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Africa Scene: Patriots, Terrorists, and the Blurred Line Between

The Big Thrill Interviews Fiona Snyckers

By Michael Sears

Book Cover: THE HIDDEN
Fiona Snyckers is a well-known South African novelist. In 2020, she won both the South African Literary Award and the NIHSS Humanities Award for best novel, and she’s been nominated five times for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize. She lives in Johannesburg with her family.

Fiona writes YA, literary fiction, and thrillers, and her latest book, THE HIDDEN, is a scary look at the potential for right-wing fundamentalists to strike out at the world. It’s frightening not only because we could easily watch this story on tonight’s news but also because of how individuals are manipulated by power, be it a fundamentalist patriarch or the FBI. News 24 spoke of her “dizzying acrobatic imagination” in creating this “gut-wrenching thriller.”

Fiona takes us inside a homestead hidden in Oregon’s old-growth forests where a family lives in fear of an old-testament-style patriarch. One of his sons, Meshach, battles for status and even for his life, but he has a hidden goal. In parallel, we learn of a vicious and successful terrorist attack—the worst since 9/11—by a right-wing extremist group who call themselves the Patriot Fathers. FBI special agent Aalia Knox needs arrests quickly, and she’ll do whatever it takes. Heady stuff and powerfully executed. No wonder the book has already been optioned for a movie.

Author Photo: Fiona Snyckers

Fiona Snyckers

Many things that are hidden in THE HIDDEN, among them a loose grouping of extreme fundamentalist survivalists who reject the modern world and live scattered throughout the backwoods of Oregon. What sparked that as the backstory for your thriller?

I had read articles and listened to podcasts about splinter groups in America that suddenly turned to public violence, such as the Branch Davidians and the Helter Skelter gang. It seemed like an idea that had potential, especially in current times when the USA seems to be becoming more polarized by the day and assault weapons are widely available.

You write in South Africa, and most of your work is set here. It’s obvious that the US is the right setting for this particular novel, but how did you research the key topics for the story—the FBI procedures and hierarchy, the behavior of survivalist groups, Monterey?

For two years, I immersed myself in a podcast called FBI Retired: Case File Review. It is extremely granular and specific in breaking down exactly how the FBI sets about investigating its cases. But one of the most important things I learned from the host was that story comes first. If you have to sacrifice precise accuracy for the sake of the story, you should feel free to do that.

I got details about the geography and distances involved in Monterey, California, from such resources as Google Maps and Google Earth.

The survivalist group I created was entirely a product of my imagination, so I felt free to fictionalize their habits and daily existence.

Old growth forest, Oregon

Old growth forest, Oregon

Aalia Knox is a gripping character. Her job as a special agent for the FBI comes first. Essentially, she’s given up her personal life, including children and any sort of meaningful relationship. Her only friend seems to be her junior partner, special agent Mankiewicz, and even he knows his place. She’s also rather too fond of gin and tequila. Is that how she manages to balance her commitment to the FBI with her personal needs?

In my mind, Aalia Knox’s personal isolation, borderline alcoholism, and poor decision-making stem from her childhood. She was a mixed-race child who was adopted by white evangelists who had no idea how to raise and nurture her. She is a talented investigator and very good at her job, but her personal life is in tatters. I was interested to learn that this is unusual in the FBI. Many special agents are married with children and have stable personal lives.

I look forward to exploring the details of Aalia Knox’s background in more depth in the sequel to THE HIDDEN.

The story flips between young Meshach’s life among the survivalists and the modern-day crisis situation that Knox tries to cope with after the Patriot Fathers’ terrorist attack. Did you write the book this way to give us more insight into the behavior of both sides?

Yes. I want the reader to inhabit the points of view of my three main characters—Aalia Knox, Becca Abrahamson, and young Meshach. Their motivations are difficult to understand unless you really get inside their consciousness. I need the reader to feel intimately connected to all three of them. I also want to drip-feed information to the reader so I can build up to a big reveal.

Forest home, Oregon

Forest home, Oregon

Becca Abrahamson and her husband, Michael, live with their family in Monterey. When we first meet them, they seem to be an ordinary family, except for their severely disabled son, Petey. Yet we soon understand that here, too, things are hidden—hidden from their children and hidden from the community. How did you set about making us care about this family and, at the same time, making us suspicious of them?

I tried to show them as an ordinary suburban family trying to do the best they could for themselves and for their children. It is apparent they have some connection to the survivalist community that has suddenly appeared on the national stage, but it is not immediately clear what that connection is.

By showing how ordinary and every day their concerns are and how well-intentioned they are as parents and as a couple, I hope to get the reader to care about them before plunging them into some extraordinary situations.

Knox believes that the Abrahamsons may be her only connection to the Patriot Fathers. Even though she has no suspicion that they were involved in the attack, she has no difficulty in wrecking their lives to get leverage. Is her ultimate mantra that the end always justifies the means?

Knox is under tremendous pressure from her superiors to show progress in the case. She makes the decision to lean hard on the Abrahamsons to accomplish this. They are her only lead. But she does have a very real difficulty with wrecking their lives. That’s why she resorts to alcohol to numb her feelings and to help her live with what she has had to do. She is not a callous person, but her job calls upon her to make callous decisions, and this is almost unbearable for her.

Fishermans Warf, Monterey, CA

Fishermans Warf, Monterey, CA

Your recent writing has been quite diverse in topic and genre. Are you working on a new novel, and if so, would you tell us something about it?

I am writing a sequel to THE HIDDEN. It ended on a surprising note, which could also be interpreted as a cliffhanger. I am now taking that story further. The world of the FBI investigative unit and Becca and Michael will continue in this new story. I am also writing a more literary novel about the world of South African writers, but that is still at an early stage.

Follow Fiona on social media at Twitter: @FionaSnyckers,, or Facebook: Fiona Snyckers.


International Thrills: Fiona Snyckers

Michael Sears
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