So you know John Sweeney. He’s the award-winning investigative reporter guy on the telly. He’s seen a lot of stuff, been to a lot of dangerous places. John’s work has taken him around the globe covering conflict – from Russia, to the Ukraine, to undercover investigations in North Korea and Chechnya.
And – guess what – he’s a hell of a writer, too. His first Joe Tiplady thriller Cold is published today by Thomas And Mercer, and it’s a corker.
Tiplady is a man with a dark past. A sardonic Irishman with a love of his dog and his whiskey, Joe has a burning desire for truth and unwavering compassion for those in need — and he’ll play by his own rules to see justice served.
In Cold, a chain of events is in motion that will make him a priceless target. A retired Soviet general hunts for his missing daughter after a series of brutal murders. A ruthless assassin loses something so precious he will do anything to get it back. And in the shadow of them all lies Zoba, strongman ruler of Russia and puppet-master of the world’s darkest operatives.
Sweeney is an engaging fellow and in this fantastic intel interview he gives us the lowdown on his mysterious protag, his romantic first novel and the Cold Road To Hell.
Tell us about Joe Tiplady…
Joe Tiplady was an IRA bomb-maker sent to a terrorist camp in North Korea to learn how to better kill the British. Once there, he realised the ordinary people were brainwashed and, in turn, he came to realise that he, too, had been brainwashed by the IRA. Joe’s based on an actual IRA man I met in Belfast, whose trip to North Korea was the start of his divorce from violent Irish republican nationalism. The name, by the way, comes from a great friend of my son’s who died at the age of 25 by a heart attack. His family said: ‘let our hero be your hero.’
In Cold, Joe becomes the target for a dangerous assassin – what kind of murky goings-on does he get himself involved in?
That’s a tricky question without giving too much of the plot away. Suffice to say his dog Reilly vanishes, then he accidentally sees it again and it hurries back to him. But the consequences are that suddenly all hell breaks loose. Why? Well, read the book. It’s not a whodunit but a whydunnit.
Your first novel Elephant Moon was a romantic fiction – why the change of pace?
True, Elephant Moon did hit number one on amazon.co.uk’s historical romance section, hugely to my shame. I never saw myself as king of the bodice-rippers. Moon is set in Burma in 1942. There are many bleak, historically accurate scenes in it and although it has a central love story, I don’t think of Moon as romance. But I did want to write a classic spy thriller and that’s Cold. To be honest, I love telling stories. I don’t really care about the genre: the story is the pan-galactic ruler.
A few years ago, in the post-Soviet world, critics were proclaiming that the thriller was dead, but the world seems a more dangerous place than ever – is it difficult to keep up with the ever-changing political climate?
Difficult? You’re telling me. In my head I have a Joe Tiplady trilogy, Cold Road to Hell. I’m writing the second, Road, now and it’s inspired by the war in Syria and ISIS. It’s soooooooooooo hard to keep up with the inhumanity spewing out of Raqqa. At the same time, as a journalist I can’t go to ISIS-stan because they might kidnap me and weaponise me against my own society. As a thriller writer I can go there inside my head and take the reader with me and that’s incredibly exciting.
As a BBC journalist you’ve reported on a number of tyrannies – where are some of the most-dangerous places you’d like to take Joe?
In Cold, Joe crosses the Atlantic – but not by flying, less the people after him find him. In Road, Joe goes to Syria. In Hell, to North Korea.
How did you start writing?
At school. I’ve never stopped.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
Having faith in yourself. I’ve written seven non-fiction books but novels are harder. It took me more than a decade to write Elephant Moon. It started selling very slowly, through word of mouth, and now it’s sold more than 150,000. Writing a story, a book is like planting a tree or having a child: you plant something living in the world and that is smashing.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
Raymond Chandler – crisp writing on a corrupt LA; Seamus Heaney – magical lyricism about Irish soil and humanity; and L Ron Hubbard for his pan-galactic insights. One of these replies is a joke.
Give me some advice about writing…
Try and write one thousand words a day. When a new character turns up, describe him. If you’re writing a thriller, end every chapter on a cliff edge.
What’s next for you and Joe?
Road, then Hell, and then I will have trilogy, Cold Road to Hell.
Cold by John Sweeney is out today, 1st July, published by Thomas and Mercer at £8.99.