Sunday, 12 February 2012


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.


  1. As an addendum, I suppose I should add a few extra words about JC. Although always visually impressive (and with a love of hardware verging on the fetishistic) his films often fail to engage me. Indeed I see 'Aliens' as the high point of his career after which his films became ever more spectacular but not necessarily better. (With apologies to his legion of fans...)

  2. Oh Titanic was complete sh*te. Ahem. Avatar was fun though - I totally see the "dark adventure story with a warm human heart" in Avatar and the Aliens and Terminator franchise. Oh but Titanic... good grief!

    Glad you didn't go the high falluting way with your Afrika Reich. Although the thought of AR as black comedy..!! Nah, I'm glad you watched the Aliens extra and suffered through JC's appalling jumper to get your eureka moment with AR. Much as I enjoyed all the exciting adventures you put your characters through - it's the friendships, family ties and tribulations and of course the love story that bind AR together, imo!

    Take care

  3. The friendships were definitely my favourite bit.
    K x

  4. Kitty - do we have a TITANIC fan in our midst? ;o) It seems the friendships are what people like most.