Africa Scene: Tony Park

Strong Female Characters Drive Narrative
in Park’s 16th Thriller

By Michael Sears

Tony Park is the acclaimed author of 16 thrillers all set in southern Africa, as well as six biographical books. His latest novel, SCENT OF FEAR, features intriguing characters (some of them canine!) and plenty of twists to keep the reader guessing and the pages turning.

The book addresses the current poaching crisis, where big money from the Far East chases rhino horns, lion bones, and ivory. In that way it’s similar to Michael Stanley’s new book Shoot the Bastards, but while Stanley chose an outsider to become embroiled in the issues, Park focuses on them through the people right at the front.

An Australian, he has worked as a reporter, a press secretary, a PR consultant, and a freelance writer. He also served 34 years in the Australian army reserve, including a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Park and his wife, Nicola, now split their time between two homes—one in Sydney, and one in South Africa near the Kruger Park.

The Times of London has described Park as the “spiritual heir” to Wilbur Smith, while Publisher’s Weekly said he “excels at capturing the wilds of (Africa), as well as its political and commercial pressures.”

Park will be speaking on a panel, “Drones, Tanks or Special OPs? Today’s Military Thriller” at ITW’s ThrillerFest this month. Catch up with him there—but first, check out this The Big Thrill interview.

Tony, you’ve chosen to set all your fiction in southern Africa. What first attracted you to this region of the world, and what persuaded you that this was where you wanted to set your stories?

My wife! Nicola is the planner in our relationship and she decided back in 1995 that we should go on a three-week safari holiday to South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Botswana. I’d never had any great desire to travel in Africa, but was more than happy to go along. I was unprepared for the staggering beauty and wildness of the continent. All of it—wildlife, people, landscape, history, culture—blew me away and what was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime holiday turned into a life changing experience.

Park says Africa is where he found true inspiration for his writing. 

We went back to Africa the next year and every year since, save 2002 when I went to Afghanistan with the army. In 1996 I left full time work to follow my life’s goal of writing a novel and while my first manuscript, set in Australia, justifiably never saw the light of day, my second attempt, written on our third trip to southern Africa, was published in 2004 as Far Horizon. Africa is where I found my true inspiration.

In SCENT OF FEAR, Christine Glover owns a game farm, which she bought to save its lions from canned hunting, but her real business is running an anti-poaching unit in the Sabi Sand game reserve. A difficult job to start with, it becomes impossible when the poachers start using explosive booby traps to injure and disable her team members. The tension is heightened because there’s both a love and a business triangle involving her—her former husband Sean, who nearly cost her the farm, is one of her team, and Craig, her current lover, manages the unit. The tension builds between the internal conflicts of the characters and the external threats from the poachers. How did you go about intertwining the two aspects of the story in order to achieve this?

I don’t plot my novels at all—I just make them up as I go along. The risk with writing this way is that I can have two or more plotlines running at the same time and not know how to bring them all together at the end. I wanted to highlight a couple of issues in SCENT OF FEAR, which you’ve touched on, and it seemed like Christine’s complicated personal life was a way to find common ground between them and bring them to some sort of conclusion as she and the men in her life all face up to their personal demons. Basically, it involves a lot of re-writing of the first draft!

Park at work in Africa.

Tumi is a strong character. An outsider driven to the anti-poaching unit by a compulsion to try to save animals and her failure to raise the funds to become a vet, she is tough and resourceful, but has much to learn. In spite of his own problems, Sean takes her under his wing and the two form a close partnership. Eventually they are forced to take matters into their own hands and follow the poachers to Mozambique where they only have each other for support. Is there a message here about South Africa finally moving away from racial and cultural stereotypes 25 years after the first democratic elections?

One of the biggest transformational changes I’ve noticed in the past 25 years is in South Africa’s Kruger Park, near where I live. While the park was, during the apartheid era and into the late ’90s, very much the preserve of white tourists, it’s now common to see African moms and dads and kids enjoying the country’s wildlife. That’s flowing on to more young African people pursuing careers in wildlife conservation. As well as racial stereotypes being broken down, we’ve also seen some positive change in gender stereotypes lately, with the creation of all-female anti-poaching units—previously the domain of men—in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Tumi is typical of a new generation of young women joining the frontline war to save wildlife and, I’m pleased to say, she’s also representative of a change I’ve noticed in my readership. While my books might present as entertainment for middle-aged white guys, most of my readers are women, and I’m pleased to say many of them these days are young women like Tumi.

The tracker dogs are the backbone of Christine’s operation. One of the dogs, Benny, is an important character in his own right. It’s clear that you know a great deal about the use of dogs in these types of conflict situations. Was that from your time in Afghanistan?

In Afghanistan the coalition forces re-learned an old lesson that dogs are not only man’s best friend, but also one of our greatest allies and weapons in wartime. Explosive Detection Dogs saved countless lives during that conflict and others, and I wrote a non-fiction book, War Dogs, with an Australian guy, Shane Bryant, who served as a contract dog handler with the US Special Forces in the early days of war in Afghanistan. A few of Shane’s exploits and his dog Benny, whose name I “borrowed” for my fictitious canine hero, made it into SCENT OF FEAR.

African animals—such as this lion—play an important role in Park’s work.

You say that you have three “golden rules” of research: (1) Do not rely on the internet, (2) Find an expert, and (3) Research retrospectively. What led you to these three “golden rules,” and how did they apply to SCENT OF FEAR?

Making plenty of mistakes led me to these rules. You can find anything you want on the internet and not all of it is accurate. Also, time spent online is better spent writing.  If I don’t know something when I’m writing—for example, in Scent of Fear, the words of command for working with tracker dogs or the precise way in which the dogs are employed—I simply make something up and put the word “check” in the manuscript. When I finished the first draft of the book I went through it and found that not all of the technical stuff I had written was needed.

Then, I found an expert, in fact a team of experts, working in a canine anti-poaching unit in South Africa’s Sabi Sand Game Reserve, near where I live. I went to them, retrospectively after the manuscript was substantially finished, and asked them specific questions.

I find working this way avoids the temptation to immerse oneself in research rather than writing and, secondly, it saves the valuable time of my expert sources. Instead of saying to a tracker dog handler: “Tell me how you do your job,” I was able to ask specifics, such as: “What command do you use to make your dog attack, and how long is the dog’s leash when you’re on patrol at night?”

The best outcome, which happened with SCENT OF FEAR, is to have your expert source, in this case a dog handler, read the manuscript and correct any errors.

Tony Park
Photo credit: Annelien Oberholzer

At the end of the book we are left with the feeling that stemming the poaching tide by force alone is almost impossible. You yourself live near the Kruger Park close to the heart of these issues. What’s your take on it?

There are similarities between the war against poaching and the global war against terror. You can have the best military and weapons in the world, but until you stop impressionable people falling for terrorists’ propaganda, or consumers buying rhino horn, elephant ivory, or other wildlife products, you will never win. In South Africa there are great men and women in uniform—and dogs—doing a fantastic job holding the line in the war to protect wildlife, but what is needed is more effort, will, and money spent outside of Africa in the countries that consume valuable illegal wildlife products. I’m an optimist and I remain hopeful, and I like to try and highlight the good work being done, as well as the problems. There is no doubt that tracker dogs and their handlers have done an outstanding job already—man’s best friend is a poacher’s worst nightmare and where dogs are used, poaching has decreased.

Can you give us some clues about your next book?

My 17th novel, Ghosts of the Past, is due out in September 2019. It’s based on the true story of a young Australian man who served in the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa in the early 20th century and stayed on in Africa to join a fight across the border in the South West Africa (now Namibia) where he sided with local African rebels taking on the might of the German empire. There’s a love story and a missing treasure thrown in for good measure.

 

Michael Sears

Michael Sears writes with Stanley Trollip under the name Michael Stanley. Their latest thriller Shoot the Bastards introduces Minnesotan environmental journalist Crystal Nguyen. Set mainly in South Africa, it has as backstory the vicious trade in rhino horn. Their award-winning mystery series, featuring Detective Kubu, is set in Botswana, a fascinating country with magnificent conservation areas and varied peoples.The latest book in the series is Dying to Live with a prequel Facets of Death out in the winter.

Michael has lived in South Africa, Kenya, Australia and the US.He now lives in Knysna on the Cape south coast of South Africa. Please visit his website and follow him on Facebook.
Michael Sears

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