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.

Teen Spy on Point

Full disclosure: I came to this series a fan of the books. I think Anthony Horowitz’s (@anthonyhorowitz) Baby Bond character, now spanning at least 12 novels, is one of the prime reasons why young adult fiction continued to thrive post its initial Potter boom.

I saw the 2006 Stormbreaker adaptation which was, perhaps,  a little “too full of blue sky thinking” really. But I was well disposed towards this and my hopes went up when I realised that they are skating over the top of most of Stormbreaker, the novel, and really beginning with Point Blanc, my enthusiasm increased not least because I think this is probably the best novel in the whole of the Alex Rider series.

So, was I disappointed? Nope. I think, considering the crowded market, the pressure of adapting novels as popular as this, Eleventh Hour TV and Amazon Prime have done an exceptional job.

Casting Otto Farrant (Thomas Grey in The White Queen) as the eponymous lead no doubt attracted some negativity because he’s 20 rather than the 14 that Alex Rider is in the novels but he’s is really good as a slightly ageless late teen and it allows the character to look very convincing in the fighting and action scenes which are put together brilliantly.

One of the points about the novels which made them such a best seller is that although this is Junior James Bond, the actual world of espionage is seen almost through a jaded Le Carre-esque haze of internecine squabbles, blackmail and skulduggery. Rider is a reluctant spy forced to do the bidding of a morality-free state by adults exploiting his skills. There is no shying away from that in this adaptation.

In fact, far from shying away, the production design reflects. Gone are the primary colours of the earlier movie. Here, MI6 is rendered in greys and ash tones. The very strong supporting cast playing Alan Blunt (Game of Thrones Stephen Dillane and Line of Duty’s always excellent Vicky McClure are rooted in this world and seems to exist in a gunmetal sepia which is atmospheric and adds tension and verisimilitude to the whole series.

Added to this mix, Ronke Adekoluejo (Dr Who) as house keeper Jack Starbright and Alex’s best friend Tom Harris, another Games of Thrones alum Brenock O’Connor, a character vastly expanded from the novels, are both very well drawn and manage that difficult task of being real, rounded characters as well as vehicles for exposition and moving the story on.

The set design for Point Blanc is breathtakingly good – you can smell all of that Amazon money just pouring off the screen – and the action set pieces (the make shift snowboard, if you know, you know) are done brilliantly. Being the stunt co-ordinator on this project must have been

The sound design is also a huge bonus. Both the tension building scenes and the action are underpinned by some subtle yet effective scores and, always a bonus, there is a belter of an opening theme tune by London artist Samm Henshaw. I wouldn’t be against EON coming and sniffing around Henshaw for the next grown up Bond theme, although there’s every chance Farrant will be in an old folk’s home by the time they get around to making whatever comes after No Time to Die.

Is it perfect? No, but what is? Guy Burt has done a superb job with adapting Horowitz’s world but occasionally the dialogue is a bit clunky. There is an actual “They crossed the line,”
“No, they can’t even see the line anymore,” exchange which is just… Ouch.

Also, I’m fairly sure the street where Alex lives bears an uncanny resemblance to the one from BBC comedy Outnumbered which did keep making me expect Hugh Denis to wander out on the street and tell everyone to keep it down, which did pull me out of the story a little.

Finally, there is also something of a question about exactly who this is marketed towards – but teens are by their nature neither fully adult nor fully children and that does sit well with the tone of this production which is too violent for little kids but perhaps too slow moving for distracted second screeners?

However, any show with the charm and confidence to have a character wear a t-shirt saying, The Book Was Better, has got to be worth watching, right? Roll on Season Two!