Pay attention, 007
Lesson one of writing fiction is often said to be: 'Write about what you know best'. 'Unless you've been smacked in the face by a beer bottle you're unlikely to know exactly how it feels and you can't really write realistically about it,' says New Zealand author Andrew Grant.
Grant's latest fast-paced thriller, Death in Thailand, is full of fight scenes, gun shots and dangerous undercover activities, but the 59-year-old author is in his element. In his early 20s, Grant was a professional hunter, shooting deer from helicopters and on foot in the mountains of New Zealand's rugged south. He also served for three years in the merchant navy before working in London for a 'serious' private security firm that specialises in 'getting people out of difficult situations'.
'The company still functions today, so I can't say much about it. But let's just say I've been in sticky situations myself,' says Grant, whose previous novel, Mesquite Smoke-Dance, a brutal American police psychological thriller set in Texas, won the Richard Webster Popular Fiction Award in 2002.
British special agent Daniel Swann, Grant's latest hero, is definitely in a sticky situation. After fleeing Thailand because
he murdered the son of the kingdom's top underworld boss, Swann is ordered by his government to recover a small black box from the bottom of the Andaman Sea. Soon his friends are being brutally killed off, one by one, and he's pursued by CIA agents as he becomes caught up in a government conspiracy where someone wants him dead.
Grant describes Swann as 'a little bit of me'. 'I've used a lot of my experiences in the book, but he's far more daring than I ever was. He's not quite me. For one, I'm not a womaniser like him. If I was, my wife would kill me,' he jokes.
But the book draws heavily on Grant's recollections. 'I've experienced life aboard a small boat at sea and that features extensively in the first few chapters. I'm a competent knife thrower; that also features in one scene. I have a good understanding of current military electronic technology. Also, as a boxer and karate exponent, plus in my security work, I've experienced the pain of getting hurt. I've been stabbed in fight situations twice.'
Swann is very much the antithesis of James Bond. Grant recalls having the idea for his character after watching a Pierce Brosnan Bond film. 'The movie was fun. We were laughing and toasting the whole over-the-top thing. Now, I love the whole Bond franchise, despite the fact it's totally unreal and quite preposterous at times. That night, the seed was planted to create a special agent who worked for Bond-like masters but was much more of a real person.
'The character of Daniel Swann I envisaged as someone who wasn't sleek and polished and suave, someone who doesn't wear Saville Row suits and who has very few wonderful gadgets to play with, just a few crude disguises in his baggage,' he says.
'Also, I saw someone with a troubled past, and some mental instability in certain areas. For instance, he's claustrophobic, as a result of childhood punishment by his stepfather. He has difficulty relating to women, so therefore acts like a sex addict at times. He's probably an alcoholic. He gets scared and he often makes the wrong decision that can get innocent people killed. In short, he's a flawed human just like the rest of us.'
The novel is written in the first person, a style Grant favours because 'it puts the reader in the mind of the protagonist'. 'That means the reader shares the decision-making. Swann makes some wrong decisions and people die, so you can share his feelings and his regrets,' he says.
Grant admits that he's written a macho book, with brawls and swearing, and a very direct writing style, but he says that the novel will also appeal to women because of the vulnerability of the protagonist. 'Swann is very loyal to his friends and he has pretty good skills sets. He's actually very good at what he does; he just doesn't always make the right decision. It's like real life, really.'
Born and raised on a farm, Grant has always been an outdoors person. After high school he earned his living as a worker in an abattoir before getting involved in commercial deer hunting 'because there was a lot of money to be made and I was rather good with a gun'. He used the experiences of those early years in his first novel, Hawks (1998), based on New Zealand's wild west days of the 60s and 70s, what Grant calls the 'venison wars', when cowboys rode helicopters instead of horses and used semi-automatic rifles instead of six-guns to hunt deer for a lot of money.
After a friend was decapitated by a helicopter and another became a paraplegic after falling from one, Grant experienced a couple of incidents that made him quit the business. 'I thought someone or something was trying to give me a message,' he says. He eventually left New Zealand to work as a contractor for a British security firm. But catching malaria in 'a country where there wasn't supposed to be any' and getting marooned in Afghanistan just before the Soviets invaded ran him down so much that he quit and returned to New Zealand. 'I was halfway home anyway, so I just kept heading south.'
At home, he turned to radio commercial writing. 'Since my teens I'd always loved writing and kept diaries, writing thoughts and poems. So I got into creating and voicing radio commercials and I turned out to be reasonably good.'
In 1990, he became a full-time freelance writer. He uses a number of pseudonyms, depending on what he's writing. 'I wrote four very factual books before turning to fiction and the style was so different I felt people would get confused with me writing both fact and fiction, so I created the Andrew Grant identity for my fiction.'
Grant - real name Grant Shanks - says his radio writing skills have helped him become a more disciplined writer. 'I'm very aware of the differences in style between written English and spoken English. But radio really teaches you to be economical because you have very little time and you must get your point across in a few words,' he says.
He's now intent on writing only fiction and is working on his next book, a new adventure for Swann set in Singapore. 'It's almost a continuation of where we left off in Death in Thailand,' he says. 'I'm just doing the research now.
I find the city quite interesting; there is definitely a more edgy and even sleazy side to Singapore than many people let on. I think, like one of my characters in this book, that Singapore is like an onion, with many layers. So I'm starting to peel it for the next book.'