Given the tremendous success of SPHINX in the UK, I thought I’d shared some insights into my writing/research process for my UK and Australian readers. In terms of thriller writers some of my favourites would be John Le Carre, Robert Harris and Alan Furst. So I guess I fall more into that kind of muscular, historically rigorous narrative camp – or at least aspire toward it!
Coming from a historical fiction (as well as erotic fiction but that’s a whole other conversation) background, as well as my experience as a playwright, I am very aware of the balance between plot drive, characterisation, atmosphere/location and suspense. Not an easy juggling act but worth aiming for. But, as a reader, I like to both have time to empathise with the characters, lock into their psychology, yet be excited enough to turn the next page and learn something factual or historical along the way.
As a playwright you learn a lot about the importance of individual voice as well as dialogue but you also learn about the fickle nature of audience and the importance of engaging them quickly in moral dilemmas that are both authentic and emotionally moving. To be frank I’ve never been interested in thriller writers that are simply all plot drive – or in screen writer’s parlance – big print (action directions) and there are many highly successful thriller writers who fall into this category.
To try and achieve the craft I dream of, I usually arrive at the original idea of the book through a kind of fermentation. There will be odd pieces of information, images, historical eras that resonate, (it helps having a magpie’s mind) that I will then start to weave together. In the case of SPHINX it begin with an article (I think it was The Times) about an ancient Egyptian Naos inscribed with both ancient Egyptian and more contemporary astrological markings being pulled out of sea by Archaeologist and impressio Frank Goddio (if you’re German you might have seen his extraordinary travelling show of Ancient Egyptian artefacts found off the Alexandrian coast). I then started to think about what my personal emotional connection with Egypt might be – remember writers have to live with their books for a number of years, it’s a little like choosing a lover so you really have to be careful at this point. And I remembered how Sadat’s assassination really moved and shocked me. Sadat was most famous (amongst other things) for his visit to the Knesset in 1977 – an act of great courage. So now I was beginning to paly with three possible starting points – 1977, Sadat’s visit to the Knesset, an ancient artefact with astrological significance. You begin to see how these elements can ignite both imagination and a research quest of my own.
Writers also often have identifiable themes that kind of run through their work like a personal DNA – or an unconscious baseplate underpinning the plot. In my case it is often the rational Newtonian ‘scientific’ protagonist who is thrown into an odyssey that undermines his/her belief system and opens him to more inexplicable paradigms of life. This has an overlay, which can be simplified to determinism versus free will. So again you might be able to see how I arrived at the notion of the Astrarium and it’s ability to set one’s death date.
I always interview people both for character and expertise. So I spoke to a number of Egyptologists, geophysicists and oil guys (including the man who ran Amcol in the 70’s in Egypt) as well as spending time in Alexandria (two months) interviewing members of the various communities depicted in the book. I also had to access old photos and footage of Alexandria in the 1970’s (The city has had much development, and back then people were far more western in their dress than now – particularly women) Many thanks to you all. It was very early on in my research that one Egyptologist suggested I should look at the Antikythera mechanism for my research. It was one of those eureka moments in which it’s hard not to think of God as some benevolent librarian who has just steered you into exactly the right corner of hi/her vast library – to place my own fictional astrarium as an early predecessor of the Antikythera mechanism, although audacious (but hey, I write fiction!) suddenly gave me a way of weaving real fact into the storyline in an incredibly exciting way.
For further info on the Antikythera mechanism : www.nature.com/nature/videoarchive/antikythera