How to Make a Bomb by Rupert Thomson is an extraordinary novel that lays bare the extreme possibilities an existential crisis provokes in the protagonist. Philip Notman is an acclaimed historian who, when returning from a conference in Bergen to London something inexplicable happens and he is unable to settle back into his normal life.

It is an enthralling story of alienation and feeling fragmented and trapped in a dislocating world. This is a brilliant piece of writing and we were thrilled to have the opportunity to speak to Rupert Thomson about his writing, the interesting style of this novel and how Philip was brought to life. 


Rupert Thomson is the author of thirteen critically acclaimed novels, including The Insult, which was shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize, and chosen by David Bowie as one of his 100 Must-Read Books of All Time, Death of a Murderer, which was shortlisted for the Costa Prize, and The Book of Revelation, which was made into a feature film by the Australian writer/director, Ana Kokkinos.

His memoir, This Party’s Got to Stop, won the Writers’ Guild Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2010. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and has contributed to the Financial Times, Guardian, London Review of Books, Granta, and Independent. He lives in London.

Did you always intend to write the novel in non-traditional prose? Though this is brilliantly effective and feels organic, we wondered if the novel went through different incarnations of form before its final state.

I got the idea very early on, from a friend who writes emails with a new line for each new thought and no full stops. It’s as if she’s so busy that she has no time to punctuate. In a work of fiction, though, I thought the absence of full stops would convey the idea of someone who felt he was trapped in reality rather than simply living in it. It would also convey momentum, velocity – a dynamic that felt inescapable. At the same time, paradoxically, I thought that all that space on the page might actually slow readers down. It might make them read more thoughtfully, or feel as if they were floating.

The form the book took also changed the way I wrote. Visually, the prose resembled poetry, which meant I had the possibility to write poetically, where appropriate. At the same time, I could allow a single sentence to run on, clause after clause. I could be ungrammatical. I had to write dialogue differently as well. Too much “he said/she said” looked unwieldy on the page. At some point, I came across an interview with Philip Glass. When he was young, he got a job transcribing Ravi Shankar’s music. At first, he couldn’t work out how to do it. What Shankar was playing didn’t fit on to the sheet music. Finally, Glass realised that the bars were making the task impossible. If he removed the bars, everything flowed. Writing How To Make a Bomb felt a lot like that. The layout freed the book to be itself.

Why Cádiz and Crete? Are these places you have a connection to?

Philip’s progress from London to Cadiz and then on to the south coast of Crete fitted with his seeming quest for greater simplicity and authenticity. Other locations would probably have worked just as well, but I happen to have spent a lot of time in both Spain and Crete. Since the book was written during Covid, and travel was impossible, it made sense to use places I already knew.

Thinking about the characters Philip encounters in Crete, and their stories, what was the inspiration behind them?

Though Ioannis is loosely based on a man I know who runs a taverna, most of the characters who appear in Crete – Mrs Zoumpoulakis, Niko, Anatolia – are entirely fictional. Their stories came to me, just as they did. I did however experience exactly what Philip experiences at the monastery of St John the Theologian. When I asked the gatekeeper and the monks if I could stay at the monastery, they denied me three times. It was frustrating, as I was eager to know what it was like to be in that particular monastery at night. In retrospect, though, the fact that I wasn’t allowed to stay there turned out to be a kind of gift.   

Could you elaborate on the idea of “civilisation sickness”?

So far as I understand it, “civilisation sickness” is a Japanese idea. (The Japanese word for it is bunmeibyo.) Various factors such as increased social mobility and urbanisation on a massive scale have worked to undermine or even destroy the extended family. As a result, people have grown up without the security and moral guidance that used to be provided by contact with elders. People have also been cut off from the natural world, which has substantially increased anxiety and stress. What fascinated me was the notion that living in a certain kind of world – simply being alive in it – could make you ill. If you read Mark Fisher’s short but brilliant dissection of early twenty-first century society, Capitalist Realism, you’ll get a Western take on civilisation sickness. 

How did you decide what the content of Philip’s Notmanifesto would be?

I did write an entire “notmanifesto”. It seemed important that I should know what Philip thought. Originally, I intended to include it at the back of the book, as an appendix. In the end, though, I decided against it. I thought the book should end where it does. I didn’t want anything to interfere with the ambiguity that readers are confronted with on the last page. I didn’t want anything to colour their feelings about what might happen next. It was enough to suggest Philip’s manifesto by weaving excerpts from it into the fabric of the novel. His thinking is not particularly original, but his desire for change is profound and genuine. 

Did you always know what the final scene would be?

When I start work on a book, I’m writing into the unknown. I give myself over to something that feels much more powerful and mysterious than I am. I’m in the dark, and I have no idea where I’m going to end up. The idea that Philip Notman might entertain the idea of becoming a terrorist wouldn’t have occurred to me, not in a million years. After completing the first few drafts, I had the feeling that he would go through with his drastic plan, but it always happened in his head rather than in reality. He also imagined abandoning the idea. He imagined returning to his wife. As the writer, the trick was to give the two imaginary endings equal weight and leave it up to the reader to decide what Philip does. Having said that, I do feel as if I tilted the balance ever so slightly in favour of one of the endings – though nothing is certain… 

What do you hope readers take from reading How to Make a Bomb?

I like what the Swedish writer, Lars Norén, says on this subject. “Once the book is written, the author dies”. My intentions, my desires, my hopes – they’re all irrelevant. They have no weight, no influence. It’s up to readers to make of the book what they will. That’s why reading is so magical. It’s an interaction between the reader and the book, and the writer has no place in it, and no idea what is going to happen. As Andrei Tarkovsky said: “A book read by a thousand different readers is a thousand different books."

If I have a wish, it’s that I’m taking readers into a world they weren’t expecting, one that feels at once familiar and strange.

Was there a novel or moment in time that made you think, I want to be an author?

I’ve never really thought of myself as an “author”. The word sounds too self-regarding and puffed-up. In any case, I identify with the verb rather than the noun. I’m somebody who writes. Benjamin Labatut calls it “a sacred endeavour”. That feels right. And as much as I’d love to tell you there was a Damascene moment, I don’t remember one. I have been writing since I was about twelve – though it was always poetry back then. TS Eliot and Sylvia Plath were huge inspirations. It wasn’t until I was twenty-seven that I turned to prose full-time. Even now, I continue to read poetry. My muses are Ann Carson, Jorie Graham, Karen Solie, and Louise Glück.

Can you tell us a bit about your writing process? Where do you write and do you have any writing habits? Do they change with each book you write?

I’ve just done a Masterclass about craft and process for Arvon, and I talked practically non-stop for two hours, so it’s going to be impossible to say everything I want to say in a few sentences. For me, the first draft is when writing is at its most urgent and most magical everything. It’s a headlong plunge into the unknown. It’s when I feel most alive. After that, I do another ten or eleven drafts, beginning to end each time. I work seven hours a day, seven days a week. I’m in touch with the material every day – and I use the word ‘touch’ intentionally. The process feels physical. You have to be there, or you might miss something.

Neil Young once said, “If you go over and over a song, it gets technically better…Spiritually, though, you’re further from the source”.

Rewriting is an attempt to get closer to what it was I was trying to say in the first place. On the one hand, I’m refining what I’ve done. Trying to make it more accurate. Trying to perfect it. At the same time, I have to make sure I don’t over-polish. I can’t afford to lose touch with the original spirit. Those two seemingly opposite endeavours or considerations are both part of the process.  

Which kind of scenes flow most freely as you write them? And which are more challenging to write?

You’d think that writing would get easier with time. It doesn’t. If anything, it gets more difficult. And I’ve come to believe that it should feel difficult. If I’m writing and it feels easy, an alarm bell goes off inside me. I’ve clearly taken on a project that isn’t challenging enough. As to why some scenes flow and others don’t, I’ve no idea. But there are usually moments during a first draft when I find myself writing something that I didn’t see coming, something I didn’t know I had in me. You could call that inspiration, I suppose. And that kind of passage can become a reference point for the entire book. When I feel I might be losing my grip on what I’m doing, I read that passage again and then I’m back on track.

Out of all your books, who have been your favourite characters to write about, and what was it about them in particular that spoke to you? 

I don’t have favourite characters. They’re all interesting to me, every one of them. Recently, I imagined going to a party where the only guests were people I had either invented or written about. Given I have published fifteen books – some short stories too – the room would be pretty crowded. What would it be like for characters from different books to meet? What would happen when Odell Burfoot, the psychopomp from Divided Kingdom, was introduced to Neville Creed, the corrupt funeral director from The Five Gates of Hell? Would Gloria, the young jazz singer from Dreams of Leaving, end up playing a few numbers with Nacho, the alcoholic pianist from Barcelona Dreaming?

And how would my characters view me? Would they be wary? Would they be grateful? Would ‘real-life’ characters like Myra Hindley (Death of a Murderer), Gaetano Guilio Zumbo (Secrecy) and Claude Cahun (Never Anyone but You) have issues with how I portrayed them?

Which books do you like to read? What was the last book that you read and would recommend?

My favourite writers are Roberto Bolaño, Natalia Ginzburg, Agota Kristof,  Laszlo Krasznahorkai, Jenny Erpenbeck, Patrick Modiano, Jean Rhys, Cesare Pavese, Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, Helen de Witt, Isak Dinesen, and Jayne Anne Philipps. If you sent me to a desert island with books by all of those above, I’d be happy. The last great work of fiction that I read was Our Share of Night by the Argentinian writer, Mariana Enriquez. 

What is next for you in terms of writing?

I have three different books under way. There’s a short novel set in Italy in the early 2000s. The seventh draft is already completed. In February I finished the first draft of a new novel set in Eastbourne, the town where I grew up. I have also written the first 50,000 words of a hybrid book – part memoir, part fiction. I’ve put that on one side for now, as I have no idea how to take it any further. It feels impossible. I’m currently working on the pilot for a new TV series. Hopefully, I’ll also soon be writing a screen adaptation of my fifth novel, Soft!

You can follow Rupert on X: @RupertThomson1