Thursday, 19 December 2013

V is for VANILLA JEWS (Book 2, update 2)

The original title for the sequel to Afrika Reich was THE VANILLA JEWS. However, my editor didn’t think it sounded commercial enough, so I changed it. For the past couple of years this blog has been about the original book, now it’s time to start looking forward (spoiler free... ish) to the next one.

So what to tell you? When I first started on Book 2, I meant it as a direct follow-up; as the years have passed, however, it has subtly shifted. I now see it as a ‘parallel sequel’ – although it continues events of the first book, and develops the existing story and characters, certain aspects of the original have been dropped. It is significantly more ambitious with an interweaving, multi-stranded narrative and more emphasis on the characters than action (though there’s still a healthy dose of the latter).

The one thing it is not is a rehash of the first book. There’s a lot of pressure in publishing to create a series and/or repeat an initial success – but I have scant interest in this. What engages me is the possibility of doing something different, something unexpected. As I was recently advised by a wily American film producer: ‘never go for the sure thing’. It could be a maxim for Book 2.

A propaganda poster from the 1930s

At the centre of the story is the Nazis’ plan to deport the Jews of Europe to Madagascar, an island off the east coast of Africa. Prior to the Holocaust this was to be their fate. Some historians argue that Madagascar was nothing more than a fantasy or smokescreen to cover up the real killing. However, my research shows detailed preparations were made by the Nazis and that the subject was discussed and approved at the highest level. When Hitler was shown the plan in the summer of 1940 he responded that it was ‘very good’. 

Perhaps more disturbingly, as early as 1938 the British were also in discussions to exile the Jews to Africa. We can never know the truth path of a speculative history but the thought of a Jewish Madagascar is not improbable. As an aside, Madagascar is the world’s largest producer of vanilla – hence the original title; vanilla remains of leitmotif throughout the text.

The odious Globus
With this as the background, other elements in the new book include a deepening of Burton’s back story; the fallout of Hochburg’s invasion of Northern Rhodesia; visiting new realms of German Africa such as the ‘pleasure city’ of Roscherhafen (again based on real plans); glimpsing WBU, the Nazis’ military zone in Siberia; as well as a slew of projected Nazi hardware and several new characters. Among these is Odilo ‘Globus’ Globocnik, a real historical character and the villain of Fatherland – though my depiction of him is very different (and dare I say, more accurate) than Robert Harris’s. Did you know, for instance, that Globocnik was a master horseman, drunkard and singer of Austrian folksongs?

Without wanting to be a hostage to the future the new book will be published in time for Christmas 2014. And the title? When my editor said The Vanilla Jews didn’t work I had an instant alternative (no pun intended). It has already been registered and ISBNed. You heard it here first:


Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Reflections & V is also for...

When I first began this A-Z of Afrika Reich I meant to publish an entry a week with the last, ‘V is for...’, going live as the UK paperback was published. As with the writing of Book 2, this schedule now seems rather optimistic. But as the A-Z draws to an end I thought it was a good opportunity to reflect on it.

In the two and a half years I’ve been writing this blog, more than 32 500 people have visited it; I hope some of them have read it and been intrigued and entertained by the contents. It has certainly been a revealing process for myself. I’ve learnt as much about the book dissecting it here as I did while writing, perhaps more. At the same time, trying to get a handle on it has been like sculpting steam: for every assertion I make, I’m immediately aware of several contradictions. I like to think, however, that I’ve shown that Afrika Reich is more than just Fatherland or SS-GB in the tropics.

The comparison with those books has been both a boon and a curse. The great advantage was that it created an association with existing bestsellers. Against that, I never saw Afrika Reich as being of the same ilk. A naturalism has crept into novels imagining a victorious Nazi Germany, something borne through SS-GB and Fatherland and continuing to this day with the recent Dominion. I wanted to move away from that, though the demands of marketing departments meant I often had to play to the gallery and define myself in terms of Deighton, Harris et al (not that they’re bad company to keep!).

Why the naturalism? It may partly reflect a general movement in fiction. I think it also comes from a sense that if an author captures certain details then he is accurately portraying what the world would have been like if Hitler had won. I remain unconvinced. The whole point of an alternative history is that we can never know what it would have been like. A more fantastical approach served earlier examples of the genre well, such as Swastika Night, The City on the Edge of Forever (for all the Star Trek fans I know who read this blog) and The Man in the High Castle. By tendency, I’m more comfortable in this camp.

This blog has allowed me to convey a sense of that and speak my mind more openly than the marketeers probably want me to. If you’ve read this far you’re in a better place to understand my intentions (yes, that word again); it’s something I plan to continue more explicitly in Book 2 – the subject of my next entry and the last in the series. While I leave you to speculate what the V can stand for, here’s the addendum in advance...

V is also for Violence

Along with the literal brigade (see ‘L is also for...’) the reaction that most surprised me about the book was how violent people found it. Obviously given its setting and subject it was never going to be a fluffy, rose-perfumed narrative, despite that I never felt the violence was as bad as some people protested. I’ve had grown men tell me they had to stop reading because they found it excessive. What this says about me I don’t know – though others have speculated (see here, for example).

All I can say is: 1) I didn’t want to shy away from the violence that was the reality of the Third Reich and continues to this day in central Africa; nevertheless I always perceived mine as a stylised, almost comic violence, not to be taken entirely seriously 2) before submitting the book for publication I made a conscious decision to tone things down. If you think the version that ended up in the shops is bad, you should see the earlier drafts!

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Afrika Reich: the audio book

Not every novel is recorded as an audio book, so I was thrilled when I learnt the audio rights to Afrika Reich had been sold. A year later that excitement turned to curiosity and trepidation when the finished package arrived. What if I didn’t like the reader? What if his interpretation of the book was at odds with mine? Thirteen CDs and over sixteen hours later any concerns I might have had were assuaged.

Richard Burnip’s reading of The Afrika Reich is brilliant. Thoughtful and textured, it captures a tone that is by turns brutal, wry and moving. His pacing is impeccable. Perhaps most exciting of all are the dramatic array of voices he uses. During my first listen through I keenly anticipated the arrival of each character to hear what new accent he had chosen. If you enjoyed the novel, I recommend you listen to a copy [it’s published by Oakhill and should be available at your library].

In the meantime, here’s brief interview I did with Richard about the recording of the book:

GS: How did you first become involved with the audio version of The Afrika Reich?

RB: Douglas Kean, the producer, brought me in as I’ve read other audio books set in world war two. I’ve also spent time in Germany so was familiar with the language.

GS: How much preparation did you do?

RB: I treated the book the same way I would do a script. I read it from beginning to end before going back over it more thoroughly marking up the characters and any details that helped me understand them. Next I noted anything in the text that puzzled me or I felt needed stressing. Some things that work on the printed page don’t translate when you’re reading aloud – the repetition of ‘Peace for Empire’ is an example, or flashbacks – so you need to nudge them up when you read to make sure the listener is aware of them. I also had to research the pronunciation of the African and Portuguese words.

GS: How long did it take to do the recording?

We recorded it in November 2011. It took four days, recording about four and half hours of finished material each day. I read it straight through, as if it were a live performance, stopping only if I made a mistake or if there was a noisy page turn.

GS: You use an extraordinary array of different voices for the characters; I particularly liked Hochburg and Patrick. How did you go about choosing them?

RB: As part of my preparation I drew up a table of all the characters and scoured the text for clues as to how they might talk, seizing on any description of accents. With your book I was grateful to have so many different voices. The main team alone has a British accent, American, Welsh, Rhodesian and Polish, so it was easy to make each member sound distinctive. I like to be bold with accents. With Patrick the line, ‘his voice was Boston-Irish churned with two decades of French Sahara’ gave me everything I needed. I listened to recordings of Massachusetts accents and that gave me the basis to which I added a rough, gravelly quality to capture the dryness of the desert.

The Hochburg influence: Christopher Lee in Ill met by Moonlight

GS: To my ear Hochburg sounds like a young Christopher Lee, was that intentional?

RB: You heard correctly, though I didn’t want to do a direct impression: he was more of an influence. While I was preparing for the book I saw the film Ill Met by Moonlight [1957]. There’s a scene near the beginning where Christopher Lee plays a German officer and it put his voice in my head. Hochburg is such a weighty character, not a brute or a stereotypical villain, and I felt that matched the powerful intellect of Christopher Lee’s performances. They both take their time to talk, are always so in control.

GS: Did you have a particular listener in mind when you were recording?

RB: My main aim, and I suspect this is true of most actors recording a book, is to serve the writer’s intentions, so you’re recording for the author. Clarity is the most important element. Beyond that, it’s important not to superimpose anything that’s not in the text. The book should tell you everything you need to know.


Richard Burnip has appeared with many theatres companies in Britain, Germany and the Middle East. His audio work ranges from computer games and synthetic speech to recordings for historic sites in Old and Middle English.  He has provided voices for characters as diverse as Napoleon and Gustav Mahler, and has narrated many documentaries.  He has recorded more than 80 audio books covering many genres from children’s stories and detective fiction to major political texts.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

K is for the ‘K’ in Afrika

My original title for the book was The Afrika Reich with a K. However, when I came to submit it to publishers, and experience teaching me they are a conservative bunch, I decided to change to the anglicised spelling – Africa Reich – for fear of putting them off at the very first page.

I’ve written elsewhere about the travails of finding a publisher for the book. You can read a fuller account here (complete with dodgy photo!), but to summarise: My agent submitted the book on a wave of enthusiasm; he felt sure we would find a publisher quickly. However, no sooner had it been submitted than the rejections started coming in. The general gist was that although editors liked the book, they didn’t think it would have much commercial appeal. The marketing departments scratched their heads at how they would sell it. The fact that Fatherland had sold several million copies failed to persuade them.

In total fifteen publishers rejected Afrika Reich, leaving me waiting on the last two. I could see no reason why their response would be different, so I resigned myself to the fact that the book would not get commissioned.

Then, within forty-eight hours, those final two publishers said yes and the book went to auction! Hodder & Stoughton eventually won and after the contracts had been signed, one of the first things my editor asked was whether we could change the title. I assumed he’d opt for something like SS-Africa, but actually all he wanted was a minor tweak. Would I consider changing the C to a K?

I knew I had found the right publisher.

K is also for Kepplar

Several readers have pointed out that in Chapter 37, when Hochburg’s helicopter takes off, there’s no sign of Kepplar’s pyre or body. They wonder if it’s a mistake. Some people have framed it with a question: is Kepplar actually dead? That’s perceptive, though you’ll have to wait till Book 2 to find out...

Friday, 7 June 2013

D is for DIVERGENCE POINT (part 2)

By coincidence, in the past week two readers* have emailed me questioning whether Britain’s defeat at Dunkirk really is the DIVERGENCE POINT of the book. (As a quick reminder the divergence point in a work of alternative history is the moment where events take a different path to our own version of reality.) Those two emails were actually very astute, and follow on from similar messages I’ve had over the years. So although I planned not to reveal this until a later date (if ever), today I’ve decided to confess all.

Robert Frost would approve...

Dunkirk is not the true divergence point of the book. It is a symptom of an earlier cause. It is the place where geopolitical history changes but the real shift – a minuscule fissure in the past – predates it. If, thus far, I have promoted a slight falsehood it is because I have been playing to an audience; fulfilling the marketing needs of the book (though in my defence all the clues as to what’s really going on are in the text). As regular readers of this blog will know by now, nothing is ever quite what it appears with Afrika Reich!

So what is the true divergence point?

I’m not going to tell you for two reasons: 1) better you work it out yourself 2) rather unfairly, it’s more fully explored in Book 2. However, I believe world events are not decided at the macro level but micro. History is determined not when Caesar crosses the Rubicon – but earlier, in the accretion of childhood experiences that motivate the crossing in the first place.

Whilst you’re puzzling all this out (or heading back to Facebook, which is probably more entertaining anyway) I’ll leave you with a clue:

*One in Iowa, America; one in Venezuela – hello/hola if you’re reading!

Tuesday, 30 April 2013


I’ve written about intent before. As this A-Z enters its twilight I thought I’d address the subject again. Those who prefer to think of Afrika Reich as a ‘straight’ thriller might want to look away now...

Prior to Afrika Reich, I wrote four unpublished novels on subjects as diverse as Barbary pirates and literary forgery. The one common thread was the mode of writing: FANTASTIC REALISM, something I continued in my tale of Nazi Africa.

So what is fantastic realism? It’s a rather amorphous term and unlike its better known cousin – magic realism – evades definition. Personally, I feel it employs realistic conventions but mixes them with elements of the fantastic, grotesque, comic and horrific. Perhaps it’s easier to explain with an example and so once again I reach for Sergio Leone, a great practitioner of fantastic realism. Here’s an image from his film, Giù la Testa:

It shows Sean, an IRA terrorist, having dinner with Juan, a bandit (off screen), in the Mexican desert. This combination of unexpected characters meeting in a realistic setting is already taking us into the realms of fantastic realism but the clincher is the details. They are sitting down to eat in the wilderness but are dining off porcelain plates with all the finery (the wingback chairs, the decanters of vinegar and oil) of a lord’s banqueting hall. I particularly like the crêpe suzette pan. It is a combination of unlikely elements – though crucially there is nothing supernatural about the scene.

My book begins its fusion of reality with the fantastical on page one with opening epigraphs that combine the real (Hitler’s quote) and the imagined/fantastic (Hochburg’s). Elsewhere we see two arch enemies overlooking a square paved with human skulls discussing Himmler’s constitution. Or Patrick tortured within a cement factory where the main production material is not mineral-based but a trough of human bodies. Sometimes it’s simply in the small details – the SS guards with their pink ladies parasols (a direct reference to Leone). Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? No.

Alternative history has always struck me as something of a fantastic genre – it posits an unknowable reality – so I felt it was an ideal match for fantastic realism. However, due to the success of books like Fatherland, and more recently Dominion, a naturalism seems to be creeping into the genre: the idea that a writer can accurately describe a speculative world that never existed. It certainly seems the mindset some people have tried to read my book in – no wonder they’ve been confused! But that is to miss the point. It’s not my book wasn’t thoroughly researched or employs real, historical details – it’s that I’m not a slave to verisimilitude. Indeed the notion of verisimilitude in alternative history must, by definition, be a contradiction.

What interests me most, what excites me enough to want to spend several years writing a book, is the point where reality and the fantastic meet – and the friction the two generate. That is what Afrika Reich is about: something a little more subversive than reality. 

Friday, 22 March 2013

BOOK 2: Update

Three years ago today, at 9:12am, I sat down with a fresh notebook and started the follow-up to The Afrika Reich. I already had the overarching plot of both Books 2 and 3 but this was the beginning of the detailed work: the official start date.

Publishers like ‘product’, something they can release on a regular basis. My initial contract stipulated I submit the second book in 9 months. That was too fast for me so I asked for it to be extended to 15. My schedule was to be this: 3 months to plan the sequel, 9 to write it, a final 3 to edit. Clearly I have missed this deadline! Even 15 months meant I would have to work more briskly than I’m used to. As readers of this blog will know my preference is to spend 9-12 months preparing a book, then a year to write it. Nevertheless, with an advance to earn out I felt obliged to deliver the book faster than I would have liked. That need for speed ultimately slowed me down.

I never had enough time to plan the book – which meant I started the writing not knowing where I was going. Some writers thrive on this type of spontaneity; I am not one of them. I prefer to have as much as possible pre-planned before I begin. A good analogy would be making a trip from London to Land’s End. My preference would be to work out a detailed route before starting, then having an easy journey. Instead I’ve set out with a notion I needed to travel along the A30, then continue south-west... and not much more. I got lost. Of course, once you’re lost you can get even more lost trying to find your way back to the correct route.

Another difference from the first book is that I did a lot of research up front. This overburdened me with detail. I have a lot of fabulous material but for a while I was bending the narrative to include it, rather than focusing on the plot and using research/details merely to gild the action.

The above is not the only reason for my delay. The last three years have been cruel: punctuated with death and chronic illness. This has not only played havoc with my writing schedule (my literal ability to sit at a desk and concentrate) it has also changed me as a person, made me more aware of the fragility of life. Given the abundance of death in my imagined Nazi Africa, this has impacted on the writing.

The upshot of all this is that I wrote 250 000 words of an initial version of Book 2 before concluding it was a mess. That was my staring-into-the-abyss moment. I recently saw From the Sky Down and there was a line in it that perfectly expresses how I felt at this juncture: ‘You have to reject one expression of yourself first before you get to the next expression. In between you have nothing’.

So I made the decision to put aside what I had written, plan more assiduously and start afresh. Since then things have been easier.

Although the plot of this new version is similar to its earlier incarnation, it has been pieced together differently. Imagine a constellation: the stars are in the same place but the lines linking them have altered drastically. Those expecting a re-hash of the first book may be disappointed. Book 2 is less frenetic than the original, darker, more political and character driven with some truly unexpected scenes... though still with a generous dollop of action and intrigue! I hope it will prove to be the better novel.

I intend to submit the first half to my editor in the coming weeks. Assuming he approves, and I suffer no more calamities, I hope to have the book finished by the end of the year, with a publication date in 2014. 

Sunday, 27 January 2013

U is for UHRIG

There were three aspects of the Nazis’ vision for Africa that I wanted to represent – the messianic, technocratic and sadistic – so planned a villain for each. Hochburg is clearly the messianic, Kepplar the technocrat (keen readers will notice how he never raises his hand, merely gives the orders), while UHRIG was the violent thug.

The inspiration for Uhrig’s character came from a line in Orwell’s 1984. I can’t recall the exact quote but it’s something like ‘all that hate is sex gone wrong’. I knew Uhrig was going to be the most vicious character of the book, but I also wanted to know why.

What if he had a proclivity for black women? Given the Nuremberg Laws this would be as impossible as it was illegal, and it was the repression of his desire that had twisted him so much. Some readers have seen Uhrig as little more than a rent-a-villain, which always disappointed me because he is actually one of the most subversive characters: a member of the Einsatzgruppen who is also a miscegenist.

If Uhrig was in the Union army...

I also saw him coming from the Mario Bregga school of thuggery: big and bawdy, vaguely comic. Again, playing with types, I liked the idea of such a brutal character not only being funny but also an object of derision for the reader and other Nazis: both Hochburg and Kepplar make jokes at his expense.

[With the American publication due in a few weeks, there maybe people looking at this who haven’t read the book, so spoiler warning for the next paragraph.]

As I approached the end of the writing I was undecided what do with Uhrig. To satisfy the narrative I knew he had to die at Neliah’s hands but wasn’t sure of the exact circumstances. Then I made the connection between him and monsters – and knowing how in a horror movie the monster always comes back one last time, realised he had to ‘rise’ from the dead, which leads me to...

U is also for Underworld

There are many theories of story. One of the most influential on me is Joseph Campbell’s ‘monomyth’ (before it got hijacked by the Vogler school... but that’s another blog altogether!). Campbell’s writing posits the idea that all stories are actually journeys to the underworld: a task the hero must undertake to discover the elixir of life. You can certainly interpret Afrika Reich this way.

The prologue shows the ordinary, upper world of a farm in Suffolk: a summer’s dawn, orchards. The rest of the book is set in the ‘underworld’ of Africa: hot, dark (often literally), with regular bouts of fire and torture, and it is in this crucible that Burton must learn the true value of home. It’s practically The Wizard of Oz with swastikas!