You may recall that last
year I got excited by a debut thriller from Tom Cain entitled The Accident Man.
It was novel that heralded the start of series featuring Samuel Carver, a
shadowy figure who works for British Intelligence in an unofficial [and
deniable] capacity arranging ‘accidents’ to enemies of the state.
The Accident Man focuses on a conspiracy that involves the death of Princess
Diana in a Parisian tunnel. The rights were sold globally and the book courted
considerable controversy being released a decade after the tragic accident that
took the lives of Dodi Fayed as well as Diana and the driver Henri-Paul. I
wondered how Tom Cain would follow-up his high concept debut, as we all know the
trouble a debut writer has when confronted by the success of a first novel. I
have bumped into Cain at several events since at the CWA Dagger Awards last
Crimefest – and each time enjoyed his insight as he is a passionate thriller
reader and extremely well read.
So as Cain debuts this
summer with his follow-up The Survivor, let me tell you that this
follow-up does not disappoint but just make sure you have a free evening when
you crack the spine of this high-octane thriller.
Tom Cain came out of
hiding for the launch of The Survivor at Heffers in Cambridge for the
Bodies in the Bookstore event, I managed to snag some time with this interesting
writer to find out more about his second novel and to see exactly how he managed
to pull off his difficult sophomore work -
Ali So after all the excitement over
your thriller debut The Accident Man, can you tell us how sales have been
UK, US and I believe the novel sold in many other territories?
Tom 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
(peaked around 11 or 12 in both charts, dammit!), 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.
Ali I saw you on a panel last year at
Harrogate where the Princess Diana motif courted a little bit of controversy; so
did this cause issue with Diana’s death cause you any other problems?
Tom 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 in 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!
Ali …And what about from the ‘dark
forces’ that you inferred were behind the crash in the tunnel [in the fictional
world you created] pose any reaction?
Tom 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.
Ali So what’s happening on the film
rights on the US project as the book was a high concept property?
Tom 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 a cracking TV series than a rubbish film.
Ali So after writing such an audacious
debut did you have any issues tackling the ‘difficult second novel?’
Tom 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 US 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 US
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.
Ali I found the opening of The
Survivor sharing similar themes that Thunderball by Ian Fleming explored, as
in both novels the protagonists Samuel Carver and James Bond are both recovering
from a trauma from the preceding novel. So are you an Ian Fleming reader?
Tom 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.
Ali I enjoyed your comments on the Ian
Fleming centenary panel at Crimefest Bristol, so care to share your thoughts on
Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks?
Tom Hmmmm…….. 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.
Ali Back to the opening of The
Survivor, having Carver in recovery allowed for more detail on the
conspiracy plot that ‘backbones’ the new book, as well as allowing the reader to
focus on your secondary protagonist Alix Petrova more. Were you conscious or
worried that your lead character was off centre stage for too long?
Tom 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.
Ali I felt that Alix Petrova could
actually warrant her own series as her backstory is fascinating, and I feel that
as her creator, you seem to like her a lot……..?
Tom 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!
Ali In The Survivor I noticed
your writing style has subtly changed with shorter and more terse chapters, as
well as point-of-view switching in a more manner pronounced than in The
Accident Man, was this a conscious or subconscious decision?
Tom A bit of both. The multiple POV’s were
forced on me as a result of Carver’s semi-absence from the scene, and also the
complicated, multi-layered nature of the storyline. 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 downmarket authors like James Patterson and Dan
Brown (though if I had those guys’ advances and royalty cheques I wouldn’t give
a XXXX 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 …’
Ali Tell me how the plot of rogue
suitcase-nukes and religious nutters threatening Armageddon came to you?
Tom 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 plotline involving
a US 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 1997-8. 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 US 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!
Ali Waylon McCabe is a great villain
[among many], but were you a little concerned using an extreme Christian
religious fundamentalist as a bad guy considering how religion can become so
Tom 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. Quite 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 an excuse for barbarous extremism. But then, Karl Marx probably
feels pretty bad about the things people have done in his name, too.
Ali And what about ‘The Sheik?’ a
Middle-Eastern powerbroker and the rogue Muslim element?
Tom 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 Eighties under
Reagan, and Nineties under Clinton, created the conditions that produced
America’s (and our) enemies today.
Ali The story really hits its stride in
the last third 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? So how
hard did you plot and did you have pads of notes?
Tom 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 plotlines 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
Ali Being a journalist, your fiction
style is a dispassionate and presented almost as if ‘The
Survivor’ were a fact based novel, so how much research was entailed in
delivering the story?
Tom 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 home-made 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 breaking
point. That said, perhaps the most implausible thing in The Survivor,
the fact that there are giant underground bunkers at Pristina airport in
Kosovo, filled with Yugoslav fighter jets – is, in fact, completely true. Or was
true, a decade or more ago, anyway.
Tom I enjoyed your piece on Armageddon
terror in the UK’s Mail and London Standard – so how did the piece come about?
Ali My journalist alter-ego David Thomas
was called up to write a piece after the government’s terrorism advisor, 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!
Ali I heard you appeared at Thrillerfest
this summer in New York. Care to let us know how you found the conference? And
how did it compare to the British Harrogate and Crimefest conventions?
Tom Well, I only spent a day actually at the
conference itself, and I was very, very jetlagged 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.
Ali So what has passed your reading
table recently that you enjoyed?
Tom Well, I met my namesake Chelsea Cain at
Bodies in the Bookshop 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. But 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 Fatal Waltz) don’t remotely pretend to be
hardcore 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 half-way 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 thirteen 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 it a lot.
Ali And so now Samuel Carver is
established as a major character in the thriller genre after 2 books, care to
let us know what is in store for Carver #3
Tom 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.’
An edited version of this interview was
excerpted at The Rap Sheet
Read Ali Karim's
review of The Survivor
Buy The Survivor
Published by Bantam Press, Hdbk £12.99 July 2008