Author Q&A for BLOOD OIL (Hachette, August 2008).
When did you realise you wanted to be a writer?
As a teenager (around 15) when I read my first few current adventures and thrillers. I played around with some ideas through high school, but it was not until 2001 that I decided to dedicate the time and effort to see if I could do it. Prior to this I had started two novels which were at various stages.
What were those books that inspired you?
I can’t remember the titles but the first couple were Alistair MacLean’s UNACO series, which featured the fictional United Nations Anti-Crime Organisation as his protagonists. I’d been a big fan of the classic adventure stories and this was eye-opening as it was present day and dealing with pertinent topics – I remember thinking, “Writers can do this?” From that point on I’ve been keenly aware we read to inhabit time, not to pass time, and a good book can take you places you could not have imagined on your own.
Around that time I read Patriot Games - it got a huge amount of publicity thanks to the movie and I bought the first of the prints with Harrison Ford on the cover - proof of how much a movie deal can boost sales! Subsequently I read and enjoyed all of Tom’s stuff up until his lead character became President.
The real spurring of interest to become a writer came when a friend introduced me to Clive Cussler’s books. This guy writes purely and simply to entertain, and I believed I could write in the happy medium between he and Clancy. I was 14 or 15 and was hooked. From there it was Grisham/Follet/Archer/Crichton - anything similar.
Looking at my reading habits lately, some of my favourite novelists are Elmore Leonard, John Steinbeck, James Ellroy, Cormac McCarthy, Hermann Hesse, and Dennis Lehane. That said, some of the best writers in the world are working in Hollywood, the likes of Joe Carnahan, Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, David Ayer, Brian Helgeland, Charlie Kaufman, Aaron Sorkin. They all write to entertain while making the process for us as readers and the audience to get so much out of their multi-layered stories.
And that’s why you write - to entertain?
Predominately, yes, that is the objective.
If a reader gets involved and engrossed in my story, or attached to a character, then I have done my job. Like watching a movie, I want the reader to finish up thinking it was money well spent in the entertainment department.
I say predominately, as there are other elements that drive me - writing a novel is like a drug, so amazing and addictive when you get in the creative zone - and perhaps with some other, future works, it (entertaining) may not be priority number one.
To entertain is paramount in popular fiction and the most blatant key to success in this area.
How do you create characters?
In many different ways. When it comes to naming them, I quite often cheat by using names of friends or fellow writers. Sometimes even their descriptions play a part but usually I let the reader make their own picture of each character rather than really spell out how each person looks.
The journey of Fox has been fascinating for me as in ways we’ve grown up together and just when I think I completely know him he surprises me! In this book I get to explore some of the darker areas of the human psyche set against the times we are in now. This journey was important to make at this point in Fox’s life. I've always been interested in the grey areas of life, particularly the notion that we all have the ability to take a step too far and be perceived as the 'bad guy' or whatever. Fox finds himself in Nigeria, which on one hand is such a rich, interesting and exotic location and on the other it's all poverty and desperation and someplace you don't want to be. It's really a clash of the cradle of civilization against modern money and power, and it proved to be a wonderful backdrop that mirrored every storyline that I wanted my characters' journeys to go through. In the end, for Fox, it’s something of an awakening.
When and where do you write?
Mainly from my home office, a converted warehouse in Melbourne. I’m seconds away from heaps of great cafes, restaurants, bars and pubs which can be a bit of a distraction at times!
The process has been different for the three novels. One thing has always been constant - I've had a deadline. Usually, I like to be two sets down, to really be backed into a corner and write my way out of it. I think I like to translate that pressure into my writing, to make it faster and more immediate. I write anywhere, anytime. Home office, cafe, library, hotel, bed, wherever. Nights used to be my writing playground but for some reason I'm more often than not being more creative in the early morning and then just switching off from the afternoon onwards. Maybe I'm getting old and can't work eighteen hour days anymore. Probably I'm just lazy.
BLOOD OIL was a dream to write, the words just poured out. I'd kicked the idea around for over a year, and I wrote it in ten weeks, which is quick for me. I probably cut out about ten percent before sending it through to the publisher, which is my usual target to trim out of my own edit. I should say that for those ten weeks, writing this novel was all that I did. Sure, I lived a life, but in terms of work, that was it. I pushed everything else out of my life and said "Nothing else matters now, this is it." And there's something in that kind of creative space that's really special to have experienced. It was a profound experience, the whole thing. I look back now and think that it was a measurable accomplishment, a real peak in performance and achievement of creativity. Each novel any author writes is somehow a little snapshot in time of where they were, and I'm happy with the little snapshot of my life that this is. It was a good time but that said I'm glad it's behind me. Bring on the next deadline.
Where do you get your ideas from?
I try to carry a notebook around at all times, in case inspiration strikes or an idea comes to me. It’s a great tool for a writer, as I can jot down overheard conversations or record something that I have seen. Every now and then I’ll flick through my notebooks and find something really useful that I’d completely forgotten about.
The central ideas of my books generally come from world news and current affairs, such as Chechnya and the Star Wars Missile Shield in FOX HUNT, to the scope of the Patriot Act and the capabilities of the UKUSA intelligence agencies in PATRIOT ACT.
So, I start with the big ideas and themes and work backwards, figuring out what it all means for my characters. Generally, I’ll have three pillars in the story that everything works around. Then come all the minor setbacks and roadblocks along the way that Fox has to overcome in order to get what he wants. And each time it’s not a very pleasant journey for him.
What research and planning do you do for your novels?
I love the research component that goes into writing thrillers, and each new book means another world that I get to inhabit for a while. I read heaps of non-fiction, which I generally buy (I am a bibliophile) but sometimes find at a library. I go over interviews with people who have been in the situations that I am depicting in the pages of my books, and I talk to them if I can. With the military pieces I am lucky enough to know some people who have served, and since publication I have some military fans and I’ve even visited some bases. I’m forever asking questions of people to fuel my stories.
The internet is an amazing tool if you can find your way around. Online newspapers are great. There are heaps of honest and often very sad blogs of soldiers and civilians that are directly affected by the circumstances that I write about, and they are something that keeps me grounded. I try harder and harder in each book to get an accurate portrayal of the lives that I am writing about. Suspending the reader’s disbelief, keeping the facts within the realm of entertaining fiction, is the fun part.
I make sure I know who’s who, where they’ll be going, what they are after etc. I need to know my characters motivation, the stakes involved, the hurdles ahead of them, and above all, I need to know where my story is going. I need to be sure that before I type anything, that I’ve written down what the feeling at the end of the story is going to be. Once I know that destination, I may deviate from the hundred or so pages of notes but I will eventually get there. And there’s no feeling like writing that final scene and seeing everything come together.
Why have Lachlan Fox working with the Global Syndicate of Reporters (GSR)?
I figure being in that job, Fox can be in all the hot spots that a spy or soldier could be in, yet he is not bound to serve his country like a spy or soldier would be. I don’t like the idea of being constrained like that, to have to have a character that is working for the government that is often complicit in the events that I am writing about. And let’s face it, people are now distrusting their governments more than ever. Not that all journalists and news services are infallible but I do like that idea that Fox is just after the truth and through that he finds out so much more. I love watching Fox at the start of BLOOD OIL set off on his quest for truth only to discover that this story, for him, will be about forgiveness and identity. He attempts to escape many of his demons yet still has to go down a romanticised version of an act of violent redemption. He seems destined to learn the hard way and I hope that readers like that.
Tell us about your cover designs.
I love them. With FH and PA, the covers were done after I submitted my manuscript to the publishers. The design team read the books and designed several covers to suit the story. My original ideas seem to always end up on the back cover - the world on FH, the Statue of Liberty on PA, the oil derrick on the back of BO. Then we (staff at Hachette, my agents, me, and some family and friends) all weigh in with our views and we choose one, often with the end product taking the elements that worked from two or three covers. BLOOD OIL was a different process in that the cover was designed based on an outline that I wrote for the story. We wanted to keep to the theme of the others, and again we went through a few good ones and picked the most eye-catching and thrilling. As the previous two covers had a helicopter and a fight jet that appeared in each novel's storyline, I decided to write the Humvee into BLOOD OIL. So, because of this backwards process, the characters of Nix and Top were created, and their epic journey across Nigeria became a storyline. And, like so many of my storylines, I liked that their journey played out to be a plan dubious in its effect, something which turned on its head and reflected one of the moral questions in the book.
Any Lachlan Fox movies in the works?
No, as of April 2008 we have not had the right offer. I'd like to see BLOOD OIL as the first of a filmed trilogy but it needs to be the right film. While there are some screenwriters, directors, producers, and actors who I really admire, there's still a sense that this book is my baby and I'd like to keep it that way. If I write a book, it's filtered through my life experiences, what I think is important, how I see the world. And handing that over to someone else to adapt and apply their own vision to is a double edged argument. A film is the product of many people, which is something that does not particularly appeal to me just yet. That said, part of me would be very happy to take some studio's millions and run! Seriously though, being a novelist is a dream job - I get to write what I want to write, how I want to write it.
Is there a political heart in the books?
This third novel is a much more emotional story than I’ve written before. There’s more morality too. There is a great appetite in the world right now to look at anything cultural that's American, English and Australian and try to figure out who we are and who we have become in this War on Terror age.
My novels aren’t written with a political agenda in mind. With Fox’s involvement and the perception of the work he's doing as a reporter, he's not a piece of the political system. I don't see this as a political novel at all, in that it's not left or right skewed. But to me it is about morality. It's about the way that work and the demands of work can bend people's personal morality. About the hubris attached with absolute power. That’s the territory that I’m interested in looking at here.
I think that we are in a time of empathy deficit. Too often we do things without thinking of how those actions will affect others. With this book I wanted to really put the reader in Fox's point of view, to understand what he was going through. Sometimes, sooner or later we come to realise what it is like to be in someone else’s shoes. I wanted the reader to think, how would this make us feel. That's why the book ends like it does. It's not entirely neat; we are left in a position where we are still questioning. Perspectives are turned on their head as we think back and reconsider the story and perhaps ourselves. Empathy calls us all to task, shaken out of complacency and forced beyond our limited vision.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years time James?
In 10 years, I’m sure I’ll be writing better than ever - you get better every day, which is the curse for any writer reading over past work - have had a movie or two made of my novels and screenplays, perhaps some computer games Clancy-style, all whilst keeping up my job tutoring a class of post-grad writing students.
I’m putting in the work to make it happen, so time will tell.
Where can I get a signed copy of your book?
I frequently travel the country attending writer’s festivals and visit bookstores for signings. If you have no luck on that front, Hachette, my publisher, has bookplates on file. They’re basically official publisher’s stickers that I have signed and they can send them to you to insert into the book.