Today I am very happy to get to ask James Swallow a few questions about his thriller “Nomad” – a book I loved and you can find my review after the interview. James Swallow is a British author and scriptwriter, a New York Times Bestseller and BAFTA nominee. He is the author of over forty original books and tie-in novels, as well as numerous short stories, audio dramas and videogames.
His writing includes Nomad, the Sundowners series of Western fiction steampunk novels, Jade Dragon, The Butterfly Effect and fiction from the worlds of Star Trek, Warhammer, 40,000, Doctor Who, 24, Deus Ex, Stargate, Tannhauser and 2000AD.
First of all thank you because Nomad was one HECK of a read, I didn’t think I’d ever find a thriller I loved as much as I Am Pilgrim but here it is – I’d like to open by asking about scene setting – Nomad opens explosively and surprisingly, you don’t give a reader any settle in time – how do you go about plotting the “set scenes” if you like…and is that what works for you as a reader? Just being thrown in at the deep end?
Thanks for the kind words, I’m pleased you enjoyed Nomad!
I have a very visual writing style – I think that comes from my background as a scriptwriter – and so I like to go for the epic moments in a narrative. With any story, I think it is important to hook the reader early on, and more so in a thriller where the currency of the tale is action. I like to read stories that draw me in from the start, and I tend to write the kind of thing that I’d enjoy as a reader! I like fictional worlds that are rich in detail but not bogged down by it. High speed and low drag.
Is it a very different mindset that you have to use to write a novel as opposed to when you are writing a script? I’m always fascinated by the positioning of both – presumably script writing has very different challenges at work than novel writing, could you talk a little about that? And putting you on the spot, do you have a preference?
At the end of the day, it’s all just writing. Characters and drama are the bedrock of stories no matter what medium you express them through. But it is true that prose and scripts have very different ways of letting you express those things. I think of it as having two different toolkits, each with specific strengths and weaknesses, each tailored to the medium you’re using. The challenges of scripts versus books are very different, but I like that about them. It allows you to exercise different writerly muscles.
I don’t really have a preference; scripts can be faster to write but books give you more control over the narrative.
In “Nomad” Marc Dane is very much a man in isolation, trying to get to the bottom of some nefarious goings on and hopefully saving himself in the process – I loved how he used skills he even surprised himself by having, despite his intriguing background. What was your original inspiration for the character? Was he first in line so to speak and you built the other characters and story around him?
Marc Dane grew out of a desire I had to mess around with a trope that we often see in action thrillers – the “bloke in the van”, who is always on the side-lines while the door-kickers and trigger-pullers are in the thick of the action. I wondered what would happen if a tech-savvy character who wasn’t immediately the tough guy got dragged out of his comfort zone and into the middle of the danger. I wanted to write about a hero who isn’t an elite black-ops badass, but instead someone who has to rely on wits, adaptability and resourcefulness in order to win through.
I worked on Nomad’s characters and plotline in tandem, and in the end I think I got a story that meshes well with Marc and the rest of the cast of heroes and villains.
You have been at this writing lark for a while, can you name a career highlight for you? And perhaps a low as well in case we get too over excitable…
I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve got to work on a lot of cool things in my career to date. I’ve had the opportunity to tell tales about favourite characters in fictional worlds that have given me a lot of enjoyment, but I think the thing than always lifts me is seeing a book on the shelf with my name on it. Being able to hold it in my hand and think “I made this” just never gets old.
As for a low point? For every success I’ve had, there have been the cancelled projects and the gigs that turned out to be a nightmare, but I’ve learned to be sanguine about those. As engineers and scientists say, “there’s no such thing as failure, just more data”…
Nomad works on so many levels – a banging thriller that does not compromise on character development and depth – how easy is it to walk that line? After all you need a reader to care about the people in the story but you also want them to get that adrenalin rush expected from a novel labelled “thriller”
I’m an instinctive writer, for the most part. I try to just get in there and write what feels right for the story and the characters. But I also work hard at plotting in detail, and with Nomad I think I did that more than I had with any other book to this point. I tend to revise as I go, so as I’m working on the next chapter, I’m analysing what has come before and what will come after. Being able to keep the whole shape of the story in your head helps to make things consistent.
I don’t suppose you can give a little bit away about what might be next? Or would you then have to kill me….
Marc Dane will be back in the summer of 2017; I’m deep in the work on that next novel right now, and it will be set a year on from the events of Nomad. Set adrift after what took place in the previous novel, Marc finds himself drawn back into a dangerous pursuit to track down a weapon of mass destruction…
Research research – Nomad had a huge level of authenticity in the feeling of it, tell me what does your speed dial look like? Perhaps I should ask who you might call if there was a body needing burying…
I’ve got a good list of people with plenty of, shall we say, esoteric knowledge! Thanks to them and my intent from the start to try and ground my stories in the real world, I’ve taken a deep dive into many different areas of research in an attempt to keep that authentic tone.
Nomad is absolutely fiction, and I’m not trying to write gritty realism here. I always err on the side of drama, but I hope I can earn the trust of the reader by making the amazing moments feel possible.
Finally, just for fun, tell us one thing about you that maybe not many people know…
I have a lot of hats. Way more than I ever wear.
Thank you so much!
My pleasure, thanks for your questions!
About the book:
Available Now from Bonnier Zaffre
Marc Dane is a MI6 field agent at home behind a computer screen, one step away from the action. But when a brutal attack on his team leaves Marc as the only survivor – and with the shocking knowledge that there are traitors inside MI6 – he’s forced into the front line.
However the evidence seems to point towards Marc as the perpetrator of the attack. Accused of betraying his country, he must race against time to clear his name.
With nowhere to turn to for help and no one left to trust, Marc is forced to rely on the elusive Rubicon group and their operative Lucy Keyes. Ex US Army, Lucy also knows what it’s like to be an outsider, and she’s got the skills that Marc is sorely lacking.
A terrorist attack is coming, one bigger and more deadly than has ever been seen before. With the eyes of the security establishment elsewhere, only Lucy and Marc can stop the attack before it’s too late.
I loved Nomad. A totally banging thriller, a modern day spy story with a great main protagonist in Marc – forced out of his comfort zone and onto the front line in the fight against terrorism, you are with him all the way.
Nomad starts explosively and does not really let up – it is a beautifully written thrill ride of a novel that ticks all the boxes, has an underlying intelligence that allows contemplation as well as adrenalin rush and keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout. A book where you turn the last page and immediately want more – so its a good thing that this is only the start.
Its scary stuff too – there is a new weapon out there, horribly believable, standing between it and the wider world is one man who is not really best placed to save us – another thing that I really thought was great and brought a lot of realism to the wider story. Marc has skills but often gets through things with more luck than judgment – enter Lucy Keyes, another fasinating character and a great “sidekick” to have along for the ride.
It is a twisty journey for sure, trust no-one, seriously Marc could probably have done with a little help from Fox Muldur on that score – James Swallow has a fantastically gripping writing style, the story works on many levels all of them good ones. There is enough technical wizardry to keep the geek in us happy, some terrifically well drawn and fascinating characters quite apart from Marc himself and some beautifully immersive action scenes that will have you hanging off every word…
Nomad is utterly gripping, cleverly plotted and one hell of a thriller. Highly Recommended.
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