Monday, March 8, 2021

James Brabazon

James Brabazon is an author, frontline-journalist and documentary filmmaker. Based in the UK, he has travelled to over 70 countries – investigating, filming and directing in the world's most hostile environments. He is the author of the international bestseller My Friend the Mercenary, a memoir recounting his experiences of the Liberian civil war and the Equatorial Guinea coup plot; and the Max McLean series of spy thrillers The Break Line and Arkhangel (UK) / All Fall Down (USA).

My Q&A with Brabazon:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Well, this is a novel with two titles! All Fall Down in the US and Arkhangel in the UK. All Fall Down was the original working title – and it does exactly what it says on the tin… Max McLean, the Irish spy-assassin protagonist, has gone on the run after a routine hit on a terrorist goes disastrously wrong. Hunted at every turn, Max pushes the body count higher in ever more desperate efforts to escape his pursuers. But as he begins to understand what’s at stake, he realises it’s not just people who are falling down, but, potentially, Britain and America, too. Embroiled in a power game way above his head, he needs to make sense of the only clue he has to what’s unfolding and why: a single $100 bill, with a cryptic note written on it.

Arkhangel came much later. First and foremost, it’s the name of the village in Russia where Max’s forebears hailed… but as the action unfolds, it’s clear that there is more than one archangel in play in Max’s destiny.

What's in a name?

I chose Max McLean because it has such intense, personal meaning for me. My son is a Max – and I wanted him to be able to read stories about derring-do that he could both identify with and also learn from. Max McLean is a flawed hero – but he knows it, and under the macho, killer exterior beats the heart of a thinking, feeling, deeply conflicted man. In All Fall Down as in Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur, real men are men of tears.

McLean is a nod to the legendary British soldier-spy Fitzroy Maclean to whom I was introduced in 1991, and whose memoir Eastern Approaches is a classic account of diplomacy, war and subterfuge during WW2. Said to be an inspiration for Ian Fleming’s James Bond, Fitzroy Maclean was the real deal!

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

Not at all! I grew up reading adventure stories and spy thrillers. Sometimes it feels as if I was storing all those plots and twists and turns up in a great mental library – which have finally been unleashed on to the page, mixed with the experiences of the adult me working as a war reporter.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Strangely enough, I start writing a novel with two very clear ideas in my mind: how it starts and how it ends. Those two ideas are well developed before I put pen to paper, and they hardly change at all. The wild ride is getting from A to B! I have no idea of how I’m going to get there… Max McLean takes me along for the ride, surprising me as we lurch from near miss to revelation. Plotting it all out in advance would be so boring I couldn’t face it. I write to discover what I have to say.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Despite the fact that Max and I are both Anglo-Irish, I see very little similarity indeed. Although I’ve seen my fair share of the horrors of war, I did so as an observer, not as a combatant. Perhaps the real similarity between me and Max McLean is that we have both been profoundly affected by our experience of conflict – and that we both like drinking whiskey.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Primarily, nearly 25 years working as a war reporter. It’s not true to say that I’ve covered more wars than I can remember – you never forget going to war – but I have to think carefully not to miss any out. Lots of the conflicts I went to cover are well-known: Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Colombia, some less so, like Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the Ivory Coast, and others were just downright obscure, like the Maoist insurgency in Chhattisgarh in eastern India.

Many of the people I filmed and lived with were downright unsavoury to say the least. For weeks, sometimes months at a time, I relied on murderers to keep me alive. In Liberia, rebel soldiers fed me, chatted with me like friends around the camp fire – and then the next day I would watch them execute prisoners.

It was only once I began to write novels that I could really begin to assimilate those experiences. In fact, much to my surprise, it turned out that war reporting had given me some unexpected gifts as an author. First was the fact that I’ve met the most extraordinary cast of characters over the years whose stories for one reason or another I could never tell for television, but aspects of whom can come alive on the pages of a novel; second – I have filmed thousands of hours of interviews. That means I’m a professional listener – and that for years I’ve had to study the ticks and quirks of how people actually speak versus how people are made to look as if they speak… which makes writing dialogue a lot more straightforward. But finally, and perhaps most importantly, reporting on war isn’t only about soldiers and guns, it’s about people. The stories of the people I met weave their way through everything I write. I try to be true to my experience – with perhaps one twist: in war I have seen the triumph of the human spirit, but I have also seen all too often the triumph of evil men. In fiction I allow myself one luxury: the good guys always win. The trick is working out who they are.
Visit James Brabazon's website.

My Book, The Movie: All Fall Down.

The Page 69 Test: All Fall Down.

--Marshal Zeringue