Thursday, May 03, 2007

Praising Cain, Part II

Yesterday, I wrote about my recent discovery of The Accident Man, a stunning thriller (due out in the UK in July) that incorporates the 1997 traffic-accident death of Diana, Princess of Wales, into a larger tale about contract assassinations, the tenuousness of truth and trust, and revenge. My excitement over that novel led me to call Patsy Irwin, director of publicity for Transworld (which will publish Accident Man), and ask that she put me in contact with the book’s pseudonymous British author, Tom Cain.

Just 30 minutes later, while I was still rigging up my tape recorder, Cain rang me on my cell phone. I had the chance during our subsequent discussion to ask him about how this debut novel took shape, his extensive world travels, his opinions on conspiracy theories, and the plenitude of action sequences incorporated into The Accident Man.

Ali Karim: So, Tom, are you the guy called “David Thomas,” who interviewed Lee Child in The Telegraph last month?

Tom Cain: You might say that. … I couldn’t possibly comment!

AK: Can I assume at least that you are a follower of Lee Child’s thrillers?

TC: Big time! So much so, in fact, that it took me about a year, working on the earliest drafts of the first 40,000-odd words of The Accident Man before I could stop writing sub-Child prose and relax into my own style and tone of voice. I read your various Rap Sheet pieces about Lee with great interest. Like you, I have found him to be a remarkably generous and helpful man. We met last summer [July 2006] when he was over in the UK and had a long conversation about thriller-writing that was a great help to me. At that point, I’d just sold Accident Man (to my total amazement, since it had had a very difficult birth, indeed), and Lee’s advice and encouragement really helped me finish the damn thing.

AK: In your novel, I notice that protagonist Samuel Carver has some battered thriller novels lying around his safe house in Switzerland. So, beyond Child’s work, are you also an avid thriller reader? And which of those books have left a dent in your mind?

TC: Absolutely, always have been a big thriller fan. So going right back to my boyhood, I’d have to say the [James] Bond books were a huge love and a continuing influence (much more than the films, by the way: I completely lost interest as the films parted company from what Fleming had written, though I think that [the new] Casino Royale was a brilliantly realized attempt to reconcile the original book with 21st-century film-making and storytelling). I was also a massive Alistair MacLean fan from the age of 10 or 11, particularly HMS Ulysses, The Guns of Navarone, and also Fear Is the Key, which had an incredibly sexy cover, back in the day--which put all sorts of ideas into my pre-teen mind. Since then, my tastes have pretty much run the gamut of crime/thriller-writing, though I have particular soft spots for Elmore Leonard (the greatest prose stylist of our age, if you ask me), Carl Hiaasen, Dennis Lehane, and James Lee Burke as well as Child, of course. I’ve also got to put in a word for Wilbur Smith: not the most fashionable name among the thrillerati, I know, but the guy really knows how to create excitement, create an epic backdrop and convey historical/geographical/natural/political information. Plus, he’s been incredibly generous in his enthusiasm for The Accident Man, so he must be a good man! Oh, and I’m an obsessive Flashman fan--again, he’s hardly a modern thriller hero, but George Macdonald Fraser is a fantastic writer, whom any aspiring author can learn from.

AK: Tell us a little about your early life and what made you wish to write fiction, especially thrillers.

TC: Well, there’s one completely autobiographical element in The Accident Man: when I describe Sam Carver’s first day at an English boarding-school, aged 8. Basically, that was my first day, right down to doing military drill before breakfast, and it screwed me up pretty much the way it screwed him up--though I took the view that the pen is more deadly than the sword, when it came to assassinations! My early story is that my father worked all over the world and I was educated back in England, at the government’s expense, so I’m basically a middle-class boy with an upper-class education. I was always better at writing than anyone else. So much as I would have loved to have been a rock star or footballer, being a top author was always my best--and only--hope for any kind of stardom. Throughout a 25-year career in journalism, it was always my hope to come up with a book that stood a chance of being a hit. And it was always going to be a genre-fiction book, rather than a “literary” novel, because I’ve barely read a “proper” book in my life. Whether The Accident Man will prove to be that hit, only time will tell.

AK: Were your parents bookish?

TC: My dad was always a keen, and very wide-ranging reader. It was his Fleming novels I was stealing to read. But he was also into guys like Pynchon, Bellow, etc. Since Dad also turned me on to the Beatles’ White Album and Aretha Franklin, I guess I have a lot to thank him for.

AK: The Accident Man seems far too polished to be a debut. So is it, really? And what have you written previously?

TC: I’m glad you think Accident Man is polished--it sure didn’t feel that way through the two-years-plus during which I was trying to get enough half-decent words together to send to a publisher. About four months before the submission was sent out to would-be purchasers, I was summoned to a meeting with one of the partners at my literary agency, who began a three-hour bollocking with the worse, “It’s painful enough to read a bad writer. It’s even worse reading a good writer, writing badly ...” Mind you, I never thought it was quite as bad as he did! But he did have a couple of incredibly insightful and valuable ideas, so the book has got a lot better since then. As to your question--at last!-- it’s by no means the first book I’ve written, though it is the first thriller and was by far the most technically demanding thing I’ve ever done. I’ve previously written one comic novel (about a young man who goes into hospital to have his wisdom-teeth out and is given someone else’s sex-change by mistake), two or three serious non-fiction books, some lighter books and thousands (literally) of newspaper and magazine articles. I guess I’ve published 200,000-plus words a year for 20-odd years ... so it all adds up.

AK: About your day job: I see you’ve traveled widely. So tell us more.

TC: Just your basic, hard-working freelance journalist, going wherever he can get a gig. I’ve been lucky enough to have been paid to fly all around the world to meet fascinating people and attend amazing events ... if you’ve ever seen the Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous, that was pretty much what my early career was like. As I got older I switched from interviewing rockers to politicians, businesspeople, athletes, and lots of writers. Not too swank, or anything, but ... I’ve hung out at Rolling Stones rehearsals; sung Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” with David Gilmour playing guitar, and sung old Beatles songs all night with Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox; swapped baby-photos with Steven Spielberg; had dinner-a-deux with Kylie Minogue [and] lunch with Liz Hurley, and partied with the starlets at the Hot d’Or porn awards in Cannes; accused Don King to his face of being a pussy who let a woman go to jail, taking a fall for him; and asked F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone if it was true that he personally “dealt with” the muggers who robbed him and his wife (he replied, “I’ve never killed anyone in my life”); watched Larry “Hustler” Flynt in a casino at 4 a.m., betting four hands of blackjack simultaneously, with 50-grand on each hand (Leonardo DiCaprio was at the same table). ... I’d have made a lot more money being a banker, but in terms of having an interesting, stimulating time I’ve been unbelievably privileged.

AK: Being widely traveled, let me ask: what are your favorite cities, and why?

TC: London, because it’s my town; New York and L.A., because they deliver exactly what you’d want them to; Sydney, because it really is worth the journey; Tokyo and Kyoto because they combine ancient and modern, Western and Oriental, trashy end exquisite, familiar and completely alien; Rome (out of season) and Munich, because if I could speak a word of German I think it would be a great place to live. I could be persuaded by Geneva, too. I love the way that those Central European cities are right at the heart of things: you can get to Alps, beaches, Berlin, Venice, Milan, all in a day’s drive.

AK: How did you get involved with your publisher, Transworld? And were its people concerned that this thriller of yours involves the death of Princess Diana?

TC: This is an odd story. As I said, two years of apparently fruitless effort had left me and my agent, Julian Alexander, completely confused about what we had. So Jules came up with a cunning plan. He basically said, “There are 10 companies in London who could publish a book like this. So I’ll send it to three of them and if they reject it, we’ll try to work out why, put that right and send it to another three, and so on. With any luck, we’ll have fixed all the problems before we run out of editors.” Well, the book went out to the first three companies (including Transworld) on a Wednesday. On Friday morning, Transworld rang up and said, “Take The Accident Man off the table. We want it, and a sequel.” And that was that! As for Princess Diana, she was never an issue for Transworld. Of course, they must have been aware that the premise of the book would generate a certain amount of interest or even controversy; but right from the start, they were much more interested in the character of Samuel Carver, thinking of him as someone who could be developed, just as Lee Child has developed Jack Reacher. That was weird for me, because I approached this by thinking of the situation first--a man at the end of the Pont de l’Alma Tunnel, watching a black Mercedes approaching him, preparing to take it out-- and only then asked myself: Who is this guy? On the general question of Diana, one U.S. publisher and one U.S. film studio got nervous about the concept of writing a thriller inspired by her death. But that was boardroom suits who’d not read a word of the manuscript. I have yet to meet anyone who’s actually read the damn thing who’s remotely offended. And that’s because I went to a huge amount of trouble to make sure that they wouldn’t be--for example, the word “Diana” appears nowhere in the book (it did once, by mistake, in the proof copies--but I’ve dealt with that!).

AK: Was there any intervention from the legal people?

TC: Not so far. There are no allegations made about any real people, so I don’t think there’s any potential for legal action, unless I’ve given one of my homicidal bad-guy characters the name of a completely innocent, real-life individual. My fingers are absolutely crossed, so far as that is concerned.

AK: Were you apprehensive about establishing the backdrop for The Accident Man, what with the conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Princess Diana?

TC: The biggest apprehension I had, and still have, is that I might--by some appalling fluke--have hit upon the actual reason Diana was killed and the actual people who did it ... in which case, they may come after me as well. So, just in case anyone in the know is reading this, I just want to say, for the record, that The Accident Man is pure fiction, and I MADE IT ALL UP!

AK: This novel makes mention of Skull and Bones, the Bilderberg Group, the Bohemian Grove, et. al. So are you a grassy-knoll type of guy?

TC: I tend to agree with (ex-Pulp singer) Jarvis Cocker’s song, “Cunts Are Still Running the World.” The conspiracy of mean, violent, greedy, power-crazed, stupid individuals seems to be the one that has the most power, now as always. That aside, I’m pretty skeptical about most theories--I don’t, for example, think that the U.S. government or the Israelis were responsible for 9/11: I’m perfectly happy to believe Osama when he says he did it. Also, I favor Lee Harvey Oswald for the Kennedy hit. BUT ... I am really interested in the phenomenon of conspiracies, I think they’re incredibly rich material for fiction and they deal with the same thing that interested me when I was thinking about The Accident Man--the way that there are events which everybody knows about on one, seen-it-on-TV level, but which remain completely mysterious on other, deeper levels.

AK: So, let me ask you the same question I asked Michael Marshall not long ago: What are your top three conspiracy theories, and why do they interest you?

TC: Here are three I’m pretty close to believing:

Bogus, quasi-scientific alarmism about manmade global warming (in which I categorically do not believe, for all sorts of actually scientific reasons too many to list here) is a conspiracy by politicians to create the atmosphere of fear needed to raise more taxes and increase their power; by special-interest groups who are now the establishment, not the rebellion; by scientists desperate for big-money government grants; and by big businesses who can see big bucks in “green” products and services.

Timothy McVeigh did not act alone in Oklahoma.

There’s an official cover-up going on in the Diana case--though whether they’re covering up a murder or their own incompetence and embarrassment, I’m less sure.

AK: Have you seen the documentaries 9/11: In Plane Site and Loose Change 2, which consider the events of September 11, 2001, to be part of a wider conspiracy?

TC: I haven’t seen them, but I have seen a lot about them. And all I can say is that anyone who thinks that the U.S. government, whether led by George Bush or Mickey Mouse, would seriously consider slaughtering thousands of its own citizens and threatening its economy by flying passenger jets into New York skyscrapers just as an excuse for war is in need of therapy. There is, of course, a connection between Washington and Osama, and it dates back to U.S. support for the mujahedin in Afghanistan. To that extent, Osama is an American creation ... and to that extent the U.S. reaped on 9/11 what it had sown 20 years earlier. It’s also indisputable that US foreign policy has alienated billions of people around the world and acted counter to the true interests of America and Americans. So it’s not surprising that people who do not have access to cruise missiles, nuclear submarines, and tank armies respond with the only means available to them. But that’s where the connection ends.

AK: The Accident Man shares a theme with another audacious debut, Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal (1971). Are you a follower of Forsyth’s work, too?

TC: I read The Day of the Jackal twice when I was thinking about Accident Man. I think it’s a fantastic piece of work--not least because it’s unbelievably exciting, even though you know what the ending must be before it even begins; and it breaks all the rules of character arcs, because the Jackal remains just as mysterious and unexplained at the end of the book as he was at the beginning. But structurally, Jackal is like a mirror-image of Accident Man, in that it ends with the key assassination attempt, whereas I begin with it.

AK: You obviously did a lot of research for this book, what with mentions of ECHELON, the Dazzler, the modus operandi of European secret services, etc. Can I assume you have sources?

TC: Well, I grew up in an intelligence/political atmosphere because my father, who was a diplomat (and a proper diplomat, not a spy in disguise) was seconded for several years to the British government’s Joint Intelligence Committee, and my mother is a politician. Also, I was a child in Moscow, a late-teenager in Washington, D.C., and a young adult in Havana, Cuba. So some of that stuff is just sitting in my brain. A ton of other material came from researching online, books, newspaper cuttings, etc. I did have a number of private sources to whom I spoke, about whom the least said the better. But in the end, I never forgot that this was a story. I don’t think novelists should ever be ashamed just to make it up. It’s much, much more important to write a gripping, involving, even moving story than to get hung up on facts and technicalities. This isn’t journalism, after all, and I should know ...

AK: There is a lot of sex in Accident Man. Is that another area where you did wide research?

TC: I’ve been married for 20 years ... so, no!

AK: There is a great deal of action throughout this novel. Do you enjoy writing such sequences, and do you find writing them cathartic? More than the sex scenes, perhaps?

TC: Yeah, the action was fun. But it was also incredibly demanding--just making sure you’ve got everyone in the right place at the right time for each punch and bullet drives you nuts! That said, the torture scenes at the end of the book flowed incredibly easily and naturally--which is kind of worrying, looking back. There was also an unbelievably sick, violent murder scene which got cut from the book on the grounds of good taste. I was actually laughing as I wrote that, as one horrendous outrage followed another. So it was cathartic--but possibly not in a good way. As for the sex vs. action thing: I’d say there was a strong S&M sexuality running through the torture scenes ... yet another worrying message from my subconscious.

AK: The brutality here is written in a dispassionate manner, almost as if some of your characters put little stock in the value of life.

TC: I didn’t set out to be dispassionate. It was more a case of wanting to write taut, spare, economical prose: just tell the story without too many fancy flourishes. I don’t like prose that tries too hard, any more than I like actors who constantly remind you that they’re acting. Just tell the damn story, that’s my motto. One of my least favorite thriller-stylists was Robert Ludlum (though I liked his plotting a lot). I always found his stuff incredibly turgid and overwrought on a sentence-by-sentence basis. Oddly enough, he was an actor before he was a writer--maybe that was the problem. All that said, I’d like to think that there’s real emotion in the central relationship between Carver and [beautiful Eastern European spy] Alix [Petrova]. I hope that’s what keeps readers wanting to find out what happens to them.

AK: Transworld Publishers is very excited about The Accident Man. But this creates something of a dilemma: since you’re writing under a pen-name, are you going to remain in hiding or are you planning to promote this book?

TC: Well, I’m not going to be one of those guys like John Twelve Hawks (The Traveler), who lives in hiding and makes a big deal out of being mysterious. I decided to give myself a pseudonym because (a) I thought “Tom Cain” looked a lot cooler on book jackets, and (b) it was really liberating, creatively, to be writing a new kind of material under a new identity. It’s also a gas to have an alter-ego. Why should Bruce Wayne and Batman have all the fun?

AK: I’ve heard that global deals on your novel are clinched, along with film rights. How involved are you at the business end of writing thrillers?

TC: I’m interested to the extent that it’s exciting to think this might--just might--be a big hit (though it’s also scary to think it might equally well not be, which would be pretty crushing). I’ve got a family to feed and this is my business, so I take a close interest in the deals that are made in my name. But all that said, I’ve spent more than 20 years taking any writing work I can get to make ends meet. That’s involved a fair bit of hack-work over the years, doing stuff purely for the money. I genuinely can’t see any point in going into novel-writing if I simply re-create that situation all over again. I’m doing this because there are stories I want to tell and I won’t compromise those stories just to keep publishers, or even readers happy. As a reader, I love long series of books about the same character. As a writer, I seriously doubt whether I will ever be able to stay too long in the same territory. For example, there’s a book I’ve wanted to write for years that’s set in Japan, 300 years ago. It’s violent, sexy, passionate; I think it could be a huge hit ... but it’s got fuck-all to do with Samuel Carver!

AK: Thrillers, in some circles, are dismissed for sacrificing character in favor of propelling the plot. However, The Accident Man has some very vivid characters, above and beyond the leads, Carver and Alix. How important is characterization for you?

TC: Well, to tie up a few ideas I’ve mentioned in earlier answers, the irony is that the characters started life purely as vehicles for telling the story that I had in mind: the concept of the book came first. But the more time I spent writing The Accident Man, the more interested I became in these people and the more they became the heart of the book. This takes me back to my mention of Wilbur Smith. He writes action-adventures that are fundamentally love stories, and I’d almost say that Accident Man is the same. (So was War and Peace, for that matter--it’s not a new idea). As you pointed out, there’s a ridiculous amount of action in the book, so you get plenty of bangs for your buck. But there’s also this central romance in which both of the characters are desperate to fall in love, but hardly dare to do so, because they don’t know if they can trust each other or themselves. Those scenes were the points at which I became emotionally engaged as a writer and as a human being. Beyond that, I also got a lot of pleasure from creating little cameo parts. I tried to give even the most minor characters a bit of hinterland--for example, there are a couple of young MI6 agents who put in a brief appearance, shadowing Carver in Geneva. They have their own mini-relationship. It’s just a way of creating a bit of empathy between readers and characters.

AK: Do you feel any pressure in writing the sequel to Accident Man?

TC: Do I feel pressure? Just a bit! And the more that people tell me how much they enjoyed The Accident Man, the scarier the job of matching and, if possible, topping it in Book Two becomes. (Note: this doesn’t mean you should stop telling me you liked The Accident Man, by the way!) I have been brooding about a couple of possible sequels for the past few months, and I’m getting closer to figuring out what I’m going to do. Jeez, it’s a bastard, though ...

AK: Will you be involved in adapting your story for the big screen, or will you leave that to the Americans?

TC: I’d love to write, or co-write the screenplay, if they’ll let me. I write the book in a very cinematic style, so it would be a natural jump from one medium to the other. Plus, I’d like to be able to protect my work, if such a thing is possible. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for letting someone else deal with all the hassle of Hollywood, and just getting on with Book Two.

AK: And what do you do to relax? What are your passions, beyond writing?

TC: I’m an obsessive West Ham United fan--a tricky thing to be over the past few months of a completely insane, catastrophic football season. I love singing very badly to very good music. And then, of course, there’s my family--they’re what I care about most.

Author photograph above by Pal Hansen.

(Part I of Ali Karim’s report on Tom Cain and The Accident Man can be found here.)

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