Monday, 29 August 2011


If you’re reading this blog there’s a high chance you’re interested in alternative history. If you’re interested in alternative history then there’s an even higher chance you’re read Robert Harris’s Fatherland. In my opinion it’s the apogee of the genre and a damn fine thriller to boot.

(As a quick aside, I should say a word about alternative history. The ‘definitive’ novel of the genre is The Man in the High Castle and it’s noteworthy that this is a work of science fiction. Purists would argue that Fatherland isn’t really alternative history, only its milieu is. I tend to agree – which is why I see Afrika Reich as foremost a thriller, not alternative history.)

One of the reasons Fatherland is such a satisfying read is because of the main character: XAVIER MARCH, an investigator with Berlin’s criminal police (and a God send for author’s writing A-Zs and wondering what they’ll do with those tricky last letters of the alphabet). It was a lesson for me. If Afrika Reich was going to succeed beyond the setting and plot, the characters would have to be people readers cared for.

That said, there’s no Xavier March equivalent in my book. March is a more morally straightforward character than Burton. Although a member of the SS, he’s motivated by a desire to know the truth about the world he lives in, and uncovering corruption and murder at the heart of the Reich. In many ways he’s a crusader. Burton’s motives are entirely personal; he’s indifferent to the Nazis’ plans for Africa apart from when they intersect his individual needs. As I once said to my editor: ‘the bad guys are bad, but the good guys aren’t necessarily good’. I’ll come back to this subject in ‘E is for...’.

Returning to Fatherland, in essence it’s a crime thriller, you could even go so far as to say a whodunit. Harris’s book followed in the tradition of Len Deighton’s SS-GB which is an espionage thriller. It occurred to me that the victorious Third Reich element of these books (although intrinsic to the plot) is a backdrop to variations on thriller. Since the crime and spy sub-genre had already been done, I wanted to do something fresh with Afrika Reich – hence the reason I chose to make it an action/adventure thriller, more of which next time...

PS – just in case you’re wondering why I’ve included a picture of Rutger Hauer here dressed in black, he played Xavier March in the HBO adaptation of the novel.

Monday, 22 August 2011


Names are very important to me. I can’t write a character until I have his or her name. With BURTON I wanted something monosyllabic and hard sounding, hence COLE. It was also important that I find some connection with Africa. I immediately thought of the great African explorers – Livingstone, Stanley – but considered their names too obvious. Luckily, years before I had read the biography of a more obscure figure: Sir Richard Burton, amongst other things: a linguist, spy and discoverer of the source of the Nile.

One of the questions I get asked most often is whether Burton is based on me. Of course it’s impossible to distance yourself entirely from your creations but in essence there is no connection between us. He’s certainly not an autobiographical character. So where did he come from?

Good question. And I’m not entirely sure of the answer. Apart from the name, he’s very different in temperament and background to the character in the original, unpublishable Africa Reich. The person he is now simply emerged as I was planning and researching the new version. As a hero he’s also an amalgamation of my influences, so there’s a sprinkling of the heroes from Greek mythology, Japanese chanbara tales, the spaghetti western, John Buchan, Graham Greene and maybe a certain Dr Jones. This is not an exhaustive list.

As for everything else, writing is a combination of inspiration and logic. So although the idea of him liking mango juice, for instance, came on a whim, other things – such as the character being a mercenary – were the consequence of logical deduction. I didn’t want Burton to be a German soldier and if he was identifiably a British officer this would cause problems for the plot, so this presented me with an obvious choice... which in turn made me think where he was trained. I wanted him to be part of an elite fighting force, and again I wanted an African connection, but all of this had to be in the context of him being an outsider. It wasn’t long after this that I reached for a copy of Beau Geste (a famous novel about the French Foreign Legion). That he is a Major is a little reference/in-joke – which you may or may not get.

The quality I admire most about Burton is his single-mindedness. He’s not interested in the trivia that seems to overwhelm our lives. I certainly can’t imagine him indulging in small talk at a party (here there is definitely an autobiographical element!). All he wants to do is survive. Survive, get back to Madeleine and be a quince farmer. I can understand that...

B is also for BK44

In preparation for the conquest of Africa, the Nazis began to develop an assault rifle that could function in the humidity of the tropics. However, as the war turned against them, and it was clear they weren’t heading towards the equator, the designs for this rifle morphed into the StG44 (pictured). Later these were appropriated by one Comrade Kalashnikov. My fictitiously named weapon – die Bananen Kanone – draws on all these elements. The ‘B’ refers to the banana shaped magazine; the K is a nod to the AK47; and the 44 refers not only to the StG but also the year Congo is invaded in my alternative history.


If Burton seemed to emerge from the ether, then WALTER E HOCHBURG was based on Kurtz from Heart of Darkness – at least to begin with. I wanted a character who was a mixture of the messianic and murderous, a man with an obsession to ‘civilise’ Africa. Unlike Conrad’s character, however, and because of the genre I was writing in, he is much more clearly flagged as the villain.

That said, I wanted to create a carnivalesque villain, one who combined the elements of mass murderer with all the best jokes. I also wanted to portray his backstory as sympathetically as possible. Some readers have commented on their moral queasiness about this – but that’s exactly the effect I was aiming for.

Physically, my initial instinct was to play against type with Hochburg and make him a slight man (I always had in mind the British stage actor Michael Pennington). I was intrigued by the idea of so much energy, power and violence emanating from such an inconsequential figure. However, when I wrote the book and pictured Hochburg in my mind, he was always a bigger, broad-shouldered character; the type of person who fills a room with his physical presence. I resisted this depiction of him for ages, till finally – in the fourth draft of the book – I relented and changed his description to what we have now.

His baldness comes from Brandon’s Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, another source for the character. This is also where he gets his first name (never mentioned by Conrad) and initial. The latter was an in-joke between John Milius and George Lucas (the writers of Apocalypse) and was a reference to Walt E. Disney. I like this type of layering of references; in fact my book is packed with them which I’m sure discerning readers are picking up on.

As for the name Hochburg... well, I don’t want to give away all my secrets! But if you look up ‘Hoch’ and ‘Burg’ in a German dictionary I’m sure you’ll get the allusion. (NB – please don’t post the answer in the comments section.)

Tuesday, 9 August 2011


Before I start, a quick apology for not replying to people’s comments until today. For some reason Blogger kept locking me out of the system – hence my silence. I think I’ve sorted it so hopefully will be able to respond from now on. Anyway… M.

When I say I had to start from scratch, I mean it. The only elements I kept from the original version were the title (see also ‘K is for...’), setting and two character names: Burton Cole and Walter Hochburg, more of whom shortly.

I began by jettisoning the idea of Burton as a journalist looking for a scoop. It worked in the original version of the book but was insufficiently dramatic for a thriller. An obvious alternative suggested itself. Instead of going to interview Hochburg, Burton should plan to assassinate him. This in turn lent itself to a ‘MEN ON A MISSION’ (MoM) plot, something in the vein of The Wild Geese or Where Eagles Dare, two of my favourite MoM books/films.

MoM plots have an established structure. The hero is offered a mission (usually by an enigmatic figure); he recruits his team (a combination of old friends and new blood who squabble incessantly); they train, then are dropped behind enemy lines. At this point something goes terribly wrong (often involving a double-cross). The team now have to ‘overcome and adapt’, some are killed, before finally – impossibly – they pull off the mission. Then it’s back home for tea and medals.

This is how the new version of TAR originally began... then I had a flash of inspiration.

Instead of following the old clichés, wouldn’t it be more interesting to subvert the genre? Rather than ending with ‘mission accomplished’, what about beginning the book that way? MoM stories rarely show you how the heroes get home (think of that last scene in Where Eagles Dare when Smith and Schaffer just doze off in the plane). What if the journey home took up the majority of the narrative? What if all the twists and betrayals and action followed the assassination of Hochburg – rather than leading up to it?

It was a moment of inspiration and the start of more than two and a half years of work.

M is also for MADELEINE

In the past couple of years I’ve noticed a lot of Madeleines appearing in fiction. I wonder if this is to do with the publicity surrounding Madeleine McCann. My Maddie was christened many years before and drew her name from Madeleine Albright (former US Secretary of State) – although she didn’t look like her! I often get asked who I’d cast in a film version of TAR. The honest answer is I don’t really think about it... apart from Maddie who I always saw being played by a Romanian actress called Alexandra Maria Lara. Indeed I used to keep this photo of her on my desk and every time Burton flagged in his journey home I’d look at it and urge him on.

Monday, 1 August 2011


After the 2002 version of Africa Reich was rejected I wrote another two novels (one on Barbary pirates, the other a dark love story about forgery) neither of which found any success. Every time I looked around for a new project, however, I kept coming back to TAR. Should I rewrite it as a thriller? Surely the idea was full of potential? In the end, the impetus to start again came from a totally unexpected event.

YOUWRITEON.COM (YWO) was set up in 2006. Funded by the Arts Council, it was the first of the peer-review sites for writers. The idea was (indeed still is) that you upload the first 10 000 words of your novel for others to review and score. The top five rated chapters of each month then receive a critique from an industry professional as well as being selected for the ‘Book of the Year’ award.

I joined YWO a few months after it started. I didn’t have a WIP at the time (sorry about all these acronyms!) so thought I’d upload TAR just to get a sense of the site and see what others thought. To my surprise it made the top five books of the month and then, to my even greater surprise, won ‘Book of the Year’. Some publicity followed, including a piece on the BBC for which I garnered additional notoriety due to a penchant for sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats and jungle backgrounds (see photo).

Then something strange happened: a rare occurrence in the world of publishing. An editor at Orion came to me. She read the book and although her response was the same as those who had rejected it in 2002, she thought the idea was strong and that I should re-write the book as a straight thriller: i.e exactly what had been in the back of my mind for the past four years. I talked it over with my agent but with the interest of a major publisher it seemed a no brainer.

My original idea was to turn it around quickly: take the existing manuscript, cut out the literary elements, beef up the thriller bits and have it read for submission in a couple of months. I soon hit a snag, however, what I came to describe as the apricot-and-peach-lattice-pie conundrum.

Imagine you serve a beautiful apricot and peach lattice pie to someone only to be told they don’t like apricots. You head back to the kitchen, thinking it will be no problem to remove the apricot pieces and then you can get on with dessert. The problem is that to get at the apricot you have to break through the lattice pastry – and by time you’re finished all you’ve got is a mess. So it was with the book. I couldn’t remove the literary elements without damaging the rest. I struggled for a month before realising it was hopeless. Then I took a brave decision. I decided to start again. From scratch...

PS – when I said A-Z, I hope you didn’t think I meant in order.