Some people say one should write about what one knows.
I have — until now.
My first novel was written in a spasm of angst. It was set in Bosnia, where I undertook a number of six-week-long reporting assignments for Reuters. I couldn’t wait to get out of the war zone, and as soon as I was out, had enjoyed a hot bath, a bottle or two and a booze-induced sleep, I wanted back in.
I found it hard to adapt to ‘normal’ life: to family, to working shifts as a chief sub editor at Reuters’ World Desk, to the banalities of a London routine. I had difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating, difficulty relating to other people. I couldn’t share the experience with anyone. So I drank, went to the gym, cycled, read books, drank some more, upset a lot of people, swore at several, punched a few, and waited for the next job abroad to relieve the tedium.
I bashed out my first novel in a blind fury. The Monkey House, set in Sarajevo, was as grim as I felt. It created a bit of a stir, went into several editions, was translated widely, was twice optioned for a possible film, and most important of all, helped me pay off my mortgage.
The second was set in Afghanistan, the third in Lebanon during what is referred to as a civil war; that was only half-true, for it was primarily a war-by-proxy waged by Israel, the United States, Iran, Syria and the Soviet Union.
The first novel of my Cold War spy trilogy, Spy Game, drew on my time as a ‘contract labourer’ for the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), sometimes referred to inaccurately as MI6 in the media, which was spent working as a head agent on the Afghan-Pakistan border. The other two in the series were based on experiences in Lebanon and Thailand.
Emperor is different.
That’s because I’m stuck at home in Scotland, looking after my youngest child after my wife’s death from cancer six years ago. I promised my wife I would sell the house we’d built, take our six-year-old to Scotland, make a home for her, find her a decent school and look after her to the best of my ability until she reaches adulthood.
That’s what I’m trying to do. So no solo trips, no excursions to Ukraine, more’s the pity.
Emperor is set in two places: Beijing and Washington DC.
I confess I don’t know either, though I spent some months in Hong Kong while it was still under British rule, and I have visited Washington DC, but a long, long time ago.
All I have is my browser and a few guidebooks along with a massive pile of non-fiction books on China.
Friends have been a huge help, especially one Mandarin speaker who can’t be named because he lives in the shadow of what the Chinese call the ‘relevant department’, a euphemism for the secret police of the Ministry of Public Security.
Will Emperor work as a stand-alone novel? I don’t know. Will I be caught out by my errors in description, in directions?
It’s quite possible.
Does it succeed or fail as fiction?
Only you can decide.
Below is my melodramatic blurb for Emperor. I make no apologies because it’s supposed to be that way in the case of the thriller sub-genre.
There’s a new Cold War…and it’s about to erupt into World War Three.
Emperor Qin – absolute ruler, dictator for life – has one task before he succumbs to brain cancer, and it means war. Can ex-spy Ava stop him in time to save millions – and survive?
Qin will ‘unify’ China by ordering the conquest of Taiwan, a democratic nation of 23 million people just 100 miles off the mainland, a pledge the Chinese Communist Party has made every years since the 1949 Revolution.
But there’s a leak, a flood of state secrets.
They land in the lap of the ex-NSA analyst in Washington DC. Ava Shute hasn’t sought the material. On the contrary, she’s a most reluctant recipient.
One thing keeps Ava going: the prospect of a nuclear Armageddon. The clock is ticking as Chinese agents hunt Ava down with orders to kill.
Emperor will be published in December.
John Fullerton, November 2022