1. Rotten Gods deals with the significant themes of religion and politics. Did you set out to write about these and does the novel in any way reflect your own personal philosophy?
Religion is, as the title suggests, a central platform for the book. I find it fascinating how religion is so often used as a reason for terror and violence, and also to justify a disproportionate response to such acts.
I am concerned that Muslim people can be tarred with the same brush, and wanted to present a number of different characters, spread out along the spectrum from quiet and law abiding, to those in positions of power actively working with Western governments to contain militant Salafism, a movement seen by many observers as the new Taliban.
My personal philosophy is that people have the right to believe whatever they want to believe, so long as it does not cause them to be violent or intolerant to others. Blind, unquestioning religious faith that becomes an excuse for war and terror is unacceptable. These, to me, are the Rotten Gods of the book.
2. You recently studied terrorism through St Andrews University, Scotland. What was your motivation for this and can you tell us a bit about the course.
To me the object of fiction is not to present stereotypes or cliches, but to help understand the motivations and viewpoints of all the characters I present in my stories. This is only possible through knowledge, and St Andrews offers a Certificate in Terrorism Studies, designed primarily for people working in security forces active in terrorism hotspots across the world.
The section of the course that I have, at time of writing, completed, Key Issues in International Terrorism, offers a thorough understanding of terrorist ideologies, how they use fear as a weapon, how they are financed, organised and armed. Importantly, it delves into how terrorists are radicalised in the first place—motivated enough to kill in order to bring about change.
Generalisations are useless when dealing with terror groups. All are different, some who aim simply to change just one or two aspects of government policy in their country, (eg extreme animal liberationists), other who demand independence, or statehood for a specific group of people, (eg Hamas) and others who have a regional or global agenda, such as the dozens of Islamist organisations that the media likes to call ‘al-Qa’ida linked.’
3. One of the central characters in the novel, a strong young Australian woman who likes to bushwalk, seems a somewhat unlikely hero in the context of a terrorist situation. Can you explain your choice and what the character of Marika represents?
Marika was one of the first characters that came to me, and I never had any sense of creating her. To me she is a ‘real’ person with a past and a future. If you delve into the files of any international security force you might find a farm girl from Iowa, a Canadian law school dropout, a former Parisian street tough. Why not an Aussie chick who likes beer, with a mania for fitness and the wilderness?
In many ways she represents what is good about Western society, bearing in mind that she has had advantages many people haven’t—good school, stable family and society—yet many readers will be able to relate to these same circumstances. It is how she acts when confronted with disadvantaged people that is the key to her character.
4. In Rotten Gods you are somewhat scathing of Western consumerism, debt levels and inaction on climate change. Why do you see these as important?
Rotten Gods is set a few years in the future. While climate change is already making itself felt now, by then things will be far worse. The natural disasters we are seeing now will be far more common. The drought in the Horn of Africa will never really go away. It may come and go, but there are permanent changes happening now. The cyclones and supertides. Famines and mass relocations of refugees are features of this new world that we will all have to get used to.
Consumerism? The concept of producing at least half a billion plastic containers a day, and throwing them into (mainly) landfill after a single use would have been regarded with disbelief and horror fifty years ago. We are so used to our own profligate waste that we don’t even see it clearly any more. How many working CRT tv and computer screens were thrown into council clean up piles when LCD and plasma screens became affordable? Why are electronic devices made redundant every year or two when new models come along? The planet cannot afford this level of waste.
Rotten Gods is a story, not a manifesto, but the concerns are real. It presents a vision of the future that may or may not come to pass in exactly that way.
5. The novel attempts to present both ‘sides’ to the situation. How were you able to present a sense of authenticity in your depiction of both the terrorists and security forces?
I do hate shallow, simplistic fictional presentations of Muslim fundamentalists as ‘evil.’ What a stupid word! Their methods, I believe, are very wrong, but they don’t think that. They see themselves as oppressed, and that they have the right to fight back in all ways and means at their disposal. They did not invent terror, nor the strategy of targeting civilians. Politically and militarily weak minorities have been doing this for centuries.
However despicable some of their acts are, it is important to understand why they do what they do, and this is something I have attempted in the writing of Rotten Gods. One of the conclusions drawn must be that this jihad would not be occurring without religion, so the image of a bloodthirsty God becomes a leitmotif throughout the book.
6. You grew up, and currently live, in country NSW and yet your novel has a distinctly international feel. How were you able to create this?
I seem to have a knack for blending in with my surroundings, and have travelled fairly widely. I lived in North America as a teenager and visited every international location used in the book that was feasible, and safe to reach. Besides, I no longer feel that Australia is a back woods location. Sydney is just 13 hours on an Airbus from Dubai, and Perth even closer.
DFAT’s voice has been growing on the international scene for many years, and we have cemented a position as a regional leader. Australians have risen to prominence in many UN agencies, and have little fear of remote and dangerous posts.
I think it is time that writers based in Australia are recognised as having a part to play in global popular fiction.
7. In contrast to the violence and the bleak view of humanity presented in the novel you also develop a number of loving relationships, such as that between Doctor Abuka and Sufia, Marika and Madoowbe and Simon and his daughters. This is an effective way to develop their humanity. Can you please tell us a bit about how you dealt with these situations as you wrote Rotten Gods.
Readers, I think, enjoy romance, and of course a touch of sexual tension always spices up a plot. Generally I don’t work out relationships in advance, letting them develop as I write, almost going through the stages of falling in love myself as I do so! I find sex scenes very difficult to write, as it is hard to know how much to reveal, and what to keep hidden. Generally I find a compromise, and am usually startled to read extremely graphic sex in popular fiction, particularly if it seems gratuitous.
The love of a father for his children was an easy one for me, being the proud dad of two boys. I believe that even a person who is generally mild, even cowardly, would lay down their lives for their children. Simon is a very bright man, yet uncomplicated in some ways. I think his love shines through the book. Nothing tricky, no hidden twists. To me he symbolises much of what is good about Western society, amongst the many, many faults.
8. There is contrast between the terrorists and their unswerving faith and the Westerners, such as Marika, who put their faith in themselves. Can there be a way to find a compromise between these two views?
Not all Westerners are like that, but I believe generally that people working in these security organisations have to be self reliant. Faith in a greater power is a complication to obedience of superiors, the ability/need to kill when necessary and break other religious laws. That is not to say none believe in God, but there is a difference between believing in a deity and being intolerant of all others, and slavishly following rules and precepts that were in many cases developed one or two thousand years ago.
Popular fiction springs, at its source, from Greek Myth, and the cult of the hero. Our fiction portrays the strong, self reliant hero who fights for good against evil, can sometimes be misguided, but acts from altruism and an innate sense of justice. That sense of right and wrong does not derive from a set of scriptures, but from something older. Something we don’t, perhaps, understand…
9. Rotten Gods is not the first novel you have written, but it is the first to be published. Can you tell us something about your journey to publication?
I wrote a number of novels before Rotten Gods. But I could never quite work out what kind of writer I wanted to be. I attempted literary and historical fiction. My first thriller landed me a hard working agent, Brian Cook, and under his guidance I rewrote that book several times, then another, before I finished Rotten Gods. On the first round of submissions HarperCollins offered me a contract. They are a wonderful organisation, and just keep trotting out more talented people for me to work with. I’m not sure where they get them all from.
10. Finally, you are a voracious reader as well as a writer. What books have influenced you the most?
I once read an interview with a musician who was asked if he was influenced by other songwriters. He replied that he doesn’t listen to a great song and think, ‘I want to write a song like that,’ he rather thinks, ‘I want to write a song that makes people feel like that.’
I know where he’s coming from. Great fiction gets under your skin and into your brain and resonates with all the experiences that are on offer. It recalls the great moments of your life and those you haven’t yet experienced. I grew up in the seventies and eighties reading the big thriller writers of the day; Wilbur Smith and Jack Higgins, James Clavell, Alistair Maclean and John LeCarre. Then there was Peter Carey, Thomas Keneally, Jon Cleary and a love affair with F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Larry McMurtry and those giant doorstoppers by James A. Michener.
Living on a remote property on the Northern Territory with no tv I read every book in my English teacher wife’s collection. Everything from Thucydides to Stephen King. Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Somerset Maugham. When I’d read them once I read them again.
Somehow along the way I guess I must have learned what works and what doesn’t; learned what is trite; learned to recognise what keeps the light on way past midnight, and the pages turning. Watch this space. There’s more to come.