Shaping the Conflict
By Layton Green
Great fiction resonates. It changes minds and hearts. The best crime novels probe human nature and illuminate worthy causes at the same time they deliver fascinating characters and fast-paced, compelling plots. In this month’s featured interview, debut novelist James Wolff has swung for the fences and penned an ambitious spy novel on the Syrian War and the Middle East. It succeeds on many levels, made me think about the world, and was an absolute pleasure to read.
Wolff knows that of which he speaks: he grew up in the Middle East and has worked for the British government for the past 10 years. In fact, due to the controversial nature of the novel, he has written under a pseudonym to protect his identity. With that tasty morsel to entice you, I urge you to read what Wolff has to say about the novel, and pick up a copy for yourself.
Thanks for taking the time to chat, James. First off, congratulations on a wonderful debut! I was immediately intrigued by the Syrian setting. Can you tell us a bit about your background and how it relates to the novel?
I grew up in the Middle East, and have been fortunate enough to live in a number of countries in different parts of the Arab world—including Lebanon, where the novel is chiefly set. Some of my most powerful childhood memories are of armed checkpoints and the distant (and not so distant) crackle of gunfire, and I remember stories of family friends being kidnapped. And there has been a Middle Eastern theme to some of my work for the British government over the past 10 years. I would hope this has given me a grounded sense of place that goes beyond images of deserts and minarets and camels, as well as a glimpse of the currents far beneath the surface that can push and pull events across the region in such confusing directions.
I am sure that the tragic situation in Syria spurred, in part, your desire to write this novel. How did the war affect you as a person and your artistic vision?
It is heartbreaking to see the country torn apart by a brutal regime desperate to stay in power, an unspeakably cruel extremist group and a whole host of interfering neighbors. Of course within all that there have been many glimpses of incredible humanity and courage, from the early demonstrators who demanded change on the streets of Daraa to the fearless citizen journalists of Raqqa. In terms of my role as a thriller writer, I am very aware how easy it would be to trivialize the conflict and merely use it as a colorful backdrop for a story. One of the ways I have tried to avoid this trap is by creating characters from the region who are (I hope) credible and complex.
Dialing it back for a minute, when did you start writing fiction? What was your path to publication?
I was an avid reader as a child, and decided that I wanted to be a writer after discovering the novels of John Irving in my early adolescence. I wrote a novel in my twenties that was never published, most probably for very good reasons, and began writing Beside the Syrian Sea in 2014, at weekends and in evenings and on holidays. It took me a little over two years to finish, and in 2017 it was bought by Bitter Lemon Press, who have been a pleasure to work with from the very beginning.
What part of writing a novel do you find comes easiest? The most challenging?
As a debut author I have limited experience to draw on in answering this question, but I would say that the first half of a novel feels the most challenging in terms of imagination, as you weave your various strands from nothing (character, plot etc.) and throw them out in what appear to be random directions. In the second half of the novel all those strands must return to a particular place, so at least you know the general direction of travel. But there are of course huge challenges along the way. Dialogue might sometimes feel easier to write than prose, but this is a dangerously deceptive feeling. Any book picked at random by masters like Elmore Leonard, George V. Higgins or Richard Price will show how much can be artfully packed into a simple line of dialogue. And there is always the simple, daily, unwinnable battle with words, trying to make things feel fresh and new and alive.
Which crime writers (at home or abroad) have influenced you the most?
Too many to mention! In addition to Leonard, Higgins and Price, I should mention George Pelecanos, James Lee Burke (does anyone write evil better than him?) and Martin Cruz Smith’s Renko novels. In the espionage field, Eric Ambler and early Le Carre. Graham Greene called his own thrillers “entertainments” to separate them from his more “serious” work, but they are elegantly written and have a complexity to them—moral and otherwise—that is the hallmark of good thriller writing.
What are your favorite novels set in the Middle East, mystery/crime and otherwise?
Any list of this sort has to begin with Naguib Mahfouz, in particular his Cairo trilogy, which follows a family across three generations and tracks the changes in Egyptian society over that period. While we’re in Cairo, special mention must be made of The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswaany. Both of these writers are not afraid of peeling back the superficially devout and respectable surface of conservative Egyptian society to show you what really goes on. Tayib Salih’s Season of Migration to the North is a powerfully political novel about perceptions of the orient and cultural identity. And finally some old classics to end with: Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky and, if I can roam as far as Turkey, Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios. Only one thriller in that whole list, I’m afraid!
Let’s talk about BESIDE THE SYRIAN SEA. I thought the book was terrific. Excellent pacing, complex characters, and a gritty sense of place. Did you set out to write a spy novel right from the start?
It was always going to be a spy novel, for a number of reasons. Firstly, that Beirut is such a natural setting for a spy novel. It’s not just that George Blake and Kim Philby both lived there (Philby was living there when he defected to the Russians in 1963), but that the city has something reminiscent of those great Cold War cities like Vienna or Berlin—a sense of being divided into zones, invisibly, with different groups in control of different areas. Secondly, for a while now I have wanted to write about Edward Snowden and the way he has changed the intelligence world. And thirdly, I have always liked the way that the tension in spy novels comes from psychological battles between characters, from a sense of anxiety and ever-present danger, and I felt an atmosphere of paranoia would suit a story of this kind.
Did the plot come to you overnight, or was it a long process?
Both, really. The central idea—the father of a spy is kidnapped in Damascus by ISIS—came to me over the course of a half hour or so spent scribbling in my notebook while sitting in a quiet corner of a British embassy overseas. From the very beginning I wanted to make the plot true to life and plausible; I wanted to avoid the James Bond school of espionage. The question therefore became: in the real world, putting to one side gun fights and parachutes and speed boats, what could a spy operating on his own actually do to secure the release of a hostage? If he didn’t have access to the ransom, what could he offer the kidnappers? It occurred to me that perhaps the only thing he could do was offer them intelligence documents, and with that the events of the novel were set in motion. In my naiveté I thought those two ideas— a spy’s father taken hostage, the use of intelligence as a ransom—constituted a whole novel’s worth of story. In reality there were hundreds of smaller plot decisions that had to be taken at the coal face over the next two years.
And what about the characters? Any particular inspirations?
In my head Jonas looks like a young D. H. Lawrence, but apart from that the characters are all completely fictional.
Can you talk about why you chose a “desk man” as the principal protagonist, rather than the typical route of a battle-tested operative?
I thought it would be interesting to take a “desk man” and put him in the territory normally occupied by the “battle-tested operative” to see how he would cope. My protagonist, Jonas, is dangerously out of his depth when asked to carry out the practical side of espionage—surveillance, recruiting and running agents. He is much more comfortable hiding away in a back room with a stack of files. Michael Chabon has a line in one of his books to the effect that in times of war, the jocks join the army and the nerds become spies. For me that captures the essence of the best spy fiction, in that it is cerebral, densely-plotted, psychological—like a game of chess played out over 300 pages. And I think that lends itself to a more bookish, desk-bound central character.
Do you think that professional spies necessarily have to operate in morally gray areas?
Yes, I think that’s probably hard-wired into spying. Asking someone to betray their country takes you into a morally gray area, as does asking someone to inform on their best friend, or eavesdrop on a private conversation, or plant a bug in the home of a neighbor. None of these should be easy decisions. There are all sorts of questions about privacy and proportionality that have to be addressed, and there are plenty of examples from recent years—such as undercover police officers in the UK infiltrating environmentalist groups and having long-term relationships and in some cases children with their targets—where the public have clearly decided that the spies got it wrong.
In your government work, have you found the agents of one particular country or region to be more “moral” than others? Any crazy war stories?
I can’t even begin to contemplate answering this question without breaking into a cold sweat…
Your publisher wrote that the novel is “set against the backdrop of the defining conflict of our generation.” Do you agree with that assessment?
I don’t know, would be my honest answer. It’s a question for historians to address 30 years or more down the line—we’re much too close to events to judge their historical significance. But if they decide that Syria is the defining conflict of our generation, I am sure that among other things they will point to the refugee crisis, the opportunity it has given Russia to reassert itself, and the establishment of an “Islamic State” that for all its incompetence had many of the trappings of an actual state. They may also point to the end of the idea that countries ruled for decades by brutal dictatorships can ‘transition’ smoothly in a matter of months into working democracies.
I know this is a tough question, but where do you see Syria headed in the near future?
That is a tough question, and I really don’t know the answer. I think it will stay in one piece, because its neighbors won’t want their own minorities to see independence as a possibility, and I imagine ISIS will re-emerge in some form or another, and I think that with Russian support Assad will prove capable of hanging on for a very long time. But I wouldn’t put a whole lot of money on any of those predictions…
What are you reading right now?
I have books stashed away in all sorts of places. A collection of short stories by Vladimir Nabokov in my work bag, a pile of library books by the front door that include Laurent Binet’s HHhH, and an even bigger pile of novels to read on the bedside table, on top of which sits Hisham Matar’s Anatomy of a Disappearance.
What do you like to do when not writing?
As I get older, I like to do the things I know I like to do, and not mess around with the rest: drink martinis with my wife, read good books, take my dog for a walk, swim in the sea and play with my daughter.
Do you have any advice for new writers?
I’m still a new writer and would appreciate any advice that you and your readers might have for me! If I had to offer any advice myself, it would be to read widely, edit ruthlessly, avoid cliché, and treat writing as a job that is often pretty hard rather than as something to do when inspiration strikes.
What are you working on now?
I have in mind a loose trilogy about spying and Syria and betrayal, of which BESIDE THE SYRIAN SEA is the first part. I’d like it to be a kind of contemporary reimagining of the Cambridge spy ring, with each book about a different kind of traitor, each of whom is perceived to have betrayed their country in a slightly different way. I only hope that I’m not going to get into trouble with my employers for writing so much about traitors. What interests me about the topic is the way the idea of loyalty to one particular country is changing. This is partly the result of globalization: we travel more, have more foreign friends, appreciate other cultures and most likely have at least one person from another country within our extended families. Snowden is relevant here too, in that he stole his government’s secrets not on behalf of another country but for an idea he had about privacy and surveillance, on behalf of a principle he felt was important to people of different countries and cultures. This sets him apart from our traditional idea of the traitor, which in the UK is still represented by Philby and friends.