Peerpoint consultant and authorA&O: 1991-1997
FACT, FICTION AND THE ART OF WRITING
Abi Silver, the author behind The Pinocchio Brief
Leeds native Abi Silver always wanted to be a lawyer and achieved her ambition when she joined A&O, armed with a law degree from Cambridge. She worked as a litigator in A&O’s London office for six years. In her first novel, The Pinocchio Brief, she draws on her knowledge of the law to explore the use of cutting-edge technology in the criminal justice system.
Dan, my husband, went to work for an oil and gas company as in-house counsel, and they asked him to open an office in Israel. I’d temporarily stopped working after the birth of our first son, so it was a good time to go overseas. We lived in Israel for four years and had two more boys while we were there.
I considered working in Israel. The six-day week didn’t put me off but having young children and no family support nearby would have made it difficult. So instead I learned Hebrew, completed an MBA, took pottery classes and began to write. We were surrounded by artists where we lived in Ra’anana, just outside Tel Aviv. Everyone was supportive and encouraged me to try different things. It was during that time that I started writing my first novel.
I returned to RPC when we moved back to the UK, but the pressures of work and childcare meant that my writing got shelved, which was a shame. When I left RPC, I started looking for ways of combining writing with being a lawyer. That was when I finished the first draft of The Pinocchio Brief.
I’ve always been a bit geeky. The idea for the book came from an article in New Scientist that described software being developed to monitor faces and assess tiny, almost invisible movements when a person speaks that show whether they are telling the truth.
The book is about a school boy who is accused of murdering his teacher. He won’t explain to his lawyers what happened and so they struggle to put together a defence for him with very little information.
During his trial it’s decided that, due to cuts in the criminal justice budget, the courts will use assistive technology to help decide whether the boy is telling the truth. I based the technology on the product I’d read about and called it Pinocchio. It allowed me to explore the idea of whether humans or computers are better at making judgements about human honesty.
The book was published in July 2017 and has had good reviews from The Times and The Times Crime Club, Daily Mail and The Literary Review, which called it “an excellent first novel”. I am very excited to see how it will be received by the public.
A product like Pinocchio exists; it’s called Silent Talker. It’s purportedly used for vetting and assessing credibility but not in court proceedings. I’m yet to be convinced that it should have the final say in any big decisions, but I’d love to see it in action.
I’m not against the idea of relying on technology to some extent, especially when you consider the number of miscarriages of justice that occur on the basis that either forensic or witness evidence is wrong, or juries are biased or misled. On the other hand, we do tend to see technological solutions as infallible, so, for example, most people are surprised to hear that traditional lie detectors are only about 60% accurate.
Absolutely. There are some obvious transferable skills, like self-discipline, organisation, writing concisely and structuring your work. Litigators often work as detectives too, so writing a crime novel was natural in that respect.
If I’m not working on a legal assignment, I try to write every day. Even if it ends up being deleted, it’s important to just get on with it. I don’t plan all the details. I tend to have a few ideas, start to write, and the story will build from there. Working with an editor and publisher helped me with plotting and getting a story to flow, so I might plan more for my next book.
I had some early setbacks. I didn’t secure an agent or a publisher for a long time, and no-one in my family was terribly interested in the book either! That kept me grounded and as a lawyer I’m naturally cautious. In the end, a publisher I knew through a friend agreed to read the first three chapters, and things developed from there. It was only when I knew he was interested and had accepted the book that I allowed myself to get excited.
I still enjoy legal work, but it’s hard to combine a full-time job with writing. While I was writing The Pinocchio Brief, an old A&O friend mentioned Peerpoint to me. I discussed it with Lisa Mulley, whom I knew from my A&O days, and could see that contract work through Peerpoint would be the perfect solution: for the first time I believed it would be possible to pursue both careers. It’s great to keep those links with A&O and work via an organisation for which I have so much respect. I’ve loved having the flexibility to write when I want and keep my legal brain active. I’m very lucky to be able to keep my options open.
“For the first time [with Peerpoint] I believed it would be possible to pursue both careers.”
Well there’s Dan, of course, but I also made lasting friendships at A&O. The trainee group was small and we had lots of social activities which brought us together. There was more of a sense of camaraderie than competition among peers, and I’m still good friends with many of them and people I worked with in other teams too. Many of my old A&O colleagues, including Ray Berg, Jane and Toby Gibson, Susan Hazledine, Julia Noble, Emma Campbell, Emma Sharman, Emma Gilkes, Chris Georgiou and Mike Hawthorne, came to my book launch. It was wonderful to have their support and all be together again.Catching up with Julia Noble, Emma Campbell, Emma Sharman and Emma Gilkes at Abi’s July launch at Waterstones, Leadenhall Market, London.
I’ve started to write a sequel. I’m going to keep working as a consultant and will of course have to be careful about who and what I draw on. But I’m confident I can do that in a way that lets me pursue both careers. It’s an exciting time.
Reconnect with Abi Silver via the Alumni Network at allenovery.com/alumniThe Pinocchio Brief is published by Lightning Books in paperback and digital versions
THE ART OF THE ‘WHAT IF’
Shankari Chandran, the author behind The Barrier
Shankari Chandran joined A&O’s London office in 1999 as an associate in the Corporate department. She then moved to pro bono and ran an award-winning social justice programme before returning home to Australia. Her books draw on subjects she worked on as a pro bono lawyer; an interest in science and technology informed her new novel, The Barrier.
I loved my ten years at A&O. The partners responsible for the Pro Bono department, and particularly David Mackie QC, Guy Beringer QC, Stephen Denyer and David Morley, were committed to the concept of social justice, and it was their drive and leadership that made it possible to have such a high-impact programme. The pro bono team members were immensely capable and dedicated professionals and I miss working with them, even now.
The variety of work was extraordinary. Over those years, our lawyers represented detainees at Guantanamo Bay, they worked on multijurisdictional law reform projects to track down perpetrators of child pornography, and I was lucky enough to be part of a team advising Gordon Brown when he was prime minister. We worked with leading organisations such as Liberty, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Interights, which introduced me to the importance of international humanitarian law and the consequences when these laws are ignored during armed conflict.
Watching what an international law firm and determined volunteers can achieve was a real privilege. I still talk to Helen Rogers, Sue Wisbey, Emma Shaw and Terri Wipperman, as well as Colin Pearson, Louise Zekaria, Davina Watson and Michelle Blythe who were in the team but have since left A&O. I loved working with Colin: as well as being a good friend and fellow lover of literature, he helps me understand my publishing contracts!
I left A&O at the end of 2009 to come back to Australia. I was about to have my fourth child and, as much as I loved my work, it was time to come home. Before I had my baby, I worked briefly for the Attorney General’s office developing its international pro bono strategy.
“The partners responsible for the Pro Bono department, and particularly David Mackie QC, Guy Beringer QC, Stephen Denyer and David Morley, were committed to the concept of social justice.”
I’d loved writing as a child, but was never brave enough to commit to it as a career. When I came back to Australia, I was unsettled by the feeling that it didn’t seem like home. At the same time, I discovered the world of blogging, and I started to write as a way of helping me to find my place. As luck would have it, my blog was picked up by a well-known lifestyle website in Australia. I ended up writing regularly for it on all sorts of subjects, from parenting to multiculturalism. This work gave me the confidence to tackle writing a novel.
The Barrier is set in the aftermath of a global religious war and an Ebola pandemic. The West won the war and peace and a new political order are established. The West then sets about using technology to isolate the East both physically and virtually and to deliver healthcare that will ensure the virus is kept at bay. Against this backdrop, the book’s protagonist is sent to the East to investigate a rogue scientist who is jeopardising herd immunity and risking the release of another virus.
I’ve published two books this year and I’m working on a third, which I describe below. They’ve been reviewed well, with write-ups in The Economist’s 1843 culture magazine and Sydney Morning Herald’s Pick of the Week as well as numerous profiles in the Australian and Sri Lankan press. My first novel, The Sun God, was reviewed well on both sides of the political and ethnic divide in Sri Lanka, where it is set, which is reassuring. My next challenge is to break into the international market.
Although it’s not a science fiction novel, the book employs many different technologies to explore moral questions that are pertinent today.
Initially I spent time researching the technology and science of immunology. I was fortunate to be able to discuss my ideas with my sibling, who is an immunologist. The medical technology discussed in the book (technology that diagnoses problems in the brain and blood) was invented with the help of my dad, who is a neurosurgeon.
During the writing, I reached a point where the ‘real-life’ science wouldn’t work for the plot, so I began to add plausible fictional science. For example, I used current science and understanding of the Ebola virus to create a fictitious variant strain of the disease.
I wanted to bring out the idea of political motivations behind public health delivery. It’s interesting to examine what disease research we invest in and how those choices reflect our values and priorities. So, for example, the global health burden of diseases such as syphilis, cholera and tuberculosis is significant. However, we invest less (per capita of incidence) in curing those diseases than we do in breast cancer, which is very much a First World disease. The book also describes a cyber barrier that stops the movement of people, knowledge and information between the East and West. Again, I wanted to explore the distinction between protection and using that same technology to make incursions into our private lives that we are undoubtedly not aware of. The book presents a world order that uses (and abuses) technologies to keep us safe, but also to maintain power structures. It asks the reader to consider the morality of those decisions and trade-offs.
I think the practice of law is excellent training for being a writer. At A&O, I was surrounded by colleagues who had drive, self-discipline and stamina as well as rigorous intellectual abilities. Growing up professionally in that environment strengthened my eye for detail and consistency, my research skills and focus on a structured narrative arc. It also gave me the stamina for the hundreds of rewrites that are always needed to get a book finished. And after all those years in a darkened data room, I can concentrate and write anywhere, without access to water, fresh air or natural lighting.
I take the kids to school and then come straight home and bash away at the keyboard. I don’t reread my work until months later; I just keep writing, until I have a substantial amount of material. I don’t tinker with or judge my work as I go along, I just get it down on the page. I try to get on with the job, as David Mackie QC used to advise me. The editing and rewrites come much later. I’m a great believer in what the writer Jodi Picoult says: “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
I’m working on my third book. It’s a political thriller set in Sri Lanka at the end of the civil war. A high-profile journalist is executed in the streets of Colombo in broad daylight. No-one knows who did it or why. As part of the writing process, I’m researching the Geneva Conventions, land mine treaties and other aspects of international law. When that’s done, I’d like to write a gentle novella about my grandmother.
I still have great friends at A&O, and because of the nature of pro bono and community work, they are in offices all around the world. There’s something about people who love this kind of work; a shared set of aspirations, I suppose. I still talk to Bob Nightingale and Julie Bishop, who were clients. Over the years, I made good friends, such as David Campbell, Catherine Husted and Francis Herbert, and love connecting with them from time to time. We all work hard and get so absorbed in our lives, so surprise emails from friends in distant places are a lovely reminder that good things last. My A&O friends are wonderfully resolute, commercially pragmatic and quietly subversive people. They’ve been excited about my books and can see the A&O years in them.
“My A&O friends are wonderfully resolute, commercially pragmatic and quietly subversive people. They’ve been excited about my books and can see the A&O years in them.”
Reconnect with Shankari Chandran via the Alumni Network at allenovery.com/alumni
The Barrier is published by Macmillan Australia in paperback and digital versions.