The God of Chaos
by Tom Bradby
Published by Bantam Press (UK)
449 pages, 2005
It's easy to understand the delight that many novelists find in setting their fictional yarns against historical events. The technique heightens a tale's seductiveness, not only because it often provides readers with a chance to share the company of real-life figures from days gone by, but because it capitalizes on the drama or strife inherent in the facts of an event as they are known. This can be an especially effective approach in crime fiction, whether the backdrop to fabricated misdeeds is Guy Fawkes' 1605 Gunpowder Plot (in Martin Stephen's The Desperate Remedy), the 1883 opening of the Brooklyn Bridge (in Richard E. Crabbe's Suspension), the 1912 sinking of the Titanic (in Max Allan Collins' The Titanic Murders) or the violence-plagued 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago (in Kris Nelscott's Smoke-Filled Rooms). Or even Nazi General Erwin Rommel's 1942 invasion of Egypt, the broad canvas upon which Tom Bradby paints his latest novel, The God of Chaos.
Bradby's third historical thriller, Chaos is a tightly wound, tumbling paced police yarn set in ethnically diverse but British-ruled Cairo. Its story kicks off with the murder by hanging of Captain Rupert Smith, a popular officer assigned to track military deployments. Found cut into Smith's chest is a fork-tailed canine figure -- Seth, the Egyptian God of Chaos -- as well as a single word, "Liberation," the slogan of an anti-British group of assassins. Could this homicide have been politically motivated? Major Joseph Quinn, a disgraced former New York City cop, now serving as chief investigator with the Royal Military Police, believes it's only been made to look that way. Cairo is in the midst of tremendous turmoil: Rommel, Adolf Hitler's legendary "Desert Fox," is driving his powerful Afrika Korps across the desert toward Egypt's exotic capital, hoping ultimately to capture the Suez Canal and cut off the ability of the Allies to supply themselves; and while the Brits make evacuation plans, white-robed locals prepare to make the most of a German occupation. Anarchy and malevolence are curbed in Cairo only by the "blistering" June heat. With so much else going awry, Smith's death might well attract little interest -- especially if it's seen as the work of political extremists. However, Quinn thinks the allusions to Egyptian mythology are "a red herring," the killer "[h]oping for a dumb cop who was going to buy a scenario."
Belfast-born and 40-something, Joe Quinn is no dumb cop. But he is a troubled one. It's now been a full year since his 4-year-old son, Ryan, perished in a hit-and-run accident, the driver of the automobile still unidentified but known to have been "a deserter travelling on false papers." That tragedy threw up daunting emotional walls between Quinn and his wife, Mae, which they still haven't hurdled. Further distracting the major is the fate of 8-year-old Rifat, the tubercular son of Quinn's Egyptian friend and colleague, Effatt, chief detective of the Cairo Police. Rifat's "only chance of recovery" is to be sent to a sanatorium in Jerusalem; but if the boy goes away, and if Cairo falls to the Nazis, he might not be allowed back into Egypt.
Any such preoccupations, though, must be set aside if Quinn is to determine why Smith was slain, and by whom. A second homicide, rumors of a German spy in Cairo's British military ranks, a sex scandal, talk of blackmail, an elusive South African conspirator, an American female photographer who might offer Quinn welcome relief from his loneliness -- all of these complications are destined to make the detective's task more difficult. So, too, will suspicions that his superiors are deliberately covering up facts in the case. However, the chance that solving this mystery might also reveal his son's killer propels Quinn onward, no matter the risk to his marriage -- or his longevity.
British TV journalist-turned-novelist Tom Bradby demonstrates in The God of Chaos a taste for the seedy and the arcane. His wartime Cairo comes alive in these pages, complete with western-style nightclubs, circuitous and jeopardous streets, and periodic snowfalls of propaganda leaflets, released from passing Nazi bombers. King Farouk careers about the city in expensive cars, while beggars palm off scarabs to guilt-plagued travelers at the local train station. It's an environment ripe for the layering-over of fictional intrigue, and Bradby doesn't disappoint. Imagine Casablanca shotgun-wed to Mulholland Falls, and you get some idea of what has been produced here.
Of course, Bradby has been honing his art for some time. He's seen five novels published so far, with a sixth currently in the works. The first couple -- Shadow Dancer (1998) and The Sleep of the Dead (2001) -- were modern-day thrillers, but their successors have all been historical suspense tales. The Master of Rain (2002), which was set in the predatory world of 1920s Shanghai and followed the investigation by a greenhorn English sleuth into a Russian woman's sadistic murder, won praise from Time magazine ("Bradby has done for Shanghai what Raymond Chandler did for Los Angeles -- created a stylish and cool genre-fiction tapestry ... debauchery at its most elegant") and was shortlisted for the British Crime Writers' Association's (CWA) Steel Dagger Award. Its successor, The White Russian -- which takes off from the stabbings of two people in front of Tsar Nicholas II's Winter Palace, on the eve of the 1917 Russian Revolution -- was again shortlisted for a CWA award (this time in the Best Historical Crime Fiction category) and numbered among January's favorite books of 2003.
That the 38-year-old Bradby has turned out all of these well-regarded novels in such short order is remarkable, when you consider that he still holds down a full-time job as the UK editor for London-based Independent Television News (ITN) -- and must show up regularly to tend to the needs of his young family (his wife of 10 years, Claudia, and their three children: Jack, 8, Louisa, 7, and Sam, 5).
In association with The God of Chaos' recent British release, I had the chance to interview Bradby via e-mail. We discussed his longstanding love of history, the ups and downs of his years as a foreign correspondent (including his being shot at one point), his mixed impressions of the British royal family (as well as media coverage of the monarchy) and his next thriller -- the first one to be set in America.
J. Kingston Pierce: Tell me a bit about your growing up. What kind of people were your parents, and did they leave you with the same sort of familial baggage that many novelists carry?
Tom Bradby: My parents were exemplary; possibly as close to perfect as it is possible for any parents to be. My father is a very honorable man and my mother very affectionate and smart. I don't think it's any surprise that all my heroes are honest men struggling to do the right thing amid a sea of corruption. I am not conscious of carrying any baggage at all, though both my parents had less straightforward childhoods, so I'm aware of what that can mean. The only way I feel my upbringing contributed to my career as a writer is in the way I got very used, as an only child, to entertaining myself, rather than being entertained by others. I am conscious now that it is a real pleasure to disappear into my own world and that I'm very happy to be there. Growing up, I'd spend days creating very elaborate games for myself, and I would certainly trace the origins of my writing to this.
What sort of games are we talking about here? Games drawn from aspects of popular culture, perhaps?
No, I wasn't massively into popular culture as a child. I remember playing a lot of soccer games alone and then interviewing myself about the result. I listen to my daughter doing the same thing, so perhaps it's not simply a product of being an only child. Currently she's big on "schools" and she plays all the parts herself. It's a question of building your own fantasy world alongside the real one.
Was yours a wandering family, or has most of your experience with different cultures come as a consequence of your becoming a journalist?
We wandered a bit. I was born in Malta (my father was in the Royal Navy), and we lived in Germany for a while. My mother also believed very strongly that she should try and do everything possible to see my father, even if he was traveling around the world in a ship. We spent one brilliant summer following him up and down the west coast of the USA, for example. That was a lot of fun. I traveled after school and through university and then a huge amount as a foreign correspondent. It's something I'll never tire of, but I am grateful now not to have to get on a plane every week.
Were there any people who, early on, instilled in you the desire to write?
I was certainly inspired by several of my history teachers. I can vividly remember studying events like the Russian Revolution and thinking, Wow, wouldn't it have been amazing to have lived through that! I have a fascination with imaginary time travel and I get utterly absorbed in the process of re-creating the atmosphere of a time and place. Even as a kid, I was intrigued by how people went about their business in a time of great change. What did an ordinary civil servant in St. Petersburg think about his future the day he came to work, looked up at the imperial seal above his desk and realized it was consigned to history forever? This passion for history has informed almost all the choices I've made in my working life.
You also hold an M.A. in History from Edinburgh University. So let me ask you: If you could be sent back to live at any other time, in any other place, where and when would you wish to end up? And what would you do once you'd arrived there?
The Russian Revolution would be close to the top of the list. I'd love to be able to go back to those last days in the palace at Tsarskoe Selo to see how the royal family coped with the collapse of their world. The more you imagine things, the more you long to really see them. In fact, I'd like to spin back through all the places in time featured in my novels. After that, I'd go to the French Revolution and the English Civil War, particularly Charles I's final hours. I'd want to visit the U.S. for some insight into the American Revolution and your Civil War. I'd like to be hovering somewhere for President Kennedy's assassination (to answer that damned question definitively) and I'd have to take a trip to Nazi Germany. I'd want to experience the trenches at the time of the battle of the Somme (without the risk) and then go back further to the time of the Roman Empire. Then, of course, there's Henry VIII (what was he really like?) and Elizabeth I (ditto). In some epochs, it would be people I'd like to meet; in others, it would be principally a question of the general atmosphere or the sights and sounds. One could go on forever ...
I don't think I'd want to do more than observe, but perhaps that's naïve. Once there, you'd wish to meet people, of course, and it would be a small step to offering advice: "Don't marry Anne Boleyn, Henry. It won't do you any good!"
At what point did you decide to become a journalist?
It was a small step from thinking it would have been fascinating to witness the great events of the past to the conclusion it would be equally compelling to see at first hand those of the present. I felt a strong sense of vocation and never considered doing anything else.
Really. So you weren't the sort of lad who entertained a lot of other career options, the way so many of us did? I, personally, wanted to be a diplomat, but I learned early on that I wasn't cut out for being nice to people all of the time ...
I wanted to play rugby for England, but aside from that, the only careers I'm aware I seriously considered were writing and journalism. Now, I'd also be interested in becoming a teacher, but that was a difficult mental leap to make from school.
Would you want to teach journalism or history? And at what level?
I'd teach history at secondary level. I don't think I'm academic enough to be a university lecturer and, anyway, for me, the real challenge would be to try and reach slightly younger students and bring the subject alive for them. I had very good, and in some cases exceptional, teachers, but even more than they did, I would look to bring out the human drama of each aspect of history. I suppose I'd be using the same skills I've developed as a journalist and writer. My wife (who once trained as a teacher) says rather gently she thinks I might find the rigors of having to prepare students for exams tiresome. She may have a point.
Your biographical note at the front of The God of Chaos says that you've spent "more than a decade" as a senior correspondent with ITN. Did you work in journalism elsewhere, before landing at ITN?
No, I joined ITN as a trainee. I'd done various work-experience stints on newspapers and been editor of my university newspaper, but this was my first proper job. I guess it's highly unusual these days for someone to have been with the same company for 15 years!
What led you into TV journalism, rather than to newspapers or magazines?
I accepted a job at ITN at the 11th hour, having turned down a couple of newspaper offers. My decision was mostly determined by the arguments I've outlined. The previous year, I'd watched the revolutions in Eastern Europe play out on television and I concluded that this was the best way to cover history being made. Also, I thought it would be more fun to work in a team. I'm quite sociable and I was concerned newspaper journalism might be a lonely calling. I think I was right on both fronts. I started reporting in 1992, but became a fully fledged correspondent when I was sent to Ireland in the summer of 1993.
I seem to remember reading someplace that you were extraordinarily young and ambitious when you started at ITN, and that you gained a rather dashing reputation. Am I recalling that correctly?
Well, you flatter me. Let's just say, I was keen to get out there. I didn't see the point in becoming a journalist to witness great events, only to sit back and watch them happen from an office in London. I was pretty pushy, I suppose. Not unpleasantly so, I don't think -- I always loathed people with bad manners -- but I made it clear I really wanted to get out there. ITN has always been good at responding to this. It's a relatively small, but dynamic organization. It needs people who want to make things happen. The great pleasure of working here is that we have to be immensely smart and quick to compete with the vastly greater resources of our main rival, the BBC. ITN needs people who won't take "no" for an answer.
I'm glad you brought up the BBC. Politically right-wing Americans have put down the BBC a lot over the last few years, because they don't see it as sufficiently "respectful" of George W. Bush and his bellicose policies. But how do you, as a Brit and someone working for a competing network, view "the Beeb"?
The BBC is an organization which sometimes manages to do things of such quality that it takes your breath away. It can do so because it is hugely rich and not subject to commercial pressures.
It certainly does have an in-built liberal bias and there's too often a rush to judgment. History shows us it is hard to assess the success or failure of some policies until a great deal of time has passed. For instance, I think the Iraq war will prove to be a mistake, but it is too early to say, in historical terms. Vietnam has always been considered by many to be a disaster, but I can see that one day some authors may begin to argue it was a terrible but necessary war in the battle against communism.
Equally, to take a smaller example, the coup the CIA fostered in Iran in the 1950s, which put the Shah back on his throne, seemed a triumph at the time, but has turned out be a disaster. Had Washington and London let democracy run its course -- even if it was perceived to be against our immediate interests -- we would have been unlikely to have ended up with the mullahs.
We, as journalists, need to try and take the long view, place things in context and not pretend we know it all. There's a smug "every right-thinking person must believe this, mustn't they" quality to the BBC sometimes, which can be mighty unattractive. But it does still have awesome qualities and I'd be sorry to lose it.
You did your thesis at university on the Vietnam War. Do you see comparisons between what happened in Vietnam and the present bloody disaster in Iraq? Do you see America, and maybe Britain too, being enmeshed in this conflict for years to come? Can you imagine a conclusion to this mess?
Not immediately. It's possible a new government might be competent enough to start curbing the insurgency and the recent election has been mostly encouraging, but there is a long way to go. I don't think it will be like Vietnam, because we'll cut and run before that happens, for better or worse.
Coalition leaders were naïve about their post-invasion plans. Had they kept the [Iraqi] army and many of its commanders in place and left some of the less notorious Saddamists in power, they might have secured a proper peace.
I'm not sure Americans make great imperialists.
But of course Bush's war isn't supposed to be about imperialism, is it? As he now claims, it doesn't matter that there weren't really any "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, which had been his administration's principal and heavily touted rationale for attacking that country. What matters is that the toppling of Saddam Hussein was another victory in the so-called war on terror.
I find the attempts to link the invasion to the war on terrorism curious. The truth is we have done quite well in the "war on terror." We invaded Afghanistan, which was right, and we've substantially degraded Al Qaeda's capabilities, but Iraq was a colossal red herring and has led to the U.S. being needlessly over-stretched.
However, journalists have called for the U.S. to intervene countless times over the years in places like Bosnia and Rwanda (the UN being, in my view, a completely useless organization), so we need to be careful how much we complain about what happened in Iraq.
The U.S. is, in the broadest sense, a force for good in the world and we need to make sure it is still prepared, from time to time, to use its muscle.
You mentioned being sent to Ireland in 1993. As ITN's Ireland correspondent, you covered the developing peace process. Can you give me your insights into what finally pushed that process ahead, after it had seemed like a stalled impossibility for so long? Was it a convergence of just the right personalities and events that made all the difference, or were there other factors that made it the perfect time to end that historic and bitter conflict?
This is a really fascinating question. The peace process unfolded from about 1987 to 1994 (when the IRA declared its first cease-fire). I arrived in August 1993, just as the first hints of it were breaking cover. I was one of the very few who believed early on that the IRA was capable of shifting its thinking. A lot of journalists ignored the signals because they thought they knew better. It was a lesson to me, actually. As a reporter, you should never stop listening. Even the most monolithic of organizations can change. And the "peace process" basically boiled down to a decision taken by republican leaders in the late 1980s that enough was enough. All the other parties were just responding to this. So why did IRA leaders take that view? Well, here are a few reasons:
(1) Militarily, the IRA wasn't losing, but it wasn't winning either. The British had begun to fight a dirty but effective war (it had always been dirty, but now it was effective). If we caught IRA men in the act, we killed them. IRA terrorists were never dedicated enough to the cause to want to commit suicide.
(2) We (as in the British) had penetrated almost every level of the organization. There were literally hundreds of informers, and IRA leaders found it more and more difficult to keep up a decent level of operations. Suspicion and fear took their toll. I was told of one operation in Belfast where every single member involved was an informer for the security forces. It would always be possible to mount the odd spectacular using trusted operatives, but maintaining the "war" on a broad front was getting harder and harder.
(3) There had been a shift since the early days, both in the position of the leadership and those around them. To put it bluntly, some republicans were entering the middle class. Republican areas were being regenerated. It was clear that a new generation was on the point of being sucked into the "struggle" and the leadership was smart enough to realize it wasn't worth it. Like many parents, I suspect they wanted a better life for their kids.
(4) It was also evident to more intelligent republicans that 20 years of "struggle" hadn't achieved much. Of course, they could point to one or two improvements -- the discrimination of the early days was gone -- but this might have happened anyway. They began to wonder if pure politics mightn't achieve what terrorism never could: the reunification, one day, of Ireland. There was a certain brutal logic to this. After all, what is the point, really, of Northern Ireland being part of the UK? Every week, a bunch of unionist MPs get on planes and come over to the British parliament at Westminster, where they enjoy no political power. If they got in their cars instead and drove the hour or so it should take to get to Dublin (if they bothered to build a proper motorway), they might enjoy real influence. Republicans believe reunification is a historical inevitability. They came to feel violence was slowing the process down.
Which is not to say, I should add, that they have, in any sense, developed moral qualms about the use of force. A few weeks ago, they pulled off the biggest bank heist in Irish history, just to prove that a leopard never entirely changes its spots.
At what point did you leave Ireland, and where did the peace process stand then?
I left in December 1996. The IRA went back to conflict in January 1996, but I knew it wouldn't be for long.
Your first published novel, Shadow Dancer, was set against the Irish troubles. Can you tell me how your own experiences in Ireland inspired and shaped that yarn?
There were two factors. Firstly, I saw great events unfolding around me, about which I felt I'd developed a substantial body of knowledge, and I wanted to use that it in a more detailed way. It is a grand claim, but I always hoped the novel would provide future students with some insight into how the peace process came about and what arguments it ignited inside the IRA. Plus, I had this fascination with the relationships that existed between informers inside the IRA and their handlers in the security forces. I still believe this is one of the most interesting psychological subject areas in recent history. During the course of the "troubles," hundreds of men and women inside the IRA took the monumental decision to turn informer and work for the security forces. Some did it out of petty spite (they were overlooked for a promotion), others (such as the main character in Shadow Dancer) to avoid a long prison sentence, but either way, they took their lives in their hands. Each and every day, their handlers had to make critical decisions knowing that one tiny slip would lead to instant death. Which information to act on? Should this operation be stopped, or would that throw suspicion upon their agent? It was a riveting, riveting world. I'm amazed no one has made a film of it. It could be so tense!
Have you been approached with film offers for any other of your novels?
When The Master of Rain came out, there was huge excitement for a while (at least from me) and the sense a deal would definitely be done. I was picked up by the agency CAA in Los Angeles (which I understand to be a major Hollywood power broker) and they were very confident they'd get a deal. The guy from Gladiator was said to be extremely interested. However, I was then told that it turned out Harvey Weinstein already had a project set in prewar Shanghai, which was definitely going ahead, and I don't think anyone wanted to put a rival script into production. I believe his project is called The White Countess and is coming out sometime this year, starring Ralph Fiennes.
There has been interest in some of the other novels and I'm talking to various people, but they'd be expensive productions and period films are not particularly fashionable at the moment.
What convinced you to try your hand at novel-writing? Had you tried penning other novels before Shadow Dancer?
This was my first attempt at it, but it was something I'd always wanted to do. I knew I would try sooner or later. This seemed the perfect moment.
Were you influenced by other novels or novelists as you sat down to compose that first book?
Yes, I was. I think you're always trying to write the kind of book you'd love to read. I always enjoyed novelists like Gerald Seymour, Martin Cruz Smith, Robert Harris and Len Deighton and I wanted to write then, as I do now, good old-fashioned stories, which provide great entertainment, but also tell you a thing or two as well. I don't think there is anything wrong with trying to inform as well as entertain, and I passionately believe there are not enough of these novels around. I never seem to have very much to choose from in my summer reading. I can't say that I "get" some modern fiction.
Seymour, Harris, Deighton. I expected you also to name Alistair MacLean. It's odd that so few people seem to know about him nowadays, since he was once one of Britain's foremost authors of international thrillers -- The Way to Dusty Death, Seawitch, Ice Station Zebra, Puppet on a Chain. Have you read MacLean yourself?
I have. And Hammond Innes, of course. But a very long time ago. I should probably add him to my list of summer reading.
Should all those would-be novelists out there be jealous of your publishing experience? Did you have any trouble at all selling Shadow Dancer?
I'm really sorry to say this, but I'm afraid the answer to the first question is probably "yes." My wife had once worked for a literary agent and she referred me to a man called Mark Lucas, who is more like a professor than an agent and quite simply a genius. He licked Shadow Dancer into shape and after that, it was easy to sell. Having said that, he was, and remains a brutal task-master. To begin with, I sent him 100 pages and when I finally got a hold of him to discuss them (at the l00th attempt), he said, "Ah, yes. I'm glad you called today. Yesterday, I was just thinking your novel was absolute drivel, but today I feel it has something."
Three years and countless rewrites later, I was finally done. He has taught me everything I know, but I've had to develop a thick skin. At one point, in an early draft of Shadow Dancer, the hero was on top of Black Mountain, doing more hand-wringing than was good for him. Mark wrote in the margin, "Hmmm ... yes. But the trouble is, he's a wanker and this is going nowhere."
I wrote underneath, "No, go on Mark, say what you really think ..."
Does Mark Lucas remain your first reader? And has his opinion of your novels-in-progress improved any over time?
My wife and, increasingly, my mother, are very involved in the writing process, but Mark is the first outside reader. He has improved each of my novels out of all recognition. It's difficult to explain how. He's like a university professor. He doesn't tell me what to do, but outlines what he doesn't like and why he feels something doesn't work, leaving me to find a solution.
From time to time, he might point me towards a particular book or film to illustrate a point. For example, when I was writing Shadow Dancer, he told me to go and read Silence of the Lambs as an example of how a perfectly calibrated plot can set up a central relationship. Silence is made by the mind games played out between [Hannibal] Lecter and [Clarice] Starling, but this wouldn't work unless the thriller plot had been carefully constructed around them. We know the kidnapped girl is going to die. She's a senator's daughter, which puts extra pressure on the ambitious Starling, who in turn has to engage and give of herself to Lecter. If they had all the time in the world, there would be no incentive for her to start that process and no tension.
I know this may seem an obvious point, but it focused my mind at a critical juncture in Shadow Dancer's genesis. Ryan, the MI5 handler, and Colette, the IRA terrorist-turned-informer, are pushed together by the pace of events and the plot unfolding around them. They have to give of themselves and trust each other in a way they would never normally entertain, and it is this process that gives the novel its intensity.
Equally, at another point, we came up with the idea that there should be a "second" informer, close to Colette, to fuel the notion that senior elements of the security forces might be willing to let her burn in order to protect a more senior source. It was an extra element, added relatively late in the novel's gestation, which significantly increased the tension.
Of course, if I was a genius, I wouldn't need any help, but I most certainly am not, so I enlist the minds of smart people close to me. I have never had the slightest trouble in accepting criticism, however harsh. My only goal is to make each book better than the last and I hope that what we're doing is building up what will be an ever more successful and popular series of novels.
So after Ireland, you signed on as ITN's "political correspondent." Did this new posting simply expand the range of British (and world) politics you were expected to cover, or was there more to the job than I understand? Which stories earned most of your attention during that stage of your career?
It was a career-development posting, really. It was around the time of the 1997 election (when Tony Blair was swept into power) and it was interesting enough, but Westminster is a very status-conscious place. You need to be a political editor to have any serious access, and I was quite far down the pecking order, so I found it a bit frustrating. It was a subject I wanted to get back to one day, but wished to get away from at the time.
One might naturally assume that being a political correspondent required that you harbor a great interest in politics. Is that the case?
Yes and no. You're at the center of power, where all decisions are made. That is interesting in itself. I don't think you necessarily have to have a fascination with the minute detail of party politics to cover the subject well; in fact it is probably beneficial to remember that most people watching or listening don't.
In what year did you begin your three-year stint as ITN's Asia correspondent? And how is it that you wound up leaving the political correspondent's position and moving to Hong Kong in order to take this new and very different job? Were you looking for more adventure, or was there something about Asia that attracted you? Had you ever so much as set foot in Asia before this?
I wanted more adventure, for sure. I'd always wanted to be a foreign correspondent and Asia had been high up my list (I watched The Year of Living Dangerously five times in my last year at university). I had traveled a bit in Asia before, but mostly it was just the right posting at the right time. I have always placed a heavy emphasis on family life, so I did not want to take my wife to Moscow or Johannesburg (which I didn't feel she would enjoy). I had to wait for Hong Kong, Jerusalem, Brussels or Washington to come up and, as you will imagine, the competition was stiff. I was beaten to a post in Jerusalem the previous year , so the management at ITN felt my time had come.
This sounds like a very romantic job -- the life of a foreign correspondent. What were the best and worst things about working for ITN out of Hong Kong?
Oh boy, apologies, but there is always a lot to say on this subject, if only because I still think about it frequently. The truth is, we both instantly loved Hong Kong and Asia, in general. Imagine how we felt; here we were in a small terraced house in South London. We were very happy but we both worked hard and were periodically exhausted by the pressures of long hours and young children. Suddenly, we are transported to this extraordinary, luxury apartment overlooking the bright lights of Hong Kong. We're in the heart of Asia. It is hot and exotic. We have round-the-clock domestic help, so we're no longer tired. We're much richer. Hong Kong is packed with interesting people and there is a rich and varied social life. Every story I go off to cover is fascinating and exhilarating: floods in China and Bangladesh, earthquakes in Taiwan, nuclear explosions in Tokyo, political unrest in Malaysia, missile attacks in Afghanistan and much more. I'm away quite a bit, but when I'm at home, I'm home. There is no commuting to an office. Our life is amazing and we love it! We feel very privileged.
And then, the downside begins to creep up on me. I am faced with a reality I have always understood, but tried not to think about, which is that this can be a dangerous job. Sometimes, it can be very dangerous. I go to Kosovo and one or two reporters get killed. A friend gets shot in the arm in Fiji. I begin to work out the odds. Actually, they are not that great. When I think of it, I know rather a lot of people in the industry who have been killed -- and there aren't that many of us on the road. Now, each time I am to go away somewhere that could be dangerous, I find it difficult to leave. Once, when I'm supposed to be heading out to a particularly violent part of Indonesia (the spice island, Ambon, where civil war is raging and our Indonesian fixer has warned us not to go), I don't sleep a wink, pacing around the apartment, watching the children and my wife sleeping and wondering -- really wondering -- whether it wouldn't be better to do something safer and make sure my kids grow up knowing their father.
I read that you were shot and seriously wounded while covering a riot in Jakarta, Indonesia. Did that shooting influence your feelings about the job, or your behavior as a correspondent?
Well, this naturally follows on, I suppose. Maybe I had a premonition! It occurred on October 21, 1999. I was in Jakarta to cover the election of Wahid as president of Indonesia. The moment he won, supporters of his opponent, Megawati, went on the rampage. Riots in Jakarta are -- or were -- very odd. When the green light for anarchy goes on, they just go crazy. I was covering a stand-off between rioters and the police outside the parliament building. We had been there too long (the atmosphere was rather unpleasant and there was a lot more hostility to westerners after what happened in East Timor). We were about to go, when I encountered a cameraman who worked with the BBC correspondent Matt Frei. He had been abandoned by his fixer and driver and asked if he could come with us. I said, "Fine," but then there was a huge surge by the protestors and I lost him in the crowd (it was midnight by now). I went to look for him in the melee. I reached the far side of the highway, turned and saw this flash. The flare shattered my leg and my clothes went up in flames with a great whoosh! I remember being helped by my own cameraman and friend, Sean Swan, who had his fist stuffed in my leg to stem the bleeding. I recall being robbed on the ground by the protesters. It was a bloody awful night. I was terrified I would lose my leg and it hurt so damned much. I had a four-hour operation in Jakarta to stitch my leg back together and spent a long time recuperating.
As to how it altered my feelings for the job, I'm afraid that might fill a book. I had actually got better at dealing with my fears, so in one way, this helped. If you get shot and survive, it can encourage a feeling of invincibility. But, I think, practically, I was bound to conclude in the end that, for all the privileges of the job, it wasn't fundamentally worth it. Having an experience like that focuses your thinking. The dangers are no longer merely theoretical.
I was a foreign correspondent for another 18 months, but when we came back to England, I decided I'd give that life a miss for a while. I said I wouldn't go to Iraq.
After covering Asia for three years, when you saw the recent tsunami devastation in Indonesia, Thailand and elsewhere in south Asia, did you wish you were still there, so you could report on that story of tragedy and human drama?
There is a part of me that would have loved to have been there. That has to do with the same desire we've talked of to be at the cutting edge of history, but also a professional desire to be on a big story. It's not always a comfortable thing to talk about, but these events do present huge competitive challenges to news organizations. During the Indian earthquake in 2001, I was thrilled when we stole a march on our better-equipped rivals by hiring the only helicopter in the region.
However, reporting on this kind of tragedy in a "professional" capacity imposes its own pressures. Here's a small and undramatic, but I think revealing anecdote. During that earthquake in India, we were flying to the epicenter of the affected zone every day in this chopper, but the pressure was that it could not land after sunset, so we had a maximum of only three to four hours on the ground. This meant we had to work fast. One day, we went off to a little village called Anjar, where we'd heard 400 pupils from one school had died together. We found a heartbreaking story. The children had all been skipping in a long snaking line down a narrow street, when the buildings folded in on them. There were very few survivors. We found a woman who was desperately searching for her son. We asked her if she had a photograph of him and if she would go home and get it. She was reluctant. It all got to be a terrible rush and we had to hurry, cajole and persuade her and others to do what we wished in the requisite time. We did nothing terribly wrong, but we showed the killer instinct of determined professionals who know what they need to achieve. The day ended with my cameraman, Sean, and I screaming at each other as I tried to record a piece to camera. We'd barely slept for a week and were pumped full of the anti-malarial drug Larium, which can do strange things to you.
We made it back to the hotel and filed our piece. It was considered a triumph and the wires burned hot with praise. But when I looked in the mirror that night, I wasn't certain I liked what I saw. I'd done a good job, but I always try to act with honor and I somehow felt I'd put the needs of my news organization above displaying the requisite amount of human decency and care to this poor woman.
There is a certain ruthlessness involved in getting the job done in these situations which is not always attractive. The office only cares that you deliver the goods.
Did you write your second novel, Sleep of the Dead, while you were stationed in Hong Kong? (I'm only guessing, because the book's protagonist has just left China after 15 years in the country.) Or did you begin work on that story after you'd left?
I wrote most of The Sleep of the Dead when I was living in London, covering politics, but I finished it in Hong Kong, which probably explains the rather tacked on Chinese element. It began life as a political thriller, but changed into a crime novel when that didn't work. A lot of people have written to tell me that they enjoyed it, but I'd have to be honest and say I feel it's my least successful book. It has quite a lot of psychological depth and I liked the idea of a woman exploring long-suppressed suspicions about her own family, but the book spanned the gap between my first novel and the point at which I fixed upon what I really wanted to write, which we'll come to in a moment.
If Sleep of the Dead is your least successful book, which do you consider your most successful or most satisfying novel thus far?
I like all the others equally and I think they all have strengths. The Master of Rain has a great crime story and a very strong sense of place, and Shadow Dancer has a particular intensity about it. I loved the family story at the heart of The White Russian, which also, I think, has a strong sense of place. I feel Chaos has the most accomplished plot. If you really put me on the rack, I'd probably plump for The White Russian, because of the location and the family story, but that's not to say I think it is better than Rain and Chaos. I'd put them all equal, with Chaos out in front in terms of plot. My aim is to make sure my next novel has the strengths of all these.
OK, so let's talk about The Master of Rain -- the first book that brought you international acclaim. What was your inspiration for that tale?
It happened over a weekend. One Saturday night, we got out a DVD of L.A Confidential at home in Hong Kong and both thought it was brilliantly atmospheric. On Monday, I went off to Shanghai for a story and, at the airport, picked up a non-fiction book on the city's history. I couldn't put it down. It was just extraordinary! It had everything -- decadent westerners, corrupt cops, white Russian countesses and Chinese gangsters. I couldn't believe it hadn't already been the setting for a dozen thrillers. I know it might sound pretentious, but the book wrote itself. It just burst out. I finished it incredibly quickly. It was such a unique time and place.
I loved doing The Master of Rain so much -- really loved it -- that it was a given I would go on finding other wonderfully rich historical settings to work with. ... I enjoyed writing my first two novels, but the level of satisfaction I got from [Rain] was infinitely greater.
The way you portray Shanghai, as a melting pot of nationalities and a gumbo of competing criminal interests, could hardly help but attract readers. How hard was it to get the atmospherics just right? What sorts of things have you found most useful in establishing the depth or character of a historic setting?
I use whatever I can get. With Shanghai, I was helped immensely by the fact that all the city's colonial police records were removed at the time of the communist takeover and brought to Hong Kong. They were an absolute mine of information. I also relied heavily on memoirs. In the case of The White Russian, I found that, because the revolution swept away not just a government but a way of life, many people had sat down to record things about the St. Petersburg of 1917 that might never normally have been put down on paper. In some ways, it would be harder to record a picture of London in 1917. But I can become quite obsessive about my research. I hired a researcher in Russia and had him trail through the archives after such detail as the exact uniform each regiment would have been wearing as they paraded through the streets. When I described a troop of cavalry trotting down a snow-covered alley, or drew a picture of the Imperial family at play in the gardens of their palace at Tsarskoe Selo, I wanted to feel that I'd portrayed it exactly as it was. It's for others, obviously, to say if I've been successful, but I have striven to get every detail right. For me, it's part of the fun. I want to feel like I was actually there.
So the research process, for you, is as enjoyable as the writing phase.
I do love the research. As I close each book, I'm immediately excited about where I'm going to go next. And having created a world, I'm always reluctant to leave it. I often think about the places I've written about. It's all completely real to me -- the atmosphere, the sights and sounds, the characters and their dilemmas. When [police investigator] Sandro Ruzsky and [ballet dancer] Maria [Popova] cantered over the hill to see his family's country home in The White Russian, I was right there with them. And now I'm aware that I might be starting to sound rather strange ...
Not at all. In fact, I'd be surprised if you didn't throw yourself into your fictional scenes. How else could you possibly capture the requisite verisimilitude?
That's probably just English self-deprecation. I'm passionate about what I do, but also aware that it's easy to sound pretentious.
Speaking of precisely re-creating historical settings, I should say that one of the scenes from Chaos I found most intriguing finds Quinn and photographer Amy White scaling the Great Pyramid of Cheops. That's just wonderful, because nobody can do such a thing nowadays -- in order to protect the pyramid's integrity. Do you look, when doing your research, for just these sorts of period-establishing oddities?
I do, and I'm thrilled you noticed. That was exactly why I included it.
Should I presume that your historical thrillers grow first from place? Or is your inspiration a particular time period or event, be it the Nazi military's move on Cairo (in Chaos) or the start of the Russian Revolution (in The White Russian)?
It depends. With Shanghai it was mostly the place and the general epoch. With The White Russian, it was more about the time, though I also thought the snow-covered streets of Imperial St. Petersburg would provide a fantastically atmospheric and gilded setting. With Chaos it was a little of both. I liked the idea of setting a novel in Cairo and felt I'd spotted the opportunity to do something a tiny bit different, which was to weave a detective thriller and spy plot together for extra resonance. But generally, I like places in time where change is in the air and life is tinged with uncertainty and insecurity. It makes for a rich backdrop and gives you so much to work with.
Was it, in fact, the revolution that drew you to St. Petersburg in 1917, for The White Russian, or was your attraction to that setting more complicated? And what did you hope to achieve by using that time and place as your backdrop?
It was the revolution that drew me there, though I also loved the city. I've always been fascinated by the revolution. The idea of an entire world being swept away is so extraordinary and dramatic. All Russians had ever known was the rule of the tsars and yet, one day, they woke up and had to remake their world. How did it come to such a pass? What would the history of Europe have looked like if they'd taken less drastic action? Could revolution have been averted, even at the very end (I believe it could)?
There is something very surreal about those last days. It was as if everyone knew that the ship was heading for the iceberg, but no one could persuade the captain to alter course. All members of the royal family, apart from the Tsar, knew they were doomed and tried repeatedly to persuade him to be more flexible. What was going through his mind? I read so many books and memoirs and tried hard to think my way into the psychology of the Tsarina and the members of the Imperial staff who appear in the book.
I suppose what I hoped to achieve was to popularize history. The one thing I disliked about academic history at school and university was the way some authors and lecturers seemed determined to kill off interest in even the most dramatic events by concentrating on some technical argument. I can't bear the "as so and so has persuasively argued in his ground-breaking study of the social conflicts that existed in ... blah, blah, blah" type of history. Reading this, I always found my mind trying to re-create the atmosphere on the streets. I wanted to be there to witness it all. And what better way to tell the history of these times than through the eyes of a detective? After all, a body is still a body, even if a revolution is around the corner -- though, of course, detectives, more than other servants of the state, have to take account of the political currents of the time.
The review in The Washington Post said that this was "the kind of historical fiction that may send you back to the real history books to learn more," and I was thrilled by that. It's what I hope to achieve.
Had you visited St. Petersburg (or, Leningrad, as it was known for most of the last century) often, before beginning work on Russian?
A couple of times. I always loved it, though the industrial areas of the city are very depressing.
How many visits to a new place are required before you feel comfortable enough with it to set a story there?
I'd been to all the places I've written about, including Cairo, several times before deciding to set a novel there, so I was familiar with them. I guess I usually spend a week or 10 days in each, just soaking up the atmosphere and doing some specific research.
You said a moment ago that you think the Russian Revolution could have been averted. How, by Tsar Nicholas II having relinquished part of his power?
I felt very strongly doing my research that if he'd set Russia on the road to a constitutional monarchy at almost any point up to the very end, the revolution would have been averted. It was a huge leap for him, but shouldn't have been. After all, he was a cousin of the British king and saw or communicated with him frequently. He was a nice man -- probably a wonderful father and husband -- but, unfortunately for Russia, far too stupid and stubborn. He was the wrong man, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
After writing three historical thrillers, what do you know now that you wish you'd known when you first sat down to write The Master of Rain?
This is an interesting question. I'm aware now that if you take characters out of their home city, you have to work that much harder to create the texture you need. For example, I loved the family story at the heart of The White Russian and found it very useful that the main character's history was all there in his childhood home right at the heart of the city. Every time he walked past the house, you had a chance to explore some aspect of his past. The God of Chaos has a better plot, but I had to work harder to give its characters the necessary level of emotional depth, because their family histories had been played out thousands of miles away. I like the idea of a city where everyone is a stranger and everyone is passing through, but it poses its own challenges, which need to be thought through.
I also have a much clearer sense now of what I need for a novel to work. I'm looking for a fascinating, rich, atmospheric setting -- preferably somewhere on the cusp of change -- characters undergoing interesting emotional journeys and a plot that whips you through this landscape with force. And it's all got to feel completely integrated, as though it might have happened that way in fact, rather than fiction.
Simple, really ...
Yeah, well, not for anyone who's ever tried to do this -- myself included. There's always the tendency to let one's research overpower the fictional story to be told. How do you overcome that tendency?
I concentrate heavily on getting the story down first. I do the majority of my research and sketch out a plan. Then, when I'm confident about the story I've got to tell, I try to write straight through to the end, without worrying too much about a lot of detail. I aim to get the main characters and their relationships right and all the central elements of the plot. I continue the research as I go along and work over the text again and again, adding bits here and there.
I'm also conscious that I have a very low boredom threshold, which helps.
Now that you've hit it big as a historical thriller author, do you think your publishers will ever let you loose again on anything else?
Probably not, but I wouldn't want to write anything else in the short and medium term. I've got about another 10 novels on this theme which I already know I want to do, some with characters I've already used, some with new ones.
Having said that, I am very interested in the First World War and would like, one day, to write a historical novel set around it that wasn't a thriller. I have the idea, but it's a long way off.
What about the shorter term? Do you have a fourth historical story in the works, and can you tell me something about it?
It's set in New York in 1929, during the week of the Wall Street Crash. I feel very strongly that it is shaping up to be the best thing I've ever written. It's a fabulous setting, I love the characters and the plot is a long way ahead of anything I've managed so far. I've only written 100 pages, but for some reason I'm hugely confident about it. I feel on a bit of a wave. I don't know why. It's as if everything I've learnt is coming together.
Do you have a title for this new book yet?
No, not yet.
Are you expecting this new book to be available in 2006? Do you have a once-a-year publishing contract with Transworld/Bantam Press?
It should be sometime in 2006. I do have a contract with Transworld, but I've also said that I want to take my time with this one.
I must say, it seemed inevitable that one of your historical thrillers, sometime, would take place in the States. After all, you feature American cops in large roles in both Rain and Chaos, especially the latter. Have you been thinking for a long while about setting a story in early 20th-century America?
Yes, I have. It's a natural setting for the kind of thrillers I want to write. Since I was first inspired by, amongst other things, L.A. Confidential, it was inevitable I'd seek a similar milieu at some point.
While we're talking about American characters, I have a peeve to share: It seems that every time you give us a Yank cop, a principal aspect of his character is that he speaks poorly, like some escapee from a Jimmy Cagney flick. Would it be too much to ask that one or two Americans in your next novel know that "ain't" isn't proper English?
You have a point. I've read a lot of 1920s cop memoirs and the language they used was different, but it's no use having authentic language if it's off-putting to the modern reader. I hope you'll be pleased with that aspect of the New York novel.
For careful readers of your most recent novels, one of the most interesting things is to discover characters from previous stories reappearing in subsequent ones. For instance, cops Charles Lewis and Alastair Macleod, from The Master of Rain, reappear in The God of Chaos, while I believe Michael Borodin, also introduced in Rain, re-emerges as a younger man in Russian. Do you formulate these reappearances to see if anyone notices, or is it simply a fun exercise on its face?
It's fun and amuses me. I like the idea that I'm going to slowly map the history of the 20th century and that when I'm done, there will be all these subtle connections. I'm glad you noticed! I know a lot of writers use the same central character again and again, and whilst I will do that from time to time (indeed, a younger more driven Joe Quinn from Chaos is the central character in the New York novel), it's clearly not possible if you're changing cities every time, so this is the alternative I've come up with. The idea is just to make people smile and give them some sense of familiarity, even if it is in a completely fresh setting.
Another thing I find appealing about your historical works is the way you gather together casts -- and even detective partnerships -- of individuals from different cultural or economic groups. Readers are thus made to better comprehend the richness and quirkiness of your setting, by seeing it both through the eyes of locals and through those of foreigners assessing your story's backdrop in their own ways. But how do these blendings of characters benefit you, as the author?
It brings a bit of tension and often humor to the detective partnerships, which I love, but above all, it adds to the overall mix. I'm always looking for a setting that is going to feel very rich and textured and this helps me give readers a feel for the city and the epoch we're in. I also like the idea of reversing things. One day, I'd like to have Sandro Ruzsky go back to Russia of the 1920s, where he finds himself working for Pavel, who has managed to survive and has switched across to be chief investigator in Moscow. Pavel calls in Ruzsky when he is handed a tricky and potentially lethal case involving one of Stalin's relatives ...
Hey, I'd be happy to read such a novel. All you have to do is write it. But this raises the question of how you pace your creativity. When you're constantly looking ahead to what else you'd like to be writing, how do you remain focused on the novel at hand? Do you ever worry that you won't have enough time in life to compose all of the novels you'd like to write?
I sometimes worry I won't have time to do everything I'd like. Towards the end of a novel, when I'm doing a lot of editing, there are certainly moments when I want to move on to the next thing and that can be difficult, but I love thinking about new places and new stories. I'm always having ideas.
Do you take delight in creating villains? Though I think your detective protagonists are engaging, some of your "bad guys" -- be it Reza in Chaos, or Vasilyev and Prokopiev from The White Russian -- are also well and menacingly drawn. What does it take to create a solid villain who isn't a mere caricature of "evil"?
Villains are tremendous fun, but making them creatures of a certain time and place gives them an extra dimension. The world is full of people who lead perfectly ordinary lives, but who, in different circumstances, would have been entirely different characters. How else could Hitler have found so many people willing to enthusiastically implement his vile plans?
There are heroes everywhere -- good people who won't bend to circumstances -- but there are also many who, out of weakness, or greed, or ambition, soon become creatures of their time. Vasilyev, in The White Russian, is a tremendous shit, but what I loved was you knew that a couple of years before, he'd have been the most slavishly loyal Imperial flunky. That was what lay behind the choice of the title. Ruzsky has spent all his life as the black sheep of his aristocratic family, whilst the likes of Vasilyev got the titles and position and glory, but when the chips are down and the regime is collapsing, he turns out (along, ironically, with his father) to be its last loyal servant -- the last White Russian. I took so much pleasure from that, because people behave so differently under pressure, and it is often not until this point that they reveal their true colors.
All the characters, both good and bad, are to some extent products of their place in history. I could very easily imagine a Richard Field (a son of the Empire) coming up against a Michael Borodin (a son of the Revolution) in a place like Shanghai. I suppose that's why I love this type of novel so much; there is so much you can weave together.
I'm also aware that for many readers, a villain can really make a novel. I had lunch with a senior detective the other day and it turned out he devours crime fiction. We got to talking about it and he said that what he really loved was "a good villain." It got me thinking, and the New York novel is partly told through the eyes of a villain, which I feel gives it an extra edge.
Are there particular tactics you use to keep yourself immersed in the time period about which you're writing? Do you, perhaps, use music familiar from that period, or surround yourself with myriad historical photographs?
I've got a souvenir newspaper I bought in New York taped to the wall above my desk. The headline reads, "Billions Lost in New Stock Crash." If I whack a bit of jazz on the CD player, it helps set the mood.
You say that you want to get your historical details absolutely correct. But is there a mistake that continues to haunt you?
No, I don't think so. I do try to get things right and I can be a bit obsessive about some aspects of a novel, but at the same time, the important thing is to capture the atmosphere of a place and create a really compelling narrative. I'm writing primarily to entertain.
I do get some funny letters. One day, I came into work at ITN and there was a box on my desk. In it, was a very nice bottle of champagne and a note. I'll quote from what it said:
I am enjoying reading The White Russian. I think you paint a very accurate picture of St. Petersburg in 1917. You really have done your homework on the city and society of that time.
Now, that's the kind of criticism I can live with!
By the way, I welcome feedback, so anyone who wants to communicate with me can send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The champagne has to go by post ...
While we're on the subject of anomalies, in reading The God of Chaos, I was struck by your mention of Egyptian King Farouk driving a "bright red Corvette." If my memory serves, wasn't the Chevrolet Corvette first introduced in 1953 -- 11 years after the events in this novel?
I took that out of a period book, so assume it is right, but I may be wrong. I defer to you ...
I'm actually surprised that you didn't make more of Farouk. I remember from my Middle Eastern history courses that he was quite the colorful roue, a guy you probably could have written about endlessly -- and entertainingly.
I think that's true. I'm always a little nervous of featuring major figures in history too liberally, but, having said that, I'm using a few for the New York novel, so maybe I'm gaining more confidence in this area.
Can you see yourself someday basing a novel around some historical figure, or even turning a celebrity into a detective, which seems to be a genuine fad here in the States?
It's an interesting idea, but I doubt it. I think I'd find it too restricting to have a real central character. I like the freedom to be able to invent things about their background to assist the narrative.
Would you ever consider writing a historical thriller in some century earlier than the 20th? Or is there something about the last century that makes you feel most at home, even if you're writing about eras before you were born?
I have thought about picking somewhere outside of the 20th century, but you're right, I do feel most at home there. I'm keeping it in mind.
Do you read other historical thrillers in your spare time?
I have to read so much for research, and my life is so packed with things to do, that I can't say I have much time to read fiction these days. For a holiday treat, I'd pick up a Robert Harris or Cruz Smith novel, if they have one out, but I find there is very little on sale in this market, which is one of the reasons I felt inspired to get into it. I think there is a definite niche here.
It's tempting, as an author, to pick holes in whatever you read, but if the historical environment is created with verve, I'll always enjoy it, even if I find fault with the plot or character development.
Where do you see yourself in the arc of your evolution as a novelist? Are there some stories you'd like to write but don't yet feel able to approach?
I feel I'm just beginning to master (at least in the terms I have set myself) the genre or the niche I have chosen. All the stories I want to tell and ideas I wish to explore can be done through this genre ... simply by going to new and challenging places in time. I feel I've hit my stride.
Let's go back to the subject of your "day job" for a moment. I understand you served as ITN's royal correspondent for a while. How long did that last, and what did it entail?
Two years, though I still have to cover big stories involving the royal family in my new job. It was around the time of the Queen's Golden Jubilee [in 2002], so I did a certain amount of traipsing around the world after them. There were some very big stories, as well, most notably the collapse of the trial of Paul Burrell, Princess Di's former butler.
In that journalistic capacity, what did you learn about Britain's royals that you didn't know before?
Hmmm. That's an interesting one. It's a difficult job in many ways, because coverage of the royals in our media tends to be led by the tabloid press (the broadsheets are rarely interested), so you get this kind of hysteria all the time. And a lot of what you read is frankly complete crap. There are times when this is very frustrating. How people respond to the royals always says more about them than it does about the family itself. I've noticed that a lot of people are disparaging from afar, but nauseatingly sycophantic close-up. Few people are entirely unimpressed by a meeting with the Queen. She's been around so long, met so many presidents, prime ministers and celebrities of every description, and there is so much history bound up in her role, that it is hard not to feel a little dwarfed by that. There is no one else in the world like her. And that's a comment on the position, rather than the individual, though I think she does do a good job.
I suppose my central conclusion is that we in the press are very juvenile in our approach to the royal family. We've no idea what we want from them and like to have them as our prisoners, so that they can be wheeled out for a public caning every now and then. It's very strange in a lot of ways.
Americans, I take it, are wrong to view members of the British royal family as eccentric figureheads who long ago outlived their significance.
I can see they have their uses. We're very different, culturally, from the Americans (as you may have noticed!) and we've got used to the way things are here. We don't like our politicians all that much and the idea of having the prime minister as head of state is a complete non-starter. It's important to understand that our armed forces swear allegiance to the crown, not the government, as do new recruits to the police and the judiciary. To our minds, that guarantees a certain freedom from political influence and it has a certain value to it. Soldiers going off to serve in unpopular wars (like Iraq) do so in the name of the Queen, not the government. That's why [Princes] William and Harry will both go into the army. It's the family's most important role.
But most of this is too boring for us in the media, which is why we so often make such a fuss over the other stuff.
So give me some impressions of the individual royals, as you've observed them.
It's hard not to admire the Queen. She has had such an extraordinary and restricted life and yet she doesn't seem to chafe against it unduly. I find it hard to warm to Charles, who seems to have made a bit of a mess of his life and is chronically indecisive. But, having said that, I don't know him well and some insiders I like and trust say he's got a tremendous sense of humor and when he relaxes, he can be the life and soul of the party. He's probably a much better man than we're led to believe. The only two I know reasonably well are William and Harry, and I like them both. William is a very smart and substantial individual and is on course to be our most impressive monarch for a long time. Harry is the whipping boy of the tabloid press and is indisputably capable of being immature and foolish, but he's affectionate and loyal and good fun. However, he needs to be very careful, or they're going to make his life intolerable.
Generally, I think their lives are pretty hard. I wouldn't swap places with them. Not in a million years.
If my memory's accurate, you visited Africa -- Lesotho, to be exact -- with young Prince Harry some years ago, on a mission to bring greater attention to the AIDS epidemic there. There seems no question that such high-profile forays are both beneficial and could hardly be carried out in the same way by lesser mortals. Might this be the proper future for the royals, carrying out "good works" around the world?
It's good for them to do something useful and rationalize their fame, which is mostly a negative from their point of view. That trouble is, they get so beaten down and demoralized by the press. We showed that documentary here last October (ABC took all the pictures and re-cut it for the U.S. -- not that I got a credit ...), but with the recent bad publicity over Harry, he now feels it's all being written off as a PR stunt, and therefore he's reluctant to do anything along similar lines.
He deserved a caning over the "Nazi" incident, of course, which was a stupid thing to do. It is not excusable for any member of the royal family to be ignorant of the Holocaust, but I do think the world's media (and some politicians who should know better) were guilty of a colossal loss of perspective. The reaction here couldn't have been any worse if he actually had been a Nazi. We seem to have forgotten that (a) we have quite a rich history here of sending up the Nazis, which stems right back to the war itself, and (b) he's only 20 and lots of people do stupid things when they are that age in an attempt to be a bit rebellious and kick the system. He got a caning and he deserved one, but it doesn't mean he should be written off for life.
What with all the news lately about Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, I have to ask: Do you think their marriage will place the House of Windsor in a better light, or a worse one?
A worse light. The  marriage of Charles and Diana was the best long-term guarantee of the monarchy's position in British life and an element of risk was introduced once that broke down. The royal family plays all kinds of roles in our national life, but you could justifiably say that, in this day and age, it exists to be popular. Charles and Camilla are not especially well liked and it is fortunate that William is. As long as he continues to play his cards right, the family should sail on comfortably into the future. The only danger could come from a scenario where an elderly and not massively popular King Charles III takes the throne at a time when you have a republican prime minister in Downing Street. I could just about conceive of a Labour government with a big majority deciding to test the issue with the public, though I don't think they'd win. I can't really see people in this country ever voting for more politicians.
Having said all that, it is so hard to know with the monarchy. It is all about mood and feeling. Everyone said the Golden Jubilee was going to be a disaster, but in fact, on the big day, millions of people turned out on the Mall and got all teary-eyed singing "Land of Hope and Glory" to the royal family up on their balcony. It is true Camilla is not popular, but everyone I've ever spoken to who knows her well says she is great fun and has an excellent sense of humor. So maybe we'll warm to her in the end.
You're now ITN's UK editor. When did that job change occur, and what are your present responsibilities?
Basically, I head a unit of seven people and we're responsible for covering all the main domestic stories: crime, the royals, terrorism, intelligence, security -- and anything else anyone cares to throw at us!
You have turned out five novels in about as many years. Do you consider yourself a fast writer?
I suppose I am a fast writer. I have a very short attention span, which suits the life I have. I get up early and try to do a couple of hours writing before going in to ITN. By then, if I've worked well, I've had enough and am happy to head off to do something different. I would normally do another hour on the train on the way home. No one else can understand how I concentrate like this, but it works for me. I think it's always good for a writer to have a very low boredom threshold; that way there is less risk of him boring his readers. Given all the time in the world, my mind just drifts and I end up seeking out all kinds of distractions. I need to be focused and disciplined. I write for pleasure. It's a passion. I don't want it to ever feel like work.
And where does this book-writing pace leave your family?
Family is easily the most important thing in my life and I make it an absolute that it comes first. Everything else is secondary. I work as much as I need to and writing is what I do for myself. I rarely watch TV, though on holiday it is wonderful just to chill out.
How ironic. You're in the TV game, but you don't watch television. Surely, though, you must observe how other news outlets cover their beats. Can you speak to differences you see in the techniques of American news coverage versus British news coverage? Does British TV news look toward its viewers as any more intelligent than the U.S. TV outlets, which treat their watchers so often like morons with the attention span and sophistication of howler monkeys?
I read an interview in one of our leading papers the other day, which was so extraordinary it almost made me choke. It was a rather sycophantic piece about a newscaster on a rival channel, but what was bizarre about it was that both journalist and interviewee clearly approached their discussion with the smug assumption that, of course, American TV news was so much better than anything produced in Britain.
I suspect the truth is rather the reverse and that your network news is in an advanced state of decline, whereas I think we're holding our own well. Indeed, I'd say [ITN] is likely to take more news and news specials in the coming years, and the general trend of the past 18 months has been to take everything up-market.
We have more news in peak time and it is more diverse. For example, like you, we have a bulletin at 6:30, which is not, many nights, entirely dissimilar. But we also have one now at 10:30, which like the BBC news at 10:00, is a more highbrow affair.
I particularly loathe any sense that we are dumbing down or talking down to our viewers and go out of my way to try and find intelligent things to say about the issues of the day. That's the attitude of most senior correspondents within ITN, and I've no doubt we enjoy the support of our management.
Do you have interests other than journalism and novel-writing?
I do a lot of sport. I still play soccer and am passionate about skiing. I almost became a professional ski racer when I was younger and was an instructor for a while. When I retire, I'd like to spend a lot of my winters in the mountains.
If you could have written any book that doesn't already appear under your name, which would it be?
The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. For me, there's not a single wrong note in it.
And what is your all-time favorite book -- fiction or non-fiction?
This is very difficult. Probably A Bright Shining Lie, by Neil Sheehan. I thought it was an absolutely masterful study of an extraordinary subject. I quite want to set a novel in 1950s Saigon, so no doubt I'll be reading it again soon.
Are you doing much publicity for The God of Chaos?
I've done a few more interviews, but the other things we're doing are spread out over the year (literary festivals and so on). I'm trying to concentrate on interviews like this one, where there is a chance to try and get across what I'm attempting to do. Newspaper interviewers here tend to want to do an "at home" color piece, or grill me solely about the young royals. I don't see the point in this. People who buy a lot of books are discerning. They're not going to pick up a novel just because they've seen a guy on the TV or in a magazine. In fact, I think this might be a positive disincentive. A book represents a significant investment of time, and people quite rightly want to know it's not going to be wasted. I need to concentrate on convincing people I intend to be around as an author long after I've stopped my day job.
I don't yet see your new novel slated for U.S. publication. Are plans for that in the works?
Not at the moment. My U.S. publishers [Doubleday] say they want to build a bigger platform for me and that they're more likely to be able to do that with the New York novel than with Chaos. So they want to do that first. They profess great loyalty and passion still, so I'm happy with the strategy. They've done amazingly, fabulously well with the likes of Dan Brown (with whom I share an editor, but not yet a sales curve), so I'd like to stick with them if I can.
I think the truth is that they did quite well with The Master of Rain, but The White Russian never really got out of the gate. I feel it slipped beneath the radar a bit in the U.S., which was disappointing. All the reviews and reader responses were universally positive, so I'm not sure why it didn't acquire legs. Maybe the Russian Revolution was too distant a subject for the U.S. mass market.
It does seem to be difficult for British writers to crack America, but I'd obviously love to be able to do it. I think it's the best long-term guarantee that I'll be able to keep writing until I croak. Most successful American writers do well here, but going the other way is more difficult.
Finally, what question should I have asked you, that I did not? And what stimulating response would that question have elicited?
It's always interesting to ask if someone is more defined by their hopes or fears. I would have said that I fight very hard to make sure it is the former, but do not always succeed.
I'm a tremendously practical and optimistic person. I'm very determined; I'll always work with whatever situation I'm in and make the best of it. I'm not one of life's natural wingers. Having said that, I do have this weird psychological thing where I have to imagine every potential scenario mapped out in front of me and mentally cross every bridge before I get to it. My wife sometimes thinks I'm potty, but the result is that if we ever reach the bridge, I'm ready to do battle. It was a bit like this when I was shot. I'd been imagining it might happen for months, so when it did, I was more ready to deal with it than my wife was.
However, in some senses, it is a pointless and wasteful way to go about life, because you run the risk of torturing yourself with irrational fears. So, I'm trying to change this. My only fear with writing is that one day no one will want to publish or read me and I'll be locked in an attic writing novels about some fascinating point in history all for myself. I suppose that is why I push myself hard to try and be more successful now. It's not for money or fame (money is always useful, but who in their right mind would want to be famous?), but because it is the best long-term guarantee that I'll always be published.
Time, I suspect, to go and have a cup of coffee and chill out ... | March 2005