"The two thirty-eights roared simultaneous." This is my favourite opening line, says author Chris Allen, below. “It’s all an action writer hopes to do, teasing the reader about what’s to come.”
The line, from Ian Fleming, opens "Moonraker," the third story in the James Bond series. The guns don’t roar in an exotic location; Bond is not in a lethal shootout with a gruesome villain. No, he’s on a shooting range, far below the streets of London, requalifying, as a good public servant must, on basic skills.
Alex Morgan, the Allen hero, is public servant, as is Bond. Morgan works search and destroy missions for INTREPID: the Intelligence, Recovery, Protection and Infiltration Division of Interpol. What Interpol can’t do openly, Intrepid does covertly.
INTREPID is different from MI6. INTREPID has a global mandate; MI6 protects mostly British interests. Although deeply hush-hush, MI6 is a public agency. INTREPID doesn’t exist.
Ian Fleming worked Naval Intelligence during World War II. The Fleming Flair was to scheme, plot and supervise dangerous missions, such as the escape from Dieppe; he also came up with quirky ways to flummox the enemy. Chris Allen shares the Fleming Flair, not only on the page.
Boyish grin and Gary Cooper, ah-shucks attitude aside, Allen is as much Bond as he is Fleming. After Trinity College high school, he joined the Australian Army. At 22, Allen was a lieutenant and, eventually, a Major. He qualified as a paratrooper in Australia, England and France as well as attaching to the New Zealand and British Armies. He deployed to South East Asia, Africa and Central America.
Following 9/11, Allen joined the Australian Federal Police Protective Service and led Counter Terrorist First Response measures at Sydney Airport. Bob Carr, then premier of New South Wales, recruited Allen to oversee and upgrade security at the most iconic landmark in Australia, the Sydney Opera House, on which someone spray-painted, “No War, in March 2003. From 2008 to 2012, Allen was Sheriff of New South Wales, a storybook job, in Australia.
The Morgan stories, "Defender" and "Hunter," are supposedly fiction. The action is plausible. There’s a "been there, done that" feel to the confidence with which Chris Allen writes.
Alex Morgan is part James Bond and part Mike Hammer. Bond and Morgan are simple, direct and effective. Selected, readied and set for brutal efficiency, Morgan, as needed, is as merciless a judge as is Hammer.
More Bond than Hammer, Alex Morgan is a blunt servant of global security. Bond and Hammer often shrink to cartoons, not Morgan. What someone said of Bond applies most to Morgan: he’s the bad person smouldering inside every good person.
Morgan is a believable hero. He’s not alone, sharing a shortlist with Marlowe, Spade, Archer and McGee. Each acts on a higher purpose, to purge evil and remain honest.
In this conversation, Chris Allen talks candidly, of how Alex Morgan came about, how he develops and writes the stories as well as his hopes that Morgan translates to film, well.
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Grub Street (GS) You came to writing a little bit late. When did you decide you wanted to write full-time?
Chris Allen (CA) I wanted to be a writer since I was a boy. I knew, back in primary school, I wanted to be a writer, mostly because I love books. I was dawn to adventure books.
GS How do you define the books you write?
CA My books are action thrillers.
GS “Defender” and “Hunter,” your books in the Alex Morgan series, successfully bring a James Bond-like character into the 21st century.
CA Yes, I’m trying. Around fourteen years old, I formed the idea I wanted to write. I know the exact moment. It was when I discovered “The Man with the Golden Gun” by Ian Fleming, in the library.
That book set me off on my course. I became obsessed with the books of Arthur Conan Doyle and Ian Fleming. Most any adventure or mystery books grabbed my attention and held it.
As for getting down to writing, as I have now, it wasn’t until roughly 1999. After a military career, I decided to go into writing full-time, to write for a living. I was in Timor, at the time, doing humanitarian work with CARE International. I thought I’d hit the right time to start writing the stories I wanted to write for so long.
When I returned home, from Timor, I started thrashing out the writing. It took roughly ten years to finish “Defender,” including many restarts and dead ends. I continued to muck around with manuscripts that eventually became a book.
GS I don’t think you’re alone in struggling to write.
CA Probably not, but I felt alone much of the time through the 2000s, ten years or so, until 2009. There were false starts, such sending manuscripts, getting right criticism, such as “We love the fast-paced action” and so forth. Yet, no kicking; no wanting to publish my manuscripts.
Many or most authors have gone through the false starts, receiving good responses, but no offer to publish. It’s part of the rite of passage, I think. Many, maybe most, successful authors had these experiences.
I kept at it, reworking manuscripts, developing ideas and new scenarios. I listened to what advice I received; that was important. Sometimes I can get too close to the manuscript; what’s in your head doesn’t make it to the page and the other way around.
Around 2007, I’d met my wife, Sarah. I bravely raised the issue, with her, of me wanting to be writer. It was great to have a muse.
Sarah would go over my work, with me. She knows who I am, what I’m about, what it’s important for me to write. The quality of my writing kicked up after I met Sarah.
Her fresh set of eyes. Her saying, I know what you want to write, but it’s not getting on the page. That would send me straight back to writing more efficiently.
GS Talking out what you wanted to write, with an understanding but critical ear is always good.
CA Yes, we eventually got to the point where we finished the manuscript that became “Defender of the Faith,” the first Alex Morgan and INTREPID novel. We started pushing harder and harder to a few publishers. It was frustrating because the response was the same, great action and fast-paced, but no offers to publish.
I was also pushing the manuscript to people whose opinion I respected. To close friends and not so close friends, associates whom I knew would be honest. All the genuine criticism I received was positive.
I kept hitting a brick wall, with the same approach. Maybe the timing wasn’t right. Maybe it wasn’t the right moment. Maybe publishers weren’t ready for the books I write, international action thrillers.
GS In 2004, the “de Vinci Code” set off a long run on historical, conspiratorial thrillers that distracted from the James Bond or Jack Ryan style action-thrillers.
CA Yes, maybe, around this time we, Sarah and I, began researching self-publishing. Once we amassed much information and we had talked with self-publishing companies, a traditional publisher offered to publish “Defender of the Faith.”
The offer thrilled me. After ten years of mucking about, I was doing cartwheels through the kitchen. After the struggle to land a publisher, Sarah and I went through the deal, offered by the traditional publisher.
We didn’t like it. The offer was okay, but it didn’t have an advance or the promotional power we might get from a major publisher. We thought we might be better off publishing the book ourselves.
We have an advantage; Sarah is a social media consultant. She does online marketing, promotion, public relations and so forth. Her work is the single ingredient that led us to self-publishing: we can market and promote the book, effectively, ourselves.
GS Most publishers, large or small, leave promoting a first book up to the author, anyway.
CA Yes, that’s what we figured. Why not self-publish and collect most or all the revenue for us. We might have to spend thousands on promotion, with a standard royalty as the only way to recoup that investment.
We decided to self-publish, with CreateSpace. It’s similar to the self-publish service offered by Amazon. CreateSpace was great, the mechanics of self-publishing worked well.
We were comfortable, with what CreateSpace did. We pushed the button. We self-published “Defender of the Faith”; later, Momentum changed the title to “Defender.”
GS Promotion seems the main obstacles for self-publishers.
CA We’re a team, Sarah and I. I write action-thriller books. Sarah is my muse and pushes my books on the Internet.
As a self-published book, “Defender of the Faith,” had a modest run, in digital sales and print on demand versions. We sold roughly three thousand copies, under our own steam. It was encouraging.
GS Selling three-thousand copies of self-published fiction is excellent.
CA So I hear. We thought it great. We didn’t realise how successful we were.
A friend, here in Australia, acted as an agent, of a sort, for us. He knew people in publishing. He passed along how well the book was doing in self-publishing.
Because of that Pan-Macmillan, which had recently set up a digital publishing imprint, Momentum, decided to have another look. The result was a two-book deal. One book was “Defender of the Faith,” red-edited, polished and issued as “Defender”; the other is “Hunter.”
On the website, Crime Thriller Fella, Eric Ambler says of “Defender,” the first book in the INTREPID series “is widescreen writing. When you see the images in your head, they’re in IMAX. “Defender” is a movie on a page. Allen has found a sly way of getting his hero, Alex Morgan, into all sorts of dangerous scrapes. … Working for INTREPID, Interpol’s black ops section, Morgan is a soldier, a police officer and spy, rolled into one. Allen made a conscious decision to do away with all the fancy frills, there are no gadgets in “Defender,” there’s no ludicrous tech. Goodness knows, Morgan knows his way round state-of-the-art weapons. Writing action is a particular skill, [especially] these days when movie action sequences move at the speed of light. An author has to juggle pace, momentum, character and convey [much] information.”
So far, I’ve written two books. Both released by Momentum, as digital books. A third book, “Avenger,” is due in 2014.
GS That’s a great story.
CA It’s a journey for us. I guess being able to share our respective skills, to make it work is best. So far, so good, I think.
GS Do you think your combined skills is the secret to successful self-publishing, the game changer.
CA I think it is. I’m lucky Sarah understood I wanted to write and what I wanted to write. After she read what I wrote, she was clear. “If I didn’t think you could seriously write,” she said, “I would not encourage you.”
When we got together and thrashed it out, it was clear her skills were the key. Her knack for knowing how to promote the books is exceptional. Even though we signed with a major publisher, her efforts make all the difference.
GS Internet marketing has few hits and mostly misses.
CA When you toe-test the Internet, you’re alone. You don’t know if anyone hears, as you scream. Response is hard to gauge.
I’m reserved, at my core. I don’t like to brag; it’s not my up-bring or experience. The integrity of the message is most important to me.
GS You’re not a diva.
CA No, there’s not an iota of diva in me. Sarah nailed my ideas, the understated part. She turned these into a major presence on the web. That presence is as close to the true me, as is possible; it’s not a made-up image. I’m comfortable with it.
Yes, the online presence has made the difference. People read my writing because of what Sarah has done. This team succeeds.
GS Sarah ran the self-publishing.
CA Yes, I call Sarah the boss and, in this case, it’s true. My comfort zone is sitting quietly in my study, bashing out the books; I'm happy writing. Sarah is all the outward facing presence and energy.
Sarah deals with our lawyer, our new agent, Maryisa Juszczakiewicz, the publisher, Joel Naoum, and a film producer with whom we recently signed a deal. Sarah does all of those jobs, then lines me up and says, “Right, this is what we’re doing today, tomorrow and the next day.”
She handles everything in our small writing business world. I’m the talent, as I like to remind her, an artist. All great talent needs a manager; Sarah does that so well.
GS Do you use a typewriter or a computer to write.
CA I use a computer. When I first started dreaming about writing, there were photographs of Ian Fleming writing “GoldenEye,” in a safari suit, maybe wearing a cravat. He’s working on an old typewriter, with a Martini not far away.
The reality is different. I’m downstairs, in my study, unshaven, with some drink, staring at the computer screen. You’d laugh, if you saw me. I’m a two-finger typist.
Most writers play a keyboard as if it were a piano. That’s not me. If I am doing well, sometimes I can get two fingers on each working.
GS Do you start writing as soon as you awake in the morning?
CA Well, yes, when I’m on a deadline, I must. The best example to show how I write is “Hunter,” my second book. I wrote it on six-month deadline.
When Momentum bought “Defender,” we made a deal for two books. I had six months to write “Hunter.” This was my first such writing challenge, “Chris Versus the Clock.”
At first, I was pedestrian in my approach to writing “Hunter.” I was working, as well, at the time, as Sheriff of New South Wales, in Australia. I came downstairs, to my study, in the evening and so on, to write as I could.
Then, I was at a point where’d I written half the book, in a few months, say, about fifty thousand words. The deadline loomed. Morgan, our first son, was in the terrible twos and Sarah was expecting our second son, Rhett. As a family, we had to find a way for me to develop much more discipline, if only for a short while.
I had to disappear into my writing, leaving Sarah to wrangle with Morgan. I had to well-up much serious discipline, to sit in my study, as if I wasn’t in the house, tolerating no distractions. Literally, pun intended, I wrote day and night.
As soon as I woke up, I made a cup of tea and descended into the basement to write. I usually read the last chapter or the pages I finished the night before, to get my mind back into the story. I wrote into the night.
When writing “Defender,” I learned to use a whiteboard to list or arrange ideas. For “Hunter,” I used the whiteboard and sticky notes, on which I wrote ideas. I posted these notes on the walls of my study, as a way to find a rough sketch for the book.
I transferred the rough sketch from sticky notes on my walls and the whiteboard to a leather-bound notebook I carry. This notebook has my “Defender” and “Hunter” notes as well as those for my next book, “Avenger.”
The notebook went everywhere with me. If we were out, shopping or doing groceries, and something came to me, I scribbled it in the notebook. Eventually, the ideas formed for “Hunter”; where I might take the story, without being too prescriptive, leaving room for creativity.
GS Generations form now, Christie’s Auction House will sell your notebook for a fortune.
CA No doubt, that notebook was an ever-present reference point, as I continued through the story. Sometimes, the writing carried me away. I forgot I had a plan written down. I went back to the notebook.
At times, I read over what I wrote, wondering where I was going with this event or character and so forth. I’d tell myself to go back to the notebook. Read the plan.
GS Sometimes tangents are too tempting and you want to follow, to see where it goes.
CA Yes and the notebook worked well for me, keeping me on track. I wrote the last half, the last fifty thousand or so words, of “Hunter,” in roughly a month. I worked hard during that last month; it convinced me I could turn a book around in a few months.
I was happy the way I wrote “Hunter.” It was a great experience. The published book thrilled me.
Having my muse to read chapters was great. All I had to do was walk upstairs to give her what I wrote. I’d go back downstairs to continue writing some more. Sarah would read what I gave her and scribble notes that improved my work.
GS You wrote from the time you awoke until you couldn’t write any more.
CA Yes, in that last month, I wrote night and day. I knew the goal was roughly ninety-five thousand words for “Hunter.” I kept a running total of the work count. This gave me an idea of how I was moving forward each day, if I were falling short or getting ahead, at least to penultimate draft.
Watching the word count kept me on track. It meant I didn’t go too far with a certain part of the story. “Hunter” ended, naturally, pre-editing, at the word goal. This was satisfying.
GS “Defender” seems written, as you could, over a decade or so. You more purposively wrote “Hunter.”
CA That’s right, I wrote “Defender” as a hobby, of a sort, whereas with “Hunter,” my job was writing. For “Defender,” the burning need, to be a published writer, existed, but my approach to reaching that goal was not as discipline as for “Hunter.”
From about 2007, my writing took over my focus. Sarah and I worked on “Defender.” The two of us, working that manuscript, brought the idea of writing for a living together.
GS That was the moment, you mentioned, when you decided you would take a serious stab at writing.
CA Yes, when we saw the reaction to “Defender,” that was the icing. It was supporting. Editors at big publishing houses thought the manuscript wasn’t good enough to publish. When we self-publish, the book sells thousands of copies. Then big publisher took a second look. Well, that feels good, seasoned with a bit of revenge.
I’m not the type to kid myself. I needed the re-enforcement from Sarah. Then there were others saying, “‘Defender’ is better than books I’m reading and not worse.”
The response reassured me. I was on the right track. To see positive reviews on Amazon and other book sites was great. I realised I can write and I’m going to write.
GS Do you think “Hunter” was over-written?
CA I read that comment. I’m not sure I understand the criticism. Reviewers can be an odd lot.
One fellow gave “Defender” two stars and didn’t care much for it. Then the same fellow read “Hunter,” giving it two stars, as well, saying, “I’m dreading the third one.” If he’s dreading it, he shouldn’t read “Avenger.”
CA As for “Hunter” being over-written, I don’t think so. I reread “Hunter,” after hearing that some reviewers thought it over-written. I don’t think there’s anything I’d change in that book. I’m proud of “Hunter.”
“I just finished reading ‘Hunter: INTREPID 2,’ the second novel by Chris Allen,” writes Elaine Myer-davies, on the website Good Reads. “What can I say? Having hungrily digested every word, scene and chapter in “Defender: INTREPID 1,” just over 12 months ago, it was with great anticipation that I awaited the follow up adventure. I wasn't disappointed. Once again, Chris has the ability to place the reader right there [, in the moment,] in every chapter. It is thoroughly believable – a fantastic read which had me on the edge of my seat. Alex Morgan has become one of my all-time favourite action characters – charming, clever and debonair, combined with a steely resolve to do what is right by whatever means possible. Well done, Chris Allen; I can't wait for INTREPID 3. I would recommend the INTREPID series to anyone who loves a good thriller, combined with loads of action.”
Something I’m learning is that as the book series moves forward, I want to add more about Alex Morgan and the other principal characters. My thinking, for “Defender” and “Hunter,” was, when you meet someone, you don’t want all their details dumped on you. Characters, as friends, should develop, overtime, across the series.
If you like someone, you meet them repeatedly and learn more about them each time. The same should work for a recurring hero, such as Alex Morgan. His character develops across the books, not all at once.
Readers invest so much in the books and characters. My job is to delve deeper into Morgan and General Davenport, for example, probably quicker than I originally thought. That’s my plan, now.
GS Will the Arena Halls character continue?
CA There’s been a great reaction to Arena Halls. What a thrill. Arena Halls is homage to my wife, Sarah Allen. Arena Halls is an anagram for Sarah Allen.
Readers and publishers ask what’s happening with Arena Halls. I have plans for Arena. She’s reappearing, no doubt.
GS Lundt, in “Defenders,” is a Fleming-style villain. How did you come up with him?
CA He’s a mix of characters. I can’t put my finger on a fictional character that inspired Lundt. He’s a composite of a type, real and fictional.
In life, coming up the ranks in a company or occupation, nine-times-out-ten there’s someone who’s a few jumps ahead of you in age, experience or seniority. This person always has issues the new man or woman on-the-job, the up-and-comer. It’s a classic circumstance: Lundt is this person.
Lundt is the experienced, older agent, who’s been there, done it all, seen too much. He served too much, defended too much. It burnt him out, made him grossly immoral, depraved and corrupt.
GS He is vile.
CA Yes, his on-the-job experience made him pathological. He lost his view of the greater good. Alex Morgan is deliberately the opposite side of Lundt, one hundred and eighty degrees from Lundt.
I like pitting these characters against each other. Bureaucratic masterminds are behind them both. Lundt and Morgan are the pit bulls going after each other.
GS Is this psychogenic cynicism versus passion.
CA I think that’s a great way to look at it. Maybe that’s a little too clinical. Still, Lundt does act that way.
GS Is Lundt a despicable, violent John le Carré villain.
CA Oh, right, yes, what I like about le Carré is the grittiness. Fleming, as well, idealised that world of Whitehall, the British bureaucracy. Both le Carré and Fleming saw the UK, in post-war recovery, as on its knees. Many people saw themselves as mice on a wheel, barely surviving as the country picked itself up after World War 2.
John le Carré and Fleming gave readers, in the UK, a public servant as hero, of a sort. George Smiley or James Bond, travel to romantic locations, save the country, as well as having some means to protect ordinary people. It was a lift for the UK. Readers might think, “Hey, there’s hope for me, too.”
GS Fleming was writing from the Caribbean.
CA Yes, when he was on holiday, but not all the time. The typical British reader, on the tube or bus, off to a dreary government job, reading these books, featuring an international hero that was one of them. Suddenly, the reader is in the sunshine, even though she or he rugged up on a bus.
GS Lundt comes across as the total disaffected Whitehall bureaucrat, suffering a mental breakdown.
CA Yes, exactly, I wanted the villain to be as tenacious as possible. I also wanted the villain as ordinary as possible; someone the reader might say, “Hey, he’s a bit like so-and-so, in the next office.” Still, he must be as distasteful a fellow as possible. I didn’t want a larger-than-life figure, such as Goldfinger or Dr No. I wanted to meld Fleming and other writers of his day into the 2000s.
GS You did that, as well, with Turner, another interesting villain. Was there a model?
CA Yes, I can’t say whom, but two or three people I met are obvious in Turner. Do you remember “Patriot Games,” the Tom Clancy book that became the film with Harrison Ford? There was a character, the bookshop owner, Dennis Cooley, portrayed by Alex Norton.
When I was writing the Turner character for “Defender,” my mind kept going back to Cooley as the archetype, the inspiration for Turner. Cooley was a spineless opportunist.
GS Readers like to see the milquetoast villain, such as Turner, get his due.
CA Yes, they do and he did. The way Turner got his comeuppance fit the character and his actions, well: prancing merrily around with two hookers in his bedroom. He thought he’d escaped, free and clear, but hadn’t.
GS That’s another stroke of Fleming-like imagination.
CA Yes, it was his weakness for unusual sex.
GS “Hunter” is episodic, in a way, as Morgan moves from one heroic battle to another, without much break for the reader to catch her or his breathe.
CA That’s a great observation. I set out Morgan in “Defender.” I stretched the elastic bands and held on to the ends.
In “Hunter,” there’s a slingshot effect. I let the stretched elastic bands go. The pent-up action explodes on to the page.
I wanted “Hunter” to throw Morgan into the action space, fully. “Defender,” in a way, hinted at the abilities of Morgan. “Hunter” showed what Morgan’s able to do, fully.
When I was writing “Hunter,” I felt a relentlessness that shows in its action sequences. In “Defender,” I promised Morgan was action. Now, in “Hunter,” he does it.
I don’t want every Morgan book to go that way. Already, “Avenger,” the third book in the Morgan series, isn’t shaping up that way. I’m exploring Morgan the character, more deeply, his friendships and loyalties, but there’s still much action. “Avenger” will likely be more similar to “Defender” than to “Hunter.”
GS How did you connect with Joel Naoum, your publisher at Momentum?
CA A friend acted as an informal agent for us. She knew many people in the book trade and connected us through Tom Gilliatt. At the time, he was Director of Non-fiction Publishing at Pan-Macmillan, in Australia.
A few years ago, Gilliatt took over the digital imprint of Pan-Macmillan, Momentum. Joel Naoum had been on a sabbatical, of sorts, learning the digital book business. When he returned, he took on the task of running Momentum.
Naoum reports to Gilliatt. My friend took “Defender of the Faith” to Gilliatt. He signed us to Momentum and introduced us to Naoum. That’s how that came about.
GS How do you find working with Naoum?
CA He’s great; middle thirties, full of energy. He embraced everything about publishing, especially how to be innovative, today. Naoum seems the right publisher for us.
The timing worked well, too. Momentum wanted a strong action thriller writer. We, Sarah and I, had cut our teeth in digital publishing, successfully; we knew that end of the business, too. We had the product and the experience to help promote it as well as experience in digital publishing.
Our relations with Naoum and Momentum were harmonious from the start. Once I signed, Naoum asked for the manuscript of “Defender.” He read it and provided an editorial report.
I was happy with his report. It was great to have an independent view, of the manuscript, especially from the viewpoint of the publisher. I went through the manuscript, again, improving the original.
With publisher tactics and tricks, of a sort, incorporated into the manuscript, “Defender” was much better. Naoum cut back the title from “Defender of the Faith” to “Defender.” This was interesting; we promoted the book using the word, “Defender,” in large type and “of the Faith” in much smaller type, on the cover.
GS You and Naoum were on the same page.
CA Yes, early on, when we self-published “Defender of the Faith,” some book buyers thought it was a religious book. Obviously, that wasn’t the intent. It made sense when Naoum trimmed back the title to “Defender.”
When I started writing what became “Hunter,” the working title was “Shape Shifter.” A villain, in “Hunter,” is a chameleon, easily changing appearance from place to place. He vanishes without notice, always leaving the same linguistic clue. After some discussion, I was happy with the new title, “Hunter.”
GS Was Joel Naoum as involved on “Hunter” as he was on “Defender”?
CS He did an editorial report, which was great. We knew there was a readership continuing from “Defender.” Still, it was a relief that Naoum liked the idea and the manuscript for “Hunter,” as much or more than he did “Defender.”
GS The idea for “Avenger,” your next book, obviously made the cut, too.
CA That’s right. Naoum and Momentum are quick to realise where I’m coming from, which thrills me. My goal was to create my own Flemingesque approach to a series of action thrillers, bringing the fifties into the 2000s.
GS Who was the editor on “Hunter.”
CA Kylie Mason, Naoum had her work with me on “Defender.” We worked through e-mail, but, still, I could tell, right from the beginning, that Mason understood what I was writing, where I wanted to take the characters and so forth. She was so good and we got on well.
Naoum reconnected me with Kylie Mason for “Hunter.” Right off the bat, she understood what I was trying to do, where I wanted to go with Alex Morgan and that story, in that book. We started with an editorial report from her, set out a plan, based on her report, and off we went.
GS Naoum and Mason understood you wanted Morgan, as Fleming wanted Bond, to have a higher purpose, far beyond violence.
CA Yes, Morgan is a modern-day Jedi. The higher purpose, serving and protecting the greater good for the world, rather than one country, is the goal. James Bond links to England; Mitch Raff and Jack Ryan are Americans, clear and simple, as is “Dirty Harry” Callahan.
GS You found an under-used niche, the international hero.
CA My intent was to create an international feel to the stories. I didn’t want Morgan caught up in one country’s view of the world. Ideally, readers across the world will enjoy Alex Morgan.
GS Do you think, if Morgan attached to one country, say, Australia, as Bond is to the UK, that what you write would work as well?
CA No, I don’t think so. The larger point is to give readers the idea that some organisation, especially one intended to protect them, isn’t self-serving. I think this idea planted, when I was a child, by a television show, “The Thunderbirds,” that went anywhere, everywhere, in the world to save people.
GS I think UNCLE is the only international thriller success on television, which isn’t a cartoon.
CA Yes, “The Man from U. N. C. L. E” was a hit television series, in the 1960s, about rescuing people all over the world. Ian Fleming was a major influence on that show. He created the Napoleon Solo character; “Solo” was the first title for the show.
Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman held the rights to Bond. They pressured Fleming not to involve himself with the television show. I don’t think he cared for their interference.
Fleming sold the rights to the show, to Norman Felton, for a dollar. Fleming sent a brief letter, to Felton, saying, “The rights to ‘Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ belonged to you for a dollar.” Fleming wanted to see it produced.
GS Still, many, maybe most, heroes work fight for one country.
CA True, but I wanted Morgan to be international. There’s some innocence in that idea, I know. I think it makes Morgan different from other action thriller heroes.
If the undercurrent of action thriller and mystery writing, as W H Auden, said, is “Sin, salvation and redemption,” innocence may be the unspoken heart of the stories. In “Skyfall,” there’s a moment of lost innocence for Bond. The villain, Silva, portrayed by Javier Bardem, tells Bond that he failed all his requalifying tests.
M had told Bond he passed, if barely. She wanted to boost his confidence. Daniel Craig, as Bond, then affects a facial expression similar to a young lad who just found out Santa Claus is not real.
GS I wonder about the future for Alex Morgan.
CA Alex Morgan will continue, for a long-time, I hope. I’m loaded with ideas for him. For now, though, my full focus is on finishing “Avenger.”
GS Do you have an agent?
CA Yes, Maryisa Juszczakiewicz, at Peony Literary Agency. Right now, we’re looking at what we want to do, where we want to go. There are many choices.
Maryisa deals with publishers and movie producers, we’re looking at that area, now. My wife, Sarah, and her assistant, Julie Green, handle social media and the more standard public relations and promotion.
GS Do you enjoy promoting your books?
CA If you ignore promotion, you lose. Unless there’s a huge publisher behind the writer that’s willing to promote the book, on a grand scale, she or he must get out and push the book, hard. Writers need to engage with promotion.
GS Steven Berry said he spent ten thousand dollars of his own money to promote his first book, “The Amber Room.”
CA I’m not surprised. “In space, no one can hear you scream,” was the tag line for the first movie in the “Alien” series. The same goes for the writer that doesn’t promote his or her work. No one knows that you write or what you write. This is especially true with the rise of digital publishing.
If you don’t scream through social media, you’re invisible to most readers. The only person that can make a difference is the writer; many memorable artists were good promoters, too, say, Rembrandt or de Vinci. I’m fortunate Sarah is a social media consultant.
Most writers don’t have the luxury, of a Sarah, and must do it for themselves. No one is going to promote your book for you, unless you’re already a huge success; then others are trying to climb on your bandwagon. When a writing career is starting, the writer must do his or her own promotion and find a way to enjoy it.
I have a friend, Bradley Trevor Greive. He writes the Blue Day Books and is been a New York “Times” best-selling author. He’s sold twenty-five million books.
Greive is artistic, a philanthropist and a conservationist. We’ve know each other since our paratrooping days. I’m fortunate to be able to e-mail or phone him, as I wish, so we can talk about my writing.
About Alex Morgan and INTREPID, Greive said, on Good Read, he’s “Part Jason Bourne and part James Bond, Alex Morgan is an agent of Interpol's Intelligence, Recovery, Protection and Infiltration Division - INTREPID. Police Officer, soldier and spy, Morgan and his fellow INTREPID operatives are the faceless strangers who serve the greater good – the means to justify the end.
Greive is always forthcoming when I want to pick his brain or need advice. Right from the outset, Greive said, “People that aren’t trying to promote their work online or anywhere don’t realise the importance of promotion. They’ll wallow in obscurity.” Readers need to find writers and they won’t think to look in every basement study.
Writers have to get out and do it. Greive, despite his success, still actively promotes each of his books and everything he does. He’s my go-to-guy for advice.
GS What expectations do you have for your readers?
CA I want readers to find my stories entertaining, of course. What I’m trying to do is what Fleming and my other favourite authors did and do. I want my readers to enjoy my books, today. I want my readers to keep my books on their bookshelves, digital or physical, for the rest of their lives. I want my readers to go back to my books, repeatedly.
On the bookshelf behind me, now, is an often-read omnibus of Sherlock Holmes. I have all the James Bond books written by Fleming, some in first edition hardcover. Books by these writers, among others, are old friends to re-visit often and for new rewards; every time I read “GoldenEye,” I discover something small that I missed in the previous ten readings.
Alex Morgan should provide a lasting, recurring experience for readers. I try not to write fast-food stories. Nor do I hope my readers will need a double shot of Jägermeister after reading “Defender,” “Hunter” or, in 2014, “Avenger.”
When I was growing up, in Perth, Australia, Bond and Holmes, for example, were falling out of favour, a bit. I couldn’t find new editions, only used copies, with yellowy-brown pages and torn covers. I read those used books repeatedly and they all sit on the shelf behind me, right now.
I’m hoping, with Alex Morgan and INTREPID, to create a similar reading experience. I hope readers will invest in the series. I hope readers will want to reread the books, relive the Morgan experiences, in four or five years, maybe in twenty years. Eventually, I hope, they get their children interested in reading the series.
I’m serious about wanting to create a recurring reading experience. It’s not about money, either. I don’t want readers to rebuy my books, although they might buy my books anew for their children.
I want my readers to relive the experience. I want the recurring reading experience to happen with copies of my books that have gone yellowy-brown and have a cracked cover. I’m not sure I know the digital equivalent of yellowy-brown pages. I hope and want my readers to reread, relive, rediscover Alex Morgan.
GS What expectations do you have for other writers that read your books?
CA That’s interesting. I hope writers read my books. I hope writers like what I write. I hope they like how I build the story. I hope they like the action sequences. I hope to inspire.
I hope other writers like my brand of action thriller, even though it’s different from what they write. I recently connected, informally, with several other Australian action writers and a network, of a sort, is forming. I like the fact we can talk openly about our writing.
What I found was that, even though we write similar books, we have different takes on the work. If my work helped, say, another writer find a new direction or improve his or her writing, well, that would thrill me.
GS Steve Berry and Harrison Demchick talk of similar comradery among writers of similar styles of fiction. In fact, Berry and his wife set up the International Thriller Writers Association, which hosts a Thriller Fest each year, in New York City.
CA That’s interesting. The working group, I mentioned, put together a closed Facebook page called, The Action and Thriller Writers Association of Australia. We’re in the early stages. There are about a dozen of us so far, all published authors that write action and crime.
We talk, via Facebook, about what we write. One of the boys, Greg Baron, recently published a new book in Australia, “Savage Tide.” He signed his book for the rest of the group and we do the same, in return.
There’s no insecurity among the writers in this group; none I know of. The market, not other writers, decides if readers like your book. Some books obviously sell better than do others and that’s that. Yet, the comradery is good for all of us.
GS Do you think, eventually, these groups of writers might find a way to deal, effectively, with the mergers that make a few publishers large. Penguin Random House, for example, controls about one-quarter of all book publishing in the world.
CA That’s interesting. It’s an unexpected upside for writers. The larger publishers may pressure individual writers to accept smaller royalties, for example, no advance or no promotion. As a collective, we might be able to fend off the demands of the larger publishers.
GS You’re new at writing best-selling books. Even so, what advice do you offer a new or struggling author?
CA Well, do it, of course. If a writer believes in what he or she writes and deep down wants to be a published writer, wants to write for a living, they must accept having to dig in for some time. Unless, the literary gawds smile on a writer, unless she or he has a run-away success with the first book, she or he must set up a solid presence for the future.
Writers must let readers know about their writing. What she or he has available, today. What he or she has coming.
How some writers present on social media, for example, is almost a waste of time. It’s akin to climbing on to your roof, with paint and brush, to write, “Chris Allen writes books, please buy one,” and hope someone sees it from space; maybe someone in a parachute, on descent.
A writer must have a website. Still, today, that’s not enough. She or he must have a presence across the range of social media, not only on Amazon, Facebook and Twitter, but also on Mugme, Foursquare, Pinterest, Instagram and so forth.
Readers must be able to find writers and not only in the bookstore or a huge online bookshop. If a writer doesn’t have a wide-ranging presence on the web, he or she will end with a computer full of manuscripts and no publisher or readers. The writer must do everything possible to get her or his manuscripts to readers.
Writing is competitive. It’s getting increasingly competitive and global. Digital publishing means everyone can publish and promote books, if they wish.
Writers must commit to the art of writing and the art of promoting what they write, if they are to succeed.
GS Were financial considerations involved in your decision, in 2007, to become a full-time writer.
CA Well, I kept working in security until 2012. I decided to write, full-time, in 2007, but I felt I had outstanding commitments to fulfil. I couldn’t walk away from my day job; I made promises, agreed to do a job, people counted on me. I knew must fulfil my responsibilities.
In June 2012, Sarah and I decided we’d take a year to focus on writing, publishing and promoting to give the books a red-hot go. The books are doing well. My current view is that I must get a bit further ahead before we can live off the novels.
Now, I’m looking at going back to security work while I finish “Avenger.” We committed to that one-year period and it worked out. I have two young boys, Morgan and Rhett; it’s time to get back to work while I continue to write.
GS Will the balance, of day job and writing, work.
CA I think so. Most of the writing for “Defender” and “Hunter,” I did while working full-time. I think we can balance it.
Writing full-time is what I want to do. We’re so close to that level, now. Still, I don’t want to put my family in the ever-tenuous position that super-successful writing is just around the corner and we put life on hold, as we wait. No, I think I’ll go back to work until we round that corner. That’s my reality, now.
GS What happens if you take a government contract and, let’s say, “Avengers” is the next “de Vinci Code.”
CA It depends on the contract I get. A challenge might help clear my head, a bit. I’m looking forward to something new.
If I commit to a government contract, say, I’ll stick with it, to the end, regardless of what happens. That’s important to me. I’ll see it through.
The next three or five years will tell the tale on Alex Morgan. Can I keep creating new stories and expanding or adding characters? I believe I can. Is INTREPID successful on the screen? I believe it will be. Can I develop another book series? I believe I can. In a few years, we’ll know for sure.
GS Do you think you could write a book a year?
CA Yes, I have the story ideas to go and the characters are ripe for development.
GS What is your favourite story or book from the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?
CA It has to be “The Scandal in Bohemia.” This is the adventure where Holmes meets his match, I guess, in Irene Adler. She represents a crucial point in developing the Holmes character. Holmes is inexplicable; his ratiocination, his deductive thinking, for example, removed from everybody else. Watson, of course, tries to bring Holmes to ground, but isn’t ever fully successful.
For Irene Adler to enamour Holmes so deeply, was exceptional. Usually, he took no notice of women, other than an occasional comment about an action or manner of dress. Adler intrigued Holmes, outwitted him, as did no man; she remained as inscrutable, for Holmes, as he was to others.
GS Doyle has much lasting power.
CA Right, for one hundred and twenty-five years or more, his use of language is incredible. Doyle drenches the reader with his writing; it’s beautiful. It’s hard to imagine he wrote only one draft, with minor corrections, maybe, of each story and book. Doyle was brilliant.
GS What do you think of “The Red-headed League”?
CA That’s one of my favourites, too. It’s a great story about an egotistical, greedy and gullible fellow, a former sailor that owned a store across the street from a bank. A gang of burglars got him out of the store, each day, so they could dig a tunnel to the bank. They employed him to copy out the Encyclopedia Britannica. He got the job solely because he was a red-headed man. He wasn’t suspicious, at all. He wanted the money.
GS It’s such a simple plot.
CA Yes and without a murder, it’s compelling without death.
GS What is your favourite Fleming book?
CA “Moonraker” is my favourite Fleming. With this book, the third in the series, Fleming found his footing for Bond. I love the way “Moonraker” starts. “The two 38s roared simultaneously.”
Immediately, the reader’s in the book. Shortly, the reader finds out Bond is on a firing range, practising, not in deadly combat with an unspeakable villain. Fleming engages the reader, with the first line, and then reveals Bond as a public servant, keeping up his skills. I love this comparison.
This is real-life. Bond needs to practice. This came back in “Skyfall.”
GS In “Defender,” you had Alex Morgan on a firing range, requalifying.
CA Yes, an intentional homage to Fleming, with a bit added. Tom Rogers, the firearms instructor, called Morgan, “Sir,” when Morgan preferred Alex. Rogers had to keep the formality up, on-the-job. Off the job, it was Tom and Alex.
GS That’s old school.
CA Yes and it’s the same today. I meet with my military pals. They greet me with, “Good to see you, sir.” I say, “Good to see you, too, but you know I’ve been out for fifteen years; it’s Chris.”
There’s a familiarity in the military that most fellows never lose. In reverse, I continue to call some fellows Major and so forth. It takes a few drinks to get rid of the familiarity and formality, I think.
For those who served or who understand, it’s hilarious. It’s colourful mutual respect. It’s part of environment.
GS You said you liked “Skyfall,” the most recent James Bond movie. Do you agree it’s the best Bond movie, ever?
CA I loved “Skyfall.” Daniel Craig is exceptional as Bond. I didn’t like opening sequence, where he has M in his ear. She’s in London. He’s in the field. M is telling him what to do, every step of the way. No, that’s not for me.
In the old Bond movies, when M kicked Sean Connery, as Bond, out of the office, on his way, M didn’t hear from Bond, again, until the problem resolved. Then M and Bond would wrap it up, at the end, back in the office, over Cognac, maybe.
GS That’s more old school style.
CA Yes, for those serving overseas, today, what she or he does, moment to moment, a central command, in Canberra, London or Washington, prescribes. Selected, trained and prepared to do what Bond does, he went unsupervised, trusted, in a sense. It’s more the old school approach, I guess, that I prefer.
In “Skyfall,” MI6 micro-manages. Technology shifted from the field, what “Q” provided Bond, to the offices of MI6, at Whitehall. Bond as a London-directed bureaucrat isn’t what Fleming had in mind, I don’t think.
There’s something more appealing about the skilled, self-sufficient, lone wolf agent in the field. Yes, Bond and Alex Morgan are bureaucrats, of a sort. Yet, in “Skyfall,” it seemed an umbilical cord now attaches to him.
GS What’s your favourite Bond movie?
CA My favourite Bond is “Casino Royale” (2006). It’s the first story, in the series, and, perhaps, the best of what Fleming wrote for Bond. The movie was as true to the book as possible.
GS A movie producer must be beating down your door.
CA We’re just signing a deal, now. I can’t talk too much about it. Alex Morgan is heading, almost surely, to the screen.
GS What can you say about the movie deal?
CA A producer has a deep interest in Alex Morgan and INTREPID. We met through a random set of circumstances. The producer was looking for new material, exactly, in fact, like “Defender” and “Hunter,” and came to Australia to see what was what.
I met this producer because of “Defender of the Faith.” Momentum had yet to buy my books. The quality of the self-published book attracted the producer to my work.
The INTREPID idea, an organisation that does the heavy lifting for Interpol, caught him hard. There’s the built in potential for screen sequels, in a book series. The international turn was another selling point.
We had a few months of discussion, going back and forth. The point came were we signed. Since then, I spent several intense weeks in London and Hollywood, with the producer, talking to potential production partners. I’m convinced he walks the walk as well as talks the talk.
GS That’s exciting.
CA I’m over the moon about this deal. My view of how Alex Morgan and INTREPID should be on screen is consistent with the producer. It’s a lifelong ambition to write these books and see the screen versions.
I’m trying to keep myself grounded. I have to step back, for now. This is the time for the movie people to perform their magic.
GS Does your screen deal include you writing the scripts.
CA For now, I consult on the scripts, which is fine. I sold the rights to the series, the characters and themes; as I write the books, this producer has first refusal. The current plan is to make the movies in a quasi-Bond way, based on the stories in the books. One book, for example, may create two or three movies.
GS Does anyone have concerns about the special effects needed to make an Alex Morgan movie work?
CA I’m not a movie tech expert, thus I can’t be sure. I write books and others produce movies. Still, I hope the producers will do as much real-time action as possible.
I hope the emphasis will be on the stories, not special effects. I think this is how the producer wants to go. The result will be much grittier if the focus is on the stories.
GS Were you happy how your screen deal worked out for DVDs, pay-per-view and other ancillary platforms for your books as movies.
CA In a word, yes.
GS How autobiographical is Alex Morgan?
CA I am the core of Morgan, of course. He has a Welsh father and Australian mother. He served in the Australian Army and the British Paratroopers. Most of his attitudes and opinions are mine.
Every action writer wants his central character to be heroic, yet flawed and human. I am the human and flawed parts of Morgan. The heroic parts are someone else, mostly bits of my friends, here and there.
GS How much James Bond is Morgan?
CA As the thumbnail sketch, Bond was always the model. I admire Fleming so much. I wanted to homage him with Morgan.
GS Is there any John le Carré influence in “Defender” or “Hunter.”
CA General Davenport grounds in George Smiley, the fictional MI6 agent. There’s much Alec Leamas, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” in my characters, too. These characters are factual, real, although offered through ostensible fiction.
I guess le Carré influenced my bureaucratic characters. I tried to give some old school flavour through Davenport. He is in his middle fifties. He has been around, in the field. He knows how to work all sides of INTREPID.
GS What is the influence of Sherlock Holmes?
CA Doyle is influential in the language Davenport uses. One of the words Doyle liked was remonstration, to plead in protest. I try to use it, as I can, as well as other words no longer part of everyday language.
GS I guess heterochromia is another example.
CA Yes, it points to differences in coloration of the iris, hair or skin. I slip these words into the Davenport dialogue. I think readers like these Easter eggs.
GS What was the inspiration for Mila Haddad, in “Hunter”?
CA Accidentally, Sherlock Holmes inspired Mila. She uncovered a critical clue to the identity of the villain in “Hunter.” After some intricate research, she unravelled how the aliases of the villain always involved the word, “wolf,” regardless of the native language of the country or region where he did his dirty deeds.
GS Your father, Ben, was a bus driver.
CA Yes, he was.
GS Your mother, Maureen, led a choir.
CA Well, my mum is in a choir and a devout Roman Catholic. It devastated her when the choir kicked me out because I couldn’t sing; I’m tone deaf. My father had a beautiful Welsh singing voice, too. I missed those genes.
GS What does Maureen think of her son, the international best-selling author.
CA She’s thrilled, of course. Mum’s an old-fashioned girl. She knows I wanted to write for a long-time. She and my dad put up with my, “I’m going to be Ian Fleming one day” rubbish and having to watch James Bond films on television, when I was a boy.
For me to have made it, mum’s proud. She tells the women in the choir about my books and such. They obviously read my books.
GS Do you have siblings?
CA Yes, I’m the middle of five, with two older sisters and two younger brothers.
GS You went to university after a career in the military and security
CA Yes, I joined the military after graduating from Trinity College, a Catholic school for boys, in Perth. It’s the equivalent of high school in Canada. I qualified as a paratrooper in Australia, England and France. I attached to the New Zealand Army and the British Army. I deployed in South East Asia, Africa and Central America. I drank champagne with Prince Charles, following the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Arnhem Jump, in Holland.
After the military, I attended Edith Cowan University, in Perth, studying marketing, accounting and so forth. I had great difficulty with a post-military career. People, frankly, didn’t understand what a military officer was all about; how to employ me was an issue.
I changed from business to a security programme, offered in the Science Faculty at Edith Cowan University. Before graduating, I became involved in humanitarian-aid work for CARE International, during the 1999 East Timor emergency. September 11 led to my involvement in government protective security work, eventually leading Counter Terrorist First Response measures at Sydney Airport. From 2008-to-2012, I was Sheriff of New South Wales.
GS Is it true someone painted the words, “No War,” on to the sails of the Sydney Opera House.
CA Yes, in March 2003. In fact, it was the reason Bob Carr, who was the Premier of New South Wales, at the time, seconded me from Canberra to Sydney. I oversaw an unprecedented security upgrade of this most iconic landmark, the Sydney Opera House.
The Opera House is important to Australia. Four million women, men and children, from around the world, visit it every year. It was critical that Australia ensure the security of the building and the safety of visitors.
GS Thanks, Chris. We asked for an hour and it’s more than two.
CA You’re welcome.
Eric Ambler (2013), “Review: ‘Defender (INTREPID 1),’” on crimethrillerfella.wordpress.com, 24 June.
Bradley Trevor Greive, “Defender (INTREPID 1),” on goodreads.com. (nd)
Elaine Myers-davies (2013), “Hunter: INTREPID 2,” on goodreads.com, on 6 July.
Click here for more about "Defender" and "Hunter."
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Interview edited and condensed for publication.
dr george pollard is a Sociometrician and Social Psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, where he currently conducts research and seminars on "Media and Truth," Social Psychology of Pop Culture and Entertainment as well as umbrella repair.
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