Saturday, July 26, 2008

Surviving the Second Novel

You may recall that last year I got very excited about a debut thriller called The Accident Man, by Tom Cain (aka journalist David Thomas). It was a work that heralded the beginning of a series featuring Samuel Carver, a shadowy figure who works for British Intelligence in an unofficial (and deniable) capacity arranging convenient “accidents” for enemies of the state. The Accident Man focused on a conspiracy involving the automobile death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a Paris tunnel. The rights to that yarn were sold globally and the book kicked up something of a hullabaloo, being released a decade after the tragic accident that took the life not only of Diana, but also of Dodi Al-Fayed and their driver, Henri Paul.

I wondered at the time just how Cain might follow up that high-concept first novel, as we all know the trouble popular new authors can have when they sit down to pen their sophomore works. This summer, we finally have the answer. New in UK bookstores is The Survivor. And thankfully, it will not disappoint those readers who were so taken with his debut.

The Survivor starts out with a flashback, focusing on Carver’s third mission, after he left Britain’s elite Special Boat Service. That 1993 assignment was to sabotage a plane carrying the elderly Waylon McCabe, a grotesque character who, apart from having a warped vision of Christianity, busies himself as an industrialist amassing a fortune from war and oil. Although his airplane crashes in the far reaches of Canada, McCabe survives, and then proceeds to plot his revenge not only on Carver, but on humanity in general. The Survivor then flips back to the conclusion of The Accident Man, where Carver is in therapy recovering from both the physical and mental injuries he’d sustained in the story. After that, we’re asked to follow parallel plots, one set in Carver’s hospital ward, the other built around an American and Russian conspiracy that could destroy our planet. The Russians are seeking to recover their agent, Alix Petrova--who has become Carver’s lover--and use her on a mission. Alix, meanwhile, is uncertain whether Carver will recover from his injuries, but she remains deeply in love with him. And as this story progresses, there’s a little problem with regard to a cache of suitcase-contained nukes that went missing after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. McCabe and his cabal realize all too well that these devices could be awfully useful in their plan to call forth the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Tense, terse, and fraught with anxiety, The Survivor draws upon the pulp-thriller heritage to navigate a story that makes you zip through the pages as if your life depended upon reaching the conclusion before your heart gives out.

I’ve bumped into Cain/Thomas at several events over the last year, including the Crime Writers’ Association’s Dagger Awards ceremony, and have always enjoyed his insights into the thriller genre. When I encountered him again recently in Cambridge for the annual Bodies in the Bookstore event, I couldn’t resist snagging him for a short interview that covered the controversies surrounding The Accident Man, how he developed the plot for The Survivor, and the plot of Samuel Carver’s coming third adventure.

Ali Karim: So, after all the excitement over The Accident Man, can you tell us how sales of that book went in the UK and America? And I believe the novel sold in many other countries, too.

Tom Cain: The honest answer is, I don’t exactly know. I spent the first four weeks of the hardback edition fanatically tracking sales, drove myself nuts, and then stopped doing it for the good of my health. I know that the UK edition almost reached the top 10 in both hard- and paperback (it peaked around 11 or 12 in both charts, damn it!), but haven’t a clue about overseas, where it’s been sold into well over 20 territories now. The general feeling I get is that it wasn’t the super-monster hit that some people--including me, obviously--had hoped for. Frankly, the Diana connection turned out to be more of a hindrance than a help. But on the other hand, it was a very solid debut. I think they’re expecting to do around 100,000 paperbacks in the UK, and that’s not a bad base from which to launch a series of books. I got a deal for books three and four, so people must have faith in it, long-term.

AK: I saw you on a panel last year at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, where the Princess Diana motif courted a bit of controversy. Are you suggesting now that the Diana connection caused real problems for your book?

TC: On balance, yes. I don’t think that it was an issue of taste--certainly not for anyone who actually read the book--because the name “Diana” appears nowhere in The Accident Man. It’s more that she has gone from box-office gold to box-office poison, at least in this country. I suspect most people would rather let the poor woman lie in peace and have done with talking about her, which is fair enough. To be honest, the book caused much less controversy than I, and everyone associated with it, had expected. But in the long-term, I think that’s a good thing. It meant that the book was judged on its own merits, and that I had a more normal start to my thriller-writing career. Massive publicity might have generated more immediate sales. But it might not have been good to be known as “that Princess Diana bloke.” There was a different problem in America, on a corporate level, in that suits at one major publishing company and a major Hollywood studio held off buying The Accident Man--which they would have done on creative grounds--because they were frightened of adverse public reaction. It didn’t matter, because I got other, equally good deals, but it was a factor. Certainly, the sales force at Viking, who publish me in the States, are much happier with the second book--which is going to be called No Survivors over there--because they see it as a simpler sell, with much less baggage attached. And also, they think it’s bloody good!

AK: And what about from the “dark forces” that you inferred--at least in the fictional world you created--were behind Diana’s crash in the Paris tunnel? Did that complication incite any reaction?

TC: Well, I had been rather worried that I might, by pure fluke, have hit upon the actual truth behind Diana’s death. Outing a real homicidal Russian oligarch might have proved injurious to my health. Luckily, I must have been talking tosh, because--touch wood--there has been no comeback. The one thing that did happen, though, was that I was introduced to an actual witness to the crash. His story--which culminated with an extraordinary character assassination, designed to discredit him, at the inquest into Diana and Dodi’s death--did make me think, for the very first time, that there really might have been a conspiracy. But I think it’s a conspiracy of officials to silence debate on the issue of the crash, rather than a conspiracy to cause the crash itself.

AK: What’s happening with the U.S. film rights to your first novel?

TC: Accident Man was and still is a high-concept property. What, precisely, is happening, though, is really hard to work out. Suffice it to say that what with the writers’ strike, the possible actors’ strike, and the usual games of musical chairs among studio executives, the development process is even more hellish than usual. So I’m pretty sure something’s going to happen, but right now I don’t know what. It may still be a movie franchise, though there’s now talk of doing a 24- or Dexter-type TV series. I’m less bothered by the medium than I am by the quality of the people who make it. In other words, I’d far rather have a cracking TV series than a rubbish film.

AK: After writing such an audacious debut work, did you have any issues tackling the notoriously difficult “second novel”?

TC: Oh yeah, big-time. I spent last year’s Harrogate driving my poor editor, Simon Thorogood, round the bend as he gradually became more and more aware of the fact that I did not have a clue about what I was going to do for that very difficult follow-up. It was, to be frank, an absolute bastard to write. It went through endless revisions and was being edited right up to the last possible moment, which explains why the UK edition has a fair few bloopers (they have, I hope, all been caught in the U.S. version). The weird thing is that when we gave the proofs to people to read, no one got any sense of the grief required to get the thing done. Simon Thorogood, my U.S. editor, Josh Kendall, and I all had the same experience, which was people coming up and saying, “I really like the new book,” and us going, “Er, really? Are you sure?” because we simply couldn’t believe it. What I’ve learnt from that experience is that it takes an unbelievable amount of blood, sweat, and tears to make something look completely effortless.

AK: I thought the opening of The Survivor shared some themes with Ian Fleming’s Thunderball. In both, the protagonists--Samuel Carver and James Bond, respectively--are recovering from traumas they incurred during their preceding adventure. Are you a Fleming reader?

TC: I am a massive Fleming fan, and as soon as you mention Thunderball I can see the link. The truth, though, is that it hadn’t occurred to me when I was writing. If anything, I was thinking more of the transition from the end of You Only Live Twice into (I think) The Man with the Golden Gun, because that involves Bond losing his memory and his sense of self, which is sort of what happens to Samuel Carver.

AK: I enjoyed your comments during the Fleming centenary panel discussion at CrimeFest in Bristol last month. Care to share your thoughts of Sebastian Faulks’ new Bond novel, Devil May Care?

TC: Hmm. Well, here’s my problem … I was not over-impressed with Devil May Care, and that’s putting it very politely. I would happily go into detail, were it not for the fact that I’d love to have the chance, one day, of doing another Bond, and showing what happens when someone who loves the Fleming books, loves the craft of thriller-writing, and does not feel that the genre is beneath him treats 007 with the respect he deserves. So I probably should not offend the Fleming estate, should I? Instead, I will let Sebastian Faulks make my point for me. He said, of his commission to write a Bond book, “It’s like asking someone who writes complex, symphonic music to write a pop song.”

Were anyone to suggest that that was condescending garbage, I would not necessarily be inclined to disagree.

AK: Let’s get back to the opening of The Survivor. Having Carver in recovery allowed for more detail on the conspiracy plot that provides the backbone for this new book, and allows the reader to focus more on your secondary lead, Alix Petrova. Were you conscious or worried that your protagonist was off center stage for so long?

TC: Absolutely. The fact that Carver is all messed-up at the end of The Accident Man, and then has to be put back together at the start of The Survivor was the real root of most of my problems with this book. I had to find a way of keeping readers gripped, even though the hero of the book was incapable of any action. This was a huge, huge issue for my editors and agents, who all (perfectly reasonably) took the view that if people buy a book because its hero is Samuel Carver, they want to see their man up and doing from the word go. I got around the problem, to some extent, by having a prelude, set five years earlier, in which you see him setting up an “accident” that doesn’t work out quite as he’d planned. This then sets in motion the events that will play out in the rest of the book. But what’s interesting is that you, like other readers, haven’t seen it as a problem. You’ve seen an opportunity to do other things and focus on other characters. This means, I think, that once Carver gets going, all the set-up work has been done, so the flow of the action is pretty well uninterrupted for the final two-thirds of the book. Also, it enables Alix, the heroine, to function as an independent character, which is really important to me. I very much want the women whom Carver encounters to be active protagonists, not just screaming arm-candy.

AK: I thought that Alix Petrova could actually carry her own series, as her back-story is fascinating. I also felt that as her creator, you seem to like her a lot ...

TC: Alix is a really interesting character to me, for one major reason, which is that she refuses to die. I had originally planned to kill her two-thirds of the way through The Accident Man. But she survived into the final act. Then, I was certain that she would die at the end of the book, mirroring the death of the princess at the beginning, as the price Carver paid for that earlier killing. Turns out he paid the price himself. So then we get to The Survivor and she was absolutely, categorically going to snuff it, but ... well, I can’t say without spoiling everything. Suffice it to say that she will not be the lead female character in the third book ... but that does not mean we’ve seen the last of her. I do like her, and I’m quite proud of her, too. Of course, she’s a stereotypical character in some ways--gorgeous Russian spy-chick: not exactly a new idea!--but I’d like to think she has complexities which take her beyond that cliché. And I like the idea of her own series ... thanks for that!

AK: In The Survivor I noticed that your writing style has subtly changed. You use shorter and more terse chapters, and switch points of view in a manner more pronounced than in The Accident Man. Was this a conscious decision, or an unconscious one?

TC: A bit of both. The multiple POVs were forced on me as a result of Carver’s semi-absence from the scene, and also the complicated, multi-layered nature of the story line. The short chapters often started out longer, but got tighter and tighter with every edit, as we worked to give The Survivor the same relentless pace that was one of the main characteristics of The Accident Man. So that was deliberate. I actually like short chapters. They’re looked down upon by many critics because of the associations with supposedly down-market authors like James Patterson and Dan Brown (though if I had those guys’ advances and royalty checks I wouldn’t [care] what any critic thought). But to me, they’re closer to the rhythms people are used to from contemporary movie and TV editing. The length of shots and scenes has become radically shorter on-screen, because viewers assimilate information so much faster. That being the case, I think you have to provide readers with a comparable kind of kinetic energy on the page as well. I like keeping the focus moving. And there’s also that chocolate-box effect with short chapters. People say, “I’ll just have one more ... and another ... and another ...”

AK: Tell me how the plot of rogue suitcase nukes and religious nutters threatening Armageddon came to you.

TC: Well, I can trace each individual strand quite easily. The whole fundamentalist Christian angle, and the notion of “the Rapture,” which is their term for the moment when the believers will physically be gathered up into Heaven, was inspired by an article I read in Vanity Fair (and which I credit in the book, in the interests of full disclosure). I already had that notion a few years ago, and was going to use it in a plot line involving a U.S. president, that I later abandoned. So I recycled it this time around. The fact that parts of the book are set in Kosovo was simply a consequence of it being set in 1997-98. I looked around the world at what was happening then, and the biggest issue seemed to be the former Yugoslavia, so I had that in mind as a possible backdrop. The combination of religious Armageddon and civil war led me naturally to think about nuclear weapons, and by pure chance, rooting around online, I stumbled upon a news story about a Russian general telling a U.S. TV show, on 7 September 1997, that his country had lost 100 suitcase nukes. Well, The Accident Man ended on 6 September 1997, so that was too good to be true. So, those were the basic ingredients of the story. How they coalesced into the final plot, though, is a total mystery to me!

AK: Waylon McCabe is a great villain in this new book. But were you at all concerned about using an extreme Christian religious fundamentalist as a bad guy, considering how incredibly divisive religion can be these days?

TC: Yes, I was. Particularly in America, where there’s such a huge, devout Christian congregation. Luckily, no one over there has raised an eyebrow. This could be because the only people who’ve read it have been godless New York liberals. Or it could be because anyone who reads the story can clearly see that McCabe is not bad because he is Christian. He’s bad because he’s a psychopath. A particularly warped view of Christianity just happens to be the vehicle he harnesses to express his lunacy. But I was careful to have other characters who explicitly put forward other, more moderate views of Christian faith. Apart from anything else I think there’s quite a lot to be said for the ideals preached by Jesus Christ, even though I do not personally believe he was the Son of God. It’s just a pity so much of what he said is used as an excuse for barbarous extremism. But then, Karl Marx probably feels pretty bad about the things people have done in his name, too.

AK: Speaking of bad guys, how about The Sheik, a Middle Eastern power broker who also features in this tale?

TC: Well “the Sheik” is simply the name by which his closest followers refer to Osama bin Laden, who is (I think!) also mentioned by name. No Al-Qaeda terrorists appear in the book, but the presence of Islamist terrorism hovers above and around the story. One of the ideas raised in the book is the way in which American foreign policy, in the ’80s under Reagan and the ’90s under Clinton, created the conditions that produced America’s (and our) enemies today.

AK: The story really hits its stride in the last third of the book, where all the plot strands come together, with a few surprises en route. Holding such a complex tale in your mind must have driven you mad. How hard did you plot, and did you have pads of notes?

TC: Yes, it did drive me--and everyone around me--completely round the bend! I don’t actually take a lot of notes. The way I track plot lines and scenes is more with flow-charts and lists that let me see who’s where and doing what at any given time. By the end, though, the book was being ripped apart and put back together on such a frequent and radical basis, that it was really hard to keep track ... as very, very eagle-eyed readers may notice!

AK: Being a journalist, your fiction-writing style is dispassionate and presented almost as if The Survivor were a fact-based novel. So, how much research was entailed in delivering this particular story?

TC: There was a lot of research, into everything from the construction of small-scale nuclear weapons, to the beliefs of fundamentalist Christians, to the precise role of fish-tank-oxygenating tablets and nail-varnish remover in putting together a homemade bomb from everyday household items. I try, within reason, to make the plot as plausible as I can. It would, for example, be possible to sabotage a particular form of executive jet in the way that I describe in the book. I wouldn’t recommend or condone such an action, nor would I ever reveal the precise type of plane, but it’s possible. That said, I think it’s really important to have fun and make stuff up as well. Some writers are real research anoraks and won’t put anything in a book unless they’ve personally visited every location and treble-checked every fact. But this is a book that sits in the fiction section. It’s not meant to be true. I won’t willingly put in something I absolutely know to be false; but I’ll certainly stretch the boundaries of possibility right to the breaking point. That said, perhaps the most implausible thing in The Survivor--the fact that there are giant underground bunkers at Prishtina [International] Airport in Kosovo, filled with Yugoslav fighter jets--is, in fact, completely true. Or was true a decade or more ago, anyway.

AK: I enjoyed the recent piece you wrote about Armageddon terror for the Daily Mail-owned London Standard. How did your assignment to write that piece come about?

TC: My journalist alter-ego, David Thomas, was called up to write a piece after the government’s terrorism adviser, Lord Carlile QC, said that Britain might be vulnerable to airborne terrorist attacks, using private jets. David naturally referred the Mail to Tom Cain, who had just written a novel which culminates in, er, a terrorist attack using a private jet. And he was happy to oblige with a snappy short story detailing precisely how such an attack might take place. Speaking of research, I got a lot of help from the RAF, who were willing to tell me about their counter-terrorism capability, but only on one condition ... they had to win!

AK: I heard you appeared at ThrillerFest this summer in New York City. Care to let us know how you found that conference? And how did it compare to the British Harrogate and CrimeFest conventions?

TC: Well, I only spent a day actually at the conference itself, and I was very, very jet-lagged at the time. So my impressions are less well-informed than they might be. But my overall feeling was that the conference accurately reflected the county in which it was held. A large number of the people there were as kind, helpful, open-hearted, and generally likable as most Americans, in my experience, are. And a small but significant percentage were the biggest, most pompous, most ignorant, and self-deluding assholes on Earth. Again, this pertains to the general population. I saw one seminar on fighting techniques that was worth the cost of flying to New York, all by itself. And I saw another, on the research required to write a Washington-based thriller, that reduced me to absolute fury, because some of the people on it were such overweening jerks ... Basically, all human life was there! Harrogate, though, remains the most fun that any thriller writer can legally have.

AK: Tell us: What has passed over your reading table recently that you particularly enjoyed?

TC: Well, I met my namesake Chelsea Cain at Bodies in the Bookstore in Cambridge recently, and read her debut novel, Heartsick, on the train home. I thought it was great, a really original take on the serial-killer genre. For such a sweet woman, Chelsea has one sick mind! Speaking of New York, I met a writer there called Tasha Alexander. She has a heroine called Lady Emily Ashton, who’s a Victorian aristocrat-detective. The books (the most recent is called A False Waltz) don’t remotely pretend to be hard-core detective fiction: they’re just as much historical rom-coms. But they are very witty, very clever, and very charming--much like Ms. Alexander herself. And right now, I’m halfway through Charles Cumming’s Typhoon, which I’m really interested in, because he covers a similar sort of territory to me--spy-based conspiracy drama--but from a more literary perspective. The pace is much slower than my stuff. You don’t get the action a Samuel Carver story provides. But because Charles takes his time, it means that the detail of place and personalities is more intense: you can really smell Hong Kong, where much of the story is set. There’s a moment when one of his characters is woken by a radio alarm clock. Me, I’d deal with that in half a dozen words (in fact, I do in The Survivor). Charles gives you a potted history of the 13 years during which the character has owned the radio, gently drawing you deeper into the man and his story. Plus, Charles Cumming doesn’t have to invent the spy stuff because he used to be a spook. I’m enjoying [Typhoon] a lot.

AK: And so now, after two well-received books, Samuel Carver is established as a major character in the thriller genre. Care to tell us what happens to him in Book Three?

TC: Well, I don’t want to give too much away. So let me tell a brief anecdote. I went on an American radio phone-in show to talk about The Accident Man. Despite all my attempts to explain that it’s just a story, neither the presenter, nor the callers could be shaken from the conviction that I was describing an actual conspiracy, and an actual assassination, carried out by an actual accident man. At one point, the presenter said, “So, Tom, tell me, how does an assassin move up the career ladder?” I thought for a while, wondering what I could say apart from, “I haven’t a bloody clue.” But before I could answer, he carried on, “I guess he just has to kill the guy ahead of him.” And then I said, “Thanks. You’ve just given me my next book.”

No comments: