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Careful What You Wish For

By R.G. Belsky

Bestselling author James Swallow has spent a lot of time waiting around airports. So much so, he decided to use this as inspiration for his new thriller AIRSIDE—the story of an everyman hero trapped in an air terminal with killers after him when he accidentally discovers a bag with millions of dollars in cash inside.

Swallow explains that the term “airside” refers to the area of the airport you’re in once you’ve passed through the metal detectors and had your ticket and ID checked.

“I’ve always been fascinated by life on the ‘airside’ because it exists in a kind of liminal state—technically you’re not where you are anymore, you’re in transit, but you also haven’t traveled yet, so you haven’t really arrived where you are going either,” he says. “Anyone who has ever been stuck in an airport waiting for a delayed flight will know that sense of being trapped in this air travel no-man’s-land.

“A few years ago, I was working on a project that involved a lot of air travel to and from a production studio in another country, and during those hours and hours of time spent in airports and on airliners, I started to think about a thriller story set in the ‘netherworld’ of the so-called ‘airside.’ Gradually the concept for this novel came into focus, and as I’ve always loved travel and aviation, this gave me a chance to draw on some of those things to tell this story.”

James Swallow
Photo credit: Ed Miller

The book takes place over the course of one night, in a remote municipal airport in Germany.

Businessman Kevin Tyler—after seeing a critical financial deal collapse—is on his way home to bankruptcy and an uncertain future. Bumped off the last flight of the day, he has to wait until the next departure the following morning, and his luck seems to have run out—until he stumbles upon a bag containing millions in cash that could be the solution to all his woes. The only problem is the money is part of a conspiracy of blackmail and murder. The people it belongs to want it back…and they’ll do anything to get it.

“He’s a good guy,” says Swallow of Kevin Tyler, “but he makes bad choices, and he’s constantly getting in his own way. Kevin wants to do the right thing, but like all of us, he’s not perfect, and he’s prone to making screw-ups—when he finds himself in dire straits throughout the course of the novel, he has no choice but to dig deep and survive.

“Finding the bag of money is the big, inciting moment in Kevin’s story arc through AIRSIDE, and what I like about it is that we can all understand what that might be like—and we can all ask ourselves the question: What would you do in his place?”

Swallow (second from left) participates in the High Octane Thrillers panel at London’s Capital Crime convention. Also pictured: panel moderator Adam Hamdy and co-panelists K.J. Howe and Chris Ryan.

There are a lot of really bad people after Kevin Tyler in AIRSIDE, not all of them on the same team, which makes the story even more unpredictable and exciting for the reader.

“I’ve always felt that thriller stories need to have strong antagonists to make the plots work—the best thrillers are about a hero reacting to the plan of a villain, becoming the fly in the ointment to whatever bad deeds they have in motion,” Swallow says. “In this case, Kevin disrupts a blackmail operation where the players are a venial, opportunistic politician and a ruthless, violent human trafficker—both very unpleasant people in very different ways, but equally hateful. In this novel, I wanted my villains to be in sharp contrast with my protagonist.

Swallow on a signing tour in Edinburgh, Scotland, pictured with three of his Marc Dane novels.

“At its heart, AIRSIDE is a ‘be careful what you wish for’ story about a guy whose life is falling apart, and the desperate choice he makes that throws everything around him into jeopardy. It’s a standalone crime thriller with an everyman hero trapped in the spiraling consequence of a series of very bad decisions.”

The airport in the book is called Barsbeker Airport, but it is a fictional one. “Originally, I did plan to base the novel in a real airport, but none of those I looked at had exactly what the story required in terms of location, facilities, etc. In the end, I figured that rather than risk getting factual details wrong about an actual place, inventing my own fictional airport meant I could have everything I needed,” Swallow says.

This book is unique in that virtually all the action in set in one location—the airport.

“Setting AIRSIDE primarily in a single place had both benefits and challenges; once I had the details of the airport location, I could really dig in and make it feel authentic for the reader, but it also meant that I couldn’t ‘cut away’ to different places,” he says. “But containing the action in one location also helps with the sense of confinement that Kevin feels as the story goes on—he can’t leave the airport, and neither can the reader!”

Swallow atop a volcanic caldera on a research trip to the Canary Islands

Swallow—who is also the creator of the critically acclaimed Marc Dane action thriller series—has had an amazingly prolific and success career as a writer with more than 1 million books in print. He is a New York Times, Sunday Times, and Amazon bestselling author of more than 55 novels, and a BAFTA-nominated screenwriter. In addition, he has written for franchises such as 24, Tom Clancy, Star Trek, and many more, along with penning scripts for radio, television, and interactive media.

“In simple terms, I’m a writer of stuff,” Swallow says. “One of the things I love about writing is that there’s not just one way to do it—so I’ve tried my hand at writing novels and short fiction, radio dramas, television scripts, comics, and videogames, all of which require different tools from the author toolbox. I think writing in different formats helps me be a better writer, because the disciplines I learn from one can be folded into another, and given the choice, I prefer not to be locked into writing one type of thing for the rest of my career. There are so many great methods to bring stories to the audience, and I don’t want to limit myself!”

What’s next for him?

“I’m currently writing a new tie-in—an espionage thriller based on one of the Tom Clancy franchises,” he says. “After that I’ll be working on another standalone novel.”

R.G. Belsky
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