to that as well. But it’s about 50/50. Often I will plan my books around where I want to travel. But, of course, if the narrative takes me elsewhere, I’ll follow the narrative. But usually, they intertwine really closely.
You can always work a place into the plot that you haven’t been before that you want to go. But I’ll also say that a lot of my novels, as I’m getting into the plot and writing the story, things will come up, or places will come up that I want to visit and I’ll just decide, ‘Okay. It’s on. That’s gonna be where I’m going and that’s part of the story.’
Joanna: How do you document things when you’re there?
Do you take pictures, do you write notes, or do you write later?
Layton: I found that for me, the best way to do it is to take notes as I travel. I take some pictures but I never look at them for writing. I will take my little Moleskine notebook, and my pen, definitely the best part of my job. And I’ll just go to a place and I’ll walk around, and I’ll record my thoughts and impressions. And that, I’ve found, leads to my best writing.
Joanna: And then, I guess, both of us, we base things around a lot of actual places and actual truth, and then we bend that.
So how much do you stay true to the things you see when you travel and how much do you change it?
Layton: I think a hallmark of my writing is that I try to stay as true as possible, especially when it comes to setting. And the only caveat to that is that…you know the old parable of the blind men touching an elephant where they’ll each touch a different part of the elephant so they’ll come away with a vastly different conception of what an elephant is?
Layton: I think it’s a little bit like that with travel. So, for example, take Zimbabwe, for example, I’ve been very pleased to know that people from Zimbabwe have liked that book and the descriptions of it. But it’s probably written more for people that have not been in Zimbabwe or have only been a little bit. I’ve had plenty of books where I’ve had locals tell me, ‘That isn’t how this place is,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Actually, it is. It was just my perception of it.’ I remember I wrote about Bulgaria, and I had a really nasty letter from a Bulgarian reader telling me, ‘That isn’t what Bulgaria is really like.’ And she had a point in that there were lots of more elements to it, I just didn’t write about them. What I wrote about was true in its own way.
Joanna: Do you think that we, as outsiders, see things in a different way than someone who lives there because, by definition, we’re outsiders so we notice what’s different?
Layton: I think, absolutely. If you’ve been paying attention to the kerfuffle about American Dirt, the novel where a white woman with some Latino heritage has written a novel about the immigrant experience from Mexico to America. I won’t get into censorship. If we start telling people they can’t write about experiences, we’re gonna take away a lot of literature. But it really depends on how the novel is framed.
I think, in the thriller space, it’s a lot easier to write about characters that travel around the world and are experiencing things as they go rather than a serious literary memoir about growing up in a place, for example.
Joanna: I would think that what we see as outsiders is almost like the platonic ideal of something. Obviously, it’s not the reality of a place but we almost see a distillation of a place. So in my thriller, One Day in Budapest, clearly Budapest has a lot of depth to it but what I saw in my long weekend in Budapest was the right-wing political situation which has only got worse. That was the thing that really stood out for me as well as the lovely religious mummified hand in the church! [The Holy Right Hand of St Stephen] But it’s almost that that pure aspect of a place that you only get as an outsider.
Layton: Exactly. And I think that’s what people look for. I think that’s what makes people read good fiction is they identify with that platonic ideal. And then there’s also the service of the plot, like, your thrillers, my thrillers, that’s what happened in Bulgaria. I was writing a rather creepy scene about Bulgaria. So I’m looking at cemeteries, and you know, these aspects are a little uncomfortable. But that’s part of it. It’s just, I was writing a horror-thriller so that’s gonna be there.
Joanna: I totally agree. And then, you mentioned cemeteries, of course, we both share a love for cemeteries and graveyards.
In terms of all your travels, what is your favorite graveyard or cemetery?
Layton: Oh, that’s just a wonderful question that I won’t get from anyone else so thank you. I try to put a cemetery in every novel, by the way, at least.
Joanna: Me too. I have a lot of them.
Layton: I didn’t say it. I’m like, ‘Does anyone notice this?’ But my favorite cemetery…I have a couple. I would say Highgate in London for just pure atmosphere, and Père Lachaise in Paris for also atmosphere but just the grandiosity of it. I went to Recoleta in Buenos Aires which is always billed as like Père Lachaise and I was a little bit disappointed, to be honest with you.
Joanna: I haven’t been to that one but I’ve definitely put Highgate and Père Lachaise in my books. Tell us which of your books contain those two cemeteries?
Layton: So Père La… How do you pronounce it? My French is horrible.
Joanna: I say Père Lachaise but…
Layton: Père Lachaise. And you’re English so your French is probably much better than mine. So Père Lachaise was in The Letterbox. It was a very prominent feature. And Highgate was in The Diabolist, the third Dominic Grey novel.
Joanna: Fantastic. I know people are going to be looking at those. So talking of graveyards, we’ve also both written about New Orleans or New Orleans, depending on how people want to pronounce it, where you also attended law school.
So how have you woven New Orleans into your books?
Because I think similar to Zimbabwe in a way, the culture of African American / black culture woven in with the white culture is actually like Zimbabwe, kind of the other way around, but still, that multiculturalism is evident.
Layton: New Orleans, the locals might say ‘Nawlins, but I won’t quite go there to sound like someone who’s trying to say it. So I’ll say New Orleans, it’s my favorite American city. I was there for a couple of years and I go back at least twice a year, every year since.
That city just to me has more sense of atmosphere and place and originality than any other city I’ve been to, I really, really love it. I just think it drips with atmosphere, it’s catnip for a novelist.
London is similar in that way. When I’m in London, I feel like I could write a novel a day just based on what I see. And, you know, a lot of cities, they’re just sort of there and unchanging. They’re great for what they are but similar to much larger cities. In New Orleans, you can have a different experience every day. And the city prides itself on beauty and music and art, and it’s very atmospheric with all the live oaks and the dripping Spanish moss, it’s just a really cool place. I can sit on St. Charles as the sun goes down and just feel like I’m in this really atmospheric city where anything could happen.
Joanna: Do you think that part of its attraction is how European it is?
Layton: Partly. I think it’s a very unique city. It’s the most European American city. But it’s very much its own thing, you know, from the Mardi Gras celebrations — I mean, there’s celebrations all throughout the year in New Orleans. It’s a city that loves to party – But there’s also the Voodoo element, there’s the unique topography where it’s built out of a swamp, and there’s something about that sultry, steamy atmosphere that lends itself, again, to the atmosphere. And the food, the food’s amazing. It’s just a lot of elements.
Joanna: With such a rich cultural history, how do you write about a city like New Orleans without getting into cliché?
Layton: You know, it’s hard. It’s right. I find it almost easier as a traveler to go to a brand new place because there’s so much to say and it’s easy to be original when I’ve never been to Zimbabwe and most people reading about it don’t know about it either.
So you’re right, you know, when you write about Paris, or London, or New Orleans, it can be harder. And on the other hand, it’s a lot easier to get lots of little details because it is so unique and so many things happen there and everything’s so interesting, you know. You can throw in details rather easily. In Zimbabwe, I might do grand sweeps to describe the setting. In New Orleans, it’s more about little slices of life, you know, the salt shaker on a table.
Joanna: And which of your books are around the city?
Layton: The Letterbox, I wrote a ‘Dominic Grey’ novella, which I love and I kind of wish was a full novel called The Reaper’s Game. And the fantasy series, The Brothers Three, it starts off in New Orleans and then goes to an alternate version of Earth and the city, the main city is based on New Orleans. It’s like New Orleans with monsters and magic.
Joanna: Oh, cool. I haven’t actually read that series. And then an interesting question, because I tackle it too with my ‘Mapwalker’ books.
How much of your fantasy writing is based on real places?
Layton: Another great question, and I think we’re probably similar in that I think you’ll get in my fantasy writing something you won’t get with other fantasy books in that I do a lot of traveling. Traveling and writing about travel is one of my strengths.
So I took and made Earth into a fantasy world where, again, all of it as magic monsters, but it’s very similar. It’s like a medieval earth with magic and monsters. So I can go to Prague, for example, do some historical research, then write about it as if I’m there. So I’ve kind of taken that tack to writing that series.
Joanna: I think but Prague is one of those cities that pretty much is a fantasy city anyway.
Layton: Exactly. You don’t have to imagine that much.
Joanna: No, you don’t. So your latest book and your new techno-thriller series, the first book is Genesis, Unknown 9, follows clues around museums and cultural sites around the world which we also both write about a lot.
So what are some of the unusual things that you found researching that book?
Layton: Man, that entire book and then the whole research set for that book was mysterious and interesting. It is my favorite research project so far.
These books are gonna be a lot like the Dominic Grey novels and that there are occult elements and travel and mystery and intrigue. It’s a little bit more on the science techno-thriller side, but it’s, you know, light. You can not even like science fiction or techno-thrillers and enjoy these books. It’s kind of a multicultural Dan Brownish, you know, race across the world to find clues to puzzles and museums and other historical sites.
But I did a lot of research in theoretical physics and ancient history for these novels and it was really fascinating. And the angle we’re going towards, there is a lot of history and science out there that people knew about thousands of years ago, that has been forgotten or buried for whatever reason.
For example, Democritus, I don’t know if you’re familiar with him. He’s an ancient philosopher that lived around a few centuries before Christ. Greek philosopher who told us about the atom, the structure of the atom 1500 years before the West accepted it. And what happened was that knowledge was circulating a bit, you know, theoretically, but it was buried by the church who didn’t like what it said about science and their worldview. And when I started reading about that, I was just absolutely fascinated and thinking, ‘Wow, where would science have been if that would have caught on instead?’
Joanna: And did you travel to find the clues for this or did you research online?
Layton: Well, you know me, I go everywhere, Joanna. Every single place in my books I go to. I don’t know what I’m going to do right now under quarantine. [Note. We recorded this interview in April 2020 under lockdown during the coronavirus COV19 pandemic.]
So, for that novel, I traveled… For novel number one, I went to Copenhagen, London, Egypt, Sweden, and New York.
Joanna: Oh, cool. So does that mean The Met is in it as well?
Layton: The Met is not in those books.
Joanna: No way. Because the Met is full of so many cool things!
Layton: The Met is super cool. The Natural History Museum in New York, New York Museum of Natural History is in it, and the V&A museum is in it. And there’s a lot more unknown museums as well in books two and three.
Joanna: Give us an example of one of those unknown museums because, you know, people have heard of the big ones.
Layton: The Kolkata Museum of Science and Technology. That’s probably maybe not unknown in Kolkata, but yeah. But, you know, I knew you were gonna ask that and I should have looked up a few more. I even made up museums for these novels.
Joanna: That’s always a good way forward.
Layton: Right. I would go to a museum and get inspired, like the Kolkata museum. I made up a museum called the…I think I called it the Kolkata Science and Technology Institute. But if there was something I really wanted to feature, I may veer a little bit, but for the most part, I stayed true.
Joanna: So it’s very difficult when you go into a museum with the type of minds we have, and there are literally hundreds and thousands of objects. So how do you hone into objects that you’d like to write about when you walk into a museum like the British Museum in London, for example, which is…
Joanna: Yes, overwhelming. So how do you kind of cull it down?
Layton: And you’re right, I go in there and I just want to read every placard. I mean, I could spend my life in the British Museum and just waste it.
Joanna: It wouldn’t be wasted!
Layton: That’s true. And I could read about everything. So you’re right, you have to boil it down. And I would say, usually, I have an idea for the plot and I’ll go in and I know what section I’m going to and I’ll just like, maybe I’ll write about mummies. So I will spend a few hours or even a day in the Egyptian section and then I’ll usually get some ideas or inspiration that I hadn’t thought of before. So it’s a little bit of narrowing it down, but also being open to inspiration.
Joanna: I tend to also go along to the special exhibitions. So I went to one on Viking history that ended up being my book, Day Of The Vikings, which was based on Neo-Vikings arriving to plunder the actual exhibition. So I’ve written about British Museum exhibitions in so many books…
Layton: I bet you have.
Joanna: …which is really fun. But as you mentioned, we’re recording this in April 2020 during the Coronavirus pandemic which has us in lockdown, they’ve actually today extended the lockdown here in the UK. So neither of us can travel which is kind of crazy for both our mental health but also our job.
Does travel mean even more when it’s not possible and where will you be heading once lockdown is over?
Layton: I think so. I had I think seven trips that have already been canceled or in the next few months will be canceled. I know that other people are being hurt much worse, but that is my particular pain.
Thankfully, I can still work because I’m a novelist so I can still write but not leaving my house or my neighborhood is really hard because travel is my lifeblood. So I think when it’s over, I’ll just try and repurpose some of the trips I was going to take. I need to travel for the third novel in the trilogy that I’m writing and that’s gonna take place all over Europe so I’m looking forward to that. But even just going to the beach or the mountains or down to New Orleans, I’m really missing that.
Joanna: And can you identify specifically, what it is that travel gives you?
Layton: I’ve never actually thought about that. I think it just opens up the world. I think I’ve always been someone who needs a little bit of stimulation. I like to see and do new things. And funnily, I didn’t travel until I was 20. I grew up in a small town in Kentucky and then moved to Tennessee and I think I’ve been to the beach in my grandmother’s house and that was it. And then when I went…I had a scholarship to college and I went to London for a semester, and my eyes just…I was like, ‘Oh yes, I’m gonna be traveling the rest of my life.’
Joanna: I’m with you. I’m also just ‘itchy foot’ at the moment, desperate to get out.
Layton: It’s really hard, it’s really hard.
Joanna: It is.
Layton: You’re in Bath, right?
Joanna: Yes, Bath as we call it here.
Layton: Okay, I’ll stick with Bath, I think. But to you, that’s like always taking a wash, but it’s one of my favorite cities too. So are you able to walk around it at all?
Joanna: We can go for one walk a day. The Government allowed one walk a day but not for a long time. And it’s very closed down, obviously, as everywhere is so it is quite a different place right now. Quite spooky, though so good for writing.
Layton: It’s a beautiful city. Oh, I love that.
Joanna: So I wanted to ask you since obviously, we’re all doing much more reading, so apart from your own books, what are a few books that you would recommend that have an incredible sense of place or that you love?
Layton: Present company excluded, I would say someone that comes to mind is a writer named Michael Gruber. He’s criminally unknown but he writes amazing novels. And he wrote a series that I think you would like. They are thrillers that delve into the supernatural and the unknown and they’re set mostly in Miami and Tropic of Night is the first, that has an amazing sense of place.
I’m a huge fan of Martin Cruz Smith and I think when I read Gorky Park, I think wow, that he just absolutely nailed that setting. But I think my favorite of all, probably because he writes about New Orleans, is James Lee Burke. And if you haven’t read him, I highly, highly recommend his Dave Robicheaux mystery series. It’s set mostly in New Orleans and a little bit in Montana.
Joanna: Well, we’re talking about international thrillers, I just read a fantastic trilogy by a Basque writer called Dolores Redondo, The Basque Trilogy, it’s in translation, and it’s just fantastic setting.
Layton: I interviewed her. And I think it’s the first novel in that trilogy, for the column [ Check out Layton’s interview with Dolores here in The Big Thrill.]
Joanna: Oh, there you go. I’ll link to that in the show notes because I just got into these books and the devastating thing is the fourth one hasn’t been translated.
Layton: Let’s hope it will be. That is a bummer when a series just gets, you know, halfway through it, and there’s no more translations.
Joanna: No, exactly, it’s difficult. But those are some great recommendations. So where can people find you and your books online?
Layton: You can go to www.LaytonGreen.com, it’s probably the best place to go. I’m on Facebook and, of course, Amazon and Goodreads is another good place. But the website, newly revamped website is probably the best place to go.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Layton. That was great.
Layton: Thank you, Joanna. Always a pleasure.