TRACING a book's point of conception can be a difficult task for any writer, so when The Last Tiger came roaring out of the Australian bush at me, the shock - perhaps aptly - was a bit like seeing a ghost.
I'd washed up in a sleepy country town in south-west Victoria where I found work on the local newspaper. My previous news round had been Inverness-shire in the Scottish Highlands, a place which couldn't have been more different, except perhaps in one cryptozoological regard. The Aussie bush had no Nessie but what it did have was its very own mystery creature - an officially dead one - stalking the region's collective imagination.
In newsrooms the world over some stories are a hard-sell to busy reporters. The more obviously glamorous tales get snapped up, anything with front-page potential is an easy offload, but the 'crank file' generally gets thrown at those with the least clout or experience. That's pretty much how I managed to get the 'tiger eating out of a dumpster in suburbia story'.
I spoke to a bloke who claimed to have some "totally dinkum footage" of the extinct Tasmanian Tiger. The species was officially declared dead and gone in its island home by 1936 but had been absent from the mainland since rising seas cut off the island 10,000 years ago. After watching the grainy old VHS tape sent to me in the post I duly wrote the story up and the newspaper went to press.
The next morning I had hardly got my jacket off before the office phone was ringing with more claims of tiger sightings. I spoke to a builder who reckoned he'd hit one with his ute during a bush-clearing for a new build. I took numerous 'tiger in the headlights' calls and even had a visit from a tearful octogenarian who recalled seeing a caged tiger touring the district with a travelling circus in the thirties.
"A bloody sorry looking animal, it was," he told me.
There was nothing you might call definitive evidence, but by this stage the mysterious creature had my attention.
The Tasmanian Tiger, or Thylacine, was a wolf-like, pouched marsupial. An apex predator with a 120 degree gape and rows of razor-sharp teeth. On mainland Australia the tiger originally lost territory to the incoming dingo - dingoes are carrion eaters but the tiger only ate its own kill and didn't fare well against the less choosy opportunist. Soon the tiger retreated to its last remaining stronghold in the Tasmanian wilderness.
When Bass Strait opened, separating the 26,000-square kilometres of Tassie from the main, the tiger thrived, for a while. The apple-shaped isle at the base of the continent had a temperate climate, thick impenetrable rainforests and a profusion of the pademelons and wallabies the tiger hunted. Unfortunately, the British Empire also had the island in its sights, and soon the tiger had to contend with the altogether different threat of colonial settlement.
As Van Diemen's Land - the notorious prison island - grew up, the tiger's fortunes changed rapidly once again. After settlement in 1803, vast swathes of rainforest were cleared for cash flocks and nervy settlers grew wary of the perceived threat to their investment.
The tiger became a vampyric bogey man, a threat to livestock that was taken so seriously the government put a £1.00 (£750 today) bounty on every beast's head. Some 2,184 bounties were claimed in the years 1888-1909 (The Van Diemen’s Company also ran a private bounty until 1914) and by 1936 the astonishing and unique marsupial wolf was shot into extinction.
There were claims to the contrary that the tiger clung on in the more inaccessible regions of the rainforests but sightings were scarce and evidence non-existent. An animal whose place on the Earth could be traced back four-million years was gone in the batting of an eye.
The loss of the thylacine is a source of deep national shame to all Australians who would dearly like to turn the clock back. One of their number, Prof. Mike Archer, is earnestly trying to clone a tiger using recaptured DNA taken from a tiger foetus discovered in the vaults of the University of NSW. We are still, however, a long way from bringing the beast back from the dead and in the meantime all that remains is the very potent mythology.
The demise of the Tasmanian Tiger first struck me as a very sad story - a tale of bloodlust and how man's insatiable greed for land tramples everything in its way. The tiger didn't stand a chance against the advancing economic forces - backed by the state - that were unleashed against it. Though an old story, it's one which resonates with the present day. The lesson that we don't know what we have until it's gone is something we seem to need reminding of and this is especially true as the clock ticks towards midnight for more wild species than ever before.
My story, The Last Tiger, doesn't touch on these themes in any casual way. The family at its centre is also composed of strangers in a strange land. Having fled the Czarist occupation of their native Lithuania for a new life, the father, Petras, and his son, Myko, know all about alienation and persecution.
Financial imperatives impose on them too, and as Petras takes work as a tiger hunter to feed his family he falls into deep conflict with Myko, who believes he has found the last remaining den of the threatened species. As Myko tries to save the pathetic breed by releasing them into the most impenetrable reaches of the island his actions become an echo of reports I uncovered of early conservationists who claimed to have done just that.If some far-sighted environmentalists did try to save the tiger, their actions were admirable, and perhaps, account for the sightings I reported on some seventy years later. I'd like to think the stories are true, that somewhere the tiger beat the odds so heavily stacked against it and survived, but I don't know. I'm just a bloke that writes books, I like stories, and especially ones about magnificent and mysterious creatures that may never be seen again.
Order The Last Tiger here:
The Book Box Literary Prize was established with a purpose to shine a spotlight on the titles we liked the most in the previous season. The intention behind the award was to fill a box with books that inspired and entertained us the most without worrying too much about genres or themes - create something like a mixtape with all our favourite titles of the year. The only limitation was that each title had to be received for review in period between 1st September 2013 and 1st September 2014.
Winner of the Book Box 2014 will be announced on Friday, 5th September, 2014. However, in spirit of non-profit nature of Upcoming4.me there'll be no ceremony or monetary award for the winner but we'll make a small donation to charity on behalf of the prize and hopefully, there'll be some increase in sales for everyone included in this year's Book Box*. Our charity of choice is Epilepsy Action and we urge you to donate as well as it's for a VERY worthy cause.
*of course, we'll be treating authors to drink(s) next time we meet.
The Book Box 2014 is as follows:
- The Race by Nina Allan (NewCon Press)
- Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (HarperCollins)
- The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (Ecco)
- The Story of the Nose by Andrea Camilleri (Pushkin Children's Books)
- The House of War and Witness by Mike Carey, Linda Carey and Louise Carey (Gollancz)
- The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld (HarperCollins)
- The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker (MacLehose Press)
- Gingerbread by Robert Dinsdale (The Borough Press)
- The Good Inn by Black Francis and Josh Frank (It Books)
- Tigerman by Nick Harkaway (William Heinemann)
- Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson (William Heinemann)
- Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta (Harper Voyager)
- The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (Pushkin Press)
- The Calligraphy of Dreams by Juan Marsé (MacLehose Press)
- White Crocodile by K. T. Medina (Faber & Faber)
- A True Novel by Minae Mizumura (Other Press)
- How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran (HarperCollins)
- While the Gods Were Sleeping by Erwin Mortier (Pushkin Press)
- The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (Orbit)
- The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough (Jo Fletcher Books)
- Invent-10n by Rod Rees (Alchemy Press)
- No Harm Can Come to a Good Man by James Smythe (The Borough Press)
- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Picador)
- The Visitors by Simon Sylvester (Quercus)
- A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh (John Murray)
What I have always loved about science fiction is that it can remind us of the genuine and often shocking strangeness of the natural world, and that it can do so without losing sight of human fragility, human courage, and the drama of daily human life. That’s the line I tried to walk in the writing of Burning Paradise, and more generally in all my fiction: something strange, set against something human.
Burning Paradise features not one but two varieties of Something Strange. The story takes place in the present day, but in an alternate history which resembles our own except that the last century has been remarkably peaceful and untroubled—a world in which the Great War of 1914 was the last serious global conflict. The explanation involves a different kind of Something Strange: all this relative calm has been orchestrated by a non-human entity for purposes of its own.
The universe is a big place. Our galaxy alone is a treasure-box of stars, and most of those stars host families of planets. If life is common, many of those planets will be biologically active. Some of them may harbor highly evolved forms of life, perhaps even civilizations much older than ours. Which means any technology that’s both possible and useful has probably already been invented—perhaps used for centuries and ultimately abandoned, all long before the planet Earth condensed out of the dust halo of our nascent sun. And if that’s the case, where are these technology-using civilizations or their artifacts? Why haven’t we seen any evidence of their past or present existence? That question has been codified as “the Fermi Paradox” (after the physicist Enrico Fermi, who first proposed it). I don’t claim to have an answer, but Burning Paradise adopts one hypothesis that has long been suggested: maybe the aliens are here, in a form we don’t recognize or which has been carefully concealed from us.
Maybe that’s because the aliens don’t act or think the way we might expect them to. Come to that, maybe they don’t “think” at all. Consider insects: ants and termites build elaborate artificial structures and orchestrate complex social behavior, even though they lack anything we would recognize as moral or intellectual thought. What if the same is true of our hypothetical aliens?
Which led me (as these airy speculations so often do) down another, entirely different rabbit-hole. Philosophers have long pondered the concept of what has come to be called “the philosophical zombie,” a creature indistinguishable from a human being but which has no conscious experience, no sense of its own existence, no real sentience at all. Maybe, I thought, my aliens fall into that category: no more self-aware than termites or spiders, but complex enough to generate plausible imitations of human beings.
The notion of such creatures as parasites is a venerable one in science fiction. Many of us first encountered it in one or another film version of Jack Finney’s 1954 novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s a deeply creepy scenario, one that gave me more than a few nightmares after I watched the early black-and-white movie directed by Don Siegel (I was ten years old). But parasitism, scary as it is, isn’t the only option. What about symbiosis—a relationship between two species in which each gains some benefit in exchange for what it loses? What would it be like to discover that humanity was already embedded in such a relationship, and that the price of giving it up might be very high indeed? Would you choose human autonomy, even if it meant the end of peaceful human thriving?
That seemed like an interesting dilemma with which to confront a set of characters (my Something Human) who are uniquely vulnerable to such an alien entity—or who might pose a threat to it. Cassie Iverson, 19 years old, is one of those characters, along with her aunt Nerissa, an English professor, and her uncle Ethan, an entomologist and author of a book, The Fisherman and the Spider, in which he has encoded certain unspeakable truths about human history. Because of what they know, Cassie and her family find the whole apparatus of human and alien culture suddenly turned against them.
It was challenging and interesting to write the villains in Burning Paradise, precisely because they aren’t villains in the traditional sense—they aren’t vicious, angry, or immoral. What they are is utterly and completely amoral: they simply cannot factor morality into their calculations. Moral choices, for them, don’t exist. They aren’t inherently violent but they will use violence without hesitation if it appears to serve their purposes. And it often does. Which means Cassie and company are literally fighting for their lives, the result being a novel with more head-on action scenes than I’m accustomed to writing. (One early reader called it my “most propulsive” novel. I asked twice, to make sure she hadn’t said “repulsive.”) Creating a plausible, peaceful alternative history of the twentieth century was another challenge. I worked up a timeline I liked, most of which never made it into the finished book except as casual references to past events, the names of schools and highways, implicit political assumptions, and certain acts of large-scale engineering conspicuous by their presence or absence. The research itself was interesting and a constant temptation to neglect the act of writing in favor of just, well, learning something—about European history, the geology of the Atacama Desert, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (the fungus that causes infected ants to climb trees). . .
But basically, once I found my theme and characters, the writing of Burning Paradise was straightforward. The story more or less carried me along with its own momentum, though not without the inevitable moments of fingernail-chewing doubt and the constant alchemical transformation of despair to elation and back again. At the copyedit stage my editor asked me to expand the conclusion a little bit, which seemed reasonable, given my bad habit of hinting at resolutions and figuring readers can draw their own conclusions.
I’m reasonably pleased with the finished product, but what I like best about Burning Paradise is that it hews pretty closely to the elementary relationship at the heart of it: something strange and something human, a story of three fragile human beings and what might be lurking unseen in the deeps of the night sky.
Robert Charles Wilson
Order Burning Paradise here:
I’ve lived with the Telemass future for around thirty-five years.
I wrote my first Telemass novel when I was nineteen, a weak effort of forty thousand words; the only decent thing about it was the idea of interstellar expansion linked by vast Telemass Stations, able to beam things – people and products – from star to star. In the ’80s I wrote four novels set in this milieu; these were a little better than the first effort, but not much. I wrote a few stories set in the Telemass universe, and then some of them started selling. Meridian Days, my first novel published in 1992, used the idea – but set at the end of the days of Telemass Stations, when it was becoming no longer financially viable to maintain thousands of stations strung out through the Expansion.
Then, around 2005, I had an idea for a series of novellas set in the Telemass universe – these were inspired by a few stories I wrote about Dan Henderson and his life in the coastal town of Magenta Bay, Delta Pavonis. I kept the town for the novellas, changed the name of the planet and its star, and got rid of Henderson. The first novella, Starship Summer, came out in 2007 from PS Publishing, followed in turn by Starship Fall, Starship Winter and Starship Spring. They are what I call Quiet SF, following the lives of a group of friends on the backwater world of Chalcedony and the universe-changing events that sweep them up.
The series sold well, and last year Pete Crowther at PS Publishing asked if I had any ideas for a further quartet of novellas.
I wanted to write more stories set in the Telemass Universe, but before the time of the Starship novellas. These would follow the format of the Starship tales: each would be independent of the rest, but, taken as a whole, they’d read as a novel, following the same character through a series of events, each novella set on a different colony world.
The first two volumes, Famadihana on Fomalhaut IV and Sacrifice on Spica III, came out from PS this year. Matt Hendrick is a Dutch ex-cop attempting to track down his daughter and wife, who are on the run from world to world. The twist is that his daughter is dead, kept in a suspended animation pod against the day when the disease that killed her might be cured. His ex-wife has run away with a lover, and the novellas track Hendrick’s progress around the Expansion; he meets weird and wonderful people, aliens, and customs along the way, and find himself in various adventures.
In Famadihana on Fomalhaut IV, he becomes involved with a strange religious cult which seeks to raise the dead through a bizarre alien burial rite. (Famadihana is the Malagasy practise of digging up the bone of ancestors and parading with them around the streets every seven years.) His wife has became entangled with the cult, and Hendrick follows them deep into the alien jungle, and then underground, in a bid to save his daughter.
Sacrifice on Spica III follows him from Fomalhaut IV to the world of Kallithea, Spica III, to which his ex-wife, lover and daughter have fled. He here becomes embroiled in a murder mystery involving an old lover, and a suicidal cult founded by a messianic human called Cavendish Sagar.
Each novella, as well as taking Hendrick to an exotic world, will pitch him into a different adventure and delve, along the way, into his past and what made him the person he is. Each will be stand-alone, a complete story in itself but, taken as a whole when published by PS in a single volume, will read as a novel.
I’ve recently completed the second draft of the third novella, Reunion on Alpha Reticuli II, set on the world of Tourmaline. Here, as the title suggests, Hendrick is reunited at last with his daughter as he attempts to prevent her falling into the hands of an alien faith healer. Along the way Hendrick falls in with – and falls in love with – the telepath Mercury Velasquez, who will assist him on Tourmaline and his final destination.
The final novella is still the germ of an idea in my head; but it will be a story of redemption, of triumph, set on another exotic colony world... and, yes – it will have another suitably over-the-top, alliterative title.
Order The Telemass Quartet here:
The recipe for my new book, Savage Magic
Where did the idea for your book come from?
It’s never been easy for me to answer this question. I have a flibbertigibbet of a mind that bounces around from one thing to another. Ideas bubble up and sink back down, and sometimes you end up with a foul-smelling soup which no-one would want to eat. But sometimes what comes together is tastier.
So, here are four of ingredients for my new novel, Savage Magic. They weren’t the only four ingredients, but they got me going:
Take one footnote
Writing historical fiction means reading a lot of history.
In fact, it’s in the pages of books by other writers that I find hundreds of ideas. I found this particular inspiration in the back of Caroline Alexander’s book The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty. There I discovered a snippet of biography about a very bad man.
His name was Sir Henry Tempest, and he was a baronet who had squandered his own fortune, as Georgian baronets were wont to do. Sir Henry found his own equivalent of a payday loan in the shape of an heiress called Susannah Pritchard Lambert of Hope End in Hereford. He dressed as a gypsy and approached her on the village green, telling her she would meet her future husband that night if she went to the local church. When she followed these instructions, she did indeed meet her future husband: Sir Henry himself.
Women were chattels in the Georgian period. Everything they owned became the property of their husband when they married. Once he had Susannah Pritchard Lambert, Sir Henry had her riches too, and she (and her father) were thrown out of Hope End. Lady Tempest (as she now was) was soon dispossessed entirely by her now-penniless father, and the story goes that she became a street-dweller north of London, known to locals as the ‘ghost of Holloway’.
This story appalled me. It seemed to encapsulate an awful truth that is rather hidden from us today: that women in the early modern era inhabited a powerless world of awful danger, like goldfish in a shark tank.
Add some misplaced feminism
Why misplaced feminism? Two reasons: firstly, I’m a male author, and approaching feminism while carrying the burden of a Y chromosome means taking a due degree of care. The approach I took was to focus on the mistreatment of women by men. Writing about bad men seemed to be surer ground for a male author.
Secondly, because my book was set in 1815, and, frankly, feminism is not something that would have been remotely relevant to the women of that time. But I did have a female character I wanted to push into the foreground: Abigail, the wife of my repeating character constable Charles Horton. Much of Savage Magic is told from Abigail’s point of view, as a patient in a private madhouse in the village of Hackney.
Stir in an amazing woman
My third inspiration was the amazing true story of an extraordinary woman. Her name was Mary Broad.
Mary was born in Fowey, Cornwall, in 1765. Mary was arrested in Plymouth for the theft of a silk bonnet, some jewellery and some coins - it’s not known how much she stole, but it was enough to make her a candidate for transportation. Mary was sent out on the Charlotte, a ship in the First Fleet bound for the new penal colony of Sydney Cove, in New South Wales.
Mary gave birth during the voyage, to a girl she called Charlotte, the name of the prison ship on which they sailed. When she arrived in New South Wales, she married another convict, William Bryant. Mary had a son with William. They called him Emanuel, a Hebrew name meaning God is with us. Whether the meaning was desperate or satirical isn’t clear.
A year later, Mary sailed into history.
In May 1791, William and Mary took their two children and, along with seven other men, stole a boat and some supplies, and escaped. Sixty-six days later the group arrived in Timor. But William got himself drunk (men, again), and blabbed about the true story in a harbour tavern. His timing was unfortunate - troops from Sydney Cove had just arrived to arrest the escapees. William was shot down by these troops, while Mary, her children and the other surviving escapees were put on a ship bound for England.
Her children died on the way home.
Back in England, Mary expected to be hanged, but her case was taken up by James Boswell and a public outcry ensued. She was eventually pardoned, as were the other four surviving men from Sydney Cove. Boswell gave her an annual pension of 10 pounds, and Mary, it’s thought, went back to the west country.
When I started writing Savage Magic, it was about Mary Broad - or at least, it was about a woman very much like her. Which brings me to my fourth inspiration.
Season with a walk
The Saxon coast runs along the south side of the Thames estuary, roughly from Gravesend to the Medway estuary at Sheerness. I walked it with two good friends, and along the way we came to a little church high on a hill, with a view of the estuary. It’s quite a famous little church because in its graveyard are 10 little gravestones gathered around two larger ones. Ten dead children, buried alongside their parents, all victims, it is thought, of ague (which may refer to a generic fever, or may refer to malaria).
In other words, this may or may not be the church in which Pip encounters Magwitch at the beginning of Great Expectations.
Which got me thinking.
What if Magwitch was a woman?
And from that thought, out popped Savage Magic.
Order Savage Magic here:
The story begins a thousand times, in a thousand different places. It begins every time I think: “I will remember this.” And then actually remember it. It begins on the street in Damascus when I was fifteen. The sweet stench of trash and shawarma. It begins in the heat on the balcony overlooking the El Jahez Park. It begins when Tareq asks if I like to shoot and shows me a nylon bag full of his dad’s Swiss automatic weapons.
Other places, other times. The house in Söderköping, small-town Sweden. That awful, never-ending spring. I’m lying on my bed, just reading. I play football, tennis, basketball – sure, all of that. But that’s just stuff you do. All I want is to read. I am thirteen years old and the ending of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold brings me to tears. Not just the night I finish the book, but the whole week. I read it again; I need to understand, I need to crack the code. Within those pages hides the key to how an author can make me feel something beyond the suspense, through the suspense. That’s when I make up my mind. I don’t know it then, but that is when the story begins to grow inside of me.
Five years later I live in the US, outside of Washington D.C. The schools are closed because it’s snowing and I get to spend a day on Capitol Hill with Alison who is an assistant to some senator from the South, whose name I have forgotten. I really don’t remember much, beyond the fact that she was a Republican and that it didn’t matter at all, not even a little bit, when I stood next to her in the elevator, mesmerized by her perfect American hair, her ambition, and her clear, blue eyes. I felt how that moment grew inside of me and beyond me. How the present wrapped itself around me. How it whispered to me: “You will remember this.”
Fast-forward several years. I am much older and I have lived in many places, in many countries, on several continents. I feel that the thirteen-year-old-me would have liked that fact. I have a family now. A small, fragile, entirely unfathomable family. It changes everything. The light falls from a totally different angle now and I finally sit down in front of the computer, one night when everybody else has gone to sleep. I am on Rue du Conseil in Brussels, right on the border between the boroughs Uccle and Ixelles, in that wonderful 1930s-apartment, with the rusty, rosebush-covered stairwell leading down to the garden. I open a new document and begin to write what a few years later will have grown to become the book that has just come out in the UK this summer. I don’t even know that it’s going to become a book then, much less that the book will get published, translated, and read all around the world. But I dream about it already that first night, around three in the morning, on the balcony, looking out over the capitol of Europe, shaky with caffeine, ambition, and nicotine.
That first night is followed by an endless sequence of nights as the document grows, the story unfolds, the code reveals itself before me. The thrill, the chase, all of that which made my thirteen-year-old self begin to read and which I had gathered unwittingly and savored since then. But hopefully also the other things. Those things that made my thirteen-year-old self cry. The grown-up stuff. The real and sad stuff, the betrayals and the language. And now, finally, the book is here. The Swimmer is a spy story that begins and ends in Sweden but, like its author, it moves in all kinds of directions in-between.
Order The Swimmer here:
YOU was the project that I started right after I finished SORRY. I was in a kind of lost & found situation. I’ve lost endless nights over writing SORRY and I had discovered a darkness in myself that I really didn’t expect to be there. After 150 pages I got scared by my own story, I put the book away for two years, wrote three children books in between to let the steam out. But a writer has to be loyal to his books and especially to his characters. So I came back and turned one winter into a long dark night. Afterwards I promised myself never to touch the SORRY-territory again. The good thing is, that the idea for YOU was born before I started SORRY and it was coming from a totally different direction - I had five girls as main characters, I knew they were sixteen, in love with their friendship and they didn’t give a shit about anybody. So I let them loose. I also had a mob guy, who never made his hands dirty. I called him Ragnar, he was from Norway and always in control. I gave him a brother, who wrote jingles for the radio and dreamed of being a gangster too. And then I let one of them die and the other turn angry. Last but not least there is this strange traveller, with whom I decided to open the novel. He comes from nowhere, and he disappears into nowhere. In between he is on a killing spree and the body count is so high that I started to doubt my insanity from time to time.
All these characters fit together in a macabre dark way and that is the beauty of the book.
My big inspiration are mainly novels, movies and music. That’s where everything starts. The books range from light to dark, there is no plan behind my reading. I always hope for the best with the writers I adore, but it’s like Russian roulette, you never know if a book is going to hit your or not. And then there is music. It plays a very very main part, because it gives the rhythm to the story. Every part in YOU has its own song reference and if you know the songs and the lyrics you open a second layer to the storytelling. There is always a soundtrack running while I am writing, some days it is full of power and some days it just breaks down to a piano or a cello. I change between bands like Scott 4, Tunng, Misophone, Ghinzu, Sun Kil Moon and Elbow to musicians like Pickering Pick, Thomas Dybdahl, Nicolas Jaar and Devendra Banhart to solists like Adam Hurst, Goldmund, Alan Miceli and David Darling.
The movies give me the editing, the pave of cutting a scene and turning the focus. The big change in TV-series changed my writing too. I learned to give my characters more room to develop.
With YOU I decided to write the whole story in the second perspective, because it turned out that for meit is the best way to get closer to the reader. Some writers like Jay McInerney already used the same perspective but they never used it in the way I thought it should be used: More intimate and closer. I think it is a good aim in writing to get under the readers skin. The challenge was for me mot only to talk directly to the reader, but also to draw him closer to the story. I turn him into the character, by telling him what he thinks, how he feels and where he is going. It gets very personal and as the reader you get the good and the really bad characters at the same time. You have to get through it, no matter what. In SORRY it was only one character written in this perspective. There were people who couldn’t read the novel because it was getting to personal - to identify with a killer, to be a killer. With YOU I open the scope. This book is an entry into over eight minds, it is at the same time a road movie where a lot of bodies are left behind and those who survive will wish they could turn back time and start from the beginning.
The novel has a lot of chaos and I was drawn to it. We did get used to the idea that there is a permanent chaos in our life and it is a little bit like with permanent pain - it stops bothering you, you get used to it and it is a bigger pain necessary to remind you that there is a lot of hurt awaiting you. We are always in turmoil, we are always hungry and greedy and overflowing with love and deep down overflowing with resentment. I think there is no balance, we can’t stay good and righteous, because there are too many people pulling the strings and looking for advantage. They hit us with new damage all the time, and we react with anger or grief but in the end, we go on, we hope for the best and try to adapt to the changes. A revolution would be nice, people just saying enough is enough, people really changing the world and economy and the way we slide down to despair, but we are too domesticated for revolution. We have everything at cheap costs, the phone and the internet and the TV are working, we find free sex on the web, we find cheap friends there too and it is even possible to shit your pants on YouTube and everybody loves you for being so open-minded. That is the new chaos you have to be afraid of. Everything is possible and nobody cares because they hope the spotlight hits them first. That’s the dark side. The light side is: everything is possible. Even the good ones being there and staying there. I am a believer in the good, although there is a lot of bad stuff going on in my novels. Sometimes I think I just have to understand the darkness well enough and everything will turn to light. Sometimes I hope my characters will do that for me.
I am often asked why my five main characters are sixteen. To be honest it is in many ways easier then writing about adults. There is a different rhythm, there is more fun and there is more craziness. You never know what to expect from them. And though I know I am the storyteller, still they surprise me in many ways and often i had to follow their lead. They are definitely my favourites. And that’s a lie that is followed closely by the truth - I really love my characters. Even if they go into motels to kill everyone, even if they hate their fathers, even if they are dead and frozen and still caring.
There is no sure thing where a book of mine will end up. As there is no sure thing where my characters want to go. I know, I can tell them to stray put in one place, but I wouldn’t be a good writer if I wouldn’t give them free rein. At the beginning of YOU I was thinking the whole novel will play out in Berlin. Suddenly I was in Hamburg. Suddenly everything took a very bad turn for the characters and they were on their way to Norway. You can’t predict your own writing. And if you do, you shouldn’t be a writer.
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As always if writing a series, you’re constantly on the lookout for story ideas that will ‘fit’ your character(s) and the world in which they live. Whether its contemporary, historical or off-world, you therefore become accustomed to zeroing in on certain ideas which will make writing the next story easier.
With all my books I try to use a real backdrop element to each one, which provides me with something to hang the story on. With the Harry Tate spy series, I find the easiest way is to keep an eye on the newspapers, since the world of espionage is never very far away and rarely can you ever get too surprised by what goes on. Bear in mind, what we hear about is only a tiny tip of the iceberg that is modern-day spying.
The idea for ‘Deception’, the third book in the series, came about when I read a piece about army deserters, and how they are faced with trying to find a new life with new documentation, few friends and almost nobody they can trust. Effectively, they’ve cut themselves off and face constant discovery, and the biggest task is going not so much ‘off-grid’, but trying to find a new place on it.
I was aware that with the current advances in weapons, IT and communications technology, and the high levels of education and training in today’s military, many personnel now have hugely saleable skills and knowledge compared with those going AWOL years ago. Any one of these may be a potential target for those interested in buying what they know, whether foreign governments, criminal organizations or terrorists.
Trying to imagine myself in the position of a deserter, I asked myself what else do they have to trade in return for a new life, ID, money and the chance to disappear forever?
The answer is, not much.
Few runners jump the wire with a firm plan in mind; they do so out of desperation, trauma, fear and often psychological problems. But having gone as far as it is possible in leaving behind their old life, they have to face a dark future, and the question of how to survive. So why not sell what they’ve got… what they know?
Of course, like every other field, there are different levels… and their salability is rated according to their skills and/or knowledge. For some buyers, the idea of an officer with an eidetic or photographic memory, exposed to the most secret information possible, but who now wants to start afresh somewhere new, is a prize worth bidding for.
Having tied together these two chunks of detail, I had to fashion it into a realistic storyline that fitted the persona and world of my main character, Harry Tate.
The synopsis of ‘Deception’
Harryis a former MI5 (Security Services) officer. His skill at tracking down runaways is second to none –and the Security Services need his help. A group of renegade former soldiers called The Protectory is preying on deserters from the British army, trading their military knowledge for money, a new passport and a whole new way of life. But these deserters aren’t just any group of military personnel worn down by battle, traumatized and sick of fighting; they’re high-value members of elite regiments, with specialized knowledge of Coalition systems, weapons, tactics, communications and planning. And none comes more high-value, Harry is told, than a young woman officer, Lt Vanessa Tan, a former ADC to the British Forces Commander, Afghanistan. Critically, she is said to possess an eidetic (photographic) memory, and foreign governments would pay top dollar for what she carries in her head.
The only problem is, nobody knows where she is. But The Protectory is hot on her trail with a buyer in mind, and they will stop at nothing to make sure they get to her first.
At first, Harry isn’t interested. But when he finds out that one of the driving forces behind The Protectory is George Paulton, his former MI5 boss (who tried to have him eliminated by a killer called The Hit - see ‘Red Station’), he’s soon in on the chase.
Being a series, I was able to bring in a couple of characters from previous books, where it seemed feasible. One such was Paulton, with whom Harry has a long-term score to settle, and another was Clare Jardine, a former MI6 (SIS) operative and a fellow inmate of Red Station, who has a lethal interest in cute knives and also has a lethal grudge against Paulton. But – and this was where the fun came in - Clare is damaged goods, and won’t let even Harry get in her way.
So that was the conflict chain: Harry, Paulton, The Protectory, and Clare… and a couple of real nasties in the background whose job it was to kill anybody who got in their way.
As a writer, I tend not to write in a linear fashion (that is, starting at page 1 and writing until I fall off the page at 300-or-whatever and type END). I’ve tried, believe me, and I wish it were that easy!
What I do is start with the roughest of ideas – sometimes even just an ending, which sounds crazy, I know. Other times it’s a scene that just grabs me and won’t let go. Then I write more scenes that come to me, sketching them out roughly at first and working on them later as the mood takes me. These scenes are rarely connected and might be in a completely random order, with no specific link; the main question I ask myself is, will this scene fit the story and add something to the tension and pace?
It’s the same with characters; most begin as rough ideas, but some come fully formed very early on. To aid this process, whichever it is, I browse the weekend colour supplements, because that’s where I find great faces; faces in close-up, faces in black-and-white, the kind of warts and all representations of faces that grab me right off the page. Once such face (which I used for a character in the Inspector Lucas Rocco French police series series, not the Harry Tates) was a famous British footballer from the seventies. It was a full-page black-and-white ‘mood’ photo which leapt right out at me and simply wouldn’t go away. The eyes were so dramatic, the lines of the face etched in shadow and so full of pain, almost, that it just was the face of a burned-out undercover cop I was creating. And it helped me write that character, because whenever I needed inspiration, I just looked at the photo and knew what he would be saying or thinking.
And it’s the same every time. Once I have a face, it’s easier to describe the person.
Writing therefore is a production of creating stepping stones, then linking these stones together to form a cohesive path.
Very few of my random scenes or characters will end up being discarded. This is because once I’m on the hunt for the storyline, I’m in the ‘zone’ and therefore able to focus on scenes that I know will generally fit. They in turn breed other scenes, and eventually the mass of stepping stones becomes a whole story, with the main ‘crunch work’ consisting of filling in the gaps between.
I’ve been asked – once by a military policeman, spookily enough – if there are or were specific people or events behind the creation of ‘Deception’. The answer is no, there weren’t. That would be too weird and intrusive in what is generally a personal tragedy for the people involved. But with the scope and spread of news coverage these days, there is a considerable amount of detail out there that helps a writer create a story with an element of realism without delving into personal histories. And so it is with all my books: I use a vague collage of what I have read about, been told about and what know myself, to create the story, rather than copying real-life events.
The most important element of writing ‘Deception’ was, however, that it was fun to put together. And so it is with all my books. If I don’t enjoy the writing, the research and the collation of ideas and scenes, it’s simply work. And I like to make it as easy and as fun as I can.
Hopefully, that translates onto the page for the reader.
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