Your novels have received a lot of positive reviews. Possibly the most colourful comment would be John Birmingham’s description of your debut novel, Rogue Element, as one that “shrieks across the page like a scramjet and hits home like a small nuke”. For those unfamiliar with your novels, how would you describe them?
They’re political thrillers, I guess you’d call them. I enjoy geopolitical themes. I also like dark humour and most of my books have a wicked streak of cynicism and irony running through them. They can be pretty violent. In fact, one recent review in the US gave the book a starred rating and said that it was “Violent and exciting.” In the thriller world, you can’t get better than that. I like to write so that you really don’t know whether to gasp or snigger. And sometimes, when I get it right, you’ll do both at the same time.
How did you come to write your first novel and get it published?
I’d always been a writer of some kind, at least since leaving school a lifetime ago. I went straight into journalism and then advertising. Writing my first novel was an attempt to dig myself a tunnel out of advertising. It was the midlife crisis time of my life. What ultimately stimulated me to write was Australia’s invasion of East Timor in 1999. I had a bit of knowledge picked up from somewhere that several highly placed Indonesian Generals darkly referred to Australia as ‘South Irian Jaya’. I wondered if any of them had the chance, would they like to teach us a lesson, pay us back for our involvement in East Timor? And so, on a rare slow day at the office, I wrote the synopsis for what would become Rogue Element, and just kept writing until it was finished. That took the best part of a year to complete the first draft. I then took two years rewriting over and over until even the thought of looking at the manuscript made me nauseous. I then sent 78 letters with sample chapters to publishers locally and around the world. 78 rejection slips came back.
And then I met legendary agent Rose Creswell and a publishing deal came along soon after, ironically from one of the publishers who’d originally rejected the novel. Rogue Element was published in 2003.
The synopsis for your latest novel, Ghost Watch, starts with, “Special Agent Vin Cooper takes a cushy job nursing a couple of needy African-American entertainers putting on a show for US military advisors at a secret base in Rwanda.
Or so he thinks.
Things go horribly wrong when their United Nations chopper is forced down in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the middle of an all-out firefight by opposing forces. The nightmare only intensifies when some of Cooper’s people, including one of the entertainers, are captured.” What do you think is important to a great story idea for a novel?
The usual things like plot and character are important, with plenty of opportunities for conflict. And if you’re familiar with my books, you’ll know that the action moves around the planet. I also like stories that teach. In The Death Trust, of example, I looked at the American military industrial complex. In Hard Rain, I put depleted uranium ammunition under the microscope. In The Zero Option, my Cold War opus, the novel examines the airplane crash that happened in 1983 when Korean Air Lines Flight 007 disappeared mysteriously in the waters off Sakhalin Island after it was shot down by a Soviet fighter. All my books have something real, an issue perhaps, that I find important. The books I write are often an essay that allows me to come to grips with something puzzling. That said, the ‘lesson’ side of things is examined in an entertaining way. I don’t write to preach.
Could you give us an overview of the process you went through writing one of your novels?
The Zero Option is probably a good example. The incident, as it was originally reported, was full of holes. I spoke with several serving and ex-military types, guys who have become great sources of information over the years, and talked through the anomalies. And the more I talked to them, the more all the theories I’d read that tried to explain the plane’s disappearance became nonsensical. One morning, I woke up with a theory of my own and put it to the experts. Horrible though this theory of mine was, they couldn’t fault it. I set about reading everything I could find on the incident and the politics of the day (1983). As the plot took shape, a significant chunk of the story looked like it was going to take place in Siberia in winter. So of course I had to go there and experience the place – the food, the conditions, the cold. Once I had the plot worked out, underpinned by an abundance of information, I sat down to to write the book. I had no income at the time so I spent a lot of savings pursuing this story, which became a bit of an obsession. I wrote for eight hours a day for eleven months, then spent a further six months editing and rewriting. The Zero Option is currently in script development in the US.
Who is one of your favourite fictional characters and what makes them stand out for you?
James Lee Burke’s cop, Dave Robicheaux, is a favourite. I like how his sense of right and wrong is always being challenged by the conflicts and the characters he encounters. And JLB’s prose is gorgeous.
You have written novels set in a range of different places around the world, from Papua New Guinea, to Japan, the Persian Gulf, Australia, Russia, the United States, Congo, and more. What sort of research do you do for your novels?
I try to walk the weeds my characters will walk. You can do a lot of great desk research on Google and Lonely Planet, but nothing beats being there, especially if you have to recreate the atmosphere of a particular place. Lonely Planet isn’t going to tell you, for example, what the air smells like in a Burmese border village after an afternoon thunderstorm. You can get away with desk research if 95 percent of your readers haven’t experienced the locales you’re writing about. I’ve been to most of the places that appear in my books, though not all. I’ll leave it to my readers to guess which ones I’ve skipped.
What are your thoughts on killing off characters in your novels?
You must be referring to Anna Masters in Hard Rain …? Anna was my lead character’s love interest and played the roll of the ‘straight man’ in the relationship with Vin Cooper (the character I’ve been developing over a number of novels, the latest being the recently released Ghost Watch). Anna was getting stronger as a protagonist and it got to the point where I had to let her and Cooper get married, allow her to marry someone else, let her drift off into another life, or end hers. I chose to to the latter because it seemed the right thing to do at the time (and for Cooper to get married would be the death of him). I struggled with it, because I liked Anna a lot. On the positive side, having her die in Cooper’s arms knocked some of the self assured cockiness out of the guy, and he needed that. The short answer is sometimes you have to kill your characters, but it’s not something I do lightly.
Do you read much Australian fiction, and do you have some favourites?
I don’t have a lot of time to read for enjoyment. Fact is, I’m either researching or writing. I wish I could tell you different. I enjoyed Peter Temple’s Broken Shore immensely, and I’ve read quite of few of Peter Carey’s and Tom Keneally’s novels. Tony Park, Australia’s Wilbur Smith, is most entertaining also. [Tony Park is interviewed here.]
What is the most important piece of advice you would like to give for new fiction writers, especially for those participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for which they will write a 50,000 word manuscript during November?
You must have an idea before you write, rewrite what you write, and, once you’re done, put it away for three weeks and read it again when the words are no longer yours. Honesty needs distance.
What is next for your fiction writing?
I’m currently writing the companion to Ghost Watch, which will be titled either War Lord or Loose Cannon – I haven’t decided.
More on David Rollins and his fiction can be found at www.davidrollins.net and an audio interview with him can be found at http://sydneywriterscentre.com.au/podcast/davidrollins.htm.
The Australian Literature Review