In Conversation: J.M. Hewitt and Alex Shaw
On the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl Disaster I get to welcome two guests to Grab This Book who are laying strong claim to owning the hashtag #UkrainianNoir.
J.M. Hewitt’s novel Exclusion Zone is based in Chernobyl and introduces us to Detective Alex Harvey. Joining her today is Alex Shaw, author of the Aiden Snow SAS thrillers and former resident of the Ukraine.
This is the 4th ‘Conversation’ I have had the privilege to share. It is always my hope that these ‘chats’ will allow a full conversation to flow and avoid the inflexibility of a Q&A (where I ask questions but cannot respond to the replies). Not a problem here – before I could even ask my first question the conversation was well underway and kept going…
JMH: I didn’t know Alex Shaw until he read my article in the CWA’s ‘Red Herrings’ magazine and kindly messaged me via my Facebook page to say we share the same publisher and that his novels are based in Ukraine (as is my crime fiction debut, Exclusion Zone.) So with these things in common we’ve had some nice chats. Alex has branded us Ukrainian Noir, which I can see on a festival panel banner one day!
Although my next book is based in Scheveningen, Holland, so perhaps we’ll just have to call ourselves Euro Noir as we move onwards!
I guess the most obvious question to begin with is why Ukraine? Well, more specifically my novel is based in Chernobyl, abandoned land of wilderness which has been reclaimed by nature since the 1986 nuclear disaster. A place that is in Europe that cannot be lived in is endlessly fascinating to me.
And Alex, what about your Ukrainian connection?
AS: I went to Kyiv in 1996, at the time I knew nothing about the place at all, the funny thing was the contemporary literary world didn’t either. As I didn’t have a TV I read a lot and started to get annoyed that all spy fiction was ignoring Europe’s largest country. Moscow was always mentioned but Kyiv? One ‘SAS’ author mentioned the place but got a lot of aspects factually incorrect. That made me think, in my pompous youth, that I could do better. I wasn’t an expert on the SAS but I’d become an expert on Ukraine, so I started to write. With a lot of time wasted, twelve years later I finished ‘Hetman’ which was later commercially re-published by Endeavour Press as ‘Cold Blood’.
I feel a strong connection to Ukraine as I met my wife there (on my first day in Kyiv, we got married seven years later). I’m English but I feel like a seaside stick of rock, it may say ‘Worthing’ on the outside but if you cut me in half you’ll see ‘Ukraine’ printed within.
JMH: I love your ‘stick of rock’ analogy! I can identify with this, somewhat. My family (on my mother’s side) were born and raised in the district of Ternopol, Poland. With the outbreak of world war II, my grandfather went to fight in the Polish Airforce. While he was away, the borders were redrawn, Ternopol now belonged to Ukraine and his entire family were forcibly resettled 1000km away in Zielona Gora.
After the war, during which he was interned in an Italian P.O.W camp, he found himself in England and joined the British Airforce. He searched for the rest of his life for his lost family, but it would be fifty years until myself and my mother finally found them. He had long since passed away, in fact, I never even met my Grandfather, but the history was engrained so deeply within me.
In 2004, when we found our missing family members, it opened up a whole new chapter and those missing fifty years were filled in on both sides. My parents visited Poland for the first time in the winter of 2004 and presented my grandfather’s long lost sisters with the medals he had been awarded during his service.
I was speaking with one of my cousin’s in Poland the other week and I was telling him about my novel, Exclusion Zone. He had so much information for me, again, living only just over 1000km away. Interestingly, had the family been allowed to stay in Ternopol, they would have been closer by half!
My cousin had a childhood cancer, and he confided that they are certain it stemmed from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
I believe my Polish heritage kick-started my love of writing about locations and I adore my Polish family. They are very different to the majority of us Brits; far more politically motivated, very much ‘in the know’ about historical events, especially that of the Iron Curtain era and they are so very proud of where they come from. I can see myself writing a memoir style fiction about my grandfather’s adventures in the future.
How about you, Alex? Do you think you will continue setting your work in Ukraine, or will Aidan Snow relocate?
AS: Wow, that’s quite an incredible story. It’s always interesting to hear of other authors’ links with Eastern Europe. I’ll most definitely re-visit Ukraine as a backdrop. When I started to write the second Aidan Snow novel ‘Cold Black’ I was trying to think how I could use Ukraine in it again. Luckily an idea came to me which made Ukraine an integral part of the narrative, book three ‘Cold East’ was much easier to set in Ukraine. Will Aidan Snow be in Ukraine again? Yes.
I’m not sure as yet where the next Aidan Snow novel will be set but I am writing another crime thriller set in Kyiv. It follows the joint investigation carried out by the Finnish police and the Ukrainian SBU as such one of my favourite characters – Director Dudka takes centre stage along with his department. Now that will be hopefully the next bit of #UkrainianNoir
Will you return to Ukraine as a setting again or will each novel be set in a new location?
JMH: Kyiv is certainly a place I’d love to visit, it looks absolutely gorgeous! I do think that I will return to Ukraine at some point in my novels, I’ve got a funny feeling that Alex Harvey and Elian Gould (my protagonists) have unfinished business there.
My next novel, of which I am 50,000 words in, is set in the Dutch seaside resort of Scheveningen. It is a place that I’ve been and that I love. As I like to feature actual events in my books I can tell you it was hard to find any dastardly deeds that occurred there. But I found one, just the one particularly gruesome murder which had shades of Jeffrey Dahmer about it, so that one should make for an interesting read.
So, Alex, your novels feature quite heavily the S.A.S along with police procedure, do you have personal experience with those authorities?
AS: I write about things that interest me and since being a small boy and seeing them storm the Iranian Embassy I’ve been a fan of the SAS. I don’t have any personal experience of the SAS or in fact UK police & security procedure but I do have a few contacts in the Ukrainian services and friend who is ex-MI6. I too like to use real events in my writing, or at least as a backdrop to my stories as it gives them more depth, more plausibility. I’m constantly getting ideas or part-ideas from news stories.
Did you start to write your new novel whilst you were on location Holland or did the idea of setting it there come to you later?
JMH: I totally identify with getting ideas from news stories and real life occurrences. Seeing them storm the Iranian Embassy must have been a real sight to see. Was it that event that led you to a ‘life of crime’? Speaking of which, have you read the Martin McGartland novels? He wasn’t in the S.A.S, I think it was MI5, but I read those for research when I wrote a novel about the Northern Ireland Troubles and they made for some pretty terrifying reading!
I guess we’re about the same age, so the I.R.A and the subsequent events was the war of my generation. I’m also interested in the Cuban Crisis and the Vietnam War. All are in living history and there are many movies and books that reflect many different sides to the stories. I read The Theseus Paradox by David Videcette recently and it was interesting to get an inside view of our most recent war, especially with regards to the weaponry and warfare used. I did get the idea of using Scheveningen as a location. My partner lived and worked there years ago, and it’s always held a special place in his heart. He took me there and I could immediately see why he loved it so. The Hague and the beachside area, the people, the bookstores, the museums, everything is quite captivating. As I mentioned before, it’s so beautiful I worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a dark side to it to base my crime novel, but… if you look hard enough you will find! So I guess we owe our respective partner’s something in relation to the settings of our books. Although you were already in Ukraine, do you think your wife showed you parts that you might not have experienced had you not met her? What does she think of your novels – and do you use her as a reference guide?
AS: I’ve read Martin McGartland’s books and he’s a Facebook friend of mine, what he went through as an MI5 mole in the IRA was horrific. He part inspired me to write my short story Hetman Hard Kill which shows Aidan Snow in his SAS days before SIS (MI6). I do like a good story about someone on the run. In terms of writing about conflict I’ve got a lot of material to cover with Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine, but I do like a good old fashioned action film.
‘Cold Black’ has some real life events in it, for example it referenced an al-Qaeda attack on an expat complex in Saudi Arabia, and I then wrote about further fictional attacks. I’d been to Saudi on several occasions with British Government Trade Missions when I worked in export sales for Siemens. The last time I was there I was looking in a shop window and remember feeling a sudden sense of unease. A week later a terrorist bomb ripped the place apart.
When I went to Ukraine I think I had a more ‘authentic’ experience than most expats. Because I was the youngest foreigner in the country at the time (i.e. I wasn’t a middle-aged man in a suit working for a multi-national company) I spent much more time with real Ukrainian people. I was often the only foreigner on the metro, in the market or at the Gastronom (general grocery store) but that’s not to say that I didn’t go to expat hang outs. Galia (my wife) and I used to explore a lot and I learned an awful lot about Kyiv, without her and her family – who accepted me instantly as one of them – I don’t think I would have loved my time in Ukraine as much as I did. I can honestly say that it is my favourite city. My wife does read my work but after it’s been published, I do ask her questions if I can’t find the specific information on the internet. Her cousin, who is my Ukrainian brother, is a former special anti-narcotics police officer, and also corrects me if any of my procedural facts are incorrect.
Do you feel any different as an author now that you are commercially published? What do you enjoy most about writing?
JMH: Hold on, you’re a friend of Martin McGartland on Facebook? I’m just having a fan moment here!
I read Hetman: Hard Kill in March of this year and really enjoyed it. It took me back to my days of research, and that’s an area I’ve not visited for many years so it was good to revisit it. And it definitely gave me an appetite for reading more Aidan Snow escapades.
I got shivers with your story about the terrorist bomb one week after you’d been there. With regards to writing, it is very much an addiction and I love every single part of it. The research is my favourite, I have slightly geeky tendencies and I want to know everything about what I’m writing, to ensure it is correct. In ‘Reckoning Point’, my work in progress, I performed my first autopsy and I gave myself a little online tutorial to make sure I was writing it as it would happen in real life.
And writing – especially a crime fiction novel – is like a puzzle. For the reader it’s a ‘who dunnit’ but this is the same for the author in a sense. It might be just me but I don’t sit down at chapter one knowing exactly what’s going to happen, and when that last piece of the jigsaw falls into place (invariably just as I’m about to drop off to sleep at night) it’s a thrilling moment!
Being commercially published has been such a different experience for me. When my novels were published by a small independent press in 2010 and 2013, I didn’t have many contacts or friends within the industry. I actually reference this in the acknowledgments of ‘Exclusion Zone’, I call it The Snowball Effect. In the last few years I’ve been so lucky to attend a lot of literary events and make a fair few genuine friends. So between the fact that I’m now commercially published coupled with the support I’ve had really has made a difference. And it seems that it was just the beginning, more people are being added all the time, like you and Grab This Book’s Gordon!
And I always loved writing and I always wanted to be a published author, but as I mentioned earlier, right now, it’s almost like a drug. I’ve got so many ideas and plans for future work that I can barely keep up. I had my first tentative venture into the horror genre recently, and found out just this week that my entry was among the fifty chosen short stories that will be published in the Twisted 50 anthology. I’m constantly thinking about my Detective Alex Harvey series, which was going to be a trilogy but I now see it going further than that, and a completed but as yet unpublished Holocaust novel is out on submission. Last but not least, my family memoir that I want to fictionalise, with a working title of ‘From Land to Air’.
Do you work the same, Alex? How far ahead are you planning, and what are you working on right now?
AS: I’ve got several ideas in various stages of development. In addition to my Aidan Snow series I wrote a vampire book a few years ago and every other week I get another email asking me when the next one is out. I’ve also got an idea for a historical thriller based in Ukraine using my character Dudka when he was a young KGB officer but that’s a long way off.
In my immediate future I’ve got to write my Finnish/Ukrainian crime thriller and then the next Aidan Snow. And, I almost forgot I’ve got the launch of Cold Black in German happening next month. The funny thing is that I actually sell more in Germany than any other market, the German edition of Cold East has been in the top 5 in its category now since December and hovers between 250 – 1000 overall on amazon.de. It’s funny, you never know who or where your work will be the most liked.
So tell me about this book launch of yours, I hear the mayor is going to be there?
JMH: My launch! Well, yes, the Mayor of Felixstowe is coming along, which is very exciting. It is my first ever book launch and it is being held in a wonderful independent bookstore in my home town of Felixstowe, called Stillwater Books. Stillwater are the ‘onsite’ book shop for the Felixstowe Book Festival which is held every June, and when I approached Will he was so enthusiastic about holding a little party for Exclusion Zone.
As you know, Exclusion Zone is based in Chernobyl, following two timelines; directly after the nuclear incident in 1986 and present day. It was always a kind of fantasy to hold my book launch on the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, and guess what – it is going to be!
So yes, the Mayor will be there, along with my good friend and fellow local author, Ruth Dugdall. Her presence will make the whole evening a lot less nerve racking, because she has such a great aura about her, especially in social situations.
I’ll be signing copies of Exclusion Zone and giving an interview to our local newspaper. Wish me luck! A vampire book! I am going to have to check that out, I went through a stage in my early twenties of becoming totally addicted to Anne Rice and her Vampire Chronicles. In fact I re-read them all again last year. Normally I read about 85% crime fiction, but I do like to re-visit old friends such as The Vampire Chronicles, or Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series. Right now I’m reading the third instalment of Marnie Riches The Girl Who… series. Marnie and her protagonist were a great source of inspiration for Exclusion Zone, I’m not sure what it was really, but those books really resonated with me. Marnie has just signed a deal for four more crime fiction novels, which is great news.
What are you reading right now, Alex? And do you expand into reading other genres?
AS: I met hordes of great crime writers at CrimeFest last year, including Lee Child and Maj Sjöwal – whom I had the privilege to share a table with at the Gala Awards Dinner along with Barry Forshaw, and since then have started to read more Crime Thrillers, I usually read espionage and action thrillers for me this is a change of genre. I’ve just finished reading ‘Ordeal’, the latest William Wisting crime thriller from Jorn Lier Horst, whom I also met and I’ve just pre-ordered the next Anna Fekete thriller by Kati Hiekkapelto. This last year has been the year when I have really felt part of a crime/thriller writing community and this will continue with my appearance at Newcastle Noir.
Chornobyl has always fascinated me too. Ukraine was lucky that the wind was blowing to the north when reactor number 4 exploded. I arrived in Kyiv in 96, so ten years after the event. I met one person who’d been a liquidator, cleaning up after the event and got to see her protective gas mask and coat which she kept in her house (I rented the ground floor). I don’t know how close she was to the actual reactor. Then I met a cameraman who’d been filming a parade in Pripyat when it was announced, a week after the event, that there had been an accident. Years later when I worked for Siemens I went to the town of ‘Slavutech’ which was built to house the evacuees from the exclusion zone. It had areas that were built to represent different parts of the Soviet Union i.e. Uzbekistan, Georgia etc. And each section was built by labourers from the corresponding part of the USSR. They built a new hospital but it was never used as one so they turned into a hotel. I was the first foreigner they’d had stay there. The Exclusion Zone features a little in ‘Cold Black’.
Good luck with the book launch. I’ve not had one as yet but if all goes well with a something I am working on at the moment I will by this time next year. I may even had a launch in Kyiv.
JMH: Those are some fine names to share a table with! I’ve just been looking at the programme for Newcastle Noir and I like the sound of your panel – Writing Elsewhere. I don’t know of any other ‘group’ that is as friendly and welcoming as the crime and thriller writing community. There seems to be an unwritten code of support and friendship, which is really wonderful.
I hope we catch up at an event this year or next, I can take notes on your Ukraine experiences, which sound endlessly fascinating.
So, I suppose we should wrap it up – although I could go on chatting forever, I’ve had enormous fun talking to you and hopefully I’ll get the chance to talk to both you and Gordon in person soon!
Thank you for your well wishes for the launch, and good luck with your projects, I’ll be looking forward to getting to know Aidan Shaw a bit better over the coming months.
And if you have a launch party in Kyiv, I’ll watch out for my invitation!
AS: Great chatting to you too. It’s funny, I find it easier to write than I do to talk about my work, all be in in a virtual chat!
I agree that the crime writing community are hugely supportive and I think that is one reason for my success thus far, that other authors have been selfless in reading and recommending my work.
Hopefully, we can meet up at some point but until then good luck, once more, with your launch – I’ll be there in spirit (especially if you have any Ukrainian Vodka)!!!
Exclusion Zone is J.M. Hewitt’s debut crime fiction novel. Set in the wilderness of Chernobyl the story follows two timelines, present day and immediately after the nuclear explosion in 1986. It is the first in the Detective Alex Harvey series. You can order it here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/J.-M.-Hewitt/e/B01BT1SJRY/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1
Alex Shaw is the author of the International Kindle Bestselling ‘Aidan Snow SAS thrillers’ Cold Blood, Cold Black and Cold East and also the Delta Force Vampire series. You can find order all Alex’s books here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Alex-Shaw/e/B002EQ6R9G/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1461704661&sr=1-2-ent
Alex is featuring at Newcastle Noir 2016. The festival runs from Friday 29 April to Sunday 1 May and you can find out more here: http://newcastlenoir.blogspot.co.uk/p/blog-page_20.html