Your latest novel, This Green Hell, follows the efforts of petrobiologist Dr Aimee Weir to extract bacteria from a gas deposit beneath the Paraguayan jungle when a contagion is released, requiring the services of Alex Hunter and his elite team of Commandos. What appeals to you about using the mix of science and terror-thriller, which have come to characterise your Alex Hunter novels?
First and foremost, they’re the type of books I like to read! I love action thrillers… and I love horror stories. So I brought the two together in a genre I call a “Terror Thriller”. I’ve always enjoyed stories where the adventurer discovers something amazing… some ancient mystery that has an (either good or bad) influence on us today – fantastic! I also couldn’t read enough stories by Koontz, Masterton or early King – nothing beats a good book about creatures, and things that slide in the dark or swim up from the ocean depths. So, I combined the two – action thriller with an elite soldier as the main character, and an underlying story about something that is terrifying and monstrous.
Do you read many novels, which have a major scientifically-informed element to their story (as opposed to more outright speculative science fiction), and do you have some favourites?
Of course! If you poured all the books I’ve read into a funnel – Clive Cussler, Lee Child, Stephen King, Graham Masterton, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Alan Dean Foster, Lovecraft, Phillip Jose Farmer, and on and on…. You’d distil the essence of my own stories.
I’m influenced by a lot of their work, but try hard to bring a unique element to every one I write. For me, the best books are the ones that you know are all based on fiction, but still make you think – that could be real. An example is Steve Alten’s The Loch – a good explanation of why we have never found anything in those icy depths, and why there could be something (frightening) down there.
What were some of the most fun or challenging things about writing a novel set in the jungle of Paraguay?
The fun part is trying to make the sense of heat, stifling humidity, and fatigue real to the readers. I receive many letters from people around the world, and one that I really enjoyed was brief, but the standout line was: ‘you made it real for me.’ That made me feel I’d done my job!
The settings take some research – some more than others. But whether it’s a biting cold that stings your front teeth when you open your mouth in Antarctica, the oven-hot dryness of a rocky desert, or the claustrophobic feel of the green walls of a jungle pressing in all around you, it’s fun to see how accurately I can paint those scenes. Added to the sensations, I love building suspense and fear, and an impression of pursuit, whether charging through an underground tunnel, a laboratory, or a chaotic jungle – it’s all great fun.
You are an Australian novelist who has set novels amidst the glaciers of Antarctica, the desert of Iran and the jungle of Paraguay. Your novels are now also being published on most continents. What do you think tends to give your novels, or novels in general which find a wide international readership, their international appeal?
Why does one story, author, or writing style work and another does not? Authors, publishers, editors, and reviewers have all contemplated this question. And greater minds than mine have not come up with a convincing answer (or perhaps too many answers).
From my perspective, I write what I like to read. I don’t have any political axes to grind (well not that many), I don’t expect to win awards, and I engineer honest resolutions where good (mostly) triumphs in the end. I simply set out to thrill, scare, excite and generally have fun – seems a lot of readers internationally have the same objective as me.
In your previous interview with The Australian Literature Review, you advised new fiction writers to keep story in the forefront of their mind, and to write stories which have unique features, and are not ponderous, pretentious or bloated. What is one of your favourite novels and what makes it stand out for you as a reader?
Do you remember early King? I mean Carrie, Tommy Knockers, The Stand, or IT. King writes BIG novels – 600+ pages, but even in their length, there was richness, building suspense, and fun in the minutia. He made the ordinary, interesting.
So let’s take the Stand – the uncut version is nearly 1,100 pages and covers a global plague, multiple characters and perspectives, shape sifting, the destruction of social order, second sight, and an apocalyptical fight between the forces of good and evil (pause to catch breath). In anyone else’s hands, even one of those topics would have been enough, or more than enough, to run off the tracks. But King made it a success by using situations that were fantastic, but characters that were all real, interesting, and identifiable to the reader.
His style – back then – was not perfect, but his stories were magnificent. The book didn’t feel long, and I never skipped a single page. In fact, I was sorry it ended. Alternatively, some books one tenth of the size, have me wishing they’d end, or alternatively, skipping pages. The prose might be great, beautiful even, but the story is dragging or uninteresting, and I’ll just move onto the next book in my pile.
In your previous interview, you mentioned tension, action and visceral scenery as important elements in writing a great terror-thriller. Could you pick a short excerpt from one of your novels and discuss how you have used tension, action and visceral scenery in it?
Not a question to answer quickly or easily. Tension is a rising crescendo, not a single note. It needs to be built up in a scene or over a number of connected scenes. Think how it is done in movies – lighting, scenery, music note changes, facial expressions. In writing, you have further advantages because you know exactly what the character is actually experiencing. When creating a scene, you are the character – you can describe what they’re seeing, feeling, and hearing (and it doesn’t need to be from a human perspective). You need an opportunity to paint the scene so it can be experienced in the reader’s mind – all the smells, sounds, and sensations.
Below are some scene pieces from my next book, Black Mountains – a few paragraphs from a much larger scene, leading to a conclusive event. As background, I have Kathleen outside of her farmhouse, alone in the dark. Normally she finds it safe and familiar. But now, secretive and foreboding – her dog (Jess) is locked inside, more aware than her of what is approaching…
Jess sat perfectly still as she faced the window in the darkened bedroom. The moon had been up for an hour, and an elongated square of silvery light pouring in through the glass made her eyes luminescent in the darkness. All her animal senses were trained onto nature’s secret noises outside.
After a moment she got to her feet and whined softly, and then moved nearer to the master – things were not good – it was coming close again.
Jess had been running from the door to the window, from window to door, and back again. By now her hackles were like a line of spikes running all down her back, and flecks were appearing at the corners of her mouth.
The sense of danger was overpowering, and an odour that was leaking in under the frame made her flanks shiver and dredged up a frightful genetic memory from ancestors a million times gone.
As she came to the front door again a booming whooping sound made her freeze. She leapt at the door and grabbed the handle in her jaws and pulled – this is what the master did, but it wouldn’t work for her. She skittered and scratched at the doorframe with her claws for a second, dragging long splinters from the heavy wood, and then bounded back to the window. As she neared it, there was a sound that made her heart sink in her chest – the scream of her master.
…And then back to Kathleen for some visceral scenes!
What is a fiction book or two you are looking forward to reading in 2011 and why?
You mean other than the Australian Literature Review’s short story collection?
Well, there are two books that are on my list:
Ancestor by Scott Sigler – I can’t resist those science gone wrong books, and Sigler has a very descriptive writing style I like.
Fragment by Warren Fahy – A secluded island is discovered where evolution has taken a totally different path – wow; let me at it! I know Warren Fahy, and he’ll do this story justice.
With This Green Hell now out, what can you tell us about your other current or future writing projects?
This Green Hell is released first in Australia and New Zealand, and will then be rolling out in other countries. As you know, writing is a slow process (planning, researching, writing, editing, artwork, publicity), so at the time of this interview, I’ve already completed my 4th book (Black Mountains), and am currently working on Book 5.
In addition, I have started on a 3-book series for the YA market. This was a promise to my son, who asked me to write a story for him when I first became an author. So far I have finished a 1st draft of book 1 in that series (about 100,000 words). I’ll let it breath for a while in my top draw, then edit it (numerous times!), before I let anyone see it.
More on Greig Beck and his fiction can be found at www.greigbeck.com.
The Australian Literature Review