By J. F. Penn
Scott Mariani is the author of the acclaimed action-adventure thriller series featuring ex-SAS hero, Ben Hope. Scott’s novels have topped the bestseller charts in his native Britain, and are translated into more than twenty languages worldwide.
His next book THE NEMESIS PROGRAM, is available in the U.S., Feb 15, 2015.
Tell us a bit more about yourself, and how you got into writing.
The first book in the Ben Hope series came out in 2007, so that goes back a little while, and obviously, like everybody in this game, I’d been trying for a million years to get into writing. That sounds familiar, I’m sure. Eventually, it did happen, but it was a long road, like it is for loads of people. Some are obviously luckier than that, but for me it was a long road. I suppose it’s a cliché to say that one grew up writing little stories and all this kind of stuff, so I guess that writing is something of a disease that you catch early on in life, that then gets more and more chronic as you age, and it’s something you’re probably born with. So it’s nice, after all these years, to be able to say I am now doing this for a living.
Did you have another day job before writing?
I’ve had all sorts of jobs, some of them more interesting than others, like playing music. And, I’ve done a variety of things, like translation work in several languages. But writing was what I always wanted to do, really.
What languages do you speak?
I studied French and German, and I’ve got a French background, although my surname’s Italian, but it’s really from just outside of Nice, from the French side, so I’m sort of bilingual between French and English. I’m supposed to be able to speak German, but that, frankly, is something that fell by the wayside many years ago. I can understand a certain smattering of other languages, too, but those are the only two, French and English.
You mention you had a few jobs, but your books have been described as “James Bond meets Jason Bourne.” Was one of your jobs an ex-SAS hero, like Ben Hope?
I would say, but I’m not allowed to talk about it! No, seriously, I’m about as military as carpet slippers. I’ve known a few people who have done things that they can’t really talk about much, but myself, no. Jason Bourne, James Bond, forget it. The closest I ever came to that world is via Ben Hope, my character, although obviously, I’ve had to learn and do a lot of research about his world, and that kind of background. But it’s not me: far from it!
I think a lot of thriller writers are the same—I write a female version of James Bond meets Jason Bourne and Lara Croft. But how much of you is in Ben Hope? What parts of Ben are based on you?
I think inevitably, when you’ve written a whole load of books based on one character, the character feels so much a part of you that aspects of yourself are going to start bleeding in the other direction into the character. You’re going to start reflecting the odd thing about yourself and your interests, or maybe certain points of view and things.
Apart from the fact that Ben is a completely different person from me, there are similarities. He went to the same college as me, which was Christchurch, Oxford. He studied Theology, whereas I studied Modern Languages. He’s approximately the same aga, a bit younger than me. He has to be a bit younger than me, otherwise he’d be an old fogey! He has a rather pronounced liking for single malt whiskey, which I’m actually sitting here drinking a glass of right now. The sun is over the yard-arm, and it’s dark outside, so I think I’m allowed. I think Ben is probably more conservative in his views than I am, possibly. He likes dogs: I love dogs. But they’re only small things—he really is not an extension of me at all. I’m just a quiet guy who doesn’t really want to travel anywhere, who just wants to sit and write books and wear glasses.
There is a sense in Ben that he does want to just have a quiet life, and then things just keep happening!
We probably share that, as well. I’m someone who does enjoy a peaceful environment: I’m not a recluse or a hermit or anything like that, but he does have that in common with me. Ben does seek out the sea. He loves the sea—I love the sea. I grew up by the sea, and he loves beaches. Not the kind of beaches that you lie on, baking. I mean the kind of empty, wintry beaches that you can walk along for miles without meeting anybody. That’s something I would go for as well, and in fact where I live in Wales, there’s a lot of that. It’s nice to be able to go out to some completely empty beach with a ruined castle on it or something and walk along there. I think Ben would enjoy that. So, I suppose, when you stop to think about it: there are similarities between us.
He’s much wilder and more crazy than me. He takes all sorts of mad risks and when it comes down to it, when he gets the bugle call and goes off into action, I think there’s a part of him that enjoys that.
So, you mentioned Oxford, where we both went to University. I wondered if you could talk about what Oxford means to you and how it features in some of your books.
I was one of those people that hung around in Oxford after graduation and I did a variety of jobs and lived in the city for a while. Eventually I moved out of the city, and went to live in West Oxfordshire, which is a more rural area of market towns and little villages, near the Cotswolds. I ended up living there until eventually I decided I wanted something even more rural and even quieter, so I came out to Wales. That was about 15 years ago.
I have fond memories, and not-so-fond memories of my time there in Oxford. I haven’t really been back very much, but I do remember the city very well, and so it has featured in a number of books. In The Alchemist’s Secret, the first of the Ben Hope books, Ben is in Oxford, he goes to visit one of his professors, and I think again in the third book, The Doomsday Prophecy, he’s there again. Ben’s got this on-off relationship with his theology studies, which he never completed, so now and again, he gets bitten by this bug—he’s got to go back and finish his studies. So every so often he gravitates in the direction of Oxford.
Again, later on, in The Nemesis Program, we see him having decided that he wants to go back to that life, and he’s now living actually in Oxford, in a place called Jericho.
My character, Morgan Sierra, also has a house in Jericho. We must share the same memories!
Ah, well, you know, Jericho’s just such a cool name, isn’t it? As soon as you talk about Oxford, you have to mention Jericho, because it’s just fantastic. It’s also a very nice area. I lived in Jericho, on a little street, Walton Well Road, and it goes down towards Port Meadows. When I lived there, there was a massive metal works and it was all smoky and dusty, and all the cars would get covered in black dust, but now I think it’s all gone yuppified, and totally different. It’s strange, isn’t it?
Why did you have Ben Hope study Theology?
Ben had actually grown out of another character who never materialized for another story, originally, going way back. He was going to be a young guy who came from a very scientific family, who’d rebelled against that and was training to be a minister, and was then going to get embroiled in all sorts of escapades of good versus evil. And that was his name, Ben Hope, and I thought that was a really strong name. Ben Hope became the Ben Hope he now is. I held onto the name and the theological thing.
There was something inherently dramatic, especially considering the fact that he then walked away from his theology studies to pursue a military life. Basically, without going into too much detail, in the middle of his theology degree, Ben had awful things happen to him in his life. His family completely fell apart—I won’t say why, I don’t want to spoil the books. He freaked out, left university, quit his studies and joined the British Army. He then discovered that he had a talent for soldiering, so he joined the SAS and went on to become a major in the SAS. I think that was a nice dichotomy, inherently interesting, the idea of a man who had some sort of religious background and obviously some kind of faith. It’s a bit shaky, although he never quite loses it, but he keeps coming back to it.
I realize that you don’t need necessarily to be a Christian believer to study Theology. Some are, some aren’t. But in Ben’s case, he was going to pursue the Church. Instead, he completely switched rails, and he went off in an entirely new direction, which he later abandoned. He is often tempted to return to the Church—he’s not a tub-thumping Christian, he doesn’t go around preaching to people—so I think for Ben, the Church symbolizes peace. It symbolizes stability and tranquility and a sense of serenity, and all the things that he craves the most in his life. But every time it looks as if he’s going to get his peace—bang—something happens, and it’s all denied to him again. So I think it’s really a symbol of something for him, more than anything.
What are the themes that you return to in your books?
There is always a historical element. I’m very interested in history, but also the Ben Hope books belong to a certain genre which grew from Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code.
In that genre, there’s always some kind of historical theme running through each book. Ben’s not a historian—he’s not even interested in history—but it’s interesting from my point of view, having to find something that’s going to happen, some intrigue that involves history but has a relevance today, that somehow manages to involve Ben. There’s always a different way in which Ben manages to get embroiled in these historical things.
With regard to the modern-day element, there’s very often a conspiracy involved, sometimes on a huge, epic scale, sometimes involving massive global forces, other times involving more private conspiracies, and more low-key things involving maybe just one individual or a few individuals. I’ll very often find a character with suicide not really being suicide, or with people being bumped off because they know too much or they’ve discovered something or found out something and they become dangerous or a threat, and somebody’s out to get them. Of course then Ben Hope has to come in at a certain point and sort things out. But the conspiracy element is something I quite enjoy. And some of them, one could believe in, I think.
I wouldn’t say that I was a huge conspiracy buff, but I definitely have dark opinions about a lot of things that go on in the world, to the point where I couldn’t really discuss them too openly, because I’d probably get assassinated or something. But yes, there are a lot of very terrible things happening in this world, and we are not told the truth about very many of them, which of course forms a wonderful resource for people like me who can conjecture from that.
There’s also a lot of action and shooting and driving and cool chase scenes in your books. How do you do the research, and do you do some of those thrilling things yourself?
The driving part is all imaginary, because I’m a very, very timorous, slow, unadventurous driver! I drive an old Landrover, which physically can’t do more than about 45 miles an hour, so all this sort of high-speed stuff is just my imagination. I have done a lot of shooting and things in the past. I was, back in the day, a pistol shooter, before they banned it in Britain.
I still shoot. I do a lot of target shooting but I don’t kill things. I don’t go out and murder God’s little creatures, honest! But I do a lot of target shooting, so I’ve murdered enough little paper targets in my time, and I still do a lot of that. I love it. It’s just something I’m very passionate about. It’s not terribly exciting or thrilling. I also do a lot of practical shotgun, which involves a lot of running around and shooting at make-believe bad guys, knocking over steel plates and things, which is great fun, and it’s probably the most action-orientated shooting discipline still available to people in the UK.
Joanna: I want to do that now!
Scott: It’s great, honestly. You’d love it. It’s like paintball shooting and things. I like that we all go out in the woods and kill each other! With paintballs!
It’s great fun, as long as you’re safe. Safety is obviously the most important thing. But once you know what you’re doing and you’re safe with it, it’s enormous fun.
Joanna: And you’re an archer as well, I think?
Scott: Yes! The good thing about archery is that you don’t deafen yourself; it’s lovely and quiet. I’ve got a little archery range in my back garden, and I can go out there any time I like and shoot all day long without bothering the neighbors, although we’re quite remote here: nobody would really hear, I think, even if you were to let off a cannon! But yes, archery is a wonderful sport, and again, it’s something that I’ve always done. Even when I was a kid, I used to make my own bows and arrows out of branches from trees and do all sorts of irresponsible things, shooting arrows where I shouldn’t have been shooting them. But that is also a great sport. You should take it up: you’d love it!
Joanna: I’ve done a bit of archery, actually. Do you find it like a meditation?
Scott: Well, there is a sort of martial arts background. You have the whole Zen thing with archery. You step up to the target, and you have to get yourself into this meditative kind of state. But this is also true of shooting, as well. When you get in the zone, when you’re target shooting and you’re hunkered down behind a rifle on a firing point, completely still, and you have to lower your heartbeat, and your breathing is very controlled, and it’s possible to get into a really almost Zen-like state. Ben Hope is very good at getting into that state. He’s much better at it than I am. But he’s got sniper training and all that. Anything I can do, he can do ten times better!
It’s very cathartic and restful, until you pull the trigger and it goes Bong! That’s not so restful. But with archery, it’s a lovely thing to get into. I definitely would urge anyone who hasn’t tried it to try it.
So, you’ve talked about serenity and peace and also the fact that you’re in the middle of nowhere in Wales! Tell us a bit more about where you live.
We have a few acres and we’re away from things, well off the road. It’s the perfect place to be if you don’t need to go to the office, or if your office is at home, and you have the lifestyle and job that I have. It’s very tranquil and restful. If you’re that way inclined, you can go weeks without actually meeting anybody, apart from the postman, which can be handy when you’ve got a deadline to meet, you know, you just have to get down and write all day long.
We live in an old house. It’s a 1830s stone house, which has got Arts and Crafts style fancy ornate woodwork and lovely exposed beams and old wooden floors, and thick, thick walls and kind of cottagey windows. It’s a traditional Welsh farmhouse building, quite large, with about 70 acres of mixed land, some of it’s pasture, some of it’s woodland, some of it’s just jungle. I take the dogs out, and we go hiking through all these muddy riverbeds, and clambering around through a lot of tree roots. Some of it’s quite wild. There’s loads of wildlife—there’s a lot of buzzards and foxes and badgers. The property was a farm, a long, long time ago, but it hasn’t been a working farm or any kind of smallholding for many, many years.
Tell us about THE NEMESIS PROGRAM, which is coming out in the US in February 2015 and currently on preorder.
THE NEMESIS PROGRAM is a conspiracy thriller. I mentioned before that some of the books have bigger conspiracies than others, and this is one that’s off the charts, probably the biggest, most epic conspiracy that I’ve done. There’s lots of action, but also, as always, there’s the unfolding saga of Ben’s personal life, which is up and down, up and down. More downs than ups, unfortunately.
The historical background that has relevance in the modern day is the work of Nikola Tesla, the inventor, who was an amazing chap, probably a bit touched, an absolute genius, and came up with lot of inventions. In this particular one, the invention that we focus on is his sound vibration machine that was capable of taking down buildings. This is real—this is based on actual historical fact that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, he was working on these wild things, death rays and sonic building destroyers. Astonishing stuff.
Buildings could be collapsed. He did this at some point. He was working in some big apartment building in New York, I forget exactly where it was, but he had this steam-powered device which involved a little piston, just oscillating at a certain rate, and if you tuned this thing to the frequency of the building, and if you tuned it absolutely just exactly right to the frequency of the building …
Well, basically, what happened was he had this thing attached to the wall. I think they were down in the basement of this huge building, and the thing started to shake and vibrate. He believed that he could have just brought the whole thing down. Obviously, he was in it, so he didn’t. He turned it off quickly, unplugged it or whatever, or switched off the steam power, before it actually managed to destroy the building, but I think he alarmed a few people. And he did the same thing to a bridge, a huge bridge that was under construction, and nearly brought that down. He was a very dangerous man!
Tesla had various contracts with the US military for all kinds of very ambitious weapon projects, which never got off the ground, and of course then the atomic bomb came along, and there was no longer a need, unfortunately, for Tesla’s weaponry. It was one insane weapon in competition with another. But that wiped Tesla off the board as far as anybody was concerned.
But years later—as the theme of the book goes—certain people have not forgotten Tesla’s inventions. It’s a historical fact that in I think it was 1945 or 1944, Tesla was a very old man, he was dying, he lived in a hotel at that time in New York City, and it’s a historical fact that government agents came and confiscated all his paperwork. So the theme of the book is basically, all these years these government spooks have been working on Tesla’s inventions and have potentially developed this thing into a rather more terrifying weapon, and that’s what it’s all about.
But we know that it’s not the end, because The Forgotten Holocaust is coming next in the Ben Hope series, and Ben gets to go to America, doesn’t he?
I love taking Ben to America, because I just think he fits there. I mean, an Englishman in America—actually, Ben’s half-Irish, so maybe that’s why he fits better there. But an Englishman in America often looks a bit out of place. I always think they look like Roger Moore or someone, you know, too English, and walking about in a little safari jacket looking a bit daft, doesn’t quite fit. But Ben, maybe because he’s half-Irish, I don’t know why, he seems to fit very well there.
So, The Forgotten Holocaust has an Irish theme, and that’s the reason Ben stumbles into the historical intrigue. He goes to Oklahoma; a fair proportion of the story takes place, and it ends near Tulsa, as in Ranch Country. I loved researching Tulsa, and Oklahoma generally. It was great, and I hope that people will like that one, too.
For my research, I actually use a lot of guidebooks and things. In The Sacred Sword, Book Seven, there was a whole sequence where Ben was darting round Martha’s Vineyard, looking for a lighthouse, and I used Google Earth for that.
What books do you like to read?
I don’t really read a lot of fiction. I’m usually reading loading manuals and books on the life of Samuel Colt and things like that! I’m reading a wonderful book by Robert Crais about a man and a dog. It’s called, Suspect. It’s great, I’m really enjoying that, and I love his style. I also love his Elvis Cole novels. I think John Grisham is a fantastic writer, so involving. And, you know, that sort of thing. I like those sorts of books. Not too thriller-ish. I like a lot of the old classics as well, you know, I’ll read Jane Austen. Oh, and I love Patrick O’Brian, the author of the Jack Aubrey series. I have to be very careful when I read those, that I don’t start lapsing into sort of nineteenth century language, being fancy and descriptive. That’s a real danger. I have to be careful with that. But I read a fairly wide selection of things.
When you’re writing books all the time, you’ve got to spend your time reading the background material for what you’re writing. I spent a lot of time reading about Tesla for The Nemesis Program, reading about all the science behind that: absolutely hair-raising stuff. For The Forgotten Holocaust, I spent a lot of time reading about the Great Famine in 1840s Ireland, which was again very shocking and saddening and awful.
So for every book, you kind of start having to really delve quite deep into all the historical elements. There are so many different historical elements in the whole series up until now, then there’s the whole traveling aspect, because Ben Hope does a lot of globe-trotting, so I’m constantly having to read up on different locations.
Where can people find you and your books online?
My website and there is an official Facebook fan group. I pop in there now and again, and we have little quizzes and competitions and all that kind of stuff, and that’s growing. The books are available at all online stores.
Joanna: Fantastic! Well, thanks very much for your time, Scott.
Scott: Thanks very much. It was lovely talking.
J. F. Penn is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Arkane thrillers and the London Psychic series. Joanna is passionate about international travel, psychology, and the supernatural, and she weaves these obsessions into her fast-paced novels. She also likes a few gin and tonics. Free ebooks and audio, as well as more author interviews on her website or connect on twitter @thecreativepenn