You have described your novels as terror-thrillers, containing a “mix of adventure thriller blended with an underlying vein of terror”. Can you give us some more detail on what you think makes a great terror-thriller?
In a nutshell – Tension, Action, and Visceral Scenery.
My early influences were a mix of science fiction, horror writers, and even before that, the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars series. I also make use of a cascading chapter structure – shortening towards the end of the novel as the tension and pace starts to really accelerate.
For all the hundreds of books I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, and things I have experienced, I’ve tried to adopt the underlying elements from all of those influencers and blend them together for my novels – combining all the things I love, and hopefully my readers will love.
You have written “Beneath The Dark Ice came about after I read about a scientist positing that a lake they discovered beneath the Antarctic ice may contain life (what if?).” Do you begin most or all of your ideas by coming across something and asking “what if…”?
It’s certainly one of my main drivers, and yes, it did occur again for Return of the Prophet (Dark Rising in USA & Europe). I have an Ideas Book that is crammed with ‘What If’ moments – newspaper clippings web addresses, or my own scrawls, etc… it’s very full now.
For Return of the Prophet, I found that a group of scientists actually lobbied to have the giant particle collider (LHC) dismantled (or its start delayed) – fearing that a laboratory-created black hole could literally ‘eat’ the Earth. That combined with an astrophysicist hypothesising about what happens when matter enters a black hole – well, the ‘What if’ for me, as one of the theories suggested, was that matter ‘exits’ our universe. Wow – but to where?
Not all my ‘What if ‘ moments will make it to being books in their own right – there are so many things I want to write about, that they may end up being just part of a story thread, or maybe live forever in my Ideas Book.
The set-up for your novel Beneath the Dark Ice is “When a plane crashes into the Antarctic ice, exposing a massive cave beneath, a rescue and research team is dispatched. Twenty-four hours later, all contact is lost. Captain Alex Hunter and his highly trained squad of commandos are fast tracked to the hot zone to find out what went wrong.” Could you give us an overview of the process you went through writing Beneath the Dark Ice?
Research, research, research… oh yeah, and daydreaming! The human mind is wonderful for connecting dots, making connections – real or fanciful. I’m often leaping out of bed in the middle of the night to run to my office to jot an idea down (I know, one day, I’ll keep my notebook beside the bed).
Once you have an idea that you start to get excited about, and can imagine how the story will unfold, then, for me, the most important thing is the first chapter. It is my trigger and springboard, and while writing it, I can see where I want to take the story line and characters.
Once the creative foundation is laid down, then as I commence to weave through the writing, I’ll often (very often), have to stop and research some of the science, weaponry, or scenery (in the case of BTDI, it was a lot about caving, ancient languages and troglodytic life-forms). I try and triple validate my facts, as you’d be surprised how many times the details can change between sources… and my readers, or editor (Hi Joel!) will quickly tell me if they think I’ve fudged something!
Your second novel, Return of the Prophet, is set in the Middle Eastern desert. Do you deliberately use your novels to explore different regions of the world through your fiction, or is the choice of setting much more dependent on what is appropriate for the story idea you find most interesting?
It’s the story that dictates the setting. Most of my novels grow from an underlying myth or legend, and then I bring that myth to life in today’s world. From the legend of the Kraken, and Atlantis, to the end of the world prophesy in the Quran, to Native American tales, Mayan devils… the list is so long, and so fantastically wild!
But with regard to settings, without doubt, the stories set in and around modern cities are the most work. If you describe a street in a city you’ve never physically set foot in, you need to be damned accurate! Thankfully research via the internet means you can find out everything from whether the street is paved, tarred or cobbled, what types of trees line it, the sort of café or shops are open… and if really lucky, someone will have uploaded some travel diaries, describing everything from the smell of camel dung in the air to the type of fish at the market.
Bottom line, it’s the story that rules… but more on that later…
What makes a great first chapter, or what is an example of a great first chapter and what made it work so well for you?
One of my favourite authors is Graham Masterton. In his book Charnel House, he has this great first line: ‘It’s my house; it’s breathing.’ It knocks me out, even today.
Another killer start is the excerpt from the first sentences of the Lovely Bones: ‘I was fourteen when I was murdered…’
The question was about first chapters, but my sentence examples above are to illustrate the power of the ‘hook’. The first chapter is absolutely vital, especially for new authors. When you’re established like a King or Custler, your return readers, will stick with you, knowing you’ll eventually get down to the business they expect. But for new authors, if there’s no hook, you’re back on the shelf.
A good first chapter has to set up the story, grab the reader, and either tickle their interest, or strap them in for the ride. In basics terms, remember the old newspaper adage, sex and death sell!
You have mentioned that your main character Alex Hunter has become an extraordinary character by living in extraordinary times. What is it about Alex that makes him the one to step up in extraordinary times, rather than someone else in your fictional story world stepping up to meet the challenges of their times?
An extraordinary character for extraordinary events. Though my stories are all purely fictional, the underlying elements could well occur – there are enormous sonar traces moving in the deep-sea trenches that defy explanation. Many of the ancient civilizations seemed to have all sprung up around the globe at once. We are trying to create black holes in laboratories. Meteorites with ancient traces of life crash into the Earth… the list goes on. Add a touch of fiction to those challenging events, and they suddenly become extremely frightening, and potentially world changing (or ending?).
In addition to those challenges, during my research, I discovered things about the wonders and complexities of the human brain that were fantastic. People able to lift cars, move objects by will, anticipate events, learn new languages in a day – these things seemed almost supernatural at the time, but science now believes were the result of areas of the brain being used (or used differently). In history, these people could have been perceived as being superhuman, or extra human. It’s certainly something the global military has been investing in since WW2.
If you combine those wondrous and weird events, and look at the research into the untapped limits of a human being’s potential – then train that person in special operations techniques, you are left with a formidable, and sometimes ferocious character. One built for formidable adventures – Alex Hunter, the Arcadian.
Basically, I like my major characters to have powerful roles, and be physically and mentally up to everything that’s thrown at them. Sure, they have their flaws, and sometimes things don’t go to plan, and happy endings or winning depends on your perspective.
Alex Hunter is that type of character – strong and mentally tough, flawed and continually fighting his own inner demons, and thrown into mind-blowing adventures, that no one else could hope to succeed at – and I’m happy to admit, they’re exactly the sorts of stories I love!
You have written the following about Alex: “Already he has been below the ice of the Antarctic, traversed the blazing deserts of the Middle East, and is currently hacking through the dark jungles of South America.” What can you tell us about Alex’s adventure’s beyond the first two novels?
Publishing works on long cycles, and therefore, I’m usually working on two novels at once – one in editing, and the other in the first or second draft stage.
My next novel to be published, is called This Green Hell, and is with my Publisher Pan Macmillan now. Expected date for release is April 2011. It sees Alex Hunter down in the Paraguayan jungle – a flesh eating bacteria, and a creature inhabiting the body of a long dead Jesuit priest should keep the Arcadian out of trouble for a while!
There’s a small fan created clip on Youtube… just follow the link below to check it out. Pan Macmillan will follow up with another professional one closer to publication date.
What is the most important piece of advice you would like to give for new writers?
I get asked this a lot, and there’s a simple answer: Remember the story!
A lot of new writers work so hard to ensure their first piece of work is so polished that they lose sight of the underlying quality of their story. There are a lot of writers whose beautiful prose could make you weep, laugh or recoil in terror through their polished use of word choice and sentence structure. But many are doomed to never be published solely because their work has no unique features, is ponderous or pretentious, or bloated.
A publisher receives hundreds of new manuscripts a week, and of those, will review dozens. They are looking for a good story – the writing they can work with and knock into shape… after all, they employ high quality editors. But if the story isn’t there, then they can’t help you.
Oh yeah, one more thing – read. That’s all. Just read lots of books and ask yourself when you come across a good one: was that good – okay, why was it good?
What does the future hold for your fiction writing?
So many ideas, I want to get onto the page. I have three more works containing Alex Hunter, and I’ll also do a horror thriller without him. Years and years of work to do!
To date, on top of Australia and New Zealand, I have signed to have my novels appear across Europe, Asia, the USA and Canada.
It’s going to be a busy time… for Greig Beck and Alex Hunter!
More on Greig Beck and his fiction can be found at www.greigbeck.com.
The Australian Literature Review