To celebrate the new release of Song of Treason - published this month by Simon & Schuster - author Jeremy Duns kindly agreed to answer a few questions on Book After Book.
Hello Jeremy! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on your latest release. After Free Agent, Song of Treason is the latest novel in your Paul Dark series. Can you tell us what it is about?
A: Yes, Song Of Treason (which was published in hardback last year as Free Country) is a spy novel set in Italy in 1969. It follows my protagonist, Paul Dark, a reluctant double agent, as he tries to uncover a conspiracy that threatens to alter the course of the Cold War. In the meantime, he has to avoid being killed by both the British and the Russians.
Where did your interest in the Cold War era stem from?
A: I’m not sure, really. I liked reading spy stories when I was young, and then enjoyed Len Deighton and John le Carré in my twenties – I even wrote one of my dissertations at university partly about le Carré. But it was really pure chance. I was early for a meeting with someone and wandered into a second-hand bookshop, where I found an old copy of a Sixties spy novel, The Quiller Memorandum by Adam Hall. Something just clicked, and from then on I really got into the genre, especially spy fiction from the Cold War. And then, slowly, I started wondering what it would be like if someone were to write that sort of novel today, with the knowledge we now have about the Cold War from declassified files and so on.
The Paul Dark series is often referred to as the Paul Dark Trilogy. Are you really going to make Dark retire after his third adventure or can your fans hope to read more about him?
A: It is a trilogy, but it’s not the last Paul Dark novel. I have signed a new contract with my publisher and have started work on the next one, which takes place in 1971. The first three books take Dark on a particular journey, one that I had roughly mapped out in my head when I was writing the first one. The fourth book takes Dark on a new, but I hope rather different, journey.
What kind of research do you carry out and how much of it goes into your novels? Do you complete all of your research in advance so that you can then dive into the writing process undisturbed or is it more a research-as-you-go sort of process?
A: I spend a lot of time on research – I wasn’t even born in 1969, and I want it to feel as real as I can make it. With Free Agent, I researched for about a year before I started writing, but then did a lot more as I went along and questions I had cropped up. And that year of research has also fed into the other books. Some of it is reading declassified documents – an enormous number have been released in the last decade or so – but I also spend time tracking down guidebooks from the era, as well as magazines, memoirs, maps and that sort of thing. I spent some of my childhood in Nigeria, where Free Agent is mostly set, and my parents had kept a lot of material about the country, and of course I asked them lots of questions. For Song Of Treason, I went to Rome for a week and checked out some of the things I wanted Dark to do. For example, there’s a pivotal scene in the modern art museum so I went there and found some information about what it had been like in 1969 – what works of art were on display, what the benches in the rooms looked like, and so on. I spent an afternoon in an amazing bookshop in Rome being shown all sorts of pamphlets from the time by the very patient owner. I also do interviews, and try to pick the brains of people who I think will be able to help me on some of the more esoteric material. Philip Willan, who was The Guardian’s Rome correspondent for many years but who also writes for The Times, wrote a great book about terrorism in Italy that was central to my research for Song Of Treason, and he very kindly read a draft of the book and gave me some pointers. For Free Agent, I spoke to a journalist who, unknown to me, had been with MI6 in Africa in the Sixties – that was useful! For the next book, The Moscow Option, I did a lot of research on a real event that took place in 1945 on a tiny island in the Baltic, the recovery of the body of a U-boat captain. I interviewed some people who had been around when it happened, read the police report, visited his grave and pored through local newspapers. Then I threw Paul Dark into the mix and built a thriller around the facts.
Your novels would translate incredibly well into films. Would you like to see Paul Dark on the big screen or are you protective of your creation?
A: Thanks for saying that! The books have been optioned by the BBC, and a script for a TV series is being written at the moment. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. All writers are protective of their work, of course, but I don’t think I’m overly so – it would be fantastic to see it adapted. I watched the first episode of The Hour the other day and felt a terrible yearning for them to do something similar with my novels! We’ll see if it happens.
Due to the popularity of social networking websites, it seems that interacting with readers – be it via a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a blog etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?
A: They do disrupt my schedule a bit, but that’s entirely my own fault. When I get close to deadline, I get my wife to physically disconnect the internet and hide the modem from me. On the other hand, I sometimes find that I get more work done when I flit between things – writing articles on my blog has certainly helped with my other work. In general, I think the internet can be extremely useful for getting feedback from readers and generating interest, but there’s no magic button you can push and then everyone will buy your book. I perhaps went slightly bonkers with social media when I started. I remember someone telling me a while ago that they’d been into a bookshop in New York and asked for Free Agent and the bookseller had said: ‘Oh, I know all about that guy – he won’t stop spamming me on Facebook!’ Which I think was slightly unfair, as you have to sign up to my group to get any messages from me, but point taken. I send fewer messages now. I find Twitter fun, and find that it’s usually when I’m not trying to promote my books that people buy them. People who don’t use Twitter seem to think it’s just people saying what they had for lunch, but that’s like saying everyone on Facebook plays Farmville. Like any medium, it depends what you do with it. I’ve had a lot of great contacts via social media, with readers as well as other writers. As long as you don’t go crazy and start irritating bookshop-owners in New York, you’re probably doing it right.
What one fundamental piece of advice would you give to those who want to follow in your footsteps?
A: Don’t follow too close or I’ll spot you! First rule of surveillance. Seriously, I think if you want to be published my best piece of advice would be to keep writing more words, rather than continually fiddling with the first two chapters trying to make them perfect. I think it’s relatively easy to write a couple of great chapters – it’s much harder to write 80,000 to 100,000 words in a coherent narrative, and that’s the job. So write a really bad novel first, but make sure you finish it. Then you can go back and make it a great one.
And lastly, is there anything that we should know about Jeremy Duns that we don’t know yet?
A: I’m a brilliant dancer. Nobody else knows that but me.
Thank you for your time!
A: Thank you for having me.
I hope you enjoyed reading Jeremy's answers as much as I did. And it only gets better: Jeremy is generously offering five signed copies of Song of Treason! For a chance to win, all you have to do is click here and complete the form. The competition is open to European readers only and will close on 31st August at 1pm.