Saturday, 8 December 2012

Q is for QUIMBUNDO


Did you travel to Africa to research the book? This is one of the most common questions I get asked about The Afrika Reich. Although I have lived on the continent (Cairo used to be home) it may surprise you to learn I’ve never been to sub-Saharan Africa.

For the sake of veracity, and in a spirit of reckless adventure Burton would approve of, I did consider travelling to Congo but it soon became apparent this would be extremely foolhardy. With its shifting wars, eastern Congo is one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Kisangani (Stanleystadt in the book) has a force of over 15 000 thousand UN troops to protect it and they rarely venture beyond their compound without armoured support; civilian deaths in the area are rife. When I contacted the Foreign Office about the prospect of going there I was met with an incredulous laugh.

I had a similar problem with Angola. Although its civil war is over and it now has a GDP that is the envy of the West (7.9% last year), outside the capital, Luanda*, it remains a lawless and dangerous place to visit. This is especially true of Lunda Norte – the north-east region where I based Neliah and the Angolan Resistance. Today it is bandit-country, the ground choked with unexploded mines; for some reason you can’t book a trip there on Expedia.

Deep in this region is a real village called QUIMBUNDO, which I made the station Burton arrives at in Chapter 35. Given its latitude with the capital it made a credible spot for the railway to run through. It is the most obscure location I have ever written about. Indeed while working on Afrika Reich, I could only find one photograph of the place:


This lack of on-the-ground research, however, proved less problematic than I initially feared. I acquired a decent collection of contemporary accounts of Congo and Angola as well as drawing on my own peregrinations. I have worked in the Amazon and it was easy to transplant my experiences there – the perma-sweat, clouds of insects, murky forests and broiling concrete cities – to Africa. I must have got something right because, along with the question that began today’s entry, something else people often say to me is: You must know Africa well.


*NB – in case you’re wondering why the spelling is different to the novel Loanda (the colonial name) was changed to Luanda in 1975.

Friday, 9 November 2012

'And so the sky falls...'


For the second time this year I’ve been to the cinema, on this occasion to see the latest James Bond film, Skyfall. Normally I wouldn’t comment on it but so many people have compared Afrika Reich with Bond – comparisons that usually leave me scratching my head – that I thought it deserved a blog.


I’ve never been much of a 007 fan. I used to like the Roger Moore films as a kid but by my teens the allure was fading. This is the first time I’ve been to the cinema to see a Bond film since 1989s Licence to Kill. So what did I think of the new movie?

Beyond the galling amount of product placement, the casting was impeccable, photography sumptuous, editing bombastic but suitably explosive. There was enough intrigue to keep me engaged (though I felt the plot was a bit thin and the whole hard drive strand seemed to be forgotten half way through), along with plenty of action and some extraordinary stunts... even if some of the visual effects – the blowing up of Vauxhall Cross, the komodo dragons – were a bit dodgy. Despite all this, I was left cold. The film didn’t engage me on any emotional level.

The principle reasons for this explain why I don’t recognise the link some readers have made between my book and Bond. Firstly, there’s the glamour: Daniel Craig’s sculpted body and tailored suits, the women who are perfect from their eye lashes to their heels, the cocktails, fast cars and glittering cities. This type of glamour doesn’t do much for me. It’s one of the reasons I like Leone’s films so much: half the time his characters are filthy and dressed in rotting clothes. There’s very little glamour in the world of Afrika Reich: I can’t ever imagine Burton wearing a dinner jacket. Indeed, returning to the previous blog (‘E is for…’), Madeleine was initially a plainer woman and I was asked to make her more attractive.

For me, Bond also lacks a ‘mythic’ quality. There’s no primordial conflict between good and evil. Each film is just another mission and even in the case of Skyfall, where the revenge strand has a parallel with my story, it’s dealt with in a much more grounded way. Guns, gadgets and quips will suffice rather than that irrepressible desire to triumph no matter how battered the soul is. I’m sure plenty of people will disagree with me!

Two final points: 1) One of the carps I get about Afrika Reich is that Burton couldn’t endure all he does. It was therefore with a certain irony that I watched Bond survive a lot worse, starting with his spectacular fall from the bridge in the opening sequence. 

Burton isn't the only one who fights on train tops

2) There’s a line of dialogue I’ve written in Book 2, and long before Bond 23 had a title, that may have to be changed. It comes when Hochburg surveys a cataclysmic scene and responds by saying, ‘And so the sky falls.’ It was meant as a reference to Hans Christian Anderson though I suspect now people will think it is a nod to James Bond. Readers of this blog will know different.


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

E is for EDITOR


If you’ve trawled the bestseller charts in the past twenty years, chances are you’ve read a book my editor was behind. He’s worked with thriller veterans Len Deighton and Gerald Seymour; launched new writers like Conn Iggulden and Philipa Gregory; and most recently guided David Nicholls to a mega-hit with One Day. I was also delighted to discover he used to be Flashman’s editor! His name is Nick Sayers and as another publisher once told me, ‘he’s the best in the business’.

Nick & I at Clays where TAR was printed

1) Nick wanted the structure of the book tweaked, so that the reader would get to the alternative history sections more quickly. There are two extended passages of them (one explaining Britain’s peace with Nazi Germany, the other about the Casablanca Conference). In my edit these appeared, respectively, in chapters 8 and 12. Ultimately this became 3 and 8. I have to say that although I found my original structure more elegant, I can understand why getting some explanation in early was beneficial.

2) He also suggested that further context be added: details about Nazi Africa. I had already included plenty, but Nick insisted on more, everything from agricultural policies in Kongo to the ethnic mix of the conquerors. This had an implication on the text which I’ll come back to in ‘F is for...’

3) The use of the word ‘nigger’. I realised this was a contentious and sensitive subject so had employed it sparingly despite the virulent racism of the characters; originally it appeared 42 times (in a 120 000 word book) Nick felt this was too much, so I trimmed it to 26. Any more and the Nazis would start sounding a bit too PC, something one could never accuse Hochburg of!


4) Finally, and perhaps this was the point Nick was most adamant about, he wanted Burton to be more morally upstanding. My original vision of him was in the Leone mould. He was utterly amoral, disinterested in what the Nazis were doing, a man who killed for money with little principle. His assassination of Hochburg had nothing to do with right or wrong, simply a desire to avenge. The only chink in this was Madeleine: I liked the juxtaposition of his amorality with love. Patrick was similarly unscrupulous. Nick said he struggled to work out who was good and who bad and that the ‘heroes’ had to be more clearly defined as good guys. I tried to argue my case but was advised it would be commercially risky, so I relented and made Burton the more morally buoyant character who appears in the novel (though hopefully as I’ve shown there remains a certain ambiguity to his character). In retrospect this is the one change I have some regret over. My original plan for the trilogy was to have Burton begin as amoral and gradually change till the final showdown at the end of Book 3. By then, and influenced by his experiences, he would be attached to a more Manichean code.

Once implemented, the above changes amounted to less than 2% of the book. I think they were the right ones for the time (remember I was struggling to get my first publishing deal!) and in retrospect I don’t think they harmed the book, they simply made it different from my original. Whether readers would have reacted differently to that vision is something I’ll never know...



E is also for EL REICH AFRICANO

Once the book had been commissioned in the UK the next question was whether it could be sold abroad. To date four territories have bought the translation rights, not bad given that many big book markets such as Germany, Russia, Poland etc had understandable issues with the Nazi content. I’m reliably informed that one German publisher blanched when they got to the Schädelplatz!

The first to buy it was Spain where the book went to a three-way auction. Whether it was because of this… the superb trailer my Spanish publisher (Ediciones B) made for it… the publicity tour I went on to Madrid and Barcelona… or just because the cover matched my original design, EL REICH AFRICANO has a special place on my bookshelf.


Tuesday, 14 August 2012

L is for LAYERS


So far I’ve described some of my inspirations for the book and the plotting choices I made. I’ve not said much about the writing process itself. Today’s blog is longer than usual and for the first time I’m going to discuss publicly how I write.

I have a very idiosyncratic and time consuming method. I write my books in LAYERS – which seems like a good excuse for a picture of an Opera Cake! What follows is the general method by which I turn empty pages into a published book, though in the case of Africa Reich there were some specific things I also did.


I started with a detailed, chapter-by-chapter synopsis which took nine months to write and was 15 000 words long. Then I wrote what I called ‘Draft 0’. By no stretch of the imagination was this a literate document, in fact I’m not sure it would make much sense to anyone but me written as it was partly in shorthand, partly in notes, some of it even in code. Essentially it was an orientation plan, making sure I knew where the characters were in each scene and how they interacted with each other. I also got down spontaneous lines of dialogue and things such as setting, climate and any unusual details that occurred to me.

Armed with this, and the synopsis, I then wrote three entirely different ‘interpretations’ of the book, experimenting with alternative, even conflicting, ideas and possibilities. I told you it was a time consuming process! When I say ‘entirely different’ I mean it. I started each version from scratch. For example, here are the opening lines of Chapter 12:

(Draft 1):

‘No blacks allowed.’
A guard had stepped in front of the door, barring Neliah’s path. He was new, like so many whites joining the resistance movement. He had the course accent of the Belunga docks.

(Draft 2):

‘No niggers,’ said the guard looking down at her as she climbed the stairs to the octogono.
Neliah Tavares continued her ascent. She was tall, athletic, with skin the colour of molasses, so much darker than her sister’s.

(Draft 3):

The iniquities of the Versailles have been righted, announced Hitler after negotiating the territory he wanted, our colonies, our honour restored. The rest is Einzelheiten. Details.

(Out of interest, this is how it appeared in the final book):

On the second evening of the Casablanca Conference – as bureaucrats continued to re-draw the map – President Salazar of Portugal requested an audience with the Führer. He was passed off to Ribbentrop, Hitler’s Foreign Minister.

*

For me writing a novel is a process of discovery: as much as I plan I also learn what the book is about by working on it, so writing these different versions allowed plenty of time for reflection and finding unexpected connections. Once I had the three versions I then synthesised the strongest elements of each into the first proper working draft (number four). One point worth noting: this version was only 90 000 words long, i.e. almost 30 000 shorter than the version you will have read.

I have to confess I found the above process painful, sometimes debilitating. I often struggle with the writing side of a book, the getting words down on paper each day: it’s drudgery. My great passion is for editing, indeed I believe it’s the most creative part of the process. Books are made in the editing not writing. This stage began with the fourth draft and involved a layering process (cue another gratuitous photo:)


I swept through the book concentrating on one aspect at a time. First, structure and point of view. Next, and perhaps most importantly, came characterisation; then dialogue, descriptions, sentence structure (you’d be amazed how much you can alter the pace of a passage just by putting the words in a different order), and so on. Each new layer gave the book more depth. The writing matured – in every sense of the word.

One of the specific layers for Afrika Reich was the alternative history: making sure all these passages appeared in a coherent and logical order, and adding additional sentences and paragraphs where necessary. After that, I made sure the writing itself was half decent (no clichés, trying to find unexpected ways to say things, deleting words/turns of phrase I overuse) and finally I did a polish. Six drafts in total, two years of work – and then it was ready to submit to publishers.

Except that wasn’t quite the end of it as you’ll discover in the next blog entry. For once I’ll tell you what it is: ‘E is for Editor’.


L is also for LITERAL

Of all the reactions to Afrika Reich, the one that took me most by surprise was how literally some readers interpreted the book. More than once people have told me, there’s no way Burton could take such physical punishment. Well obviously! Perhaps naively, it never crossed my mind anyone would take the action in a LITERAL sense. Putting aside the issue of suspending one’s disbelief, the battering Burton et al endure is meant as a metaphor: the penalty for not letting the past lie. As the film director John James Todd once wrote: ‘I was looking for an emotional realism, not pedantic verisimilitude’. Hopefully this will make more sense when we get to ‘F is for...’




Friday, 27 July 2012

The Dark Knight Rises



As regular readers of this blog will know I tend not to write about ‘personal’ things, mostly because I prefer discussing Afrika Reich than myself. Today is an exception as earlier in the week I saw The Dark Knight Rises… and want to tell you about it.

The first thing you need to know is that I very rarely go to the cinema. I find the communality of it off putting: all that chomping popcorn and chatting when I’ve come to see a film. In fact I’m a total fascist on the subject of talking in the cinema; when I saw Batman Begins I almost got involved in a punch-up because the person in front of me wouldn’t shut up. Second, and only a small cabal of people know this so I’m revealing more than usual today, I’ve been a closet Batman fan all my life… so my trip to the BFI’s IMAX was quite an occasion.

And well worth it. The Dark Knight Rises is a spectacle on a scale rarely seen these days: epic in its sweep with electrifying set-pieces and a real sense of danger, characters I genuinely cared about and a score so bombastic it threatened to give me a heart attack. Writer / producer / director Christopher Nolan’s insistence on getting as much of the action ‘in camera’ (as opposed to using CGI) pays off handsomely – as absurd as the notion of man dressed as a bat is, the whole thing feels real, credible. It’s not a perfect film (one plot twist is decidedly naff) but I found the overall emotional effect of the film deeply satisfying.

The whole experience was further enhanced by the gargantuan IMAX screen and sound so impressively loud that my ears were still ringing next morning! If you enjoyed the first two parts of Nolan’s trilogy I wholeheartedly recommend you seek this out, especially at an IMAX.


For me, the greatest triumph of The Dark Knight Rises was how effortlessly it fused character, action, morality and politics within a realistic, fairy-tale setting… and here I hope you can see the connection with Afrika Reich and why I’m enthusing so much. Indeed the mythology of Batman, its theme of revenge and aesthetic (more of the latter in ‘F is for…’), was an influence on my book. It’s always surprised me, for instance, that no one has made the connection between Hochburg and Ra’s al Ghul.

I read that Christopher Nolan is going to take some time off now before finding his next project; he’s looking for a thriller more grounded in the real world, ‘something like James Bond’. If anybody has a contact at Syncopy, let me know!

Monday, 2 July 2012

G is for GERMANIA


GERMANIA – or to give the city its full title Welthaupstadt Germania (World Capital Germania) – was the name the Nazis planned to give Berlin if they won the war.

Along with Hitler not appearing in the book (see ‘H is also for…’) another early decision I had to make was whether any scenes would be set in the capital of the new German Empire. It is, of course, the primary location of Robert Harris’s Fatherland, indeed I’ve often wondered why he didn’t call his book Germania. In a rather sneaky exposition scene Harris has his hero and son take a bus tour of the city so the reader can become familiar with its sights: the Great Hall, Avenue of Victory, Arch of Triumph und so weiter.

Germania is brought to life so vividly in Fatherland that I didn’t see much point in revisiting it, so during the planning of Afrika Reich I chose not to use it as a setting. This also coincided with me exorcising anything in Britain/London, apart from the prologue. I liked the intensity of having the whole book set in Africa with no European ‘relief breaks’, something my agent initially pressed for. I’ll come back to this in ‘U is also for...’

Speer admiring a model of his planned city as seen in the film Downfall.

On a practical note, it’s unlikely Germania as envisioned by Hitler and his architect, Albert Speer, could ever have been built. The planned buildings were so monumental that they required granite hard foundations; Berlin is built on marshy ground. To test whether such huge edifices could ever be erected several exploratory load bearing blocks were constructed. If they sank less than 6cm, the ground of Berlin would not have been capable of sustaining the structures Hitler imagined. They were built in 1941 and although they exist to this day, within three years had slipped 18cm!

Nevertheless there’s great appeal in the prospect of such a histrionic city with its Olympian architecture and convictions of grandeur. I was particularly struck by one, slightly apocryphal detail. Visiting dignitaries would arrive at Templehof airport, then drive directly through the city along the Avenue of Splendours to Hitler’s Palace and finally his study: an uninterrupted straight line of five kilometres from your plane to the desk of the Führer. Can you imagine such megalomania? In the earliest drafts of Book 2 Hochburg made this journey.

Unfortunately as I began developing the plot this scene became more and more unnecessary until finally I realised it had to be cut. Working on a novel, however, is a process of constant evolution, so even as Hochburg’s scene fell from the manuscript another scene in Germania presented itself. Something more gentle and unexpected. You’ll have to wait for the sequel to find out what, but it may just involve Burton... and ice cream!

See the next entry for a virtual tour of Hitler’s planned city.

Germania - a virtual tour


Normally I only include one or two pictures with each blog entry. However, when I was researching Germania I came across so many striking images that I thought I’d share some of them here, starting with this artist’s impression of the approach to the Volkshalle or Great Hall:


This monstrosity was so huge that it would have been the biggest structure in the world if it had ever been built. Rising more than 1000 ft it had a capacity of 180 000 people. One of the unpredicted consequences of having so many people in a single space is that their breath would have risen into the dome, condensed, then fallen as rain, making it the only building even to generate its own climate. To get a sense of its sheer size here’s a model with the Brandenburg Gate in the foreground to show the scale:


The Great Hall stood at the end of the Avenue of Victory. The following two images show its position within the city:



Another of Germania’s landmarks would have been the Arch of Triumph. Once again, it was planned to be on a gargantuan scale and have a cubic capacity 49 times larger than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. One wonders why they didn’t go the whole hog and make it 50 times. Rather presumptively, Hitler had drawn a sketch of it as early as 1924. Here’s his original:



If you’d like a virtual tour of Germania, I recommend this video:


Sunday, 13 May 2012

H is for HERERO

I’ve always been fascinated by the great Victorian expansion into Africa and from my previous reading was dimly aware of the HERERO and the fate they suffered under the Germans.  However, it wasn’t until I was fleshing out Neliah’s character and ethnic background that my memory was jogged. 


The Herero are a tribe from South-West Africa in what is modern day Namibia. At the end of the 19th century this region became a German colony (DSWA, part of the Second Reich) and after years of encroachment on their territory the Herero finally rebelled against the European settlers. The Germans responded with unbridled savagery: slaughtering thousands, leaving many more to starve. Between 1904 and 1907 it has been estimated that 80% of the Herero were wiped out. The parallel between this and Hochburg’s plans for the continent seemed obvious – hence why I made Neliah a Herero.

(NB: this is a very simplified version of events, those seeking a more detailed account can find out more on Wikipedia. I would also recommend the book The Kaiser’s Holocaust, published by Faber.)

A couple other details that might interest:

1.      Several unexpected threads can be drawn between events in DSWA and the Third Reich. For example, the colonial governor in the years leading up to the Herero uprising was Heinrich Göring, father of the notorious Nazi. While one commanders of German forces was Franz Ritter Von Epp who went on to found the KPA, the administrative body that would have ruled Africa had the Nazis conquered the continent

2.      I taught myself a smattering of Herero while writing the book so all the lines Neliah and Zuri speak in their native tongue are correct (I hope!). However, my study-source was a book published in the 1890s which meant some words – helicopter, for example – didn’t exist. In these cases I had to neologise, creating new words from combinations of existing ones

Curiously, some of the first readers of Afrika Reich thought the Herero massacres were a fabrication; one publisher cited this as a reason for rejecting the book (i.e. he felt it was a strand of alternative history ‘too far’). I think this demonstrates how poorly known this genocide is while also proving the dictum, ‘Those who are ignorant of the past are doomed to repeat’. Many historians believe what happened to the Herero was a precursor to the Holocaust, indeed the BBC even made a documentary called From the Herero to Hitler, which rather neatly leads me to...


H is also for HITLER

One of the first decisions I made with the book was that HITLER would not directly appear in it. The same went for other well known Nazis.

Some readers have told me they would have liked a cameo, or even a more substantial role, but personally I felt it a bit crass. It also misses the point of what I’m trying to do. (I had a similar reaction to those who suggested I include people such as Nelson Mandela or Ben Gurion.) I think alternative history works best if these real figures are like shadows: their darkness falls across events without their physical presence.

Having said all that, I do have a scene in mind (the prologue of Book 3) where an on stage appearance from Hitler might be necessary. We’ll see...

Monday, 7 May 2012

N is for NELIAH

One of the biggest dilemmas I had during the planning of Afrika Reich was whether to include any black characters. I always wanted to but realised there were practical issues. With all the native races shipped to Muspel how would it be possible? And even if a black character had avoided transportation, how would they live? How could they survive in such a racist culture without instantly being spotted?

Given these impossibilities I reluctantly abandoned the idea and plotted the book using an entirely white cast even though I felt uncomfortable with what I was doing. I didn’t want to be accused of being patronising or, worse still, racist.

Gradually the idea of the Angolan resistance took form and, playing against type, I put two girls at the centre; two white girls (Luisa and Arabella, for the record). It was only when I was on the second or third draft of the plot that I realised L&A could be black, that although they engaged with the Nazis it was always in a hit-and-run fashion. So they could inhabit German Africa without the quandary of being the only dark faces in a continent of whites. Indeed, making them black added to how high the stakes were. Having some black characters also allowed me to depict the horrors of the Nazi regime from those who had suffered the most.

So were born Zuri and her younger sister, NELIAH.


I wanted Neliah to be a tough cookie but also a teenager, playing into that idea of the child-soldiers that have fought in so many of Africa’s recent conflicts. She’s also the noble heart of the book. Whereas the white characters are hellbent on murder (Hochburg, Uhrig) or happy to betray and abandon each other (the ‘good’ guys), Neliah is steadfast in wanting to protect her sister and defend her country. Unlike Burton and Patrick she’s fighting for a cause she believes in.

I’ve been asked about her name. As unbelievable as it seems the single word Neliah does actually translate from the Herero as ‘strong of will, vigorous of spirit, level of mind’: an example of how efficient African languages can be! Another thing readers ask me is about her rather open-ended last scene: so I’ll reveal now that not only does she survive the battle of Loanda but she returns in Book 3.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

S is for SCHÄDELPLATZ

If there’s one image that everyone remembers from the book it must surely be Hochburg’s Schädelplatz. His square of skulls. Where did it come from?

Alas, I can’t remember. There was certainly no eureka moment when it entered my head fully formed. Nor was the idea gifted to me by a nightmare. Even looking back on early drafts of the plot doesn’t help as it was always there. This is one moment of inspiration that’s lost forever.

That said, it’s not without antecedent. There is Kurtz’s use of skulls to decorate his compound in Heart of Darkness (proof that ‘something is wanting in him’ as Conrad observes with typical understatement). Or the Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic: a chapel built from bones. And I’ve always been haunted by the killing fields of Cambodia where the skulls were piled higher than a man. Doubtless all these fed my imagination.
The Schädelplatz is Hochburg’s vision for Africa and skulls as a symbol is something that’s repeated throughout the book – an unintended fillip of the writing process. Beyond imagery, the Schädelplatz  also had another important function in the book, one that readers might have overlooked. I’ll come back to that in ‘F is for...’; meantime it leads me to...


S is also for SERGIO LEONE

Like all novels The Afrika Reich is an amalgamation of interests and influences. However, if I was asked to identify the most important, not only to the book but all my creative thinking, it would be the Italian film director Sergio Leone.

I could go on for pages explaining the whys and wherefores, but instead I’ll let him speak for himself. Hopefully the following quote will explain a lot. It may also go some way in illuminating the previous entry’s preoccupation with intent!

‘I love the authentic when it is filtered through imagination, myth, mystery and poetry. But it is essential the details seem right. Never invented. I think a fairy-tale captures the imagination when the story is a fairy-tale but the setting is realistic. This fusion of reality and fantasy [my italics] take us into myth, into legend.’

Sunday, 18 March 2012

I is for INTENT

And so we come to the thorny issue of authorial INTENT. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of getting published has been how readers have interpreted my book in ways I never intended or even foresaw. I’ve lost count, for example, of the number of readers who are insistent that the film Die Hard is referenced throughout. For the record, although I’ve seen the film (to date still McTiernan’s best) and think it a clever, pulse-pounding thriller it was never an influence on Afrika Reich*. As a follow-on, many of the intended references – everything from TS Eliot to Luciano Vincenzoni to Norse mythology – have gone unremarked.


At university I came across reader response theory. I won’t bore you with a detailed explanation (you can find out more here) but in essence it says that the reader is the primary force who gives a book its meaning by interpreting it. As an undergraduate, and as you know already a fledging writer, I was deeply suspicious of this. How could the reader have more of a stake than the author? How could my book not mean what I meant it to?

It’s only since being published and having hundreds of people review and talk to me about my book (often in totally unexpected ways) that I’ve begun to appreciate there might be more to reader response than I initially believed. I now see how my intent has become just one of a myriad of interpretations of the text... though I still believe mine – as the creator – is the definitive one.

So what was my intent?

Now that’s an even thornier question! And one I’m not sure I should answer. This is not coyness on my behalf but after everything I’ve written above perhaps it’s not right to privilege my interpretation over others and so determine people’s view.

What I will say is that I wanted to write something relentless and visceral; something with an epic, journey-across-the-continent quality that would leave the reader exhausted. On a more surprising note, it wasn’t necessarily my intention to write an alternate history thriller... though clearly the book can be read that way.

 ---

*However, since so many people found ‘footprints’ where none were intended, as a private joke I’ve now referred to the film in Book 2!

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Norway - a writer's paradise?

Last year I went to Madrid and Barcelona on a publicity tour to promote the Spanish edition of TAR. That was before this blog got going properly, so I didn’t write about it. Last week I was in Oslo for the release of the Norwegian edition and I thought I’d write a few words about the experience.

The two trips were very different in nature. In Spain I got blanket coverage in most of the national and regional press as well as radio and (cringe!) TV. In Norway I was doing a single in-depth and exclusive interview with VG, Norway’s biggest circulation paper. It’s always intriguing to know what questions you’ll be asked. In Spain much of the interest was to do with the politics of the book; in Norway, the alternative history aspect, violence and literary heritage of TAR were the main topics of conversation. I think it went well.

Me and the journalist Jon Rydne

After the interview, a photo shoot. Originally this was going to take place in the jungle house of the Botanical Gardens (I did something similar for my TV interview in Madrid) but when the Gardens learned the book was about Nazis (still a sensitive subject in Norway) they refused us permission. Luckily my publicist snapped into action and bought a load of plants to turn my publisher’s office tropical! Swastikas were also found as well as a bust of Hitler. You can see the photos on Facebook.

Afterwards, the sales manager took me round various bookshops in Oslo. There were piles of Afrika Reich everywhere. Particularly exciting was to walk past Norli, a flagship store, and find a stack of TARs in the window (check out the video below). Seeing my book like that is a bizarre experience. I find it funny to think that something I worked on for years, mostly in isolation, is now not only out in the world but in a place with snow on the ground, fjords barely half a mile away and city views totally unfamiliar to me.

Touring all the bookshops also made me think how different the Norwegian publishing business is to the UK. Their net book agreement has not been dismantled which means the industry is like ours was a couple of decades ago. There are over 600 books stores and half a dozen major chains – this in a country of 5 million. It’s rather damning that the UK with a population twelve times bigger can barely support Waterstones. Books are valued. Hardbacks retail at £30-40, there’s little discounting and no Amazon. Once a year the Norwegians have a nationwide book sale that gets people queuing round the block to pick up a bargain; about the only thing that generates this kind of interest at home is Next’s sale. What does that say?

There are also lots of publishers, more than a hundred. Some are very small but with such diversity there’s more opportunity for people to get published and more risky books get a chance. I’m not saying it’s perfect (the two biggest publishers, for instance, have vertically integrated businesses i.e. they not only publish but also own the distribution networks and bookstores) but to me Norway seemed liked a writer’s paradise!


video


A-Z resumes next week.

Friday, 17 February 2012

365 days on...

A year ago today THE AFRIKA REICH was published, which seems the perfect opportunity to take stock of the past 365 days.


I suppose the first thing to say is that the book was more successful than I ever imagined it would be. Prior to publication, my publisher wisely managed my expectations... but I’m glad to say I exceeded them. Although not on the Sunday Times Bestsellers List (yet!), sales have been pretty decent with the book going into a second printing in hardback and fast approaching its fifth impression in paperback. I’ve already earned back my advance. Not bad for a novel which the majority of publishers in this country said had no commercial appeal!

Equally gratifying was the critical attention the book received. Many non-writers won’t realise how difficult it is to get reviews. My publicist said one or two would be a good showing. To date TAR has been reviewed in eighteen publications from The Times in London to the Star in New Zealand. The Economist and Express named it as one of their Best Books of 2011. I was particularly proud of this as it vindicated the conviction I had in the book when it was being rejected by everyone.

After its UK publication the book began to sell abroad. So far TAR has been acquired by six countries (two of which I’m still waiting to sign contracts with before going public), including a significant two-book deal in the United States. With the foreign deals – and a rarity for an unknown debut author – came foreign publicity tours: a combination of media appearances, more hard work than you’d imagine and a sprinkling of glamour. Last year I went to Madrid and Barcelona; next week I’m off to Oslo.

I don’t want to give the impression it’s all been fun and fireworks, however. It’s a time of great change in the publishing world and as always with change comes uncertainty and apprehension. No one quite knows what’s going to happen over the next few years: how the transition to ebooks will affect the industry or the potential damage on-line piracy can wreak. Books shops are also taking a hammering with Waterstones the only dedicated chain left and its prospects still in the balance. I’ve been directly affected by these issues.

I also feel that amidst this fretting about the technology of publishing, one question is often overlooked. Will people even continue to read? In a couple of generations from now, will the novel be as arcane as poetry? Sometimes, when I’m on a train for example, and see everybody plugged into ipods or texting madly but rarely reading (be that kindles or old-fashioned books) I do worry about my chosen vocation.

TAR tops Nesbo in the charts!

But today is not the occasion to dwell on this. It’s a time to focus on the positive. I’m often asked what aspect of getting published I’ve enjoyed the most. I have to say it’s not really seeing TAR in a book store or reviewed in a paper. It’s those unexpected moments of connecting with a reader I’ve never met, and this is best expressed in fan mail. So far I’ve had letters and emails from places as far flung as Belgium, Cape Town, Chile, San Diego... even Mozambique! These have been more gratifying than anything else.

Which leads me on to the most important thing to say. Thanks to everyone who bought the book and has supported me these past 365 days. I really do appreciate it.

Now all that remains is to celebrate... and what better way than a bowl of mango and strawberry trifle!

Sunday, 12 February 2012

J is for JAMES CAMERON

Before writing a single word of a novel I like to think about it. Think about it, ponder it, reflect on it. During that time I’m not only plotting and developing the characters I’m also working out how the minutiae of the story connect. In my opinion a novel is a mesh of connections. The more of these connections there are, no matter how subtle, the stronger the finished book will be. With Afrika Reich this process took the best part of a year.

However, several months into the process, despite having an incipient plot, something was missing.

E.L. Doctorow, the American author, once wrote, ‘You have to find the voice that allows you to write what you want to write... it’s a writer’s dirty little secret that language precedes the intentions.’ And that was my problem. I didn’t have a voice, that elusive something shoehorns the story into a context. To put it another way, what type of book was I trying to write? What was the tone? Something stately, detached and methodical, a tale lit by the grey light of dawn? A narrative related entirely from the German perspective: a type of self-critique? What about a black comedy? I toyed with all these possibilities and more.


In the end the lightbulb moment came from an unexpected source. I was watching the DVD extras to Aliens which included an interview with the film’s writer/director JAMES CAMERON (complete with the most ghastly jumper you ever saw). In it, he described his film as ‘a dark adventure story with a warm human heart’. That was it! Afrika Reich would rumble with the Nazis’ malevolent, savage vision for the continent but the story itself would be carried by the relationships of friends, both old and new. It seems so obvious now but back then this was a genuine moment of revelation.

In the end my book combined elements of this and moved a considerable way from it, but Cameron’s words were the initial inspiration behind the tone of the narrative. I say ‘in the end’ because this reflects another, often overlooked element of writing a novel. It takes such a long time to complete one that both the person you are and the book you start with are different by the end. Even the act of writing the book – a process of discovery itself – morphs things. So whatever your initial vision, the best you can hope for is an interpretation of it. With a trilogy this dilemma is cubed... but that’s for another time.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Z is for ZIEGE

I mentioned in the last blog entry how I would make up details and later, during my research, discover I’d alighted upon fact. The Ziege is a case in point.

I assumed the Nazis would need some kind of jeep to allow them to negotiate Africa’s terrain – especially in places like Congo where muddy roads and the rainy season would make travel difficult, so it wasn’t too big a leap of imagination to assume they’d have some kind of four-wheel drive. So I put this imagined vehicle into the book in one of the earliest scenes where Burton escapes from the Schädelplatz. Months later, when I read the Wehrmacht’s 1940 plans for the occupation of Central Africa, I came across a reference about developing a ‘multi-terrain automobile’.


Zieges were partly inspired by the Kübelwagen (pictured), a military car designed by Porsche, built by Volkswagen and in which Hitler took a personal interest. Crucially, although over 50 000 ‘Kübels’ were built during the war they were not four-wheel drive (even those deployed in the Sahara for the North Africa campaign). That would have been the innovation that saw the Ziege become the Nazis’ vehicle of choice in the equatorial regions. ‘Ziege’ itself means ‘goat’ an animal well known for its ability to navigate tricky terrain.

One purely speculative idea I had was that this vehicle would eventually be adopted by the civilian car market as happened in America with the Jeep. So I had an image of the avenues of Germania thronging with Volkswagens and BMWs and cutting through them the hulking shapes of Zieges. A Chelsea-tractor or Hummer for the Nazi age – with all the corresponding grumbles. Alternative history or not, some things never change!

Sunday, 8 January 2012

R is for RESEARCH

The very first RESEARCH question I had to ask was: did the Nazis ever have any plans for Africa? If I’d drawn a complete blank here it’s unlikely I would have continued with the book. As it happens (and as you’ll know from reading the book) they did. Lots. My initial investigations mostly provided details about the Nazis’ schemes for Madagascar – perhaps the best known aspect of their ambitions for Africa. This is the setting and subject for Book 2. Looking beyond the Indian Ocean, however, I also discovered plenty of information for the continent itself.

Although I continued to do research throughout the writing of the book, the main work was done in two blocks: before I began to write, and after I’d finished the fourth draft. The initial research was to get the overall structure of the Nazis’ plans – the big picture, if you will. The second phase involved a lot more detailed research to tease out specifics, everything from Himmler’s recommendation for breakfast in Africa to the thickness of the tarmac on the autobahn.

The actual process of research was akin to mining: going through deeper and deeper layers to find riches. I began with general texts about the period and then using the page notes and bibliographies was able to source more specialised works of history which in turn revealed ever more obscure books eventually leading back to specific archive documents. For instance, Michael Burleigh’s The Third Reich has only five references to Africa in over 800 pages – but each of those was listed in the endnotes offering an array of secondary, often more academic works and so on. I tracked down the latter in various libraries and universities around the world. The British Library was a particularly helpful source of information as was a compendious report on Congo written by British Naval Intelligence – I got hold of a declassified copy.

People often ask me how many books I read to research The Afrika Reich. To be honest I lost count – but it must have been in excess of 50-60. Here's a photo of just some of the volumes I ploughed through. (NB – you might not be able to read the spine of the top book. It’s a 1940s guide to military demolition which I got for Dolan’s character!)

Perhaps the most curious thing about the research – doubtless a consequence of spending so much time immured in Nazi Africa – was that I’d invent certain details only to find later that they were true. The best example of this is how the Nazis planned to redraw the map of Africa. In various texts I read about a map that Kriegsmarine (the navy) and the Foreign Ministry in Berlin had drawn up for Africa, yet despite spending years trying to locate a copy I never could; so in the end the map you see at the beginning of the book was speculative. Then, in the summer of 2009, after I’d finished writing and the book was being to submitted to publishers I finally got hold of the map. To my amazement it was almost exactly how I had envisioned it. All that was needed to get it 100% accurate was the inclusion of a few details, such as naval bases in Dakar and Conakry, and a little bit of tweaking along certain borders.

How is this possible? I once heard an interview with Sarah Waters and she said something similar about her research. The explanation she offered is that when you start doing a lot of it you end up with the mindset of the period/people you’re writing about – and the details flow from that. Without wanting to suggest I think like a Nazi, I couldn’t agree more.


R is also for REVENGE

If the book has a central theme it’s REVENGE. Indeed this is a theme that is explored over the narrative of all three books. Although I never intended too obvious a parallel, I certainly see The Afrika Reich as a post-9/11 book. In the weeks after the World Trade Centre was attacked there was definitely a mood for revenge in America, a mood that led to the mountains of Afghanistan and deserts of Iraq. Burton’s journey can be seen as a critique of that.


On a lighter note, if – as the old Klingon proverb goes – revenge is a dish best served cold then it’s worth noting that Burton swears he never kills in cold blood; indeed when he comes to avenge himself he does so in the oppressive heat of Kongo.

Happy New Year to everybody!