Today I’m pleased to welcome Edward Wilson to the CTG Blog to tell us about his new book – The Whitehall Mandarin – and about his writing process.
So, let’s dive into the interview …
Firstly, your new book, The Whitehall Mandarin, is coming out in June. Can you tell us a bit about it?
All of my books are literary novels disguised as spy fiction. I try to explore the questions of identity, perception and truth. Can we really know who anyone really is? How can we find truth when it is papered over with lies? My starting point is the party slogan from Orwell’s 1984: ‘Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.’ The Whitehall Mandarin is an ‘insider novel’ that unpeels layers of deception to reveal the most closely guarded state secret of modern times: the China enigma. What is the secret behind China’s rapid rise to become a nuclear armed superpower? And when we think we have found that secret, there is yet another twist.
Lady Penelope Somers, the first woman to head up the Ministry of Defence, seems to have it all: power, beauty and wealth. The superglue that binds together the ruling class is secrecy – but Lady Somers has a dark secret that is unknown to even the inner circle of the Whitehall elite. Catesby’s job is to find that secret and bury it forever.
All of the book’s characters are complex and conflicted. Catesby, an MI6 officer who ironically bears the name of the leader of the Gunpowder Plot, never resolves his working class origins with his OBE and his status as a senior intelligence officer. Cauldwell, a wealthy American reeking of refinement and‘old money’, repudiates his background to become a Communist spy. Henry Bone, Catesby’s boss and mentor, has a closet full of skeletons including a past relationship with Sir Anthony Blunt.
Before writing the Catesby spy series you served as a Special Forces Officer in the US Army, how easy do you find using your real-world experience to inform your fiction?
War is not a good thing for writers or anyone else. I despise writers who become macho war bores and celebrate ‘the cult of the warrior’. Being a Special Forces officer in Vietnam was a lot more than ‘combat’. It was about going native, running intelligence networks and dealing with double agents – experiences which are invaluable for a writer of spy fiction. I was an SF advisor to the CIDG (Civilian Irregular Defense Group), a border screening force that patrolled from remote camps the length of South Vietnam. The CIDG soldiers were mostly Vietnamese or Montagnards, although there were also Khmers and Chinese Nungs. My own CIDG were all Vietnamese; brave fighters certainly, but also heavily infiltrated with sleeper agents. It was estimated that at least 10% of our CIDG were undercover Viet Cong. None of our operational plans were ever secure, none!
One way of dealing with this lack of security was to change plans at the last minute. I tried this on an ambush patrol with a small team of CIDG . We crept into a village after dark and began, covertly, to ask for information about the Viet Cong. An old man took me aside and led me away from the others. He asked to see my map so he could show me where to find the enemy. I refused because there was classified information grease-pencilled all over it, but I finally let him see a little corner and he pointed to a trail where we should set our ambush. It seemed a much better site than the one we had already chosen. I then rejoined the others and put the plan to the Vietnamese in charge of the CIDG, who responded with a resounding ‘khong’ – which is non, no, nein and nyet rolled into one. I couldn’t order him to move his men; I was only an ‘advisor’. So we set our ambush on the site previously chosen.
Later that night all hell broke loose, but nowhere near us – or the trail the old man had suggested. We later discovered that a Regional Forces (RF) outpost, less than a kilometre from our ambush position, had been overrun and sixteen of its defenders killed.
I’ll never know what really happened. Had the Viet Cong who attacked the outpost passed along the trail the old man had pointed out? Could we have saved those sixteen RF if we had redeployed and ambushed the attacking force enroute? Or was the old man a Viet Cong agent who had tried to lure us to a place where we would have been killed? Or was our CIDG leader an undercover VC who refused to budge because he wanted to protect his comrades? But I did learn the intelligence officer’s dilemma: you can never be completely certain who anyone is. Every human being is a mystery. I hope I bring this into my novels.
Could you tell us a little about your writing process, do you dive right in, or plan the story out first?
I begin by doing a lot of historical research to try to uncover something that no one has used before. The great thing about writing spy fiction rather than spy non-fiction is that most relevant documents have been destroyed, suppressed or never existed. When the historical trail of dots finally disappears, I keep going with a fictional version of what happened.
When I’ve got a plot outline, I go for characters. Characters, and not plot, are what make a novel take off. The same characters appear, disappear and reappear in my novels – and each time they reappear I reveal something new about them. I research actual historical characters by background reading, but I also use Youtube clips of them to try to discover their inner essence and quirks – Che Guevara’s shy boyishness; Kim Philby’s arrogance (just after he denied being ‘the Third Man’, he sticks his tongue in his cheek).
When I’m in full flow I try to write a minimum of 1,500 words a day. I know that things are going well when the characters take over and tell me what to write. They become real people – and don’t always tell me all their secrets. I just have to wait until they are ready. I don’t own them; they own me.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to publication as crime writers?
Character, character, character. We don’t remember Raymond Chandler’s plots; we remember his characters. I once had the privilege of sitting next to a crime writer named Phyllis at the Hatchards Authors of the Year party. The first thing that Phyllis (aka PD James) said to me was: ‘What is more important: character or plot?’ Phew, I gave the right answer. In fact, characters must shape the plot – otherwise, the plot will appear artificial and unbelievable.
Tension is more important than suspense. Everyone knows that Romeo and Juliet are not going to live happily ever after, but we still go to see the play. Sometimes revealing what happens in the first line of a chapter is more effective than springing it later. Begin a story: ‘She had never stabbed a man before.’ – and the reader is going to be on tenterhooks waiting to find out what actually happened.
Your main character must have a foil. Every Holmes needs a Watson. Revealing plot and narrative movement is a lot easier when two characters are talking about it – and tension between the two is also good for suspense and character development.
Find out what everyone else is doing – and then write something completely different. Make it new. Agents and publishers aren’t looking for copycats, they’re looking for originality.
Learn to pitch your story in fifty words or less.
And lastly, what does the rest of 2014 have in store for you?
The next few weeks are devoted to travelling and promoting The Whitehall Mandarin – including the Penzance LitFest on 18 and 19 July. Half the job of a professional writer is marketing her or his books and meeting people. We owe it to our readers and our publishers.
The other half of a writer’s life is actually writing. My next book is provisionally titled A Very British Ending – and I hope to have finished a first draft by December. Once again, it is an ‘insider novel’ with Catesby and Bone struggling against internal and external enemies. The action takes place between 1947 and 1976. I don’t write to understand myself, but I do write to understand the country that has adopted me and naturalised me – a country that I love. I hope that my next book will reveal some of the hidden and secret forces that have made Britain what it is today.
Thank you so much to Edward Wilson for joining us today and telling us about The Whitehall Mandarin.
The Whitehall Mandarin by Edward Wilson is published by Arcadia, and is out now in hardback. To find out more pop over to http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Whitehall-Mandarin-Edward-Wilson/dp/1909807532