Sunday, 26 July 2015
Much is made of the ‘Point of Divergence’ (PoD) in alternative history: the moment where real events end, and imaginary ones begin. Indeed I’ve written about the subject before (see previous blogs). Most people view the PoD of my world as the British defeat at Dunkirk. However, as previously stated I don’t view Dunkirk as the moment history takes a different path; I see it merely as the symptom of a much earlier change. The true deviation is more subtle and comes before the Nazis have taken power.
Some people have asked whether the PoD is the beach burning scene in the first book... those readers are on to something. But to get to the bifurcation you have to go back even further. In The Madagaskar Plan, the true Point of Divergence is revealed for the first time. It is Hochburg’s use of the word ‘BUTTERSCOTCH’ to describe the skin above Eleanor’s heel. I like the idea of how the course of the 20th Century might turn on a single, illicit adjective. It strikes me as a more intriguing idea than whether a battle was won or lost.
The point I’m trying to make is that history is not decided by headline events, men of destiny or the fate of armies – but in the obscure moments of our personal psychology. We make seemingly unimportant choices and these ripple through time in ways we can never imagine, informing much later decisions that can have profound effects on the world.
The misuse of the word ‘butterscotch’ leads to a multitude of other events and in the prologue of Book 3 you will see the full geopolitical implications of it (which admittedly tie back to Dunkirk). All this grows from that one misplaced word. History pivots on the trivial, the insignificant, as all our lives do. Though I should add, you don’t have to read the book in this way. If you’d prefer to keep Dunkirk as your PoD, that is your privilege as a reader!
B is also for BAYERWEED
One of the main new characters in Madagaskar is Tünscher, an old friend of Burton’s from the Foreign Legion and now an Obersturmführer in the SS. He’s meant as a trickster figure, someone neither the reader, nor Burton, knows whether to trust completely. [Spoiler alert.] To add an extra piquancy to this, and make him more unpredictable, I gave him a drug habit. Tünscher is a user of BAYERWEEDS.
During my research I read how Germans on the Eastern Front were prescribed cigarettes laced with heroin for lung injuries, and how some soldiers started smoking them to counteract the freezing air of the Russian winter. A trade in these cigarettes soon began and it seemed a likely thing for Tünscher to get involved with. I coined the slang term ‘Bayerweed’ from the German pharmaceutical company that first developed heroin. Its name: Bayer AG.
Thursday, 16 July 2015
|UK hardback cover|
More than five years after I first sat down to start writing it, The Madagaskar Plan is finally OUT NOW! The UK edition was published in hardback today – 16th July 2015.
There are plenty of previous blog posts that attest to the trials and tribulations I’ve had writing it and why it has taken so long, so I won’t repeat them again now. Instead, all I ask is that if you enjoyed The Afrika Reich please do buy the new book. For US fans, you’ll have to wait another couple of weeks. Madagaskar is published in North America on 4th August. Foreign translations will follow in 2016.
|US hardback cover|
And now, I’m going to hand this particular page over to you: the readers. Here are some of the first reviews by bloggers. I’ll add more as they come in. (NB - these do include spoilers, so if you'd rather not know plot details, may I suggest you look at them after you've read the book).
Fellow alternative history writer, Graeme Shimmin
Man of la Book
If you’d like your own blog included, contact me via Facebook. If you’re not a blogger or don’t have a review site, feel free to leave a comment below. I always like hearing what you think.
Which just leaves me to say that I hope you enjoy The Madagaskar Plan, and as always thank you for your support.
Wednesday, 15 July 2015
Everyone has heard of second novel syndrome: that difficulty writers have with their follow-up book. I have to admit I suffered a troubling case of it. As I’ve written elsewhere, I was also beset by bereavement and chronic illness – hence why The Madagaskar Plan has been so long coming.
But that wasn’t all. It seems for the past five years if it could go wrong, it did. With relentless regularity. Life became a catalogue of disasters and inconveniences: from IT meltdowns, to research notes mysteriously vanishing, to building work on my house overrunning (which made it impossible to write), to brinkmanship with my US publisher. Even when I hid myself away on a writing retreat to get some peace and really crack on with finishing, a group of Peruvian pan-pipers set up beneath my window and proceeded to play at full volume for eight hours a day!
I began to believe in the CURSE OF BOOK 2. And as the bizarre events piled up and delayed me further I wondered if these impediments were a sign from the gods. A warning not to finish Madagaskar, lest something terrible happen. I pictured all sorts of calamities upon publication: from my office burning down to having a heart attack to being assassinated by neo-Nazis. If further proof of the curse was needed, on the day I finally submitted to my publisher, this happened:
Indeed it happened less than two hours after pressing the send button. It was the first crash in my life and it wasn’t even my fault. The car was a complete write off. The mishaps didn’t end there and have continued to hound me to this day.
So is there a curse? Will terrible things happened when the book finally reaches the shelves, things to make me wish I’d never finished it? Of course not! I don’t really believe in such nonsense, everything that befell me was just an accumulation of coincidences. Having said that, I’ve set this entry to post automatically on the eve of publication... so who knows whether I’ll get through the next twenty-four hours alive.
Sunday, 12 July 2015
The A to Z of THE AFRIKA REICH ended on a note of VANILLA & VIOLENCE, so it’s time to revisit these subjects.
Madagascar is the world’s largest producer of vanilla, something the SS planned to profit from if they took control of the island. To be clear: this is more than my imagination; it’s in the real documents. So vanilla is a motif that runs through the book, indeed the Jewish uprising that haunts the backstory is called the ‘Mered Ha-Vanil’: the Vanilla Rebellion.
Originally there was much more about vanilla, including scenes set around its cultivation and processing. But as happened repeatedly while writing Madagaskar, I had to lose things to keep the word length manageable. It’s already a long novel at 160,000 words (40K longer than the original). As fascinating as vanilla production is, it wasn’t central to the plot, so was edited out. If you want to learn more about the subject I recommend one of my research books: Vanilla: A Cultural History by Patricia Rain.
When you read Madagaskar, you’ll discover it’s less violent than Afrika Reich. One of the important things I wanted to do with the new book was to take it in a different direction, this included giving it a different tone. Before the first book was even published, I decided I wanted the sequel to be less frenetic and less violent. There’s no complex rational behind this: it was an intuitive choice. As it happens it was also a fortuitous one, a synergy between my instinct, my publishers and readers. Many of the latter worried that Afrika Reich was too violent, and my publisher (and especially publicist) fretted about the commercial implications for the same reason. One major retailer refused to stock the book because of the violence... something I found strange given you could buy The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the same shop, the rape scene in which is worse than anything in Afrika Reich.
However, before you worry that Burton has become a conscientious objector with a penchant for vegan quiche or that Hochburg is now a born-again pacifist, there’s still plenty of bang for your buck... it’s just less explicit and bloody (though interestingly, the body count is higher). In terms of cinema classification, I’d say it has dropped from an 18 to a 15; R to PG-13 for US readers.
V is also for V (i.e. 5)
Although I wanted a different tone, it was also important that there were continuities between the books. One of the more subtle examples is structural. Like the first book, Madagaskar has seven points of view: the story is told from the perspective of six characters and an alternative history narrator. Both books are also divided into four parts each starting with an epigraph; the style of epigraphs is identical, i.e. one proverb, one quote from Hitler, one general Nazi quote, one made-up quote from/about Hochburg. Originally I wanted the first part of the new book to be Part V to suggest the continuation of a wider trilogy, and as a nod to The Empire Strikes Back, aka Episode V. My editors on both sides of the Atlantic vetoed the idea, saying it would be confusing for new readers.
Nevertheless, I always liked the Episode V reference. Not only is Empire one of the best examples of a middle part of a trilogy, it’s also different in tone and plot to its predecessor (see above). And when I was struggling with the ending of Madagaskar I read something that Irvin Kershner, Empire’s director, mused upon. To paraphrase: he said that his film didn’t have a narrative climax because so many strands remained unresolved, so to give Empire a resolution he needed an emotional climax. They were wise words. And that’s exactly what I’ve done with my book.
Wednesday, 1 July 2015
I’ve written before how The Afrika Reich came about (see A is for Apocalypse Now) but what were the ORIGINS of The Madagaskar Plan?
The plan itself is one of those things that seem to have been in the periphery of my knowledge forever, but I can remember the first time it focused sharply. It was in the spring of 2001 when I was doing the initial research for the first version of Afrika Reich and I was reading Michael Burleigh’s history of the Third Reich. On p.472 there is a passage about the Jews being exiled to Madagascar as an alternative to the Holocaust. The idea was fantastical, intriguing and full of dramatic potential; I knew I had to include it in the book I was working on. That was the ‘psychedelic’ version of Afrika Reich, the one that was too wacky for its own good and was ultimately rejected by all publishers. In that version there was an extensive subplot, told in flashback, about Burton the journalist (as he then was) travelling among the Jews of Madagascar trying to get a scoop. His failure to do so would lead him to the Congo and an even bigger story – i.e. Hochburg.
The finished draft of this book was huge, coming in at 240 000 words. Cuts had to be made and the Madagascar strand was a self-evident place to start, a pointed reinforced when an early reader from the publishing industry advised me that it was such a good idea it needed more space. It’s a book in its own right! she told me.
When I came back to Nazi Africa in 2007 (see Y is for...) that piece of advice stuck with me. I knew I wanted this new incarnation of The Afrika Reich to be a trilogy and Madagascar seemed the obvious setting for the middle book, with the original subplot expanded beyond all recognition into its own story. This is what would become the novel soon to be published.
As an aside, the final act of the psychedelic Afrika Reich was set in the Sahara – and is the basis for Book 3. But I’m getting ahead of myself...
In the meantime, I like the idea how a single moment on a spring day would become a significant event in my life years later. There’s something incredibly optimistic about that, something we can all draw hope from. Because what seems trivial at one point may lead to all sorts of unexpected places. Who knows, perhaps someone, somewhere is reading this blog and one day will see it as the origin of their own adventure.