Writer’s Block With Ross Armstrong

If you haven’t spotted him on Mr Selfridge or Ripper Street, you may have read his book The Watcher. Actor and writer ROSS ARMSTRONG shares his love of Dublin and how he used to play ping pong with KIM CATTRALL

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Ross Armstrong is a classically trained English actor of stage and screen who has just become a published author. The RADA alumnus has treaded the boards with some serious names such as Jude Law in Hamlet, Kim Cattrall in Antony and Cleopatra and Joseph Fiennes in Cyrano de Bergerac. Ross’s curriculum vitae boasts work on such television and movie productions as Invisible Eyes, Foyle’s War, Mr Selfridge and most recently Ripper Street, which was largely filmed in Dublin.

Armstrong’s first book, The Watcher, is a greatly awaited thriller about a woman who compulsively peers at her neighbours from her apartment window; until she witnesses a sight not for her eyes. The chilling story has already been dubbed the next Girl On The Train.

Ross Armstrong lives in London with his fiancée. He has just completed his second novel.

On creating close to home

I often write in a café that’s within the complex where I live, and it even made it into The Watcher. There are various pitfalls of writing about where you live; one being that if you’ve spent time imagining murders taking place there, it can be a slightly more disturbing place than it was the day you moved in. I need a necessary wedge between the imaginary and actual place where I live. When the narrator, Lily, also virtually resides in your flat and has a semi-psychotic inner monologue, it’s nice to be able to put her away for a while and differentiate the world through her eyes and the one through yours.

The café I write in sits at the centre of the community and is frequented by all the varied kinds of people. It’s useful and comforting to spend time in a public place where the low hum of normal chatter keeps things ticking over, not just to get away from Lily and me on my own in the flat, but also because a mesh of cultures is something I’m interested in in my writing. It helps me reflect a realistic vision of London in terms of demographic. And being amongst people going about their daily lives can remind you of a little detail of reality that might make its way into the book.

When I’m not working in this or various other cafés, I’m working at home sitting next to my dog. I heard someone once say about writing that you should always feel like you’re bunking off from something and I get that. I try and vary every day, some days I write on my balcony, some days I sit on the sofa, some days at the kitchen table, but most of all I go for the seat in the corner of the living room next to a map of New York and a fluorescent framed butterfly. Either in silence or listening to wordless music, mostly Steve Reich, sometimes the sound of something useful and ambient; like birdsong in the case of The Watcher. Anything to create a mood and not fall into a routine.

On his nightstand

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy is currently sitting below my bedside lamp. Not only does it have one of those evocative covers, but the story spirits you away to another place and I don’t want to feel like I’ve finished it yet. Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh is not far away; a magnificent character and world that intoxicated me in a different way. I have Stoner by John Williams in a frame on my living room wall. And an Ian Rankin book is never far away.

On Dublin

I love being in Dublin. I stayed near Dalkey during Ripper Street which is a beautiful place. I’ve filmed in Dublin a few times so have stayed in various places and have been to every cinema in the city. The Savoy is a big, classic picture house, the kind I remember from first seeing movies when I was young. And the Irish Film Institute is another superb place to watch a movie. While I was there a few years ago doing Foyle’s War I somehow crashed the premier of Irish director Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did. He also made this year’s Room. Both films are brilliant crime stories in their own way.

I like being alone in a city but the other great thing about doing a job away from home is the peculiar sense that you get to go on holiday with strangers. This may not be something everyone would enjoy but is something actors get used to I think, having friends for a few weeks who you may never see again afterwards. There were two guys who I had a great time hanging about with on that job, who were older than me and I’d seen in lots of things. We stayed in Ballsbridge and often went to Roly’s Bistro for dinner. We went and had seafood and Guinness in Howth. On our last night we went to see the French film Intouchables at the superb Lighthouse cinema, which is a really life affirming movie. I always know exactly where I was and how I felt when I saw a film I loved, the cinema is an emotional place for me. Sadly, one of those actors passed away recently, so that particular brilliant film we shared in a Dublin cinema will be saved for posterity in my mind forever.

On famous co-stars

I remember meeting Kim Cattrall on the first day of a theatre show and immediately going to play ping pong with her. She already knew her part well enough to recite it as we played, which was pretty impressive. Table tennis became a bit of a thing on that job after that and she ended up buying the theatre a ping pong table on press night. This prompted me to organise an overly intricate knockout tournament, which the whole company took part in, with matches taking place whenever we weren’t on stage.

Jude Law is a complete gent of the theatre. He would walk up five flights of stairs to shake everyone’s hand and have a chat before every show, then go downstairs and be brilliant as Hamlet on Broadway every night. When you have that kind of actor at the head of a company and a group of talented people you love being with, on and off stage, I can’t imagine a better job. Except that I did imagine another job, and that was writing a novel. Somehow that worked out too and I’m very grateful to get to do a bit of both. One is lonely and thoughtful, the other job is largely physical and collegiate, so I need both to balance each other out. Writing to have things my way to some extent. And acting to collaborate and learn from other people, as I have done from every single person I’ve worked with.

On watching

I think at a time where we present altered images of ourselves over social media but stay well within our comfort zone in our real social lives more than ever, living within various echo chambers, we have to wonder what the other echo chambers look like. Since reality TV came along, and even before that with soaps, we started to realise that the people next door are as interesting as anything in the movies if viewed through the right lens. Now we all share this secret, sitting on the Tube, abiding by normal social rules, pretending not to be interested in the person next to you. In a time of fake buzz stories, and with an understanding that a lot of news is editorially skewed to crowd-please or appal for commercially driven purposes, the possibility of seeing unmediated drama has never been more salacious. But somehow we’ve never been more afraid to show an unmediated version of ourselves. Watching, like politics and social media, has become a power struggle and a war.

On what’s next

I’m in a TV show called Will, for TNT, a big budget telling of the young life of William Shakespeare directed by Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) and written by Craig Pearce (Great Gatsby, Moulin Rouge). It’s a fantastic punk reading of this period of history with amazing writing and characters. And then there’s my second book. It’s about a man stumbling ill-advisedly on a serious crime in Tottenham while adjusting to a new way of seeing the world after recovering from the effects of a major head injury. It’s Seven meets The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, and it’s been really exciting to write.

The Watcher (€14.99) is published by HarperCollins and available now from bookshops nationwide.

Sophie Grenham @SophieGrenham

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