Making Eye Contact with novelist Fergus McNeill

An interview with novelist Fergus McNeill by Gill Johnson and Carole Hastings


Fergus McNeill has been creating computer games since the early eighties, when he started writing interactive fiction titles. Over the following years he became well-known in the industry, both for his own content, and his adaptations of other authors’ material, including working with Terry Pratchett to create the first Discworld game.

Moving from interactive fiction to interactive movie adaptations, Fergus set up and managed the development studio for SCi (now Eidos) where he co-wrote and directed voiceover scripts for a number of games including the award-winning Kingdom O’ Magic.

He has previously written a parody sci-fi novel and a children’s picture book (which he also illustrated) but Eye Contact is his first serious novel.

Now CEO at an iPhone game development studio, Fergus lives in Hampshire. He is 43, married, with a teenage son.



Q:  What gives you the inspiration to write?

Fergus: It varies. I'm fascinated by people, and I often find myself day-dreaming a back-story for someone sitting on the next table in Starbucks, imagining where their life might lead. But it's also important to have a hook – my first novel, Eye Contact, grew from a conversation with a friend, where we were speculating about strangers who glance at you in the street, and how difficult it would be to find one of them again. Later, I started to wonder about why a character might be searching for random strangers… and that became the basis of my serial killer.


Q:  Did you write as a child?

Fergus: Yes, but not in the traditional way. While I was at school in the 1980s, home computers were just arriving, and I started creating adventure games – interactive fiction, where a story would branch into a myriad of possible outcomes depending which options you chose. Some of my early games were spotted by magazine reviewers, and their favourable coverage persuaded me that writing was something I should pursue.


Q:  How do you write?  Are you disciplined?  Do you have a timetable? How long does it take for novel?

Fergus: It sounds a bit odd, but where possible I try to write "on location", at least during the early stages of the story. If a scene is happening in Bristol or London, I take my laptop and visit the setting. I'll often write outdoors (weather permitting) or find a local café, and the train journey home is usually spent typing furiously.

I'm not very disciplined when it comes to writing – I have a family and a full-time job – but my wife makes sure I devote some time each weekend to the story I'm working on. I have a three-book deal with Hodder & Stoughton, so there is a timetable of sorts – one book a year – which is manageable for me.


Q:  What was it like to have your first book published?

Fergus: The process is quite lengthy, so it's more a series of increasingly euphoric episodes, rather than one monumental event. But the feeling of holding a finished copy of your novel is absolutely wonderful.


Q:  Do you feel under pressure when you have success to pick up a pen and write again?

Fergus: I'm always worried about being able to live-up to what I wrote previously. However, I've learned that chapters seem to magically improve by themselves if you put them away for a month or so. I kept reminding myself of this while I was starting book 2 and then, as the story began to come together, the confidence returned.


Q:  How much hard research needs to go into a crime novel and what areas are essential versus "nice to have" areas?

Fergus: If I was doing a normal Police Procedural, it would be different, but my novels focus more on the people, on their daily lives and, in the case of Eye Contact, on the life of the murderer. I try to work out their whole story, thinking about everything that has brought them up to the point where the book begins. I also do a lot of research into places – almost every location is a real, identifiable place, and I try to get the details exactly right.

Researching the crime aspect itself is the hardest part. There are some things you just don't want to look into too deeply, but it all needs to be convincing, and I've had some valuable (and chilling) help from police officers and other crime authors, as well as reading some very unsettling articles from Google.


Q:  What is the best way for someone to approach institutions for information like how long it takes for lab tests to get back to an investigating officer?

Fergus: So far, a personal introduction seems to be the best approach. I've been trying to contact certain people in the Police through official channels, without success. Find someone who's a friend of a friend, and things seem much simpler.


Q:  How do you determine what research/facts to keep in and leave out?

Fergus: Obviously, the deciding factor is whether it improves the story, but there's more to it than that. My first book is partly a serial-killer-procedural, as it follows the planning and commissioning of crimes. As such, any research/facts that make it feel more credible are tempting to include. However, someone asked me a couple of years ago if I was writing a "How to…" crime novel, and the idea appalled me. Ever since then, I've tried to be careful about how much I spell out in the books, especially as I began to realize that my serial killers methods would make him very difficult to catch.


Q:  Did some of the events in your stories happen?

Fergus: Yes. After I'd completed the first draft of Eye Contact, the tragic murder of Jo Yeates hit the headlines. A friend pointed out a disturbing number of similarities between the story and real life events. At the time, I stopped submitting the manuscript and considered shelving the whole project. It was some time before I felt able to send the story out again and, with my publisher's agreement, I've subsequently changed aspects of the plot to respectfully distance it from actual events.


PHOTOGRAPHS ©Fergus McNeill - Portrait and Book Cover

To find out more about Fergus, his works and to connect follow this link:  Twitter @fergusmcneill