Questions and Answers with Simon Conway

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.

Author Bio

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)

Death, Destruction and the Best Spy Novel of the Year


You can read an exclusive Q&A session with Simon Conway here

The terrorist Guy Fowle has escaped from prison.

Jude Lyon of MI-6 has been saved from a Syrian ambush by his lover – and enemy? – Julia Ermolaeva.

A mysterious Russian has been murdered in London and his thumb cut off.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has made an unfortunate social connection at a party, which he hopes he can keep secret.

And suddenly, the world is literally going up in flames.

Jude needs to start putting together the pieces of this jigsaw and quickly, because someone is putting into play a terrifying Russian plan to disable and destroy the UK. Once it has begun, it is designed to be impossible to stop.

Bad enough if that someone is the Russian government. Worse if it is the psychopathic genius Fowle, otherwise known as The Stranger. (Synopsis courtesy of www.hachette.co.uk)

When I reviewed Conway’s initial instalment in this series, ‘The Stranger’ in August 2020, I wrote that it “should propel Conway into the very first rank of thriller writer’s working today.”

I went on to include Conway amongst the top triumvirate of thriller writer’s working today alongside Charles Cummings and Jeremy Duns. Unarguably, ‘The Saboteur’ both confirms this position and propels him further to the very pinnacle of espionage writer’s working today.

Conway’s plot begins in the aftermath of the destruction wrought by psychotic sociopath Guy Fowle on an unprepared London at the end of ‘The Stranger’.

After a daring escape, Fowle manages to get hold of a Russian Doomsday teeing up the most deadly of foes to continue wreaking havoc and also setting up a confrontation with the ying to his yang, our own damaged hero, Jude Lyon.

The main characters of ‘The Saboteur’ are drawn into an exciting death waltz, like John Le Carre’s Smiley and Karla filtered through a big budget Hollywood action thriller from the good old days when Tony Scott was tilting cameras and spraying bullets around.

There is also more crash, bang, wallop than in the first novel too, for those who enjoy that sort of thing. The original outing was a slow burn with a horrifying twist of explosive violence spattered throughout it: this adventure sees reams of blood flowing from day one with Lyon struggling against a ruthless enemy and almost all the decks stacked against him.

Conway’s background allows him to write about the violence with predictably bone-jarring verisimilitude but – and perhaps more importantly from a character development and depth of reading enjoyment point of view – is equally strong on the aftermath of terrible acts on people forced to endure unimaginable suffering.

This is quite simply the spy thriller release of the year so far and I strongly urge you to get hold of a copy as soon as you can.

If you are interested in learning more about Simon Conway, you can read an exclusive Q&A with the author here.

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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 www.simonconwaybooks.com)

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.