By George Mehok
If anyone is qualified to write a compelling international thriller series, it’s Humphrey Hawksley. And as the world desperately seeks peace and diplomacy for Ukraine, this is where his new thriller, ICE ISLAND, begins—at an international peace conference of the coast of Finland. But that’s where things also unravel, hurling superpowers towards a nuclear confrontation when a Russian delegate is murdered, and the daughter of Japan’s most dangerous crime family is implicated.
Hawksley, BBC foreign correspondent, and acclaimed author has traveled the globe reporting on international conflicts which have shaped history and re-defined borders. He was expelled from Sri Lanka, opened the BBC’s television bureau in China, and initiated a global campaign against enslaved children in the chocolate industry with an award-winning documentary.
In this interview with The Big Thrill, Hawksley shares his thoughts on Putin’s war, his path to journalism, and his latest novel, ICE ISLANDS, a fast-paced, geopolitical thriller and the fourth in the Rake Ozenna series.
This week, Britain recorded the hottest day in recorded history, surpassing 40 degrees Celsius or 104 degrees Fahrenheit. How are you and other Londoners coping with the heatwave?
Here in Britain, we’re not used to extremes of anything. The infrastructure tends to crumple if it gets too much rain, or it gets too cold or hot. We’ve had railway lines buckling, and one of the main London airports was closed because one of the runways melted. And we don’t have air conditioning. So I fled London to the Suffolk on the East Anglian coast with its wild sea and cooler wind.
In addition to being a successful novelist, you’ve traveled the world as a foreign correspondent for the BBC. What is a foreign correspondent?
The life of a foreign correspondent is twofold. One, the phone will ring in the middle of the night, and someone will say that so and so has been assassinated or there’s been an earthquake. You grab your go-bag, meet up with your camera crew, hit the ground running, and report what you see. Then, a week later, you’re back home again after seeing the most dreadful things and talking to the most desperate people. Two, there’s the documentary side of the business where you take a deeper look at major news story, like when we filmed in Ohio to talk with people in the heartland about the Iraq War. Because America is the world’s most powerful country, many global issues are predicated by what grassroots voters in the US are thinking. And that is how democracy is meant to work—except, of course, those impacted outside the country do not get a vote.
How did your journalism career influence your new book ICE ISLANDS and the Rake Ozanna series?
In 2015, it was after Russia had taken Crimea, and tension between Russia and the US States was quite high. I wanted to go to the US-Russian border where the two powers actually came face to face. I hadn’t realized these two countries were separated by less than three miles of water, and when Sarah Palin was ridiculed for saying Americans could see Russia from their backyards, she was a hundred per cent correct. The border runs between remote islands, Russia’s Big Diomede and America’s Little Diomede. It was meant to be a short filming trip. The helicopter was to land mid-day and pick myself and videographer Poulomi Basu up the next day. But fog came down, and we ended up being there for 10 or 11 days. What do you for all that time on an island with 80 people, no roads, no hotels, just a sort of craggy rock? So, I sketched out a thriller and ended up writing the first of the Rake Ozenna series, called Man on Ice.
On Little Diomede, I had expected there to be Alaska State Troopers, US Customs and Border Protection or the Alaska Nation Guard. It was, after all, a national border with an antagonistic enemy very close. But there was nothing, no government presence, just indigenous Alaskan Americans. Russia could just come in and take the place which is what they did in Man on Ice. Then I thought, who’s going to be the hero? I went through varying types, like the familiar tough guy special forces man or woman. But, the truth was staring me in the face. The roughest, hardest and most interesting of any types of character were the people on Little Diomede. So, my protagonist became Rake Ozenna, an Indigenous Alaskan, an amalgamation of those on Little Diomede, others I have met, and conversations and guidance I had from the Alaska National Guard. In the early 20th Century the National Guard set up a unit called the Eskimo Scouts who became the eyes and ears of the sparsely populated western border. Veterans of the Alaska National Guard have written me saying that the Indigenous soldiers were among the most skilled and fiercest fighters in the Iraq and Afghan wars. In Rake’s case, he was born and bred on the craggy, barren rock of Little Diomede in a hostile environment that taught him all about survival.
Can you share the meaning behind the cover and the book’s title—ICE ISLANDS—and the Finnish Åland Islands, International Peace Institute, and the murder which implicates Sara Kato and involves Rake?
The Åland Islands is a special place that lies midway between Sweden and Finland with a predominately Swedish-speaking population in Finnish sovereign territory. At the end of the First World War, when the whole world was being carved up, Sweden was threatening war with Finland over these islands. Britain negotiated peace whereby Finland retained sovereignty and the Swedish population had a substantive say in government. That peace held. When I was there, I interviewed the Åland Islands prime minister, and he said the only real rivalry that exists now is when there is a soccer match. They have created the Åland Island Peace Institute, where they teach conflict resolution for people all over the world.
A pivotal moment early in the book occurs at the Peace Conference on Åland Island. A murder triggers the conflict between global superpowers. It reminds me of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914, which was the catalyst igniting a world war.
Indeed. Catastrophic wars can start with the smallest, unexpected trigger. In ICE ISLANDS there’s an Åland Islands conference with delegates from different conflicts such as left-liberal and right groups from America, Iraqi Sunni and Shia, including from Japan and Russia to discuss the dispute over the Kuril Islands or Northern Territories as they are called in Japan. These were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War and Japan wants them back. Few people are aware that there is still no peace treaty between Japan and Russia. Sara Kato, daughter to the Kato crime family, is the Japanese delegate. Rake is sent by his boss, who reports to the President of the United States, to try to turn her into an asset to discover what the Kato family is planning. As he arrives, Sara’s Russian counterpart is murdered. He turns out to be the secret illegitimate son of the Russian President. Sara is implicated. Rake is ordered to keep her safe and get her out. That’s when the chase begins.
Your series’ main character, Major Rake Ozenna, is a smart, no-nonsense, complex main character. Can you share his background, skills, and a bit about his mission in this story?
As mentioned, Rake Ozenna’s home is the island of Little Diomede off the coast of Alaska in the Bering Strait. It has a population of about 80 people and lies three miles across the international border from a Russian military base. The island is ruggedly beautiful and one of those remote communities with drug and domestic abuse.
Rake’s father disappeared when he was six, thought to have gone to Russia chasing a woman. Rake’s mother, whom he never knew, vanished just after he was born. He was raised by one of the solid couples on the island who took in orphans like Rake. An older fellow orphan, Mikki Wekstatt, persuaded him to join the Alaska National Guard as a way out, which he did. Being sharp, clever, and ambitious, wanting to get on and discover things, Rake broke through to officer rank and got a series of special mission deployments during the Iraq and Afghan wars.
In Man on Ice, he happened to be on leave on Little Diomede with Carrie Walker, his fiancée at the time. She was a trauma surgeon he met in Afghanistan. Russia invades in January on the eve of an acrimonious presidential inauguration and, with tension and action switching between Little Diomede and Washington DC, Rake ends up crossing the ice to Big Diomede to hunt down the Russian military leaders responsible for the invasion. Rake is a gruff guy. You don’t get florid conversation. But because he’s a smart with much combat experience, the Army uses him of military panels. Carrie teases him for being a “show pony in uniform.” The great Nelson DeMille summed Rake up beautifully saying, “Rake Ozenna, is smart and tough, and we’re glad to have him on our side.”
Rake has two personal conflicts. One is Carrie Walker, his soul mate and lover. But he knows they can never settle down with the white picket fence and kids on the school run. But if not that, what? The other is his future because his heart is back on Little Diomede island whose people desperately need a leader for the next generation. But his other draw is stronger—his hell-raising missions around the world.
Your antagonist, Michio Kato, is a real bad guy, a killer, which he vividly demonstrates early in the story. He kills not only his enemies but children as well.
Michio is a ruthless, dark character. He had a brief cameo role in the previous Rake Ozenna thriller, Man on Fire, where the Kato family was involved in that threat and Rake, of course, prevailed. Michio’s ailing father thought Michio’s failure disgraced the family and wants to hand the empire to Michio’s younger brother, Kazan, who is Sara’s twin. But Kazan is a weak playboy, a bully, and reminds me of a bit of the third brother in The Godfather, Fredo Corleone. Kazan is tested, and the father realizes it won’t work. He has built up the empire from his grandfather, starting with a street gang in Kobe. The family rode on the back of Japan’s expansion in the 1930s and, after its defeat in the Pacific War, it swung with the wind and joined the Americans, all the time building his money and political connections. In this present day, it is planning to turn Japan against its greatest ally, America.
Your story explores Japan’s crime families and their link to the Japanese government. I don’t think most people realize how powerful the crime families are in Japan.
There is a cultural de-facto integration between business, organized crime and politics. Legislation against organized crime is relatively weak compared to Europe and North America, such that a branch of the Yakuza was named in a 2011 Presidential Executive Order warning of threats to American democracy. Yakuza members actually have name cards with office addresses. If one branch is declared illegal, they move to another address and print different name cards. The influence is still there. The US tried to reform the culture after the Second World War and bring in different elements along the lines of the American Chamber of Commerce and legitimate business groups. Those are still in place but crime organizations have been allowed to creep back in.
You’ve covered conflicts all over the world. Considering the war raging in Ukraine, it’s ironic that ICE ISLANDS also features a Russian conflict. And to take it a step further, Japan’s aspiration to possess a nuclear weapon. What are your thoughts on the war?
When Ukraine happened in February, most were shocked and taken by surprise. The invasion has been a unifying factor for institutions such as the European Union and NATO. The US and Britain are shoulder-to-shoulder again. A couple of things have happened which have been equally frightening. Back in February, there was widespread discussion about Putin going mad or suffering from a terminal illness and a belief (or hope) that there would an internal coup to overthrow him. That hasn’t happened, meaning that, as of now, Russian institutions are behind him. The Kremlin has succeeded in selling an internal narrative that paints the Ukraine war as successful and legitimate. That may change when too many body bags come back. But, in the West, Ukraine is dropping from the news headlines and is placed in the news agenda much as the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Bosnia would flare up occasionally and always be rumbling in the background. We journalists would go cover them, even though they might not make the headlines. Journalists today might be risking their lives in Ukraine but not getting on air against the heatwave or the political turmoil we currently have here in Britain.
There will need to be a ceasefire at some stage. But that will not be palatable to those wanting Russia to be defeated. My take is the Ukraine issue will not end unless NATO goes in and changes the regime as Western democracies did in Germany and Japan in 1945. But that will not happen, nor do democracies currently have the staying power and money to invest in the decades needed to democratize Russia. Ukraine, therefore, will probably simmer along, staying down the news agenda, for the foreseeable future.
ICE ISLANDS is packed with the key thriller elements—action, intrigue, and suspense. As you know, The Big Thrill is as much for aspiring writers as for readers. What advice do you have for other writers?
Because of writing’s solitary nature, you need discipline and will power to see it through. Work out what you what story you want to tell and how. One of the mantras is write what you know. But also go into territory that you don’t, subjects that make you curious, territory that interests you and that will interest your readers. Read the successful books of your genre.
Write every day, say 300 words minimum—even if you know it won’t work. Don’t surrender to writer’s block because if you’re not writing, you can structure. If you’re not structuring, you can character outline. If you’re not outlining, you can read.
Do not show your manuscript to anybody until you’re at least 30,000 words in. Do not show it to friends or family unless they are seriously in the trade. Preferably pay an editor you don’t know to review it and provide feedback. And go from there.
In addition to being an author, you co-host a popular podcast, the Goldster Inside Story Book Show. It looks like you have a lot of fun interviewing other authors.
Indeed, I do. Thank you for spotting that. Goldster is something that came out of COVID. It offers a range of online events, yoga, art, singing, workouts. On the Inside Story book show we do an hour-long interview on Thursdays and Fridays with an author talking about their books, their wider body of work and their lives. Audiences like it because they can be in direct contact with authors, and authors like it because it’s a long, relaxed interview, just the anchor, them and questions from the Goldster community.
How do you balance the demands of being a successful author and everything else, such as the Book Show?
I try to be disciplined. I often fail. First morning task is to deal with all e-mails, so none slips through the net. Then, I either do journalism, preparation for Goldster or moderating a panel, or writing. Today, I did a piece about China and the intelligence agencies. Tomorrow, it is author work as I am starting a new, standalone thriller. Next week, I have a series of shows to present, including a Democracy Forum Debate on Taiwan which will be really interesting.
How do you prioritize?
As an author you need to deliver a book to contract and carry out marketing which involves social media, festivals, and interviews. Those weeks, leading up to delivery and launch, the author role needs to take priority. Having said that, regular commitments remain. My journalism columns have deadlines. My Democracy Forum Debates and Goldster Inside Story book shows have specific times. Writing is a solitary task, so I welcome these jobs because of their direct connection to human life!
Humphrey Hawksley has reported on key trends, events and conflicts from all over the world.
He is the creator of the Rake Ozenna espionage thriller series which originated with Man on Ice when reporting from the US-Russian border during heightened tension over Ukraine in 2015.
His work as a BBC foreign correspondent has taken him to crises on every continent. He was expelled from Sri Lanka, opened the BBC’s television bureau in China, arrested in Serbia and initiated a global campaign against enslaved children in the chocolate industry. The campaign continues today.
His television documentaries include The Curse of Gold and Bitter Sweet examining human rights abuse in global trade; Aid Under Scrutiny on the failures of international development; Old Man Atom that investigates the global nuclear industry; and Danger: Democracy at Work on the risks of bringing Western-style democracy too quickly to some societies.
Humphrey is the author of the acclaimed ‘Future History’ series Dragon Strike, Dragon Fire and The Third World War that explores world conflict. He has published four earlier international thrillers,Ceremony of Innocence,Absolute Measures,Red Spiritand Security Breach, together with the non-fiction Democracy Kills: What’s so good about the Vote—a tie-in to his TV documentary on the pitfalls of the modern-day path to democracy from dictatorship. His latest non-fiction work is Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the Indo-Pacific and the Challenge to American Power.
His work has appeared in the The Guardian, The Times, Financial Times, New York Times, Yale Global, Nikkei Asja and other publications. His university lectures include Columbia Business School, University College London, the London Business School and MENSA Cambridge. He has been a guest lecturer and panellist at institutions such as Intelligence Squared, the Royal Geographical Society, the RAND Corporation, the Center for Strategic and International Studies and.The Wilson Center and has presented his work and moderated at many literary festivals.
Humphrey is a co-host to the twice weekly Goldster Inside Story book show and hosts the month Democracy Forum Debates on international issues.
He lives in London.
To learn more about the author and his work, please visit his website.