A Chat with Simon Conway

Recently, I wrote a review of Simon Conway’s latest novel, ‘The Stranger‘. I was so impressed with the book, I tracked Mr Conway down and asked him for some further information. He graciously agreed.

The Stranger

PAJNewman (PAJ): Jude Lyon is a brilliant character. I notice from my research that there might be some similarity between yourself and Jude in terms of military history and well-travelled childhood. Was this biographical echoing the starting point for the book or was it the themes and issues which drew you to this particular story?

Simon Conway (SC): I’m glad you like Jude. I’m fond of him too. I wouldn’t say he was the starting point though. My characters tend to grow and morph in the telling. They definitely get more autonomous with every draft. Both main characters have a military background and I think that neither of them was an easy fit in the army just as I wasn’t. In Jude I have channelled my principled side but in Guy Fowle I’ve unleashed my inner psychopath. 

PAJ: How do you feel that this novel stacks up against your previous work? Are you pleased with it?

SC: I’m satisfied and I’ve been gratified by the very positive response from early readers. I’d say that there has been a gradual improvement in my writing with more show and less tell. I’ve been trying to adhere to George Orwell’s six tips for writing from his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” – never use a long word where a short one will do; if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out; never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech, which you are used to seeing in print, etc. That’s a good discipline for writing.

PAJ: How long did the book take from beginning to end to write?

SC: It was about eighteen months from beginning to end and then some tinkering at the copy edit stage. And then a delay in publication die to the pandemic. I’m glad to have reached this moment…

PAJ: The Iraq invasion obviously casts a long shadow over this novel, do you feel this is going to be an issue which we ever resolve as a democracy? Do you feel it still plays into our relationship with terrorism in the UK today?

SC: I think that if we are going to occupy countries in the name of protecting their populace or delivering democracy and freedom, we need to get a hell of a lot better at it and we need to recognise that it is a long-term commitment that lasts for decades.

There is no easy exit strategy. The shadow of the Iraq war is a long one: the chaos that it created fatally poisoned the New Labour project and it has a de-stabilising effect across the region, spurring the growth of Islamic State and allowing Iran to extend its influence.

The images from Abu Ghraib and the illegal rendition programme radicalised a generation of young Muslims. The collapse of Syria has led to one of the largest refugee crises ever. We bear some responsibility and we have to own up to that. 

PAJ: At the moment, do you think The Stranger is going to be a standalone or do you envisage this as the beginning of a new series?

SC: You’ll definitely be reading more about Jude Lyon. There’s plenty still to be revealed.

Personal

PAJ: Who are your biggest influences as a writer?

SC: I read widely and across genres. I’ve certainly been influenced by some of the big beasts of modern American literature – Norman Mailer, Robert Stone, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Pynchon. Contemporary writers that I enjoy include Nick Harkaway, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Chris Beckett, Paul McAulay and Louise Welsh. 

In my own genre, John Le Carré, Martin Cruz Smith and Graham Greene are heroes. For the Stranger, I wanted to write a classic thriller and Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day of the Jackal was a significant influence in that in that it builds towards a single attack and you have the juxtaposition of the increasingly desperate manhunt and the villain’s methodical preparations. 

PAJ: What inspired your move into the military after you finished your degree at Edinburgh?

SC: After I left university, I was working in a night club in New York and trying to write a novel.  I wrote 28 pages in a year which is pretty poor. I needed discipline. Many of the writers that I respected had served in the military or seen conflict. So, on a whim, I shaved my head and joined the army. One thing that surprised me was the number of other soldiers I met who also had a problem with authority. 

I was living in Lebanon as a child a particularly formative experience that resonates through this novel? I can’t help feeling like the Middle East is represented in an affectionate and nuanced way in the novel.

I am very fond of the Middle East. It has so many intelligent and articulate people let down by bad government and lousy politicians. Some of my earliest memories are of Syria and Lebanon and it is a tragedy what has happened to those places. In 1976 I was on holiday with my parents in Syria. I persuaded them to buy me a Syrian army uniform and I wore it as we crossed back into Lebanon. The Syrian army invaded Lebanon a few hours later. I was the first across the line! 

I’ve been back to both countries, to Lebanon in 2006 after the south was pummelled with several million cluster munitions and to Syria in 2015 after Islamic State left behind huge quantities of improvised explosive devices across the north east. 

PAJ: Was the war in Syria at the forefront of your move into working with Article 36?


SC: My position on the board of the weapons control organisation Article 36 grew out of my part in the campaign to ban cluster munitions. Article 36 of the Geneva conventions, which the organisation was named for, require states to consider the impact on civilians of their weapons before they use them. When you look at the devastated cities of a country like Syria you can see that its rulers either don’t care about the effect of their weapons on ordinary people or are deliberately, maliciously targeting them. 

PAJ: Would you like to speak about your work with HALO? Where are we as a nation with regard to refugees and the fall out from the conflict in Syria in your opinion? What can people who want to help do? What is the best link or course of action which people could access?

SC: My role within The HALO Trust is to start projects in new countries which means I am usually the first person on the ground, getting to know the power brokers on the ground and negotiating access. Since 2015, the focus of my efforts has been clearing the debris of war in the Middle East and I have established new projects in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. The devastation in urban areas and the industrial-scale use of improvised explosive devices by Islamic State and other armed groups pose particular risks to clearance operators.

Once the projects are set up and running, I hand them off to my colleagues to run. Currently I still retain command of our Libya programme, where we have an in-country team who are having to deal with an ongoing conflict with rapidly shifting front lines and multiple outside actors including Turkey, Russia, UAE and Egypt. The team are currently surveying booby-trapped front lines in the south of the capital Tripoli which were abandoned by Russian mercenaries from the private military company Wagner Group. 

We are doing a lot to help. The taxpayers of western nations are incredibly generous through the aid and assistance that they provide. The UK is world leader in the delivery of aid and we should be proud of that. People need to recognise that helping to create stability abroad is a vital investment that helps keeps us safe at home.

Keeping pressure on the politicians to use our aid money wisely and strategically is of course vital and I think we should be directing more of it towards resolving conflict. I also think we need to do close the tax havens which allow corrupt rulers to steal and stash away the wealth of developing nations. There’s no point giving with one hand if we’re accepting dirty money with the other. 

PAJ: What is the question you wish interviewers and readers would ask but never do?

SC: Is it possible to both entertain and inform? I think so, if it’s deftly done without ramming the information down the reader’s throat. I hope that readers enjoy The Stranger but also come away with a greater understanding of some of the more lawless corners of the world.

Thanks so much to Simon for speaking to me. ‘The Stranger’ is available here and at all good bookshops (and, presumably, some average ones too). Simon’s website is here. Simon can be found on Twitter here and you can hear more from the man himself from our friends over at Spybrary here.

Author Simon Conway set to triumph with ‘The Stranger’

Scottish author Simon Conway’s fifth novel looks poised to position him as one of the best authors working in the thriller genre today c

Full confession: I’d heard of Simon Conway but this is the first novel of his that I have read. Frankly, after this, my ignorance shames me and, I mean this sincerely, this piece should propel Conway into the very first rank of thriller writer’s working today. 

A world of smoke and mirrors

The Stranger centres on Jude Lyon, an SIS officer, dispatched by his duplicitous Head of Service, Queen Bee, to track down a legendary terrorist who was taken to Syria back when we didn’t do that sort of thing. Honest. 

But this terrorist is not all that he seems. And neither is anyone else in this novel.

As well as Lyon, a lead character with a love life complicated enough to make George Smiley blush, and Queen Bee, the smoke and mirrors head of the security services, the novel is populated with a fascinating cacophony of characters, including a squirming semi-alcoholic former Foreign Secretary, a Scottish journalist with a professional and personal interest in Lyon and a Russian diplomat and his wife who may or may not be luring Jude towards the rocks of disaster. 

Conway’s plots are onion layered: peeling back one skin at a time. He manages that neat trick so often missing in this type of novel which makes plot reveals seem inevitable and surprising rather outlandish or tediously predictable. 

His storytelling remind me of the best of Charles Cumming or Jeremy Duns – engaging, jigsaw tight, satisfying at the end but with potential for expansion in a future work. 

Descriptive passages Martin Amis would be proud of

He writes well too. “Jude’s immigrant provenance is equally exotic and fragmentary, shot through with competing veins of conformity and criminality, from a cigar-chomping bank robber for a grandfather to a general given to eccentricity and dark moods for a father,” is the sort of descriptive passage that Martin Amis at his most interesting would have been proud of. 

And, while it is true, Conway’s novel doesn’t – of necessity – have the same laugh out loud quality of some of Mick Herron’s novels, “Jonno Butcher, one of Cathy’s seemingly inexhaustible supply of meat-faced nephews,” is a description of which even the Slough House author would be proud.

I will be surprised if it emerges that Conway is not a fan of Le Carré. In fact, I’m not sure if it’s an affectionate nod to Le Carré, or merely to do with the abundance of such names in the region, but all the characters from the Caucuses we encounter in the book have names from Le Carré’s novels, especially ‘Our Game’.

Perhaps the most impressive area is that of the terrorists. He makes them well-rounded, whole characters who you don’t mind spending time with. Terrifying, yes, but nuanced and engaging too.

A crash, bang, wallop conclusion done with joie de vivre 

The ending of The Stranger may be slightly crash, bang, wallop for some people’s tastes but even this is done with enjoyable joie de vivre and edge of the seat inducing tension as well as some final plot twists which make me hope that this is not a standalone novel but the first in a series.

Overall, a triumph of a novel that makes me long for the opportunity to encounter Jude Lyon and his world again. 

Just need to go back and read Simon Conway’s back catalogue now. Whole-heartedly recommended.

Slow Horses Still Glued Up

Slough House’ is dirty; ‘Spook Street’: deadly. Now we have the duplicity of ‘Joe Country’ – perhaps the next stop for Mick Herron’s ‘Slow Horses’ will be a devious ‘Intelligence Continent’?

As it is, ‘Joe Country’ is a fine addition to the series. Few writers can weave such deft description and pacy plotting – garnished with lashings of humour and even dashes of pathos – as Herron and each novel builds to a crescendo in which the reader is left feeling both traumatised and hungry for the next instalment.

There’s little doubt that Herron is a confident writer at the top of his game. This series has become famous for its openings: Dickensian wanders through locations in an omniscient voice quite unlike other writers working today. Here, he sheds this trope, instead opting for a reveal different to the structure of the other texts.

His confidence has also been apparent for a while in his wanton profligacy with his characters. It must take iron nerves for a writer to dispose of such well-rounded, independent characters brimming with such vim and spark as these Slow Horses. And yet, here again, Herron is prepared to dispose of them with abandon. As in the old TV series Spooks (MI:5 in the US), no one is safe and this means no reader can ever truly relax that their favourite character won’t end up at the knackers yard in the next ten pages.

Finally, there is Jackson Lamb. A Rabelaisian grotesque, becoming progressively more grotesque by the novel. And, in truth, Lamb is actually my biggest quibble of this first rate book. He dominates the proceedings so completely that you pine for his nastiness when he is off stage. This is Banquo as central character, relegating Macbeth to bit part player by sheer force of personality (or blackened toe wiggling through undarned sock, if you will).

There are a few minor worries deriving from Lamb which I hope are me being hyper critical. He keeps “appearing” and “vanishing” like an obese Paul Daniels – or a less creepy David Blaine – and I hope this doesn’t signal either Lamb as supernatural entity or that Herron is now so successful that he has entered the realm of the uneditable: too grand for repetitions to be noted and corrected. I think not on the whole.

Joe Country’ is proof, if any were needed, that Herron stands at the pinnacle of the espionage genre, (possibly snug on the heights with Jeremy Duns and Charles Cumming). Others have already noted it is not a book which would reward readers unfamiliar with the series but for all that, I hope the Slow Horses have many more races left to run.

In short: Horses far from in need of the knacker’s yard: 4/5*

  • Other details:
  • ISBN: 9781473660359
  • Publication date: 20 Jun 2019
  • Imprint: John Murray

Thanks to Netgalley for the advance copy