Hello and welcome to my blog, Author Interviews. My name is Fiona Mcvie.
Let’s get you introduced to everyone, shall we? Tell us your name. What is your age?
Humphrey Hawksley, 63
Fiona: Where are you from?
Fiona:A little about your self (ie, your education, family life, etc.).
My family life involves special needs and I try to keep it private. I left school at seventeen after ‘A’ levels and worked my passage to Australia on a cargo freighter. Once there I learned to surf, build boats, lay cable, and drive a car. I travelled through Australia, New Zealand and Asia for three years before going back to Britain to become a journalist. It didn’t pay. To get to the story and file in time, I accumulated so many parking tickets that to settle them would have bankrupted me. I hitched a ride on a 747 Jumbo Jet carrying race horses to Australia where I got hired in Melbourne for four times my London salary. From there, I sent the parking people a bank transfer and for the next five years I worked in Australia and Hong Kong, then went back to London, where I joined the BBC Radio newsroom beginning a thirty year plus career, mostly as a foreign correspondent. I got my first posting to cover the civil war in Sri Lanka in 1986 and that type of work took me all over the world.
I was expelled from Sri Lanka after six months, and did postings in Delhi, Manila, Hong Kong and Beijing, where I opened the BBC’s first television bureau, moving back to London again in 1997. From there, I covered most stories including the Balkan wars and Iraqand the Middle East and I initiated a global campaign against enslaved children in the chocolate industry and then expanded it to include workers abused in general in other industries such as cotton, sugar and brick-making.
My television documentaries include The Curse of Gold and Bitter Sweet examining human rights abuse in global trade; Aid Under Scrutiny on the failures of international development; Old Man Atom that investigates the global nuclear industry; and Danger: Democracy at Work on the risks of bringing Western-style democracy too quickly to some societies.
I have written an acclaimed ‘Future History’ series Dragon Strike, Dragon Fire and The Third World War that explores global conflict, and published five international thrillers, Ceremony of Innocence, Absolute Measures, Red Spirit, Security Breach and Man on Ice, together with the non-fiction Democracy Kills: What’s so good about the Vote – a tie-in to my TV documentary on the pitfalls of the modern-day path to democracy from dictatorship.
My journalism has been published in the The Guardian, The Times, Financial Times, New York Times, Yale Global, Nikkei Asian Review and other publications. My university lectures include Columbia, Cambridge, University College London and the London Business School and I am a regular speaker and panelist.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news.
My new thriller Man on Ice was published in the UK at the end of January winning the Mail on Sunday’s Thriller of the Week and it is due out in the US on May 1st Booklist describes it: “Knuckle-whitening suspense, bloody violence, dirty tricks, and plenty of surprising twists make this a gripping, can’t-put-it-down read.” Very few people are aware of how close the US and Russia are. I went to take a look and the Man on Icestory moves between hard-driving action with Russia on the little-known Alaskan island of Little Diomede and tense politics in Washington with the US, Britain and Russia. The strong characters are led by Little Diomede native, Rake Ozenna, a soldier with the Alaskan Eskimo Scouts. I am now working a sequel set in northern Europe with several of the same characters.
In June 2018, I also have a non-fiction book out in the US, the UK and Asia. Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the South China Sea and the Strategy for Chinese Expansion has received advance praise from figures in all those territories with Gideon Rachman, Financial Times Chief Foreign Affairs Commentator calling it:“A vivid and highly readable guide to one of the great flash-points of the 21st century” In Asian Waters,I try to explain for a mass-market readership, China’s rise, how it will impact on us all and the possible flashpoints for war.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I guess when I filed my first unreadable story as a young, inexperienced journalist. This was the first time I was paid for it. That hasn’t really stopped. It is what I can do and how I can earn money.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
This is a great question because I am not sure I do. Writing is one of those things you can never get absolutely right. I’ll pick up George Orwell or Lee Child, read a passage and think: Why on Earth can’t I ever write it as well as that. I had my first book launch in 1997 with Dragon Strike: The Millennium War, a factional account of war with China.
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
When I was BBC Bureau Chief in Beijing, I thought it was time to write a book. I sent some really dreary ideas to my agent David Grossman about China’s future, economic growth and really yawn-prompting stuff. David patiently read it, didn’t reject it and, instead, took me to see the legendary and late, great publisher William Armstrong whose company Sidgwick and Jackson had just been taken over by Macmillan. William looked over my dull outline, leaned forward on his desk and asked: “Could you write me a book about America going to war with China?” And with Simon Holberton a colleague from the Financial Times, that’s what I did. It’s still selling today.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title?
Dragon Strike was a natural. I can’t remember if it was mine or William’s, probably his because William had a flare for a good title. Dragon epitomised China and Strike gave us the threat. The working title for Man on Ice was actually Man on the Ice because the stakes rested on a lone figure crossing the frozen see between Russian and American territory. Martin Fletcher, a former Headline editor, who worked on an early draft with me suggested dropping the the, and he was so right. It changed the whole concept putting a shadow of threat over the whole of the human race, which is what the prospect of nuclear war super powers actually does.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style? Is there anything about your style or genre that you find particularly challenging?
I prefer clarity, short sentences and often go through stripping out adjectives and shortening words. The biggest challenge is writing not enough as an author and too much as a journalist when your piece is going to be wrapped in a thousand words or so. The contrast is indefinable, but pace, sentence structure, narrative arc are all different in a book, whether fiction or non-fiction.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic and are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
The setting and political backdrop is as real as I could make it. Man on Ice is set on the US-Russian border in the Bering Straight where two islands, one Russian, one American sit only two miles apart. The Russian island has a small military base. The American island of Little Diomede is home to about 80 Eskimos and I spent a week with them researching Man on Ice and reporting for the BBC. I had also spent many years covering Washington D.C., so am familiar with the often tense relationships between the White House, the Pentagon and other departments. The story is realistic in that it could happen, although whenever writing a plot like this, there will be those who call it far-fetched. But Russia did take Crimea in 2014 and is blamed for using chemical weapons to poison its former spies in Britain. No character is based on one person, but each may be a slice of people I know or have met.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
Publishers Severn House did stunning work on the cover that has received high praise.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Yes and no. Man on Ice is an action adventure story and that is how I would like it to be read. I did, however, dedicate it to ‘families and nations divided by politics’. When the US bought Alaska from Russia in 1867, the Eskimo families of the Bering Strait were suddenly citizens of different countries. Then, from the Cold War onwards they have been forcibly separated because of the closed border. In my career, this division of people through politics whether in Ireland or on the Korean Peninsula is repeated time and time again, causing great distress and very often war.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest? Who is your favorite writer, and what is it about their work that really strikes you?
Adam Brookes (Night Heron, Spy Games), is emerging as highly acclaimed spy writer taking the thriller in the new direction of China. David Young has brilliantly broken new ground with Stazi Child, followed by Stazi Wolf and Darker State.
Fiona: Outside of family members, name one entity that supported your commitment to become a published author.
The BBC supported and allowed me the latitude to use my experience as a reporter in my books.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
As with most decisions, it depends if the money works. There is also a danger, if writing is a sole career, of becoming too isolated. Good writers need the cut, thrust, success, failure, acclaim and humiliation of the real rough-and-tumble world. Writing all day would not give me enough of that. Besides, no-one is interested in what a writer is doing until it is done and published.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
With Man on Ice, too soon to tell. At a literary festival with Tom Stoppard in January it was refreshing to hear how he always looked back at his work and identified things he could have cut. With a previous thriller, Security Breach, I would have ramped up Kat Polinski, the heroine, to make her more extreme like Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Fiona: Did you learn anything during the writing of your recent book?
I learned a lot about the very cold and the native people of the Arctic and near-Arctic, and how to make a story more linear.
Fiona: If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead?
Rudi Youngblood would make a good Rake Ozenna with Carey Mulligan as Carrie Walker.
Fiona: Any advice for other writers?
If writing a plot-led novel, set out detailed outline first and understand how your subplots will work and remain subordinate to the main story. Identify how you will use backstory without slowing the pace and how you will keep the mystery and the contest running in parallel until as close to the last page as you can get.
Fiona: Anything specific you want to tell your readers?
Thank you and please give feedback. My direct e-mail is on my site. No agents. No middle-persons. No forms to fill in.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
Alan FurstA Hero in France. Chris Parry Super Highway: Sea Power in the 21st Century
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
After Enid Blighton’sNoddy, it must have been The Secret Seven
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
A great Hollywood ending does both.
Fiona: Is there one person, past or present, you would love to meet? Why?
Adolph Hitler, the ultimate antagonist
Fiona: Do you have any hobbies?
Cycling, swimming and travelling. There is nothing like the unfamiliar chatter and smells of a new place to lift the human spirit.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
We have a feast right now. Homeland, Designated Survivor, Walking Dead for series, generally a Paul Greengrass-style action drama or a Woody Allen-style clever comedy.
Fiona: Favorite foods, colors, music?
Asian fusion and Sichuan; Yellow and Blue; Chopin, Wagner, Puccini, Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen and Regina Spektor
Fiona: Imagine a future where you no longer write. What would you do?
I would walk the Pacific Crest Trail and do the North Sea Cycle Route. May I blogand tell stories about it?After that I might throw myself into whatever politics takes us away from the current polarisation we’ve got in Britain. But, I would probably be very bad at it.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone?
Have to think about that one
Fiona: Do you have a blog or website readers can visit for updates, events and special offers?
My website is www.humphreyhawksley.com with a blog and events page, currently being updated for the launch events of Man on Ice and Asian Waters. My Twitter is @hwhawksley with another account @hhbooks. I am on Face Book, Linked In and Instagram.
And Asian Waters