Hi James, welcome to You’re Booked.
We thoroughly enjoyed How To Betray Your Country. It was a gripping read, and a really clever turn on the spy genre. Can you tell us a bit about your background, and how it relates to your work as a writer?
I spent quite a few of my formative years living in Lebanon. Although it was a very happy and rich experience, our time there overlapped with the long civil war, and so we would often hear gunfire at night and find roads blocked by armed men. I was always terrified my father would be kidnapped – which came to be the subject of my first novel, Beside the Syrian Sea. There were spies, too, in the form of a homeless man in our Beirut neighbourhood who was considered to be a harmless eccentric until he was seen sitting atop the first Israeli tank that rolled into Beirut in 1982.
We were evacuated twice: the first time by car across the border into Syria, and the second time when the Israelis invaded in 1982, and on that occasion the fighting was so fierce that we had to pack what we could carry from our apartment and travel on foot and by taxi across the city away from the worst of it. A French cruise liner dropped off its paying passengers in Alexandria and headed to Beirut to collect a rag-tag group of Europeans trying to get out, which was how we left in the end.
I think childhood knocks together the frame that stays with us for life. Mine was pretty broad, very international, full of drama. I’m sure it contributed to my decision to work for the British government, which I did for 15 years, and there’s no doubt that it set me on the path to becoming a writer.
Did you set out to write a modern spy novel right from the start?
I knew this trilogy would be a collection of spy stories, yes. Modern ones, though? I think as the collection has progressed I am becoming more and more restless with the traditional format of the genre novel, in which everything is told in the third person and the past tense and in which there is a reliable, invisible narrator to steer a steady path through events. Fortunately the genre I am writing in, the spy novel, is one that lends itself to modern trickery. Spying is all about the attempt to infer a complete picture from a few questionable fragments. In the world of espionage there are no reliable narrators, and most endings are ambiguous, so it seems appropriate that spy novels should reflect some of that complexity.
When did you start writing fiction?
I wrote a novel in my twenties that was never published, most probably for good reasons, although I went through the long, dispiriting and ultimately fruitless process of trying to find an agent and publisher. In retrospect it was an excellent apprenticeship. I learned some important lessons about what does and doesn’t work, and I also learned that I had the stamina to write novels, which is an important aspect of the whole endeavour, because of how slow the creative process can be. Then came a long gap during which I put the idea of writing to one side and concentrated on my career, until one day I realised that I wanted to have another go. This time around I was fortunate enough to find a friend of a friend who was able to put me in touch with a literary agent, and they sold the book to Bitter Lemon Press.
Do you find that writing under a pseudonym gives you license to be more creative with your narrative?
I wrote my first, unpublished novel under my real name, but those who have gone through the process of trying and failing to get a book published will know that there is no one more anonymous than the aspiring writer pushing a manuscript no one wants to read. Since that experience I’ve only written under a pseudonym. For a whole variety of reasons it suits me to be anonymous; a pen name expands the air-gap between me and the real world.
There’s another aspect to this, which is that like most novelists, I suspect, I can be a bit light-fingered when I hear a particularly good anecdote, or a clever turn of phrase – I scribble it down the first chance I get and insert it into whatever I am writing. It would be terrible if people became more guarded around me because of that. Where would I get my material?
Do you find that aspects of your government work (whether knowingly or subliminally), find their way into your writing?
Absolutely – there’s no way of keeping it out. But not in the way you might think. There are no secrets in my books, no real operations stolen from real life and lightly-disguised. I wouldn’t dream of putting anything remotely sensitive in a novel – if indeed I knew anything sensitive. I suppose the influence of a career in government can be felt mainly in my attempt to stick as close as possible to what might plausibly happen in the real world. From the outside it’s very easy to imagine secret cabals and wild conspiracies; from the inside you see just how difficult it is to get anything done, how bureaucratic the culture feels, how cautious everyone is. I wanted to capture a sense of that, within a narrative that is grounded in reality. Fortunately newspapers provide an abundance of material: bungling Russian assassins, Saudi hit squads, fake rocks, Trump’s dirty laundry and much more besides. There’s no need for car chases or clifftop fist fights – you only have to turn on the television to get a pretty accurate sense of what really goes on, and some of it is much more thrilling than the things novelists make up.
In a change to many espionage tales, at the beginning of the book your main character August comes across as a failure, , rather than a successful spy. Do you think that there is something more interesting and multi-layered about writing a character from a starting point of failure and difficulty, rather than success?
August was a very good spy, and during his time in the job he also pulled off a number of acts of deliberate disobedience directly under the noses of his managers, leading to a five year internal investigation to find the officer responsible. But at the start of the story he is in a very different place. His wife has recently died in an accident, which tips him downwards into a spiral of depression and alcohol and anxiety until all he craves is distraction from his grief. This leads him to take unnecessary risks and to make questionable judgements.
You are right, though, that a character struggling with a sense of his own failure and inadequacy is more interesting than a character who feels that he is on top of the world. I don’t think that people generally feel that about themselves. Most people struggle, to one degree or another. And so writing about a character who considers himself to be pretty terrific and who goes on to save the world is just not that interesting, and about as far away from any notion of realism as it’s possible to get.
The section titles of your book are fascinating: money, ideology, coercion, and ego, can you share with us a little about this? What inspired you to focus on these areas, and was this the plan from the beginning?
Money, ideology, coercion and ego form the acronym MICE, which spies used to use to identify possible motivations for betrayal. The idea was that a spy might succeed in recruiting an agent by offering them lots of money, persuading them that they share the same worldview, blackmailing them or manipulating and massaging their ego. I’m not sure the MICE acronym is used very widely as a guide anymore, and I certainly hope that the days of coercing people into providing information are long gone, at least in the UK. I’m sure it happens in plenty of other places.
I used them as section titles not because they relate directly to the content, but because they stand as useful signposts of a sort in book that is partly about loyalty and betrayal. I want readers to think about their own allegiances and what it might take to break them, and MICE can be a helpful way of framing that.
We know that this is the second book in a loose trilogy on a theme. Did the plot come to you as one, or has it been a longer process, particularly the interweaving story in How To Betray Your Country?
It certainly didn’t come to me in one go. In fact, I didn’t know that this new book was a sequel of sorts until I was about a third of the way in. It was at that point I realised that the ideas that had preoccupied me during the writing of the first book hadn’t gone away and were finding a way to resurface in this book. Once I realised that, it made sense to connect the two stories.
I must confess that I haven’t yet had the experience of a plot coming to me intact and complete, although it sounds like a wonderful thing to happen to a writer. I go through many agonies and anxieties that I would much rather avoid. But I tend to start with an opening scene and build from there. Even the third book in the trilogy, which I am working on now, has sprouted all sort of plot limbs to become a completely different beast from the one I originally imagined.
One thing we really enjoyed about this book is the non-stop action, in that each event, action, and character builds on the before to drive the story on – nothing is wasted. Do you have any tips on how you packed so much action into one book?
It’s very kind of you to say that, but the truth is I worried that there wasn’t enough action. Perhaps every thriller writer worries about whether they’ve got too much or too little action. The action has to exist in exactly the right proportion in relation to the other crucial element of the book, which is the development of character. To state it baldly, I don’t think that a book can be thrilling if the reader doesn’t believe that the characters are real. If they seem made-up, why should the reader care what is happening to them? So a balance has to be found in the early stages of the book between character development and action, and I don’t know if any writer ever feels they have got it just right. The only tip I can offer – something that I find useful – is to edit ruthlessly and take out anything that doesn’t contribute to narrative, character or mood.
Can you tell us one interesting fact you learnt about the intelligence community during your research?
The authorised histories of MI5 and MI6 are crammed full of interesting facts, and I would advise anyone interested in the subject to dive into those. But since my new novel is concerned with the ethics of espionage, I was interested to read in a recent report of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) that they have demanded that the 3 UK agencies allow their employees – our spies – direct access to the ISC in case any of them wishes to raise an ethical concern. But according to the reports, the 3 agencies have refused to do this. Make of that what you will…
We really enjoyed the way August’s backstory was interwoven throughout the story, often using excepts from the investigation into his work as a spy. Are you a fan of a dual timeline, and would you consider this to be one?
I suppose it is a dual timeline of a sort, although August’s backstory – specifically the acts of ‘betrayal’ that led to him being fired – are told through a series of official documents from the investigative file, rather than in conventional narrative voice. I am most definitely a fan of multiple timelines, though, and of breaking up the surface of a story so that it feels a little messy. That’s part of the reason that I used official documents – or at least my version of official documents – in this novel: I wanted to hear different voices, different registers, different textures of writing. The other advantage of multiple timelines is that it allows the reader to be dropped straight into the action from the first page. There is no need for a lengthy wind-up explaining who everyone is and why they are there because that can be dealt with later.
This book blurs the lines between following orders and following your conscience. Do you think that spies work in ethically grey territory? Does spying have its own ethics? And can spies ever go back to ‘normal’ life?
I can’t think of many professions that are more ‘ethically grey’ than spying, because of the fact that it involves the state intruding on the privacy of its citizens – both physically, by following them around, and digitally, by collecting data. There have been appalling examples of this intrusion in recent years, notably the use of police undercover officers to infiltrate activist groups. As we now know, many of the officers had sexual relationships with the activists they were spying on, and in some cases they even had children with them.
Intelligence agencies have also had a chequered history in recent years. They became entangled in the flawed case for the second Gulf War and more recently have played a part in UK drone strikes against British nationals in Syria. Then there are the relationships with some pretty despicable regimes around the world. None of this means that they shouldn’t exist or don’t deserve our support. The work they do is incredibly important, and they have also had many laudable successes in preventing attacks. But there is a risk when you operate in the shadows that your standards are not always as high as they could be.
Have you found that the pandemic has impacted on your writing at all? Have you changed your process, met writers block, or found it creatively stimulating?
It’s odd that so many writers have found the lockdown difficult, since it should give us what we most crave: privacy, solitude, peace and quiet. But it has been hard, and the only conclusion I can draw from that is that writers require some form of input to enable the output of words onto the page. We need to see other people, to watch them, to talk and argue and laugh and cry with them. And without all of that it can feel that the tank is running a little empty, that the creative engine is starting to slow down.
Which crime writers have influenced you the most?
I’m glad you didn’t ask me about spy writers, because my guilty secret is that I don’t read many spy novels. But I do love crime novels! It might be bending the rules of the genre a little to include The Secret Seven and Famous Five series, but I started with them, and they did solve mysteries, so I think they deserve a place on the team. I remember being bowled over as a young reader by Emil and the Detectives. In my teens I loved Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels, but these days it tends to be Elmore Leonard, Richard Price, George Pelecanos, George V. Higgins. My publisher has got me into George Simenon. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union is a sensationally good crime novel, and more recently, I loved Bill Beverley’s Dodgers.
And finally, what are you working on now?
I am working on the final book in this trilogy. It can also be read independently of the other two, but like them it takes as its protaganist a spy who has found themselves out of favour, and it reaches back in time to explain much of what has come before. I hope you’ll let me come and talk about it in Harrogate when it’s published!
Thanks for joining us James!