Andreas Norman’s debut novel Into A Raging Blaze has earned him extraordinary reviews in his native Sweden – and the movie version is on its way. It’s a white-hot thriller about the vast surveillance networks being put into place in the name of counter-terrorism, tapping into our increasing concerns that our every move is being watched.
Andreas, a former Swedish Foreign Ministry official, gives us The Intel on the intelligence agencies, mass surveillance and how writing is like running a marathon.
Into A Raging Blaze is a hugely prescient novel about the erosion of civil rights in the name of counter-terrorism – tell us about it…
During 2007-2009 I worked in Swedish Foreign Ministry as part of the Counter-Terrorism Unit. This was in the heyday of the global war on terror, and we worked closely with the the Swedish intelligence community and foreign agencies – especially EU-members and American ones. I was an analyst and project manager, and I clearly saw the growth of Islamophobic tendencies, the use of vast surveillance, extrajudicial methods and ”enhanced” methods, all the things that existed in parallel and formed the basis for much of the work of white-collar guys like myself. It was disturbing and fascinating and I just knew I had to write about it.
In my job in the Foreign Ministry, I had the opportunity to see for myself how signal intelligence agencies were organised, their methods, their technology. I then asked myself, where will these vast capacities be in a couple of years, bearing in mind the pace of technological intervention and the never-ceasing ambition of the sig-int agencies to collect more and more data? I then put an ordinary, junior Swedish diplomat and her boyfriend in the centre of the story, where they are being subjected to the full force of directed surveillance. It turned out to be chillingly close to reality.
The recent Edward Snowden revelations about the US’s extensive surveillance networks didn’t really cause huge outrage here in the UK – do you think we have become deeply complacent about our privacy?
It’s true, really, that the Snowden leaks have not caused a huge reaction anywhere, except in the media. The problem is, for ordinary modern individuals, there is only one internet, and we are completely dependent on it. There is no way for us to show our disgust about the mass surveillance of NSA and GCHQ by opting out of the internet and choose a different way of digital communication. Since we can´t change our behaviour in any real way, I think we rationalize the ever-present surveillance by telling ourselves that the surveillance doesn’t really affect us, that it’s for the greater good, or similar.
On the other hand, Snowden’s revelations have certainly changed some things. There is now a global debate about mass surveillance, and it’s impossible for politicians to ignore the issue. The legality of several of GCHQ’s, NSA’s and other agencies’ activities is being questioned, and this will probably result in a stronger judicial oversight of their activities. Having said this, I think that the Snowden leaks will not change much in the longer term. His revelations have not really led to a major shift in how intelligence services conduct their business. We’re still in the same paradigm today as we were before the Snowden leaks.
This won’t change until we come to a point where the situation becomes unacceptable to the private enterprises that own the infrastructure and services that make the internet what it is today, like Google, Microsoft, the banks and telecommunication companies. Two things will remain the same: clandestine services will always dream of total information awareness, and will always strive towards this goal and there will always be advocates of citizens rights struggling to rein in these ambitions. This tension will always be there. Secondly, the discussion on surveillance will always be influenced by dramatic events that catch the imagination of politicians and the public, that’s how politics works. A new London bus bombing or a new Snowden revelation will always shape the public debate.
What kind of response did Into A Raging Blaze get in Sweden?
I’m happy to say, my book got rave reviews. It was called things like “dazzling” and “a feat”, and “the next big thing” in the Swedish press. I found myself being dubbed “thriller debutante of the year”. The book immediately attracted a range of major film producers, and is currently being adapted for the big screen for release in Spring 2016. It all took me by surprise, really.
Bente Jensen is a typical professional woman, tough-minded, analytical and wholly dedicated to her work in the security service. She is unsentimental and prides herself on good skills and the ability to put a wall of silence around her work as head of a Swedish undercover office in Brussels. Her loyalty to her work also turns out to be her weakness, as she acts out of loyalty towards her organisation and its higher goals bend her personal ethical standards until they break.
How have your own experiences working in counter-terrorism shaped your writing?
Well, I had the luxury of having ten years of research, simply by going to work. For me, it became natural to stay close to reality. I let my experience influence my language, using the jargon of diplomat and spies to give the reader a sense of being on the inside of these closed organisations. After writing my first draft I read it from a strict legal point of view – was the text in breach of any secrecy acts? – and when I felt that the text was moving into a grey area, I slightly modified some details, in order to avoid any unintentional leak of classified information.
Take us through a typical writing day for you
Into A Raging Blaze was written while I was a diplomat in the Swedish foreign service, which is a hectic more-than-fulltime job. You would find me writing on the morning flight to Brussels, on weekends, in short, in any available free-time. Today, I write full-time. My working day is a brief, intense affair. After the hustle of having breakfast and cycling with my two-year daughter to kindergarten, I return to our apartment, prepare a cup of coffee and start work. I like these small routines, they make me focused. To approach work in a relaxed, concentrated state of mind is my ideal. No fuss, no waiting for inspiration and such silliness. I usually reread the part where I stopped writing the day before, and pick up from there.
On a good day I have a strong sense at this point of what I’m about to write. I have my own unspoken goals, such as developing a scene or finishing a certain chapter. I immerse myself, write steadily until lunchtime, then take a short break and rummage through the fridge for something edible or head out to a nearby street kitchen to pick up falafel or shawarma. I love the solitude and don´t want to interrupt my thought processes too much, but I usually check my emails, Facebook and Twitter on my phone, then head back to do some more writing. Around five o’clock, my wife and daughter come home, and I transform from a writer back to being a dad and husband.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
I find it hard to embrace the fact that you can’t rush certain things. I have no problem getting started, and I’m disciplined. But to write something that really touches the reader, really has an emotional impact, you have to take it easy sometimes, let ideas grow, and I have a hard time accepting that.
How do you deal with feedback?
I enjoy feedback immensely – when I get it at the right time in the writing process. I hate it when the timing is bad. Getting feedback too early can be really detrimental to my ideas. As a rule, I write the first draft more or less with a closed door. My wife is the only person I discuss ideas with at this stage, and she´s the first person to read my early drafts, her comments are often spot on. With the first draft finished, I open the door to my writing process, and listen carefully to all comments from a group of trusted readers: my publisher, editor, agent, my wife and a couple of friends. When they object to something in the text, they’re usually right about doing so. I’m grateful to all these bright, sensitive people for helping me out.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
I always return to Graham Greene, for his deft story telling and lovely melancholy. And John le Carré, of course, for his energetic way of depicting the tedious and lethal workings of diplomats and spies. Both of them had stints in the foreign service and intelligence, as I have, and it’s inspiring to think about the various ways they turned their experiences into great fiction. Kerstin Ekman, and her novel Blackwater, is a great read too, with its intense tone and beautiful, harsh language.
Give me some advice about writing…
Start writing, stay cool, be persistent and accept your crises as part of your working process. Getting started is sometimes hard, and usually somewhat disappointing. Words are unforgiving. When I start writing, I know that I will have a crisis and sooner or later reach a point when I question the whole project, get stuck and become worried. This is normal. It usually means that there’s a flaw in the story or a character needs to be reshaped. It’s just a signal that you probably need to find a new perspective to your text, be persistent and not just tear the whole thing apart.
What’s your best advice for an author looking to get into the marketplace…
Well… I guess, having a publisher that I really trust is key. Then I guess you have to be politely persistent with your ideas and write the best you can. Don’t bother about trends, but stay focused on what is important for you, personally. I enjoy long-distance running, and I usually think of writing as a form of marathon, but I assume that analogy doesn’t work for everyone.
What’s next for you?
I’m about to start writing the sequel to Into A Raging Blaze. In parallel, I’m working on the final draft of my next book, 9,3 på Richterskalan (9.3 on the Richter Scale), and looking forward to its Swedish release in autumn. It’s a rather different story, a harrowing eyewitness account of the tsunami catastrophe in Asia on Boxing Day 2004. As a junior diplomat, I was sent to Thailand by our Foreign Ministry as a member of the first response team, and worked there in the weeks following the tsunami.
Into A Raging Blaze is published by Quercus and is available now in hardback and as an ebook.