Sunday, 23 August 2015


The Afrika Reich was very consciously influenced by other works: from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to films like Where Eagles Dare, from which I took the ‘Men on a Mission’ formula and played around with it. Writing The Madagaskar Plan I made an equally conscious effort to be less influenced.

That’s not to say the book is without INFLUENCES. I’ve already mentioned The Empire Strikes Back; and Sergio Leone looms large again, especially in the fantastic realism and interweaving narrative strands. I also drew on Marek Edelman’s accounts of the Jewish uprising in Warsaw (which inspired the infighting between the Jews in the face of annihilation) as well as childhood passion for Homer.

In terms of other literary influences, two books were significant: William Boyd’s An Ice Cream War and The Great Gatsby, though traces of them may be hard to discern. The Boyd is set during the East African campaigns of World War I, all German colonialism, suffocating cities and rain lashed jungles. It helped with the tone. As did Gatsby which constantly made me reflect on the purpose of characterisation and concentrated my mind on sentences that were fresh and precise. I suppose these two books were like stabilisers on a bike: I had them either side of me during the first drafts but eventually freewheeled off in my own direction. Having said that, one scene in Madagaskar was heavily influenced by Gatsby – the ‘showdown’ between Jay, Tom and Daisy in the Plaza Hotel... expect in my version I’ve added the danger of a loaded pistol.

Levi, Boyd & FSF

Another important book, for obvious reasons, was Primo Levi’s If Not Now,When? a novel based on the true story of Jewish partisans fighting the Nazis. This informed much of the background of the Jewish uprising and specifically Salois’s character. Levi’s novel is replete with extraordinary, vivid details. For example, one of the things I’d never considered before was how hungry freedom fighters must be surviving in the wilderness. Hunger was also a painful motif from Marek Edelman and so it became a central theme in the Madagaskar. On a more light hearted note, my favourite scene in If Not Now, apparently based on fact, is when Gedaleh gathers the pumpkins. For all its bitter logic there’s something rather Leonesque about it, which is why I have Burton and Tünscher do the same in Chapter 33.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Z is for ZELMAN

ZELMAN is one of the new characters in the book and has replaced Kepplar as Hochburg’s deputy in Kongo. Although he only appears in a couple of chapters he will take on a more significant role in Book 3. His name comes from the psychedelic, original version of Afrika Reich, where he was an engineer building an opera house in the jungle, a character constantly goaded by Uhrig (remember him?). As I’ve written before I’m quite happy to recycle names from unpublished projects.

In fact The Madagaskar Plan is populated with unused characters. In the first version of Afrika Reich there was also a sardonic mercenary called Tünscher. And Jared Cranley comes from an unpublished pirate novel I wrote called An Oyster for the Devil (I always liked that title).

The issue of names is fitting for Madagaskar because one of its motifs is names and how we use them. Throughout the book names are either avoided, or changed, or morphed, or used for dramatic effect. This was not a conscious choice, rather something that crept into the text and I became aware of at a later stage. Once aware of it, I emphasised it more. Names are essential to our own identity but we rarely consider them so, perhaps because they’re as familiar, as taken-for-granted, as limbs. I always wonder, for example, whether Sting’s closest friends, call him Sting or Gordon (his real name). Similarly with Michael Caine / Maurice Micklewhite. Did anyone dare call John Wayne Marion Morrison?

This is salient to my world because the original surname of the Hitler family was Schickelgruber; Hitler’s father changed it in 1876 (thirteen years before his son was born). This may have been the most devastating name change in history. Some historians believe Hitler could never have risen to power with the name Schickelgruber. The massed ranks of Nazis shouting ‘Heil Schickelgruber!’ certainly has a comic ring, and comedy never led to war or death camps.

Elsewhere no name in the book was chosen at random. Mrs Anderson, Pebble, Dr Pavel, to mention a few, are all references. I’ll leave it to you to discover their origins...

Sunday, 2 August 2015

K is for KEPPLAR

You may be surprised to find KEPPLAR returning for The Madagaskar Plan. Kepplar?! Wasn’t he burned at the stake in the first book? As it turns out, no. I always knew he was going to be a main character in the sequel.

In the first draft of The Afrika Reich, there was an extra scene that explained Kepplar’s true fate, leaving the door open for him to appear again. It came at the end of Chapter 34, after Hochburg threatened to burn him alive. Thirty-Four is the longest chapter in Afrika Reich and this additional scene stretched it out too far. In subsequent drafts, I therefore moved the scene to Chapter 37, including it as a flashback while Hochburg looked over the map of central Africa. As it happens, 37 is the shortest chapter in the book and this time the Kepplar scene affected the clipped pacing I wanted. Its inclusion didn’t feel right.

‘Feeling’ is important to me as a writer. There are a whole series of technical and structural considerations when writing a novel and for the most part these guide my writing. Sometimes, however, things can be technically correct (there was no reason why the Kepplar scene couldn’t be included in 37) but instinct tells me otherwise. Writing is a pirouette of technique and intuition.

In the end I decided to cut Kepplar’s final scene altogether... which led some readers to point out what they perceived as an error. When Hochburg’s helicopter takes off in 37 there’s only one pyre beneath him i.e. Dolan’s. Now you know why: Kepplar was never burned; his story makes better sense across the two books. I filed away the deleted scene, and with a few tweaks, it appears as originally written in Chapter 17 of The Madagaskar Plan. So Gruppenführer Derbus Kepplar is back...

An even more famous deleted scene... see PPS below

Except he’s been demoted, to Brigadeführer. And with his demotion a change of character. Nazis are often portrayed as fanatics in fiction, but Kepplar is a disillusioned fanatic; a man increasingly distant, and weary of, the cause that once inflamed. He is also grappling with the issue of violence. One of the criticisms about the first book was that people said all the Nazis were violent sadists... when this was empirically not borne out by the text. Kepplar does not commits a single act of violence in the whole book. The same is (almost) true in the sequel.

PS – just in case you miss it, his parting line in Madagaskar is meant as a joke!

PPS – I could think of no photo to illustrate this entry, so I put ‘deleted scene’ into Google. As you’d expect hundreds of movie stills came up... but I was intrigued by the one I have used. It shows Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark clutching hold of a U-boot’s periscope... this explains how he manages to get to the island where the Ark is opened. I always wondered how he survived the sea journey. Sometimes you can cut things and the audience doesn’t notice; others times they are left scratching their heads in bewilderment. Apparently the scene with Harrison Ford was half-filmed before Spielberg decided to cut it altogether.