Colin Falconer, Writing and Researching

(Reposted from Tapawera Book Review, August 2012)

I recently read My Beautiful Spy and put a review up on Tapawera Book Review (http://tapawerabookreview.wordpress.com ).

Mr Falconer made a comment, thanking for the review.  Being the cheeky person I am, I asked if he would consent to doing an interview with me. And he agreed!  So here it is:

 Firstly, I have just read My Beautiful Spy and I was wondering where did the inspiration come from for this story?

My beautiful spyI was researching a novel in Israel and I was in a book store in Jerusalem and came across a book about spying in Istanbul during World War Two. It sounded just like the Humphrey Bogart movie, Casablanca. So I bought it, put it on my bookshelf and left it there for years. Then one day I picked it up and read it and the story jumped out at me. The British and Americans and Nazis all thrown together in one of the world’s most haunting cities, smiling at each other at embassy cocktail parties and then assassinating each other in the bazaars. Fascinating. The girl was my own creation, one of those gloriously enigmatic women that no one ever knows who she is working for and who she is really sleeping with. 

My Beautiful Spy  isn’t your usual run of the mill spy story.  It is based in Bucharest to start with, then Istanbul – why these two places?

Istanbul is one of my favourite cities in the world. I had written about it in HAREM and SERAGLIO, and I was itching to have it as the backdrop of another novel. Bucharest was a revelation. Despite Ceacescu’s depredations, enough of the city is as it was in 1940 to give me a sense of what it was like – especially the Athena Hotel. No one has written much at all about the espionage that went on here in World War Two and the stories I uncovered are just intriguing. 

  What research did you do to find out more about the two cities that the story is based in?

 Istanbul was easy to research, as I already knew my way around the city from previous visits. In Bucharest I stayed with one of foreign co-agents and she had a lot of great contacts. I had access to the city’s photograph library and met a couple of Romanian intelligence officers who were still alive then – one was well into his eighties and met me at the door of his tiny flat in a tie and three piece suit. He was charming. The rest of the research that I did into the British and American intelligence services I did in London. There was some fascinating material; for instance the Germans wanted to negotiate a peaceful surrender but communists like Philby in the British intelligence service stopped them – in order to help Stalin capture half of Europe. All true.

When you write your characters, do you base them on people you have researched?  

Some characters are based on actual real life figures from history, some are entirely fictional. And by that, I mean they are based on people I know in real life who are not from history. 

I loved your characters of Daniela and Nick, how do you make your characters believable? 

As I said, they are based on people in real life. They have great virtues, they have equally great flaws. Like all of us. I don’t have any great technique for writing characters: I know some writers write biographies of their characters before they even start. Me, I just try and imagine what it feels like to be them.

Then I asked him more specific questions about writing:

Which was the first book you wrote and what made you write that?  

I wrote books before I had one published. My first, a rip off of Joseph Heller was just – awful. The second book – even now I’m not sure what it was about – was even worse. The third, a thriller, wasn’t nearly as terrible, just unpublishable. At the time I thought they were all fantastic. I really feel sorry for literary agents now, having to plough through this stuff.

My first published book was a thriller, based on a real story, VENOM. It took me 5 years of rewrites before it was published. I’m a slow learner.

Have you ever felt like you could have done more to a story that has already Colin Falconerbeen edited and published?  Which story and why?

Just about every book I’ve ever written. In fact, with the eBook revolution,  I have revised each and every book before I’ve republished it online. You learn things over the years – I’ve learned more in the last two years than I learned in the previous 20. 

Do you have a set schedule for writing, or just when you have a spare half an hour?  Do you have a special place where you write (like a room, or the couch…)

I used to have a study and a strict schedule – but that was when I had two kids and I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time for them. Since they left home I don’t have such a strict schedule. I can do three 16 hour days in a row then take 3 days off. Everything is about meeting deadlines: doesn’t matter how it happens, as long as it’s done.

I don’t have a study at the moment – I’m between houses, and deciding where to live – so my laptop is my home. I can write pretty much anywhere, coffee shop, train – everywhere except at a footy game, when I get too excited to concentrate.

What do you like to read?

I like to read the sort of books that I write: historical fiction. Books like Wolf Hall, Poisonwood Bible, anything by James Clavell. I’m reading People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks at the moment.

Can you tell us about your latest project?

Next month I have a book out called STIGMATA, which is far and away the best thing I’ve ever done. It’s good to be able to say that; I still feel I’m getting better with each book (which is why I was so happy to be able to revise my backlist online.) I’m currently under a heavy deadline; I’m writing a book set in the time of Alexander the Great. It’s epic in every sense. My publisher suggested it to me: what would have happened if Alexander hadn’t died young? It’s called alternate history. It’s the first time I’ve done it; historical fiction that never happened.

Thank you Colin for your time and answering my questions.

You can check out more of Colin’s work over at http://www.colinfalconer.net

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