Tag Archives: John le Carre

The Intel: Adam Brookes

abrooksSpy novels have never been so popular, and Adam Brookes is at the forefront of a new generation of authors who are reinventing an enduring genre for a whole new century.

To kick off the Blog Tour for his new novel Spy Games, published by Sphere, Brookes gives us the intel on the second oldest profession.

It’s fair to say that he knows his stuff – as a BBC correspondent in Washington, Brookes was deeply engrained in the world of government secrets, and has reported on assignment from many of the world’s most dangerous countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and North Korea.

And in China he found himself in a potentially dangerous situation when he received repeated visits from an anonymous man offering to sell him military secrets to pass to British Secret Services – a likely ‘dangle’ designed to entrap him. The event inspired the writing of his first thriller, the acclaimed Night Heron.

Brookes is a fascinating and informed interviewee. He talks about his hunted protag Philip Mangan, how technology is changing the face of the spying game, and he talks about the big beasts of the genre who inspired him to write…

Tell us about Philip Mangan…

Philip Mangan is a freelance journalist who works in China. He files copy for a newspaper and television packages for a small TV news agency. He’s tall, rangy, red-haired, shabbily dressed, disorganised in all but his thoughts. We meet him at the start of Night Heron in Beijing, where he’s based. He tries to report seriously on China, but Communist Party control and the difficulty of getting to the story leaves him feeling hamstrung and restless. He’s vain, too, and, like many journalists, he sometimes hankers to be involved in the events he observes. It’s that impulse that will draw him into espionage, and into trouble.

Spy Games picks up where its predecessor Night Heron left off – with Mangan in a very sticky situation. Where does Spy Games take him?

By the start of Spy Games, Mangan has fled China. We find him in Ethiopia, still reporting, hovering at the edge of the clandestine world. But Chinese intelligence knows who he is now. And they have plans for him.

Is it difficult to keep up with ever-changing geopolitical complexities – are you afraid your topical spy novels will be superseded by real events?

I try not to think about it, to be honest. And I try to focus on the building of my imagined world, where real geopolitical events may be reflected, but where they aren’t essential.   You can still read a spy novel written in the Cold War – one long ago left behind by events – but which retains its power because of its characters and the world they inhabit, and the predicament they find themselves in.

9780751552539As the BBC’s China correspondent, you found yourself in a dangerous situation when a man offered to sell you military secrets – what happened?

This elderly guy came to the BBC Bureau in Beijing and tried to get me to accept Chinese secret documents. He claimed to have all kinds of tantalising information – military secrets relating to missile technology – and he wanted me to be his go-between with ‘the right people’ at the British Embassy. I sent him away, rapidly. He was very persistent, but eventually disappeared and I heard no more. I’m fairly sure it was some sort of provocation. Someone was testing me, just to see what I’d do. This happens to journalists and businessmen from time to time. It’s not so unusual, but it’s weird when it happens to you, the sense that you are being watched, evaluated.

How has spying as a profession changed over the years, do you think?

I’d only know from what I read and what people tell me, but I think much has changed because of technology, obviously. Information that once moved on the airwaves in code, or in diplomatic pouches, or was handed around in paper files, now resides on servers. Technical collection now uses the bulk of intelligence agencies’ resources – cyber, eavesdropping, satellite imaging, the tracking of electromagnetic and chemical signatures, biometric monitoring, data mining. But many in the intelligence agencies continue to argue for the centrality of old-fashioned human intelligence: the recruiting of agents to spy.

Technology has changed things here too, of course.  Where a fabulously successful Cold War agent like Penkovsky might steal or photograph hundreds of documents, a single USB stick can now hold hundreds of thousands. Where once the target of agent recruitment might be a disillusioned colonel or a wayward diplomat, these days the agencies want to recruit systems administrators, too, for their access to networks and servers full of secrets. Intelligence agencies have become huge, expensive bureaucracies reliant on the private sector for digital infrastructure and support. But there are still agents and handlers: that world still exists, and will for a long time to come, I think.

How did you start writing?

With difficulty. I was a journalist for more than twenty years, and only through the daily grind of writing dispatches and news stories did I begin to get any sort of feel for good writing. I never planned to write fiction. It just sort of crept up on me in my forties, and now here I am, stuck with it.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

I think it was learning to grit my teeth and take the edit administered by, well, whoever happened to be editing that day. And then learning to appreciate the edit. And then learning to value it, and to love the rewrite.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Le Carre, of course, because he both defines the genre and transcends it. Alan Furst for atmosphere and economy; his Dark Star was the book that really made me think about attempting to write fiction. William Boyd for his complex, flawed characters and his understanding of how stories about spies speak to all our fears and anxieties. Hilary Mantel because, well, Hilary Mantel. Thomas Cromwell was an intelligence operative, remember.

Give me some advice about writing…

Only if you give me some back. In truth, I hate giving advice. Someone might follow it. I’ll pass on some advice which helped me. It’s from Will Self: ‘You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.’

What’s next for you and Philip?

A third, and final, descent into darkness. In which Philip Mangan must decide if he wishes to fight his way back into the light.


Spy Games by Adam Brookes is published 10th March by Sphere, price £7.99 in paperback.

Guest Post: David Young

Stasi ChildLife in the shadow of the Berlin Wall has been a fertile ground for writers such as Len Deighton, John le Carre and Ian McEwan. David Young’s acclaimed new novel Stasi Child, published by Bonnier, takes us once again to the DDR and deep into the brutal heart of its infamous secret police apparatus, and introduces us to a startling new protagonist, Oberleutnant Karin Müller.

When murder squad head Müller is called to investigate a teenage girl’s body found riddled with bullets at the foot of the Berlin Wall, she imagines she’s seen it all before. But when she arrives she realises this is a death like no other: it seems the girl was trying to escape – but from the West.

Müller is a member of the People’s Police, but in East Germany her power only stretches so far. The Stasi want her to discover the identity of the girl, but assure her the case is otherwise closed – and strongly discourage her asking questions.  The evidence doesn’t add up, and it soon becomes clear that the crime scene has been staged, the girl’s features mutilated. But this is not a regime that tolerates a curious mind, and Müller doesn’t realise that the trail she’s following will lead her dangerously close to home.

Young’s Cold War procedural, the first of a trilogy, is picking up a lot of heat – it’s already been optioned for television – so Crime Thriller Fella is delighted to kick off the Stasi Child Blog Tour with a Guest Post by the author.

He gives us the history of the sinister state apparatus, the Stasi, and how it spread its tentacles across the whole of the DDR, more often than not recruiting children to be its informers…

David YoungWhere do book titles come from? The current flavour seems to be to mix up the words ‘Girl’, ‘Train’ and ‘On’ and either tack on or leave off the definite or indefinite article.

As I write, two different books occupying the Amazon Kindle top 20 are ‘Girl On A Train’ and ‘The Girl On The Train.’ It’s enough to put anyone off girls and trains for life…

When I plumped for Stasi Child, I was fully expecting accusations that my novel’s title was a rip-off combination of Anna Funder’s Stasiland and Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44. There’s actually an element of truth in that. The novel was inspired by reading Stasiland, and the parallels with Child 44 are that it features a state police detective, in a communist country, whose search for the truth is hampered by the secret police.

In my case, the secret police in question are the Stasi: agents of East Germany’s feared – and occasionally ridiculed – Ministry for State Security. It’s a term I’m really using as a shorthand for East Germany, and I expected everyone to know that. This isn’t the case, however, as was brought home to me at a recent Guardian masterclass in marketing for authors. Showing the draft artwork to the only other novelist in the room with a book deal, she responded by saying: ‘It looks lovely. But what does that word Stasi mean?’

So who were the Stasi? Here’s a potted guide.

The name Stasi is an abbreviation derived from these letters in bold in the official German title: Ministerium für Staatssicherheit. It was formed in February 1950 – just a few months after the creation of East Germany (more properly the German Democratic Republic, or Deutsche Demokratische Republik – hence the abbreviation DDR which older readers will remember seeing on television emblazoned on the shirts of chunky bearded shot putters — and not only male chunky bearded shot putters).

One of the Stasi’s main roles was spying on the DDR’s own citizens, to root out counter-revolutionary and fascist sympathisers and prevent them from undermining the state. In other words, anyone who disagreed with the ruling party line.

From its early beginnings, the Stasi became a vast network of agents controlled from its main headquarters in Normannenstrasse in East Berlin (or in the DDR’s terms the Hauptstadt der DDR) using covert methods – the full extent of which only became apparent when the Berlin Wall was torn down and the two Germanies reunited (the 25th reunion anniversary was earlier this month).

And from the start, Stasi agents modelled themselves on the original Soviet secret police, the Cheka. Most officials would have a bust of the Cheka’s leader, Felix Dzerzhinsky, on their desks and would think of themselves as ‘the German Cheka’.

As an organisation, it grew exponentially during the 70s and 80s – by 1989 it had more than 90,000 full-time employees. But just as important to the way the Stasi worked were its unofficial informants – more than 170,000 strong by the time the Wall fell. These could be friends, neighbours – and even lovers, as many former East Germans were shocked to find out from Stasi files after 1990. The mammoth job of piecing together the vast quantity of files the Stasi shredded when East Germany collapsed is still going on today – and will continue for many more years – a giant jigsaw puzzle of state snooping.

What’s little known about and particularly shocking (and relevant to the plot of Stasi Child) is the number of Stasi informers who were children or youths. It’s estimated that by 1989, six percent of those 170,000 unofficial informers were under the age of eighteen. Their recruitment had begun in the mid-1970s, when Stasi Child is set.

The Stasi was split into a number of departments serving different functions. It had its own criminal investigation division which worked in parallel to – but rarely with – the detectives of the People’s Police, the Volkspolizei, the employers of my main character, Oberleutnant Karin Müller.

The Stasi would take over cases from the People’s Police when there was a political element to the investigation, as there is in my initial murder scene, by the Berlin Wall. They would almost always never work on the same team as the police, although all police units would have official Stasi liaison officers (as well as, no doubt, plenty of unofficial informers). So my story – where I do have the two organisations at least partly working together – is to some extent authorial licence. But I have, I hope, created a credible explanation for it.

Intriguingly, very few former Stasi officials have any regrets about what they did. For most, their actions were seen as a necessity to defend the revolution, to defend socialism and protect the integrity of the DDR. And many former East German officials – not just those in the Stasi – still insist that those who attempted to escape over the Wall (officially the Anti Fascist Protection Rampart/Barrier), and those who were held captive in Jugendwerkhöfe (youth workhouses) must have been guilty of some form of criminality. Occasionally it was true. More often than not, it wasn’t.


Stasi Child by David Young is out now in ebook. The Paperback will follow in February 2016.

TV Crime Log: Empire, Enfield & Game

EmpireEmpire slips onto our screens with this week with little fanfare, but in the US it has been quite the phenomenon.

It arrived quietly only for the ratings to unprecedentedly rise every week — every single week — until, by the time the first season ended, it was the highest-rating drama for many years. It’s a drama about Empire Enterprises, a fictional hip-hop music company and the family battles for control of it, a kind of gangsta Lear.

Empire is on tomorrow night at 9pm, on E4. That’s the one that’s like More4, but with less Grand Designs.

I’m afraid that for the rest of this post I am obliged to take you back to the 70s, whether you want to go there or not.

Time was, nobody would touch that tired decade with a bargepole. Then along came Life On Mars and everyone remembered how much they loved –- or convinced themselves they loved — clackers and butterscotch Angel Delight, and now it’s quite the place to be.  Ah, and how we miss the Cold War — with its Dead Letterboxes, Heathside Safe Houses and those loveable Sleeper Agents next door.

The GameSo I’m looking forward to The Game. It’s a spy drama featuring Brian Cox as Daddy, the Head of MI5. The trailers make it look very Tinker Tailor indeed, with one of those sound-proof rooms made out of egg boxes, brutalist menswear and people smoking, like, a lot.

The blurb is majestic in loons:

London, 1972. When a defecting KGB officer reveals the existence of a devastating Soviet plot by the name of Operation Glass, the charismatic head of MI5 must assemble a secret committee to help protect Britain.

As the Soviets awaken sleeper agents to carry out the plot, the new team are faced with an unidentified and invisible threat.

The first agent reactivated is a civil servant, bullied and blackmailed into working for the KGB. As MI5 scramble to identify his role in Operation Glass, Joe Lambe becomes obsessed with the reappearance of his nemesis, the Soviet agent codenamed Odin.

I think The Game has been sitting around on a shelf somewhere at the BBC for quite a while before being activated –- I hope that doesn’t portend problems. It begins on Thursday at 9pm, on BBC2.

The Enfield HauntingThere’s more dodgy 70s haircuts in The Enfield Haunting. This is the account of –- it says here –- real events that took place in an ordinary house in Enfield in 1977. For whatever reason, a poltergeist kicks off big time. You may remember those sinister photos of girls bouncing up and down on their beds while David Soul smiles blandly from a poster on the wall.

Adapted from Guy Lyon Playfair’s book This House is Haunted, the drama is based on extensive documentation, recordings and witness statements. Its got a top-notch cast, too, including Timothy ‘Turner’ Spall and Matthew ‘Edmund’ Macfadyen

In this age of wall-to-wall cop and lawyer and medical shows, it’s nice to see Sky Living doing something different. It’s on Sunday at 9pm.

The Intel: Elena Forbes

Elena ForbesJigsaw Man by Elena Forbes is the latest in the series to feature DI Mark Tartaglia and Sam Donovan. It kicks off when Tartaglia has to investigate the death of a female victim — a woman he had previously spent the night with at a West London hotel. In another investigation, the body of a homeless man found in a burnt-out car turns out to be a corpse assembled from four different people. Enter the Jigsaw Man. A bad day at the office, indeed.

Elena’s first Tartaglia novel Die With Me was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger Award. Four novels later, we’re delighted that Elena, who lives in London, has agreed to give us the intel on her leading man, the challenges of writing a series, her journey to publication — and, of course, her writing regime.

Tell us about DI Mark Tartaglia and Sam Donovan…

Tartaglia was born and brought up in Edinburgh, of Italian background. I like the fact that he is an outsider in London, which gives him a fresh perspective. He and Donovan have worked together for a few years and the dynamic between them is a major strand of the stories.

How have the characters developed over the course of the series?

The first four books take place over a year and the relationship between Tartaglia and Donovan has changed dramatically over that period. They have both been tested by their experiences together and the arc of their story has been important to me. Jigsaw Man shows them both at a very low point and at their most disillusioned, although there is some light at the very end of the book.

Where did you get the inspiration for Jigsaw Man?

To be honest, I really can’t remember. As with my previous books, the story develops in little fragments, which gradually grow together until I’m ready to start writing. It then evolves further during the course of the writing.

Jigsaw ManWhat are the challenges of writing a procedural series?

There are many pluses – you know your characters and it’s exciting to begin a new story with them. I really enjoy the research, which carries on from one book to another. I guess the challenge is to keep it all fresh but I’ve only written 4 books in the series, so this hasn’t been something I’ve needed to worry about so far.

What was your journey to becoming a published author?

My first two books weren’t published. I have no gripes about it – they were terrible! Tartaglia started off as a minor character in one of them and I discovered I liked writing about him. My third book Die With Me was shortlisted for the Debut Dagger and was eventually published after many re-writes.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

It’s the same as any type of work, there are good moments and bad moments and a lot of it is about not trying to make it perfect first time. It’s also about sitting down at the desk every day and seeing where things go. Some days are really bad and most of what I write gets deleted, but when I’m on a roll, it’s the best thing in the world. It’s very difficult to interact with family sometimes – I really just want to be locked away at my desk writing.

How do you deal with feedback?

It depends where it comes from. Like any creative process, criticism can be both beneficial and also destructive. Writing is a fragile process and I’ve learned who to trust and what to tune out. In the end, I am writing for myself – what I would want to read – and I am my first point of call as an editor. However, I get to a point when it’s all too familiar and I need a fresh pair of eyes to look at it. I have a wonderful agent and editor, both of whom have been enormously helpful in terms of feedback and helping me craft the books into better shape.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

I admire a whole range of authors – Peter Robinson, Michael Connelly, Le Carre, to name a few. I like different things in their writing but probably the main theme is depth of characterisation. I’ve just finished Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. It’s about 20 years old but I’ve never read it before and it’s brilliant in terms of characterisation. I also really enjoyed reading Gone Girl recently. The idea of an unreliable narrator was fresh and interesting and her voice was very strong.

Give me some advice about writing…

The best advice I was given is to just get on and do it! And do it regularly. The main thing is to make a habit of it and if you do it regularly, you will find that it will start flowing through your mind and all sorts of interesting things will start to come. It’s very important to keep a notebook with you. Stephen King’s book “On Writing” is really worth reading too.

What’s next for you?

I’m writing a stand-alone thriller at the moment. It wasn’t a deliberate move to do something different, I just had this really good idea that didn’t fit into the mould of a police procedural. However, I’m going to see if I can bring Tartaglia into it somehow.

Jigsaw Man is published by Quercus in hardcover.

The Intel: Jessica Cornwell

Jessica Cornwell

Photo Credit: Diana Patient

Jessica Cornwell’s mystical  Anna Verco thriller The Serpent Papers has been described as a literary Da Vinci Code. It follows her academic book thief’s investigation into three ritual murders in Barcelona. Teaming up with a Spanish Inspector, the trail leads to a mysterious book, a medieval revelation written in the language of witches and alchemists, called The Serpent Papers.

Jessica was raised in Southern California. After graduating from the University of Barcelona, she participated in research and grant projects in Oxford, India and Spain. In 2010 she moved to London to work in film. She’s now writing full-time on the next in the Anna Verco trilogy. And Jessica’s got a hell of a literary pedigree – her grandfather is John Le Carre.

The Serpent Papers is available right now in hardcover, paperback or you can download it to your device. To wet your appetite, we’ve got an absolutely terrific interview with Jessica. She gives us the intel on Anna Verco, medieval torture devices, the dark magic of Barcelona, conspiracies — and, of course, her writing regime…

Tell us about Anna Verco…

Anna is a twenty-seven year old, American researcher determined to find a palimpsest called The Serpent Papers. She works for Picatrix, an academic body funded by a wealthy individual shrouded in mystery. Anna is an unreliable narrator, obsessive and single-minded in her focus. Her quest for the missing pages of a magical book suddenly becomes a hunt for a serial killer, taking her deep into the dangerous world of Barcelona’s gothic quarter.

Anna arrived three years ago, when I took refuge in a monastery on Majorca, pulling over in the pouring rain. The monastery was closed, but when I knocked on the door a stranger welcomed me inside. The stranger took me into an exquisite library and showed me a medieval manuscript in the monastery’s archive. Anna was born out of my first encounter these ancient books – I saw a young, psychic woman who reflected the vulnerability and strength of the material she handled, who kept her own history secret and spoke a magical, hallucinatory language.

How did you get the inspiration for The Serpent Papers?

The primary source of inspiration emerged from the year I spent living in Barcelona when I was a MA student. During that time I worked as a director’s assistant for the experimental Catalan Theatre company La Fura dels Baus on a production of Titus Andronicus. Lavinia’s fate captivated me, a young, beautiful woman who loses her sovereignty, her hands and her tongue (and finally her life). I invented a killer who took the tongues of his victims and ritualistically carved women’s bodies with the letters of a medieval truth machine. Why? I began building the story out. What did it mean?

I discovered the scold’s bridle, a torture device used to punish talkative women, a metal mask with a blunt spike that pushed down into the tongue of its victim, and began reading about the history of European witchcraft alongside references to Ovid’s gory tale of Philomela the Nightingale. I created a mystical woman, Philomela, who lost her tongue and was rescued by an alchemist in the hills of Majorca in the thirteenth century. The ancient secret she carried became the key to the murders of four women in 2003 in Barcelona.

But there are many other sources of inspiration for The Serpent Papers… before writing the novel I also spent two years living with Rosemary, a 95 year old costume designer whose home was filled with treasures. Rosemary had a long and extraordinary career, working with the English National Opera, Glyndebourne, and the National theatre. She lined the drawers of her wardrobe with scraps of old designs, and was an exceptional engraver. There were two small portraits on the wall – the first of a young, waist-coated Victorian Englishman, the second a beautiful woman in a broad skirt, their countenances framed in gold. These two became Llewellyn Sitwell and Katherine Markham.

I realized I wanted to play with time and found documents, in an unconventional structure. Rosemary had twins, one of whom had died tragically when he was twenty-eight in a motorcycle accident. His memories filled the house, a sadness that infiltrated the story of the Catalan twins Núria and Adrià who become embroiled in the fate of the murdered actress Natalia Hernández. I wanted to write something escapist, rambunctious and darkly entertaining.

The Serpent PapersWhat is it about Spain that makes it such an evocative location for a thriller?

Spain is an evocative location for any story! Barcelona in winter has an ominous quality, a dark magic hangs in bare trees and winding streets and gothic alleyways. The history of the city is remarkably rich, and gives itself naturally to invention.

You’ve been described as a literary Dan Brown – what is it that draws us to historical conspiracies?

Fascination with secrets is a universal human phenomenon. What is behind the closed door? I want to know, don’t you? Historical conspiracies expose hidden truths that break open dominant social traditions. There’s something delicious about that kind of discovery, something compulsive and rewarding, and Dan Brown deals with that phenomenally. I actually think our work is very different. I’m not concerned with historical conspiracies, but I am concerned with secrets, and the legacy of violence and myth. I view history as a palimpsest, one erased text lying beneath another and I desperately want to peel back the layers and look inside. Some people might call my interests arcane, but I believe these arcane details unlock a secret language – a language that sleeps inside fairy tales and fuels strange dreams.

As a feminist and a writer, I felt compelled to explore the history of European witchcraft, alchemy, the Divine Feminine and violence against women. I think of Bluebeard’s wife standing alone with a key, in front of a terrible door.

You come from a family steeped in literature and movies – have you always felt compelled to write?

When I was very young I wanted to write. But I did not have the confidence to take that seriously until a close member of my family was diagnosed with rapid, unremitting Multiple Sclerosis and I found myself writing to cope with the sadness that entered my life.

You’re writing full time now — take us through a typical writing day for you?

When I’m writing, my world is very quiet. Early on I got into the habit of writing before work – up before sunrise to seize an hour before my commute. That habit continues to define my working day. On a typical day, I wake up at 6, stretch before settling into my desk with a double shot of espresso. I write between 6.30 in the morning and noon, breaking once around ten o’clock for a breather and a second coffee.

After lunch I go for a walk, check e-mails and respond to anything urgent. I eat the same meals, fashioned identically and try never to read e-mails or make any phone calls before writing in the morning, as I find it disrupts my creative process. In the late afternoons I edit and exercise for at least an hour. I like running, as it helps me get into a meditative, physical state where ideas often flow in unexpected and exciting directions.

In the evening I make dinner, and read nonfiction – generally thick academic books around the character or environment I’m developing. I’m very method, and immerse myself in my fictional reality. I lucidly dream about the book in the night, and wake up with fresh ideas. At specific points in the process, I try to shake myself up a bit by travelling to the physical location I’m writing about – recently this has meant Barcelona and Mallorca. I make copious notes as I go, and draw pictures of the things I encounter.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

That it is alive and can’t be forced. I’m confronted with my own weaknesses every day.

How do you deal with feedback?

Constructively. I’m extremely interested to know how people respond to my writing and always take criticism seriously. I’d rather know about what’s not working in the text than what is – and I want to be challenged. I want to be asked: Why? Why have you done this? How can it be pushed further? What isn’t working?

I like to frame issues in optimistic terms: how can a literary device or shift in plot add to the world I’m building, or fix an energy drop in the story? I want to build a dynamic experience for the reader – like a director bringing a performance to life – and that requires an active consideration of the audience’s perspective, even if I disagree.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

I admire so many authors…each for individual reasons. Currently I’m deeply inspired by the work of Jenny Erpenbeck, Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie. This winter I have been returning to Federico García Lorca and Rubén Darío, and the short fictions of Borges and Carlos Fuentes. Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls has exerted the greatest influence of any novel that I have had the pleasure of reading, while George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (a book I devoured when I was thirteen) lead me to Spain. Yesterday I started Orhan Pamuk’s The Black Book, and I have already fallen completely in love … This weekend I also read The Prose Eddas by Snorri Sturluson – an icy Norse mythology that contrasted beautifully with Pamuk’s Istanbul.

Give me some advice about writing…

Every writer has her own patterns, her own sensibility. This makes offering advice complicated. My own sense is that once you find a daily rhythm, stick to this monastic routine with absolute certainty. Listen to how your body moves through thoughts during the day and to try to cultivate a pattern of work that is unique to you… Go to the place you like to write at the same time every day and a habit will form. It doesn’t sound particularly romantic, but I’ve found that the most important thing has been to build consistent rituals of creativity.

What’s next for Anna Verco?

Many mystical things. I’m afraid I’m going to have to keep her destiny hidden for now.

The Intel: Maureen Jennings

That strained look, that grey pallor. I can see you’re probably looking for a little pick-me-up that will propel you towards the end of the half-term holiday and thrust you, like a rocket, out the other side. Look no further — we’ve got a treat for you, right here, right now.

Maureen JenningsMaureen Jennings is the Canadian author of the Christine Morris and Tom Tyler series. Her seven Detective Murdoch novels have become a Canadian television phenomenon. The Murdoch Mysteries, about a Victorian detective who uses CSI-style techniques, has run for over 100-episodes and counting.

What you may not know is that Maureen was born in Birmingham at the outbreak of the Second World War. Her DI Tom Tyler novels evocatively revisit that time and place. The third, No Known Grave, is set in 1942 at a remote convalescent hospital for injured soldiers, and follows the detective’s investigation into a horrific double-murder. No Known Grave is published by Titan. You can buy it in shops or click it magically onto your device in an instant.

All the Fellas on the Board have pronounced themselves hugely satisfied that Maureen has agreed to give us the intel on Tyler, Murdoch and, of course, her writing process…

Tell us about DI Tom Tyler…

The physical characteristics (he’s a red head) came from Thomas Craig who plays Inspector Brackenreid in the Murdoch show. Some of his personality also.

You were born in Birmingham at the start of the war, but emigrated to Canada at the age of 17. Are you consciously revisiting that the early part of your life for the novels?

Sort of. I thought I knew a lot about it but soon realized I didn’t. It’s one thing to experience bombing and rationing as a child, another to understand what was going on. I wanted to come to terms with that childhood as well and give recognition to the adults who lived through it.

No Known Grave is your third Tyler novel – do you plan to take him through the length of World War II and beyond?

Not sure yet. Fiction time can advance much more slowly or quickly. Books three and four both take place within a six month time period. The post war years are utterly fascinating and haven’t been totally mined as yet.

No Known GraveAs a prolific writer who writes historical novels, how do you manage to fit in your research?

That’s the easy part because it’s so much fun. I never think of it as fitting in. I read constantly as much original material as I can get my hands on. Then I say…better get started on this book now.

The Murdoch Mysteries, which is based on your books, has run for over 100-episodes  — why are we so intrigued by Victorian detectives?

Even though Murdoch uses the technology that was available, he still has to rely on his mind.In an age where there are so many specialists and such amazing technology, I think we are still drawn to a time when it was all a bit simpler.

Take us through a typical writing day for you?

Stage one. Answer emails. Walk dogs. Think. Stage two. Return, have iced latte. Answer more emails. Stage three. Sit down with lap top. Write or make notes depending what stage of process I’m at. Close lap top. Stage four. Research something doesn’t matter what. Stage five. Walk dog. More thinking. Stage six. watch tv, especially British crime series. Study them. Stage seven. Make more notes. Go to bed. Perchance to dream.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

IT WILL NEVER BE PERFECT. Do the absolute best you can.

How do you deal with feedback?

Everything is to learn from. The best feedback is when the person has obviously read carefully and isn’t just asking you to write the kind of novel they would have written.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

There are too many to list really. Books have been my friends all of my life. Currently, I would say I am a huge admirer of John Le Carre. His elliptical style is captivating. Absolutely have always loved Conan Doyle. Those stories stand the test of time. I love good storytelling. Loved P.D.James. Miss her.

Give me some advice about writing…

Can I just repeat what I wrote earlier? Oh and add one more thing. A really good piece of advice that was given to me years ago and which I follow faithfully — get your first chapter down as solidly as you can. Rework it until you’ve got it right. that might seem to contradict the previous advice about not editing but it actually doesn’t. I like prologues and they are nice and short. I will work on those a lot before seriously moving on.

The Intel: Luke McCallin

Luke McCallin’s debut novel The Man From Berlin offers a unique take on the World War II conflict – moving away from the Holocaust, D-Day landings and British Home Front and turning to murderous events in Sarajevo, Bosnia.  It follows military Intelligence officer, Captain Gregor Reinhardt, as he investigates the brutal murders of a beautiful socialite and a German officer, threading a careful route through a minefield of political, military and personal agendas.

Published by No Exit, The Man From Berlin has drawn comparison with Philip Kerr, Dan Fesperman, CJ Sansom and Martin Cruz Smith. The first of a planned series about Reinhardt, it’s out now as a paperback, or ready to download to your Device from here.

Luke’s work is imbued with his experience working for the UN as a humanitarian. He’s been incredibly generous with his answers for The Intel. He talks about how Reinhardt walked into his dreams, about the evolution of The Man From Berlin, his writing process and his best-ever moment between the posts…

Luke McCallinTell us about Gregor Reinhardt…

Gregor Reinhardt is a German intelligence officer, a former Berlin detective chased out of the police by the Nazis. When you first find him in The Man From Berlin, he is haunted by what he has seen, tortured by recurring nightmares, wearing the uniform of an army he despises, and has ever fewer reasons to live.

He is a son, a soldier, a husband, a father, a friend, a policeman, a patriot… He is all of those things, and not defined by one of them more than another. He is a man formed by his times. He is a man much like any other. Sometimes strong, sometimes weak. Sometimes able to do the right thing, and sometimes too scared to. Sometimes shaped by events, sometimes able to shape them to him. Sometimes introspective to the point of paralysis, but with the intelligence to see past the veil of illusion and propaganda that has been pulled across his time, and thus perfectly aware of how his inactivity and fear make him complicit in the spiral of chaos around him.

Someone once said they would cross the road to talk to Henry V, or King Lear, but they wouldn’t cross the room to talk to Hamlet. I like to think Reinhardt’s a bit like that. He’s Hamlet. He feels his times very keenly. He feels his own inadequacies more keenly still. What I wanted to do in creating and writing Reinhardt was to find a way to look at a tempestuous and tendentious period of history, to create a character and make people think that he could be you. An ordinary man in extraordinary times, still trying to behave and believe in what makes sense, but so painfully aware of his own fears and limitations, and still knowing what is right and what is wrong. If you give someone like that an opportunity to do something, be someone, what would he do? What would you do…?

So, if you crossed that proverbial room — maybe at a reception or a cocktail party — if you got him to loosen up and talk to you, if he trusted you enough, he’d have quite a bit to say about himself, and his times. I think you would find him interesting. Somewhat taciturn, with a dry sense of humour and very self-deprecating, and I think you would find yourself opening up to him in turn.

Why do we find compromised heroes so compelling?

I suppose at its simplest, a compromised hero is someone who is not where they would otherwise want to be. As readers, we want someone to root for: someone who has something to lose. As an author, I want my character to move, and grow, but if we take ourselves as examples, our growth and development as people — as human beings — is not linear. But what works, or even doesn’t work, in life does not always work on the page. You have to come up with a character and a journey that lets you start at one point, and finish at another, and that allows you to show how the character has grown and changed.

In Reinhardt’s case, he is an officer in an army he detests, and he is a man who has allowed his fear to overcome his sense of wrong and right. He is compromised by his inaction, and by his participation — however unwilling — in the war, but however low he feels or thinks he is, there is always lower to go. He knows that, so the watchwords to Reinhardt’s character and story are probably ‘change’ and ‘consequence.’ Reinhardt’s story is a thread woven into a tapestry of a continent in upheaval. He goes through those times initially just trying to keep his head above water and survive, but he changes. It’s impossible not to. I think you have to make people interested in those changes, interested in the consequences of those changes, and you have to make people believe Reinhardt has something to bring to the table, so to say. You need to make people care about him, and to survive is not enough.

Where did the inspiration for The Man From Berlin come from?

It may sound clichéd, but Gregor Reinhardt walked into my dreams one night, and then sat quietly to one side for months and years, not saying much, not doing much, just waiting for me to find the time and the courage to start writing his story.

I was a political advisor to the United Nations mission in Bosnia when Reinhardt appeared. I worked with people from all walks of Bosnian life. With policemen and judges and lawyers, with mayors and town councilors, with priests and imams, with refugees and people still living in ruins, with war criminals and those who survived them, with those who had lived the war and those who fled from it, with women holding families together, and men who had fallen adrift of life. I began to build up a collage in my mind. I kept wondering, asking myself, what would I have done in their place, and I began weaving that human and historical tapestry, which is one of the most complex and fascinating you can imagine, into a story, and then into a book, albeit into another time, that of the Second World War, and the book had at its heart a man on the edge of despair at what his life had become, and his name was Gregor Reinhardt.

The Man From BerlinYou’ve described the city of Sarajevo as an iconic character in the book – what is it about the city that made you want to write about it?

Setting Reinhardt’s story in the Balkans was actually a late decision. The novels were originally to be set in Berlin, a city I’ve never visited and about which I know practically nothing. I spent years trying to research it, until I had something of a road to Damascus moment and Sarajevo offered itself up as a location instead.

Immediately, so many things fell into place. The story made more sense, I could say so much more about the themes I wanted to develop, and describe a city and people I have deep, deep affection for. I could entice readers with the promise of adventure in the Balkans — a part of the world known to most as a by-word for intrigue, or treachery — so it was a chance to show readers another side of that region. It was also to make readers more keenly interested in the characters. They’d have to be tough or resourceful to survive the Balkans, right?!

It was also because I think that with mysteries, time and place are almost characters in and of themselves. I spent six years working in Bosnia, and you can’t live there or in Sarajevo for long without it seeping into you. As much as it’s an overused analogy, Bosnia and Sarajevo really are historical and cultural crossroads, and are so contested. They defy any simple explanation, just like the finest puzzle or book or question. No matter the need to reduce and simplify them, there’s no one way to read or play them, and a place and time like that gives you so many options as an author: for drama, action, reflection; for asking big questions and trying out the answers to them.

What’s next for Reinhardt?

My original conception of Reinhardt’s stories was an initial set of three stories, a trilogy, each novel focusing on a particular theme (and I’m pretty sure my (un)conscious choice of a trilogy was influenced by all the fantasy novels I read!) The Man From Berlin was about redemption. The Pale House was about resistance. The third novel, which I’m writing now, will be about reconciliation. That novel will complete the initial Reinhardt trilogy. The fourth novel will be set in Reinhardt’s past, during the First World War, and will tell the story of an investigation in the trenches. I’ve always wanted to write a WWI novel, and I think Reinhardt will let me say some of the things I’ve always wanted to say about it.

I know there are at least half a dozen stories, including the two I’ve written so far, that contain specific things I want to say about Reinhardt the character, and his times and places. Places are very important to me. Like I said, they’re characters in their own right. That comes from my background, growing up in Africa, and my work with the UN. I’m fascinated by places, what they can do to you… I’ve ideas for novels in pre-WWII Paris, in Marseille, in Berlin, and even an idea for a Reinhardt novel in Panama!

You’ve traveled widely in your life – how do you think that has influenced your writing?

More than the travelling, it’s living and working in many places. I was born in Oxford to parents that had a humanitarian vocation. We moved to Africa when I was five. My father worked for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and my mother did work with child soldiers. That upbringing was inspirational, and engendered in me a desire to do something similar. I’ve worked for a range of UN organisations around the world, and now work for the UN based in Geneva. All the places I’ve lived and worked — in Africa, in Russia, in Haiti, in Pakistan, in the Balkans, especially — taught me something, or I saw something, or felt something. About what happens to people — ordinary people — put in extraordinary situations.

I’ve seen a lot of human suffering and violence, but also a lot of human dignity and kindness, and we can too easily forget about the latter when faced with the former. I feel compelled — inspired, if you like — to give voice to those impressions, feelings and observations. That’s not to say my writing’s about those places, although my first two books were set in WWII Sarajevo, but those experiences taught me a lot about how people can act in such situations. There is so much dignity and so much anguish in the human situation when confronted with war or natural disaster. No one really asks to become a war criminal, or to get conscripted, or deny other humans their basic human rights, or to try and raise a family in a refugee camp, but it happens. And at the same time, as we see right now in Ukraine, it does not take much for people to move so far so fast from the paths their lives were taking: for postmen, for bakers, for bank clerks, for miners to become gunmen, to become warlords, for them to turn on their neighbours of decades and believe the worst of them, to expect the worse of them, and so to mete out the worst before it befalls them.

What does it take for a man to turn on his neighbour? What does it take for another man to stand up for someone? Trying to understand the human motivations or conditions in all that, that’s what inspires me to write. I’ve found that no amount of work that we, as humanitarian workers, can ever really do will suffice to overcome those impulses. You are always going to be frustrated in what you achieve, to only get halfway to where you want to be, and often — far too often — the guilty get away with it. I think with my writing I’m trying to find some way of coming to terms with that. I don’t write about white knights on white horses — Gregor Reinhardt is certainly not one of those — but I try to ask those questions that seem to haunt me, and I try to find answers, and a sense of closure.

Take us through a typical writing day for you?

If only I had one! I have a full time job and a family so my writing time often ends up being done in the dogwatches. Curtailed, as Dr Maturin said in one of the O’Brien books! I try to do a bit each day, if only an hour, and it’s mostly in the evenings, but I recently started a new job with a lot more responsibilities. I’m finishing each day a lot more mentally fatigued than I used to, so the energy to write is not quite there even if the time is.

I get quite a bit done at weekends, usually when I’ve set up all the props. That would be black tea, by the litre, and some music! I like quiet, but only relative. I work to music a lot. I have a particular soft spot for West African music, especially music from Mali. I used to work in Mali and it’s a musical goldmine, a gift that keeps on giving!

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Harper Lee, Erich Maria Remarque, Vasily Grossman, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Isaac Babel were great influences who found and rendered the human amidst tumultuous backdrops. Cormac McCarthy and Peter Mathiessen are extraordinary modern American writers, with the first volume in the latter’s Shadow Country trilogy a master class in story-telling from multiple viewpoints, replete with ambiguity and with the ‘truth’ held tantalisingly just out of reach, just like real life. Mathiessen is also a writer who exposes the truth of a place, and I admire the way he is able to show many of the realities beneath the American dream, and put in perspective — and to sometimes hold dearer as a result — all that has been built in that country.

I admire Sebastian Barry for the lyricism of his writing, such that I’m sure he has to be the reincarnation of an Irish bard! Rosemary Sutcliffe’s books (she always said she wrote for children aged eight to eighty!) about Roman Britain were magical, almost fairy tales, and her descriptions of Britain’s beauty and wildness were and are inspiring. Hilary Mantel, Patrick O’Brien and Alexander Fullerton I love for the sheer depth of their historical research and, particularly for O’Brien, the sheer beauty of his writing and the creation, in Aubrey and Maturin, of one of the best fictional double-acts ever.

Growing up, it was science fiction and fantasy I read most. Tolkien, CS Lewis, and Stephen Donaldson, Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, then Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, Scott Lynch and R. Scott Bakker. I love all the world-building that goes into science fiction and fantasy, the intricacy of it. As much as I read a lot of history and current affairs, I don’t have a particular favourite writer of it — I tend to focus on periods or themes, more than authors — but AJP Taylor was, and remains, immensely readable. Joe Sacco’s graphic novels about Palestine, Goražde, and WWI are works of art as well as works of political analysis and conscience. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel changed the way I look at the world, as did Mike Hulme’s Why We Disagree About Climate Change. Hew Strachan’s work on the First World War is magisterial. The Washing of the Spears and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee are classics that look at different instances of the imperial experience. The Isles is the single best book I know about Britain.

I’m reading a lot of crime, espionage and mystery, partly to familiarise myself as this was never the genre I thought I would write in! There are the giants like Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, Len Deighton and John Le Carré. Then the contemporary authors I’ve discovered are Philip Kerr (of course!), William Ryan, Alan Furst, and David Downing. Seeing as I’m fascinated by what places and times can do to you, I especially like James McClure’s Kramer and Zondi series about a pair of detectives in apartheid South Africa.

Give me some advice about writing…

There’s a suitably acerbic anecdote from Ernest Hemingway that fits this question. Once asked what the best training for an aspiring writer would be, he replied: “Let’s say that he should go out and hang himself because he finds that writing well is impossibly difficult. Then he should be cut down without mercy and forced by his own self to write as well as he can for the rest of his life. At least he will have the story of the hanging to commence with.

Write, and don’t be afraid to write badly, or with difficulty because, as someone once told me, there are no good writers, there are only good re-writers. Just write. Don’t wait for the perfect idea, or the most ingenious plot. Don’t be afraid to show what you’ve done, and show it widely. Writing is a lonely business, so it’s important that you as a writer get out and about, and that you show your work to people, as many people as you can. You want criticism, and you want that exposure of yourself and your work. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are all kinds of resources out there: workshops, writers’ groups, online courses and coaches, some of them right in your neighbourhood. Make friends with writers so that you have a community. I benefitted enormously from an online coach, who taught a great course on plot development.

What else…? Read outside your genre and comfort zone, and read widely and voraciously because you’ll never know what you might find, and where you’ll find it. Observe what’s going on around you. When you’re out and about, watch people. Watch them having conversations, watch them walking down the street, eating, laughing. Watch the sky, watch the play of light on water or glass, watch the street’s reflection wash over the yellow chassis of a New York taxi. Watch how water flows, what it flows around, how it flows around.

Take time to plan, but remember there’s a fine line between planning, and planning as prevarication. I used to just dive in and write, but what I’d end up with were lots of disconnected scenes and ideas. Sometimes I’d be able to join them up, often not. Planning — research, plotting, a synopsis, knowing the ending before you begin — can really help.

You play in goal for the UN football team – what’s the best save you ever made?

What a great question! There are so many great saves I made (tongue firmly in cheek), how to chose one… Well, there was one I’m particularly proud of because it was, I think, a sort of amalgam of all the goalkeeper’s arts — anticipation, observation, positioning, technique, reflexes and a spot of bravery. We were playing in a semi-final, and we needed a win. About five minutes from the end, we were leading 3-2, and the other teams two forwards made a clean break through into our half. There were no defenders with them, just me. The striker with the ball had already scored twice, so he was on a hat trick. I figured he’d want that third goal for himself more than for the team, so I made it ‘easy’ for him, and gave him plenty of space away from the other striker, who was screaming for the ball. Sure enough, the one with the ball tried to go round me, but I managed to close him down and went down at his feet, got a hand to the ball and knocked it away, and then got up for the rebound and saved that one too!

The Defections – Hannah Michell

The DefectionsThe Defections, by Hannah Michell, has a terrifically compelling backdrop, the division of Korea into North and South. It’s a setting that instantly echoes those fantastic Cold War novels of the past — and indeed The Defections has echoes of both Graham Greene and John Le Carre in its depiction of a doomed relationship between diplomatic translator Mia Kim and a British attaché.

The blurb wants to be somewhere else:

Seoul, South Korea. Mia is an outsider. The child of an English mother, she defies the rigid expectations of her Korean stepmother to work as a translator at the British Embassy. Her uncle runs a charitable – and controversial – school for North Korean defectors, and prevails upon Mia’s stepmother to shelter a traumatised young student. Mia is too preoccupied to note the defector’s strange behaviour – or its implications.

She has become infatuated with Thomas, a diplomat with a self-destructive streak. When an outrageous indiscretion endangers his position, it is Mia who saves him from humiliation and rescues his career. And the boundaries between them are crossed.

As a reward for his reformation, Thomas is commissioned to audit security amongst Embassy staff. Learning of Mia’s connections to the defector, he is compelled to dig deeper into the life of the woman who has captivated him. Suddenly, all that Mia has done to get close to Thomas begins to cause her undoing.

First and foremost, The Defections is a character study. Its thriller aspect isn’t, let’s be frank, hugely satisfying, and when it does belatedly kick in –- ultimately, Mia and Thomas’s relationship, and the discovery of a tunnel connecting the two countries, spark international tensions — you don’t get the sense that Michell is hugely interested in it. It’s the characters who power the novel and the relationships.

Michell’s protag, Mia Kim, is an outsider in a nation of misplaced people. Because of the split, whole families have been lost to each other for decades. Mia’s mother — who she barely remembers –- is English and so she’s persecuted by her bitter stepmother Kyung-ha, and still carries the scars of attacks from vicious classmates. It’s Mia’s dreams of becoming English that fuels her relationship with diplomat Thomas. Other narratives involving Kyung-ha and a young defector called Hyun-min weave in and out of the central story.

There’s an interesting lack of context to the drama. The traumatic division between North and South Korea, and subsequent fraught tension between the two nations, is a menacing pulse beneath the prose, and yet we’re never really given details about the fractious and disastrous relationship between these two countries.

Michell — who grew up in Seoul — doesn’t provide any history outside of the experience of her characters, and so the city remains an alien place, the kind of strange society, rain-lashed and neon-soaked, that China Melville would create. Everyone seems dislocated, out of whack with their surroundings. Everyone wants to belong, to go home; everyone has someone missing from their lives. Thomas and his long-suffering wife Felicity move from city to city, becoming steadily more unhappy. Korea, seared down the middle, is as disfigured as the network of scars across Mia’s body.

The prose is careful and delicate and soaked in layers of theme and meaning. Michell lets her characters be themselves, warts and all, and we get to like most of them, even the hot-tempered and abusive Kyung-ha. The exception is perhaps Thomas, a monumentally selfish and self-absorbed diplomat and the latest in a long line of sozzled literary consuls.

There’s little here to interest a diehard thriller reader, perhaps, but The Defections is a haunting and bold debut about a people, and a city, straining to cope with the sins of the past.

Many thanks for Quercus for the review copy.

The Intel: Adam Bromley

Adam BromleyAdam Bromley is an author and comedy writer, who has won two radio Sony awards for his work — which includes Think the UnthinkableThe Party Line, Hut 33The Problem with Adam Bloom and The Now Show. He also created CBBC hit sketch show called Stupid! 

Adam’s new novel Unknown Unknowns, published by Piqwiq, is a comedy thriller featuring a host of larger-than-life characters. It’s about Kat Foster of the Foreign Office. Given one last chance to save her career, Kat is tasked with travelling to Ozerkistan to debrief a prisoner know as The Chemist.

He has contacted a US embassy claiming to have valuable information about a former Russian weapons programme, codenamed Pandora , which he will trade in return for his freedom. The only snag is that Kat’s destination, Ozerk City, does not appear on any printed maps and Ozerkistan does not appear to exist…

Adam tells us about Unknown Unknowns, dreaming up an entire country – and how getting to the end of your first draft is only the beginning…

Tell us about Unknown Unknowns…

The novel is a comic thriller about WMDs, sociopathic spies and a diplomat who punches a sex pest into a pile of pastries. In a sense it’s a slapstick version of The Fourth Protocol, or The Bourne Identity with jokes.

Why is the Intelligence game such a fertile subject for comedy?

It’s a world of false identities, deception and misinformation – which is the same as farce, though of course the stakes are much higher. In a farce, a character might find a mislaid pair of briefs and storm into a bedroom causing social embarrassment. In the intelligence world, a president may receive a misleading briefing and invade another country, destabilising the entire region.

You get to create your own country in the novel, Ozerkistan – how much fun is that?

I thoroughly enjoyed inventing Ozerkistan and am a little disappointed that I can’t visit my own creation in the real world. Although speaking as a foodie, the one thing Ozerkistan definitely lacks, aside from proper sanitation and a police force, is decent restaurants, so perhaps it’s for the best.

How different are the challenges in writing a novel compared to a script?

Writing a script is a more technical exercise as there are constraints on time, cast size, location and action. It can be frustrating for the writer to be told by the producer that the grand party scene is now cut to an dinner for one at home, but sometimes the limits help by giving you firm boundaries. With a novel, there are no such barriers apart from the grunt work of typing lots of words, and your sanity when you lose track of that crucial plot point in chapter 3 which means you will have to re-write the entire ending.

The main difficulty for me was to stay focused on the core story, without going off on too many tangents whilst keeping the reader engaged on the journey. I was always asking myself, is this chapter gripping, will it keep the reader hooked?

Unknown UknownsTake us through a typical writing day for you?

As I have a full time job running a production company, it’s rare that I would have a whole day to write. Usually my writing time is at the expense of a weekday evening or sometimes a whole weekend – when I tell my wife this, it can jeopardise my Husband of the Year ranking! For each session I set myself a task: complete a chapter, rewrite a section or fix a problem.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

No matter how painful and tiring it was to write the first draft of the book, that is only the start of the process to get to the final draft. The adage goes: writing is rewriting. It’s true and the really hard part is when you work out just how many hours that’s going to take. At that point, I recommend having a drink or several.

How do you deal with feedback?

I love praise; criticism makes me curl into a foetal ball and cry. In all honesty, I appreciate feedback. The only way you can improve as a writer is to know where your weaknesses lie and address them in your next work. Praise is food for the soul to help with the grind of getting words on the page; criticism, if phrased constructively, can move your craft to the next level.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Right now, I am re-reading the South American trilogy by Louis de Berniéres, which is a pure delight. He combines comedy, tragedy, satire and romance in this fabulous, OTT world which still feels original twenty-five years since it was first published.

In the spy genre, John Le Carré is the master. No debate allowed.

For gritty crime, a good Rebus novel by Ian Rankin is hard to beat. Knowing Edinburgh well, I relish the sense of place and the way Rankin blends the real city with his fictional locales.

And if you haven’t read PJ O’Rourke’s books, then you have missed out on one of the funniest non-fiction writers of the last fifty years. I’d recommend Eat the Rich or Holidays in Hell, books that I have read and re-read yet they still entertain.

Give me some advice about writing…

Start typing. Seriously, if you want to write, start typing, writing long hand or carving your work into the bare rock. A computer is probably the easiest of those three options, in which case you have to fill that white space on the screen with words. Don’t go all Shining and start typing ‘All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy’, because that’s cheating as well as being certifiable. But if you want to write, write. Singers sing, painters paint, writers must write, ideally every day. It may seem obvious but you’d be surprise how many people talk about writing rather that doing it. Get it down, get past the first draft, then go back and make it better. Then go back and rewrite it again. And again etc.

What’s next for you?

I’m playing around with an idea for a new novel with the same lead character, Kat Foster, which I will start work on later this year. Meanwhile, I’d like to write a crime novel with a comic angle, where the Westway motorway is a key location. For reasons I don’t fully understand, I am a little obsessed with the Westway – maybe in a former life I laid the tarmac or was struck by a car on the day of its grand opening. In any event, writing about it should be cathartic.

The Intel: Andreas Norman

Andreas Norman

Photo: Caroline Andersson

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.

Into A Raging BlazeTell us about your protagonist Bente Jensen…

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.