Interview with Jeremy Duns

Recently I reviewed Jeremy Duns‘ Free Agent, a fantastic Cold War thriller, and Jeremy was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the book and his writing process.

What drew you to writing in this particular genre? I was brought up on a diet of my father’s Fleming and occasionally Leslie Charteris novels and so naturally progressed from there. Could you see yourself writing in another genre at all?

I’d always wanted to write novels, but I didn’t know what I wanted to write about. Like most English boys I grew up watching the Bond films, and when I was a little older I’d read Len Deighton and John le Carre and some other spy stuff, but it was never a genre I was very much into. That changed in my twenties, when quite by chance I stumbled on some second-hand paperbacks in a bookshop in Antwerp, and I started devouring a lot of spy fiction, especially from the Cold War. Most writers had moved on since the fall of the Berlin Wall, but I thought it was such a fascinating era, and began to wonder if it wouldn’t be possible to revisit it. After all, in the Sixties a lot of thriller-writers wrote about the Second World War, and there’s a lot we know about the Cold War now that nobody did at the time. So that was the seed of the idea.

In addition, the time periods you address are quite fascinating. I’ve always been intrigued by the end of WWII when Russia was still an ally and how that emerged into the Cold War, but very little seems to address it. Likewise, I knew little of Britain’s involvement in Nigeria. When did you decide to place the story in these timeframes? Was it intentional that little had been written about it?

I wanted to write something set in the Sixties, because I tend to enjoy thrillers from that decade best, and I also thought it had the most room for reinterpretation. When we think of the Sixties, it’s often the very large events: Woodstock, JFK’s assassination, Vietnam, the Beatles. I wanted to pick at the edges of it a little, at some of the things that had been forgotten. Spy novels at the time were mostly set in Eastern Europe, but I knew that the Cold War had ranged all over the world, from Asia to Africa. I had grown up in Nigeria and remembered hearing about Biafra as a child – the war finished before I was born. Reading up about it, I was fascinated to discover how extensive the superpowers’ involvement had been, and slowly the ideas started to crystallise. The flashback to the end of the Second World War came from researching the history of MI6, and also an article I wrote as a journalist in which I interviewed a few SAS veterans who had been involved in war crimes investigations in Germany just after the war’s end. I’m fascinated by how World War Two became the Cold War, and how this great new enemy of the Soviet Union emerged so soon after it had been our ally.

When I started reading, I was quite surprised by the choice of first-person narrative, as it was something I wasn’t expecting. I think now that it actually makes the story stronger, especially as we have to trust Dark on his word as he’s our narrator, though ever since reading The Turn of the Screw I’ve been suspicious of first-person narration! When did you decide to use this form and did it cause any problems? Using a fixed perspective means you can’t cut away to another narrative at any point or to another character.

Whenever I read about Kim Philby or other double agents, I always wanted to know more: what had they felt at that moment, what must it have been like? So I thought that I would use the first person to try to take readers right inside the head of someone in this position. I thought it would increase the suspense, but also make it easier for readers to empathise with him, or at least be harder to despise him outright. We’re right there with him every step of his journey. I thought it would make for a more exciting and intense reading experience.

It’s certainly an interesting era and I look forward to it being explored further. From the bibliography its clear you did a lot of research – how much did this influence the story at all? Was Dark’s story already planned out or was it a product of your reading?

I had the ideas early on that the protagonist would be a double agent, that it would be first person and that it would be set in the 60s and hopefully shed new light on the Cold War. And, in fact, the basic premise of the first chapter. Then I started thinking about location, and narrowed it down to Africa, then Nigeria and the civil war there. Then I researched, for about a year, not writing any of the book but taking tons of notes. I spent quite a bit of time working on a plot with all these elements that took place in 1967, near the start of the war, but it didn’t work. I read about Harold Wilson’s trip to Nigeria in 1969 and something clicked, so I started to pursue that, and from then on the plot slowly worked itself out and I researched to shape it.

I particularly enjoyed the style and tone of the book and a lot of readers mention how it reminds them of Deighton and le Carre. Obviously it’s a compliment but do you think they influenced your own style or was it deliberate?

Yes, both Deighton and le Carre were influences on me, especially the former. I love the sharpness and sardonic humour of Deighton’s early novels and wanted to reflect a little of that. London Dossier, a guidebook Deighton put together in 1967, was also a great source of information on the time for me, and very evocative. The biggest influence of me, though, was another British spy novelist, Elleston Trevor, who is sadly not as well known today. Under the name Adam Hall he wrote a series of first-person spy novels about a British agent called Quiller, which I love. I wanted to revive that sort of thriller.

The book moves at a breakneck speed, with a jaw-dropping first chapter and the pace doesn’t really stop. Did you always know it was going to be a trilogy and did this affect your writing at all? Any hints or clues readers should look out for that may signal what lies ahead for Dark?

Regarding the pace, as mentioned I’m a fan of the Quiller novels, and also the recent Jason Bourne films with Matt Damon. I wanted to write something that was very suspenseful and taut, and which would get readers really sweating. I had the idea for a trilogy fairly early. I was finding the research on Biafra fascinating, but I thought that Paul Dark had more of a journey in him than one book, and I was also discovering other episodes in the Cold War that were attracting me, and which I could imagine him being involved in. But because of Dark’s situation, I didn’t think it could be a traditional series, like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher or Ian Fleming’s James Bond, in which each book is generally a free-standing adventure. You couldn’t really have 12 novels with Dark continually evading exposure a a double agent. Len Deighton wrote a brilliant series of trilogies – so I thought I’d start with one of those! As far as the writing went, I plotted a rough arc of the trilogy beforehand, and have kept reasonably close to that. And I’ve tried to seed a few clues in Free Agent as to what will happen in Free Country and Free World. Look out for locations mentioned that Dark has been in before, and characters who are discussed but do not appear.

Free Agent by Jeremy Duns is out now and published by Simon and Schuster.

Free Agent by Jeremy Duns

Get ready for a new Dark Age.

Jeremy Duns’ Free Agent is a refreshing and exciting new novel where nothing is quite what it seems. Following a high level KGB defection and the suggestion of a double agent, MI6 man Paul Dark finds himself doubting everything he ever knew and must not as in most cases prove his innocence, but hide his guilt…

Paul Dark is our ‘hero’, billed as a mixture of Jason Bourne and James Bond. We should really dislike Dark – he’s cold-blooded, arrogant and a killer – but you find yourself drawn to him and even empathising with him. You want him to succeed, even though he’s ultimately one of the bad guys. His actions in the opening chapter are genuinely shocking, but then you want him to get away with it.

Interestingly, he is also our narrator. It does mean that the novel is confined to only the one viewpoint and in a book where our hero’s allegiances are being tested from the very beginning, it does leave you in an interesting relationship with the protagonist. I felt at times doubting what I was being told by Dark and questioning his authority, but then enjoying it all the more as you feel that you are there with Dark, trying to work out what is going on. Is he double-crossing us or is he being used as well?

The Mistress of Nothing

In Kate Pullinger’s The Mistress Of Nothing, we follow the true story of Lady Duff Gordon, suffering from the debiliating effects of tuberculois, and her maid Sally, as they travel to Cairo and Luxor, where  Gordon seeks refuge from her illness.

Away from England, Lady Gordon and Sally together cast off the European dress that has stifled them both physically and mentally, and begin to explore the freedom that Egypt offers. Yet it is the arrival of Omar, Lady Gordon’s dragoman, who leads them further into the heart of Egypt, and forcing them to re-examine the relationship between themselves and also their European roots.

It is Sally that narrates their story and it is tinged with excitement, mystery and the heat of Egypt. You can almost feel the heat as Pullinger delves deeper into the intriguing tale and the relationship between the two women. Yet soon, and somewhat inevitably, we see that appearances can be deceptive and Lady Gordon cannot help but keep her English mentatility. Perhaps tellingly, while Lady Gordon may dress like a man and imerse herself in the culture around her, they still reside in ‘The French House’, leased from the French Consul, which remains a link to Europe and her colonial past. Without revealing too much, Sally is cruelly reminded of her position and her reliance on Lady Gordon as her maid and the remainder of her story is tinged with sadness. She is offered a glimpse of a different life for herself, only for circumstances to overtake her.

Pullinger shows us Egypt and bring it to life as it really was. The Egyptian people are kind and welcoming, happy to accept Sally and Lady Gordon for who they are and it is the British expatriates who are judgemental and critical, showing themselves to be backward and fixed in their thinking. As Anthony Sattin remarks on the book’s cover,  Pullinger’s work is not “an Orientalist fantasy”; the only fantasy that remains is that of Sally and her hope that she may escape her lowly status as the mistress of nothing. With Sally as our narrator, I was somewhat expecting the blame for her situation to be placed solely at the feet of Lady Gordon, but Pullinger never quite allows this to occur. Lady Gordon blames Sally for causing her predicament but we are left looking for answers elsewhere. The blame is a product of its time, in particular the rules and conventions of English thinking and Sally’s position within her household as a lady’s maid.

Pullinger’s novel draws you in to the heartbreaking tale, providing us with a wonderful social commentary of the time amid the searing heat of Egypt. Little is documentated of Sally Naldrett, but now she has finally gained a voice after many, many years.

Interview with Kate Pullinger

This was originally published 22 July 2009.

Recently I reviewed Kate Pullinger’s The Mistress of Nothing, a story tinged with excitement, mystery and the heat of Egypt. I was fortunate enough to be a part of Kate’s Virtual Book Tour and so I asked her a few questions about her novel, what she’s working on next and also some advice for budding authors.

In the press release, it states that you took over ten years to write the novel. Did you ever feel like giving up? Very little is known about Sally, there is no photograph of her that we know of, so was telling her story and what it illuminated of the time what drew you to it? Was it always going to be her account and her narration from the beginning?

Despite the myriad problems I had with this novel, and the fact that I abandoned it a number of times, I never did consider abandoning it completely.  Throughout all that time the true story of Sally and that moment in the boat on the Nile on Christmas Eve stuck with me.  But you are right – there is nothing known about Sally and what happened to her after she left, and this was what opened up the story as a fiction (as opposed to biography or history) for me.  I always feel like she drew the short straw, to put it mildly, and I wanted to know what happened to her, so I had to make it up!  So her story was always my focus but it took me years to figure out the best way to tell that story.  I really struggled to find the right point of view or narrative voice – of course, with hindsight, it seems completely obvious that the story had to be told in the first person from Sally’s point of view – but this was not clear to me for a long time!  Another factor that kept me going was Egypt and that period of history – so interesting, such a beautiful and complicated country, and Luxor itself is a place of great magic and mystery.

I enjoyed how you really felt that you were there in Egypt and got a sense of the time and place. How much research was needed and how did you ensure the balance between setting the scene and focussing on the story?

I did a huge amount of research and then had to forget it all in order to tell a good story (as opposed to writing a very bad historical account!).  But I love research, so that was pure pleasure.  For me the Nile and Egypt and Luxor are a huge part of the story so finding the balance between that and the story wasn’t difficult – the country is almost like an extra character in the story.

Staying with the depiction of Egypt, you show us the majority of the Egyptian people as kind and welcoming, happy to accept Sally and Lady Gordon for who they are and the British as being judgemental and critical, exposing themselves to be backward and fixed in their thinking. This is in combination with the unrest in Egypt and the friction that occurs between the two cultures. How did you go about dealing with these issues and the culture clashes, while acknowledging the attitudes of the time in comparison to our own today?

This is difficult and I won’t really know whether or not I’ve succeeded until I have more Egyptian readers.  Of course we always tend to project our own values backwards into other times, and I’m sure I’m as guilty of that as the next writer.  Culture clashes are a theme I’ve explored in a lot of my writing; it is something that fascinates me (perhaps because I’m a foreigner in the UK, coming originally from Canada).  One thing I took very seriously was trying to get the elements of Islam present in the book correct, and to get that right in terms of my Egyptian characters.  I also spent a number of months with an Egyptian tutor trying to learn Arabic, which turns out to be extraordinarily difficult!!!  There are many contemporary resonances in this story and even the power relationship at the heart of the book – Lady and maid – is not obsolete in the 21st century!  Lady Duff Gordon was a true radical in terms of her attitudes toward Imperialism and having her as a prism through which to view Egyptian politics of the time was immensely helpful.

In my review I touched upon the sense of ‘blame’, how to an extent I expected Sally to despise Lady Gordon for treating her in such a way, yet you are left with very mixed feelings. In moving away from Europe to a difficult culture the two women become freer, almost becoming equals and there is a sense of duty and respect between the two women. Yet sadly, neither can escape their upbringings and the situation Sally finds herself in is a product of the times. As the novel concludes though, Sally seems to have a brighter future ahead of her in one way, with options that she never had before. Would you consider exploring Sally’s story further at all in the future? Perhaps looking at the new place she finds herself in within society?

I wouldn’t rule out revisiting Sally in Egypt at some point!  Egyptian history in the 19th and 20th century is really very interesting and to set a story at a slightly later date would be fun. However, I can’t imagine doing that anytime in the near future.  This book took me so long to write, finishing it was most peculiar – I was so accustomed to having it nag at me at all times.  I miss it, but it is also a great relief to have finished it, and now to see it in the world in the lovely edition that Serpent’s Tail have published.  Let’s wait and see how it does, how it makes it’s way in the world, and what readers think of it!

And just touching on the writing process itself, what are you working on next? With your writing, do you have a set routine or structure when working on a project? And what advice would you have for other writers or would-be writers?

At the moment I have three main projects, all very different.  I’ve been commissioned to write a libretto for an opera based on ‘Dorian Gray’ – my first ever libretto, so that’s a steep learning curve but very exciting.  I’m also co-creating nine multimedia short stories aimed at secondary school kids, with my digital collaborator Chris Joseph, for educational publishing Rising Stars.  And I’m collaborating with an artist called James Coupe on a project that creates films using facial recognition software – the first stage of this is taking place in Ulverston over the summer.  These last two projects reflect the other side of my writing life, which is working on digital projects.

I try to carve out as much writing time as possible and I seem to be getting a bit better at that currently – the demands of e-mail, twitter, blogs, and all the other online communication sometimes feel overwhelming to me, but I do seem to be getting better at shutting all that off when I need to.  Famous last words.  I also have a half-time post at a university where I teach creative writing and new media – I mostly teach online, so that’s another time management challenge.

My main advice for would-be writers is:  find a good story and stick with it and remember that, with writing fiction, speed is not a virtue.

The Mistress of Nothing is published by Serpent’s Tail and is out now. For more information, see katepullinger.com