Monday, November 23, 2009

**Interview with Paul Sussman: writer and adventurer**

1. The Lost Army of Cambyses was your debut novel – how did you put together your two main characters, Inspector Yusuf Khalifa and Tara Mullray? I recall them being very solid and real characters, people I enjoyed spending time with.

The moment I started thinking about weaving a novel around the Cambyses legend, and setting that novel in Egypt, I knew I wanted to have an Egyptian detective as my hero. Visually he is – or at least I imagine him to be – a composite of two Egyptians I know, both archaeologists, both good friends. In terms of his character, I made him everything I would like myself to be but manifestly am not: patient, intelligent, courageous, morally upright, tough, unflappable. I knew I wanted to write a detective who loved his wife and family rather than being a screwed-up, hard-bitten loner - shortly before I began writing the book I had proposed to my long-time girlfriend (on top of the mountain that overlooks the Valley of the Kings) – and I also wanted to create a Muslim character who was a normal person rather than some fanatical stereotype. I thus had certain clear markers before I started writing. From there Khalifa grew and developed, and will hopefully continue to do so in future novels.

So far as Tara Mullray goes, I think I had less of an idea of her character at the beginning of the book than I did about Khalifa’s – she became more and more real to me the more I wrote. With Khlifa I felt I knew him from the outset. With Tara, it was a slightly longer introduction. I suppose the one clear character note I had from the very start was that I wanted a strong personality who would help drive the narrative rather than simply being the passive, wishy-washy love- interest.

2. Did you notice that there are rumours that the lost army may have been found? What are your thoughts?

I have indeed seen this story, and am of course fascinated by it. It’s not 100% new since some of the Persian-era objects mentioned – arrowheads, pottery etc. - were actually found back in 2000 by an Egyptian geological team doing survey work in the area, but a considerable number of other artifacts would now seem to have been brought to light and it looks extremely promising. It’s difficult to give an informed comment before the finds are properly published, and I’m slightly concerned that Zahi Hawass (the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities) has posted a disclaimer on his website saying that the stories are unfounded, and the team who claim to have discovered the army are not working with official sanction. It’s also slightly unusual – very unusual in fact – for such a potentially huge discovery to be announced not through proper archaeological channels but via a TV documentary. If it is the remains of the army, it is of course tremendously exciting – one of the great archaeological discoveries of the last fifty years - but I think we have to wait for more details before we can be sure.

3. The amount of work and research you do for each novel must be tremendous – how do you know when is it enough in order for you to sit down and write the story? Also, how do you prevent yourself from going a bit crazy and putting in too much information so that the story gets bogged down?

I’m a bit of a scattergun researcher in that I will do a huge amount of reading and traveling before I actually start writing, but there will always be new things I need to know as the story progresses and so I will research those as and when the need arises.

Thus with the Hidden Oasis I spent a great deal of preparatory time in Egypt exploring and familiarizing myself with all the various different settings that appear in the novel – including spending a number of weeks out in Dakhla Oasis with a group of Bedouin. I also read extensively about everything from the reign of pharaoh Pepi ll to ancient Egyptian sun cults to the early 20th Century exploration of the western desert to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. All of that gave me the basic landscape of the book. As I wrote it, however, and the story grew and unfolded, I found myself constantly having to research extra titbits of information – types of weaponry, for instance, or the mechanics of flying a Microlight aircraft.

All of which is a slightly longwinded way of saying that however much preparatory research you do, there will always be extra things you haven’t thought of. In that sense, research is an ongoing process that only ends when you finally get the book written and edited. Perhaps a better way of putting it is that research-wise I am chronically disorganized!

With regard to the second part of your question, when you expend a huge amount of time and energy researching, there is always a tendency to try to include everything you have found out. With my first book, the Lost Army of Cambyses, that was certainly the case. I remember thinking “I’ve spent two weeks living in a fly-blown, cockroach infested dive in Siwa Oasis and I’m buggered if I’m not going to put ALL of that research to use.” The result was page upon age of excruciatingly unnecessary detail about Siwa, the desert, Berber culture etc. all of which gradually got edited out as the novel went through successive drafts.

With my second and third novels my writer’s radar became more attuned to what was needed and what was excess baggage. Even then the early drafts still contained a lot of extraneous detail that was fascinating to me but slowed the plot down and ended up being cut out in later edits. When I researched Cairo’s Zabbaleen community, for example – which plays a part in the Hidden Oasis - I ended up taking about 200 photographs and filling an entire notebook with notes, all of which got boiled down to a few paragraphs of description. How to wear your research lightly is a skill I am still honing.

4. You seem as happy writing about guns and weapons as you are about historical fact and fiction – have you ever trained in weapons use?

I’d love to be able to say that I spent five years in the SAS and am a ruthless, heroic, stunningly good looking all-round real-life action hero, but sadly it would be a big fat lie. The truth is that apart from having an air rifle as a child, and shooting a .22 rifle – badly - in my school cadet force my experience of weaponry is non-existent. I’m flattered that you think I’m a weapons expert, but all my descriptions and references are the result of other people’s knowledge. I do work hard to make sure I get the facts right – I remember spending the best part of a day on the phone trying to pin down the precise noise a particular type of gun makes when it is fired – but if you ever need someone to protect you in a shoot-out I’m probably not your man.

5. Your bio on the RBOOKS.CO.UK website mentions that you had the opportunity to dig in the Valley of the Kings. Were you lucky enough to be part of a dig that found anything interesting?

I excavated in the Valley of the Kings for a number of years in the late 1990s and early 2000s as part of an expedition called the Amarna Royal Tombs Project – without doubt one of the happiest times of my life. I won’t bore you with enormous detail – if you want to know more check out the website of Egytologist Nicholas Reeves, who led the expedition.

Among other discoveries we found the first – and so far as I am aware only – pieces of ancient jewellery to have been unearthed in the Valley since Tutankhamun was found in 1922. And, also, an ostracon – a small piece of flat, white limestone – bearing the name, in hieroglyphs, of a previously unknown ancient Egyptian queen: Tiy-i-y.

Exciting as these things were, the artefacts that really thrilled me were objects we found that shone a small light on the lives of normal, everyday ancient Egyptians, in this case the workers who dug and decorated the tombs in the Valley. Objects such as the ostracon bearing a scurrilous cartoon of (apologies for this) a man masturbating. Or the set of ancient bronze chisel heads. Or the stopper from an ancient beer jar. Objects that reveal people who lived over 3000 years ago and yet in many ways were exactly the same as us.

6. Were you initially trained as a journalist and how did your love for archaeology come about?

I never actually trained as a journalist – as with field archaeology, I very much learnt on the job. Back at the early 1990s I was at a loose end after leaving university and found myself selling advertising for a magazine that had just started up – the Big Issue. It was a wonderful environment, vibrant and exciting, if totally chaotic, and as well as advertising sales I also pitched in and wrote the odd film and book review. Because I was so useless on the advertising front the decision was taken to allow me to write full-time and it all developed from there. To my dying day I shall be grateful to the Big Issue and its founder John Bird for giving me both the to spread my wings as a writer.

Archaeology has fascinated me since the age of six when my aunt took me to see the Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum (I remember going home afterwards and immediately starting to dig holes in our back garden in Watford in the hope of discovering similar treasures). I became a dedicated Mud lark, going every weekend to dig on the Thames foreshore, and from there graduated to “trowel fodder” - i.e. general dogsbody – on digs around the UK. In 1998 the two worlds – archaeology and writing – came together when I was invited to join the aforementioned Amarna Royal Tombs Project as a diarist and field archaeologist.

7. Are you currently / will you soon be part of more archaeological digs?

Sadly it has been a few years since I last wore my field archaeologist’s hat. With two children under the age of two and a half it simply isn’t feasible for me to disappear into the Egyptian desert for three months, nor will it be for some while yet. I dearly hope to return to digging one day, however. It’s in my blood.

8. In The Hidden Oasis you’ve moved away from Inspector Khalifa and you’ve given us two brand new main characters, Flin and Freya. Both very strong, very interesting characters who come alive on the page. How much do you work on your character development or is it something that comes to you naturally?

Having written two books with Khalifa as my main protagonist - which actually isn’t very many – I took a conscious decision to base the Hidden Oasis around different lead characters (although I couldn’t resist bringing Khalifa in for a brief cameo appearance).

The character development question is very much tied up with the initial planning of the book. Some writers get the spark of an idea and simply run with it, seeing where it leads them, essentially discovering the story and characters as they write them. Sadly I don’t have enough imagination or self-confidence to do this and instead spend many, many months just turning an idea around in my head, adding to and expanding it, building it up. I will then spend another month or so producing a detailed plan of the book – literally chapter by chapter – and only then will I actually start writing.

During this extended preparatory period the different personalities in the book will gradually develop and grow in my mind so that by the time I start writing I have a reasonably clear idea of who my characters are, what drives and motivates them, what they look like.

It is only as I actually write them, however, taking them from scene to scene through the story, that they become real to me as I fill in the detail of their lives, thoughts and feelings. For instance, Freya’s troubled relationship with her sister was always part of the plan, but as I wrote, the intricacies of that relationship started to reveal themselves, the small details that hopefully make the characters rounded and believable. At the risk of sounding horribly pretentious, it’s a bit like sculpting: you get the basic form and outline of a character, and then slowly fill in the finer points to create a believable whole. I don’t want to go overboard here, though - it’s an adventure novel, not Flaubert!

9. Your antagonists across all three books are notable for breaking the “muah hah hah I am bad” confines. Especially in The Hidden Oasis, all is not as it seems, when it comes to the antagonists. My question is: how do you manage to write your antagonists with such ease – as a reader you can see their motivations and you “get” where they come from?

You’re very kind, although I have to say that set against characters in, say, an Ian McEwen novel, or a Philip Roth, mine probably come across as pretty shallow and lumpen!

So far as “bad guys” go – “good guys” as well in fact - I’ve never really liked books in which the antagonists are all bad, and the protagonists all good. Cartoonish, cardboard cut-out characters. I like to create personalties that at least have a little bit of depth and shading to them. In the real world even the worst of villains always have a back-story, some reason why they are as they
are, and I try to do the same with my fictional antagonists. They might do dreadful things, they might be loathsome, you might not be rooting for them, but at least you can understand them, see a little of what has turned them bad.

Interestingly – and I think this is probably the same for many writers – I find the bad guys (and girls) a lot easier and more fun to write than the good ones (Khalifa is the exception – writing him has always come very naturally to me). I’m loathe to psycho-analyse myself, but I suspect that writing villains allows me to access and explore some of the darker corners of my own psyche. Which frankly doesn’t reveal me as a particularly nice or stable person!

10. Have you had any influences in your writing career?

It very much depends what you mean by influences. The answer is certainly yes, but different things and people have influenced me in different ways. In terms of situations that have influenced me, and provided material for my novels, obviously my experiences out in Egypt as an archaeologist have played a huge part in my writing, as has my work as a journalist (one of the minor characters in The Last Secret of the Temple, for instance, an Israeli war hero now working for peace with the Palestinians, was directly based on a man I once interviewed in Jerusalem).

My time at both the Big Issue, and also feature-writing for – the online portal of CNN news – were crucial in helping me to develop my style as a writer. Going even further back I had an English master at school, Mr. Morton, who inculcated certain basic rules of writing to which I still adhere to this day (he absolutely hated the words “get” and “got”, insisting they weren’t proper words, but rather cheap and lazy substitutes. Even now, if ever I find myself using one of them, I have to delete it and find something more suitable, although every now and then one does slip in, causing me untold angst and guilt).

My agent, Laura Susijn, and my editor, Simon Taylor, are both huge influences – without them my books wouldn’t even exist. More obliquely, the works of Iain Banks, Mervyn Peake, H. Rider Haggard and Alexandre Dumas have, among others, all influenced my style and the sort of stories I tell. To be honest I could go on and on.

Probably the most honest answer I can give is that to a greater or lesser extent almost everything influences me. I am forever taking things on board – sights, sounds, smells, people, situations, conversations - and filing them away at the back of my mind for possible future use.

11. And although The Hidden Oasis is only to be published in the next few weeks, am I allowed to ask what else you have planned? A return for Flin and Freya on another adventure? Or are we seeing Khalifa reprising is role?

I think Flin and Freya are going to be one-off characters, specific to the Hidden Oasis. For my next novel I am returning to my old friends Inspector Yusuf Khalifa of the Luxor police, and Inspector Arieh Ben-Roi of the Jerusalem police.

12. What are you reading at the moment?

I’m one of those terrible, disorganized people who always have two books on the go at the same time, and a teetering stack of books beside the bed that I never seem to get around to starting. Right at the moment I am just finishing Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and re-reading Judith Herrin’s Byzantium, a wonderfully accessible study of the Byzantine Empire. My next book is definitely going to be Iain Banks Transition (I interviewed him once – wonderful man). Strangely I read very little in the genre in which I write.

13. Have you ever considered writing action / adventure fiction for younger folk?

That’s a very interesting question. I was babysitting for some friends of ours across the street a couple of weeks ago and ended up reading a chapter of a young adults’ adventure book to their ten-year old son. I can’t remember what it was called – something about spies and assassins and football – but it was tremendously exciting and I found myself thinking how much fun it would be to write something like that. In fact I even have a small idea forming at the back of my head about a brother and sister whose parents are archaeologists and who end up going on all sorts of adventures – basically the same sort of thing as I currently write minus all the bad language. I’m currently in “thinking about my next Khalifa book” mode, however, so whether I will get around to it I can’t say. The idea definitely appeals to me.

14. Do you have any advice for action adventure (and thriller) writers who would like to break into the market?

I could obviously go on here about making sure you do your research properly, know the world you are describing, have the courage and discipline to edit your work back so that you keep up the pace of your narrative etc. You can find out all that elsewhere, however, from people who are far more qualified to talk about it than I am (Stephen King’s On Writing is an excellent introduction to the writer’s art, even if he does contradict much of what I have said above).

The one thing I will say is NEVER GIVE UP. Almost every writer – myself included – has tales of endless rejection letters. Obviously not every aspiring novelist will get published, but at the same time there is a huge market out there for exciting fiction, and if you are at all good you will make it in the end.

The Hidden Oasis by Paul Sussman was released on 19th November 2009 by Transworld books, an imprint of Random House UK. There is also a chance to win a copy of The Hidden Oasis for those cleverheads out there: .

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