Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Shadow Players

This is working out to be quite a summer for Brent Ghelfi. The Phoenix, Arizona-based lawyer, businessman, and now thriller writer recently saw his first novel, Volk’s Game (2007), released in stylish paperback form. And early this coming month, the sequel, Volk’s Shadow (Henry Holt), is set to reach bookstores in the States. In both works, the protagonist is gun-for-hire Alexei Volkovoy, aka “Volk,” a man with a prosthetic leg, a mean streak, and an instinct for survival that was honed in blood-soaked Chechnya. No less than Lee Child described Volk’s Game as “hard, fast, and a truly excellent debut.”

I caught up with Ghelfi shortly before he embarked on his latest tour, and had the opportunity to ask him a few questions.

David Thayer: First of all, congratulations on your Barry Award nomination. How gratifying is that kind of recognition for you?

Brent Ghelfi: I was thrilled when I saw the Barry Award nomination. Volk’s Game is so different is so many ways--it’s present-tense style, [with a] modern-day Russian setting and, of course, a violent, brooding protagonist--that the nomination was an unexpected surprise. I’m truly grateful to be included in the company of the other nominees.

DT: I read somewhere that your main character, Alexei Volkovoy, got his name from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1963). The character of Volkovoi in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel was a prison guard. Do you see Volk as a prisoner of the New Russia?

BG: I think of the prison guard in Solzhenitsyn’s story as a metaphor for Stalinist Russia: cruel, hard-bitten, [and] wasteful of Russia’s most precious asset, her people. I see Volk as less a prisoner and more a representative of the new Russia: conflicted about the past, damaged by war, crime, and corruption. Two decades on the crack pipe of political and economic transformation have left their mark on Russia, and Volk is both a product of his environment and, like millions of other ordinary Russians, one of the architects of it.

DT: Valya is my favorite among Volk’s Game’s secondary characters. Is she a permanent fixture in your evolving series?

BG: I fell in love with Valya from the first line I wrote about her. Her background as a Chechen refugee opens any number of windows into Russia’s southern wars and its troubled history in the Caucasus (a few of which we peer through in the follow-up book, Volk’s Shadow). The more I explored Volk’s relationship with Valya, the more I realized that he couldn’t be one of those characters who hop from one bed to another. She’s his lover, guardian angel, and moral compass, and he’s bonded to her.

DT: This seems to be the year for first-rate thrillers set in Russia. Anna Blundy’s Vodka Neat comes to mind. Do you read others in your genre?

BG: Scanning my recently read shelf, I see in no particular order: James Lee Burke, Gayle Lynds, Greg Iles, Walter Mosley, Alan Furst, Naomi Hirahara, Ken Bruen, Mo Hayder, James Sallis, Lee Child, Robert Crais, Michael Connelly, Colin Harrison, and John le Carré (I recently reread The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; novels just don’t get much better than that one). I don’t necessarily look for books set in or about Russia, although a few that I’ve read recently are Ronan Bennett’s Zugzwang, Amy Bloom’s Away, and, of course, Martin Cruz Smith’s latest, Stalin’s Ghost.

DT: Volk’s Game, as you noted before, is written the present tense. How did you decide on that approach to the story?

BG: The idea for Volk’s Game came to me early one morning while looking down on Red Square from a fourth-floor balcony at the National Hotel. I saw a man in a black overcoat making his way across the deserted square, walking quickly but with a slight limp. He cut through the barricades and past the soldiers guarding Lenin’s Tomb without showing any identification, then disappeared so suddenly he seemed to have been swallowed by the walls of the Kremlin. Wondering who he was, I wrote the sentence that characterized Volk: “Dead mother, disappeared father, late-era Soviet poverty, and five years of killing and worse in Chechnya ...” From that moment on, the character--and later, the story--seemed to demand the aggressive, in-your-face style of present tense.

DT: You changed settings from Moscow to Prague and New York during the novel. Any plans to relocate Volk for future books?

BG: The second Volk book, Volk’s Shadow, is set mostly in Moscow, with a few scenes in the high mountains on the Dagestan/Chechnya border. The book I’m working on now takes Volk to Albuquerque and Los Angeles to investigate the Moscow murder of a Hollywood film producer and its connection to Volk’s missing father, a Cold War defector.

DT: Many of The Rap Sheet’s readers are writers themselves. So they’ll be interested to hear how you go about getting the words down on the page.

BG: Painfully. I’m laughing, but it still hurts. The best advice I’ve heard is to write every day, compulsively, so that’s what I do when I’m working on a first draft. I think it was Elmore Leonard who said he skips the boring parts, and I try to do that, too, so that the excitement and anticipation of each scene carry me through a day’s work. Once the first draft is finished, of course, I revise, revise, revise.

DT: A lot of reviewers found Volk’s Game very visually oriented, cinematic. Any interest in your from Hollywood yet?

BG: The movie rights have been optioned, so I have my fingers crossed. I recently wrote a piece for My Book, the Movie where I dreamed about who might star in and direct the film.

(Author photo by Mike Eller.)

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