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 year, Harrogate and 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 divisive?
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 may notice!
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