You can read a review of Simon Conway’s new novel, ‘The Saboteur’ here
PAJNewman (PAJN): Jude Lyon is back and, once again, confronted with his nemesis Guy Fowle. I know last time you spoke about these characters representing your principled side and your inner psychopath and, this time out Fowle is even more dastardly than before. Do you see a long-term Bond/Blofeld, Smiley/Karla ying and yang relationship between these two?
Simon Conway (SC): It all depends whether one of them kills the other. I haven’t decided.
PAJN: Guy really is a villain – do you ever find yourself writing a chapter featuring him and think, “what’s wrong with me?!?” He certainly seems to be getting more evil as the books go on. I can’t see an emotional heart opening change in his behaviour any time soon but perhaps I’m being too harsh?
SC: Never. I refer you to the narrator of my second novel Rage who says: “There were so many things wrong with me I’d become frightened of drawing up a list of them, for fear of what I might learn.”
I like to believe in the possibility for redemption but for Guy Fowle it is hard to see what form that might take.
PAJN: The novel obviously has echoes of Covid with the vast majority of London being confined to their homes. Will Covid play a part in your future work do you think? And was it quite nice to play with parts of it, like the lockdown, but not have to deal with the dreary reality so much.
SC: I think that there is a place for COVID drama but I’m not sure that it’s what my readers are looking for. If it plays a part in my writing it will either to be through deliberate echoes – empty streets, deserted airports and overcrowded hospitals – or as a recent historical event.
PAJN: When we spoke last, you had taken about 18 months to write The Stranger. This novel is appearing much sooner and a great chunk of it was (I believe) written in combat zones. Would you mind speaking a little about how that works for you and how you manage to concentrate when doing such a difficult and dangerous day job?
SC: It’s not easy to balance a job that would consume very waking hour if you let it and the dogged business of writing novels. When it works, writing is a good way of switching off and relaxing. When it doesn’t, I can go days or weeks without writing and I feel like I’ve become slack and unmoored. I am fortunate that my job has allowed me to travel to some very interesting locations and meet memorable people. It is clear that has influenced my writing.
I did some of the final edits of The Saboteur in the evenings when I was in Libya last October. It’s not safe to go out at night so perfect for editing.
PAJN: In terms of Jude and Guy, do you think they will be back for a third outing? If so, do you have anything planned yet or are you working on anything different at the moment.
I’m working on a third instalment.
PAJN: The Saboteur is (I think this is correct) your seventh novel. Are you finding it easier to write as you get further in or is each a challenge in a different way?
SC: Yes, I think that it is becoming easier to write. I’m more confident of my skill. I spend less time agonising over the edit and as a consequence I’m more assured with the knife.
PAJN: The Stranger garnered some outstanding reviews and this must have been really pleasing. Has that changed how you approached the sequel and are you now under greater pressure for this instalment?
SC: I suppose I feel some pressure to keep up the pace.
Simon Conway has worked for The Halo Trust since 1998 clearing landmines all over the world.
PAJN: Does seeing landmines which have been placed indiscriminately by both governments and non-state actors, sometimes just to terrorise a populace, colour your view of human nature? Can you maintain a positive view of the world with the things you see in this role?
SC: It’s not an easy question to answer. By nature, I’m an optimist. I believe that it is possible to make the world better with sustained effort. I’ve seen evidence of that but my writing seems to tap into a more cynical and world-wearier vein. I worry that most people would burn their neighbour’s house down if goaded into it. That’s why those in power carry such a huge responsibility not to feed peoples’ worst prejudices.
PAJN: June this year saw an appalling loss of life in your team in Afghanistan. I was obviously so sorry to read about it and can only imagine how difficult it must have been. Is there anything practical that readers of yours can do to help and how are things out there now?
SC: In June this year eleven of my colleagues died in an attack on a remote demining camp in Baghlan Province. Later Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack although it was more likely an armed robbery that went wrong.
We are all very concerned about the situation in Afghanistan and the safety of the two and half thousand HALO staff there, however we have been clearing mines and saving lives in Afghanistan for thirty years, including under Taliban rule, and we have weathered tough times before. Just because we don’t have troops there anymore doesn’t mean that the west can just give up on Afghanistan. No good will come of that. It is important that our government recognises that. Tell your MP!
Slightly less serious questions:
PAJN: What colour is Monday?
SC: Monday is blue, obvs
Who had the idea of coming up with a whisky to go with the advanced reader copies? Because it’s a superb idea!
SC: My editor at Hodder, Nick Sayers, is responsible for the whisky. He is being mysterious about how he acquired them.
PAJN: Last time I asked you what was the question you wished interviewers and readers would ask but never do and your answer was “is it possible to entertain and inform”. Has lockdown and the success of The Stranger altered the questions you get asked and how readers treat you?
SC: I have no idea why I thought that was a good question. I certainly don’t know the answer.
Simon Conway is a former British Army officer and international aid worker. He has cleared landmines and the other debris of war across the world.
As Co-Chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition he successfully campaigned to achieve an international ban on cluster bombs.
He is currently working as Director of Capability for The HALO Trust.
He lives in Edinburgh with his wife the journalist and broadcaster Sarah Smith. He has two daughters. (Biography courtesy of http://www.simonconwaybooks.com)