q & a with nadia dalbuono

Recently I had the epic good fortune to interview author Nadia Dalbuono, writer of The Few, for work! I really enjoyed the book and spent far too long angsting over these questions. (One of my colleagues offered me the last question, which I think I’ll use on everyone.) This was originally posted over here.

You’ve spent the past fifteen years travelling the world as a documentarian for various companies in the UK. Were you scribbling story ideas in your downtime while on location, or has writing fiction been a recent creative pursuit for you?

I wasn’t exactly scribbling ideas but I did get some inspiration from my travels. I have always wanted to write but never really had the chance when I was working in documentaries. They were very long days and we often worked weekends so there wasn’t really much time for anything else. In the back of my mind I guess I’d decided that I didn’t want to be on the road forever and that writing could possibly give me the opportunity for a more settled life. It was when I started working as a consultant and the hours were more regular that I was able to take up writing properly. I found that it gives you a real sense of freedom that it’s difficult to find in TV where five different people want to throw in their opinion before the cut is completed.

I spent a lot of my time reading The Few with my laptop on my knee and Google Maps open so I could trace Scamarcio’s path around Italy and the places he visits. What was it about the landscape that compelled you to write a crime novel?

The idea for The Few came while I was on holiday on the island of Elba. I actually wrote the second part of the novel before I had written the first. I was sitting on a balcony overlooking the sea on a lovely September evening and started wondering about how appalling things can happen in beautiful places. And then the idea for the book slowly started to take shape. If you watch Italian news you’ll see how some of the country’s most squalid crimes often play out against breathtaking backdrops. I think there’s something interesting about that dichotomy.

Detective Leone Scamarcio is descended from Mafia royalty, but has chosen to leave that life behind and dedicate himself to the right side of the legal system. When he comes across situations in which a swift execution would be a vast improvement over bumbling police and tangles of red tape, it really tests his ethical stance, and, in turn, ours as a reader. Do you feel that sometimes public opinion can match Scamarcio’s moral quandary?

Yes I do. And with some crimes more than others, it’s particularly hard not to let your primal instincts for a swift execution take over. I think for Scamarcio it’s doubly difficult because he’s come from a background where settling things with a gun was the norm. His ethics are further tested by the fact that he’s forced to work inside a system which is, at best, inefficient, at worst, fatally flawed.

What’s in store for Scamarcio?

Well his next investigation has far-reaching international implications and is anything but the quiet case he could have done with after the events of The Few. Because of the highly sensitive nature of this new inquiry he finds his position in the force compromised and his private life under pressure. He’s forced to do some growing up and ends the novel a changed man from the Scamarcio of The Few.

What other crime fiction are you enjoying reading at the moment? Do you think there are enough Italian crime writers to start your own organised crime outfit?

Oh yes we could definitely start our own little mafia. Camilleri would have to do the catering – although I’m not sure whether his mouthwatering descriptions of Montalbano’s dinners come from the writer’s own expertise…

And for once, I’m not actually reading a crime novel but am really enjoying The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. I think she’s a stunning writer. As regards crime and thrillers in general, I’m a big fan of Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, John Le Carre, Ian Rankin, Peter James, Linwood Barclay and Patricia Highsmith.

What’s an answer you’ve always wanted to give to an interview question no one has ever asked you?

The questions would be…

How do you stay motivated to keep writing before you’re published? How do you know that what you’re doing isn’t a complete waste of time?

The answer would be…

For me this was the hardest thing, sitting down at my desk everyday and wondering whether what I was doing would ever see the light of day. I think this is one of the biggest challenges for new writers. All around you, your friends are making strides in their careers and there you are doing something that might never go anywhere. In the end I decided to ignore all the self doubt and just escape to the world I was creating because I enjoyed being there and felt the need to keep writing, whether or not anyone else ever read the book. I told myself not to think about whether I found an agent and publisher and just keep going and worry about all that stuff later.

It wasn’t easy to reach this state of mind but I’m very glad I did and this would be my advice to all would be writers. Just concentrate on the writing and then worry about the next stage once you’re happy with what you’ve created.

steve p vincent, the foundation

Politics is not my forte, let’s just get that clear. In a perfect world, I would be King of Everywhere, using popcorn for currency instead of money and getting asylum seekers out of prison while filling the now-empty cells with people who are jerks to shop assistants. I guess I’ve worried that political thrillers could overwhelm me with smart-talking about Congress/Parliament etc, especially when someone with an actual degree in Political Science (i.e. Steve P Vincent) is the author. But lo! It turns out it’s possible to know your shit and not baffle idiot readers who can’t tell their Abbotts from their Costellos (yes, you can use that joke back in 2007 if you’d like), and craft a roaring political thriller that is unnerving in its description of how the world would go to war.

Jack Emery is a journalist who wakes at the start of the book with a hefty hangover and more than a little bitterness over his soon-to-be-ex-wife and her usurping of his job. When Jack finally gets himself up (as he lay on the ground feeling poorly, I did enjoy the line: “His voice was raspy, and he considered calling for a crime scene unit to stencil some chalk around him, haul him off and call it even”) and stumbles into work, Erin gets the job he desperately wants: a gig in China to cover the World Trade Organization Conference in Shanghai. Jack couldn’t be more enraged or freshly inebriated until word comes out that Shanghai has been the centre of a terrorist attack—and that the wife he just served divorce papers in a petulant tantrum was at ground zero. From there, he finds himself tangled in a vast political web that sends him to an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, a Chinese prison, and into the path of the world’s most dangerous woman. Michelle Dominique is a true villain: member of far-right-wing “political group” (read: batshit crazy assassins) The Foundation for a New America, crafter of a nefarious plan to grab hold of one of the world’s most read media outlets, mastermind behind catastrophic terrorist attacks, happy to stick a pen in someone’s eye, and—oh crap—running for Congress.

Almost every scene drips (or explodes) with tension. It’s the type of ebook that could almost do with being viewed in a popcorn-scented cinema for reading instead of on your iPad on the tram—it’s far too thrilling for public transport, but then, at least it’d wake you up on your commute home from work. From Michelle manipulating everyone and everything with an expert touch; to Chen, the double-crossed bomber who bombed his own country to seek vengeance against family wrongs; to absolutely-not-Rupert-Murdoch newspaper mogul Ernest McDowell, fresh off the back of some hacking accusations and a ripe target; to Jack Emery, a man who is always in the wrong place at the wrong time—this book is ripe with characters you’ll hate, or love to hate, or be surprised by your swinging emotions towards. Who expected to feel bad for McDowell’s broken heart? Not me, but then I’m always a sucker for sad people in books. Even worse is when I dropped the ball on hating Chen—a terrorist!—because he loves his wife and kids. Authors just have no qualms in toying with readers’ emotions, do they? Jeez.

There is not much of Jack’s background on display here, apart from that he’s Australian-born, and that he’s won a Pulitzer for his work in Afghanistan – but as an everyday-type protagonist (I mean, who doesn’t have a Pulitzer! I use mine for doorstops) he doesn’t need an extensive backstory to explain his motivations. You’re on his side as he does his job, tries to help out his country, and suffers unspeakable torture without bravely throwing quips around like James Bond.

Handily, there are some light moments—Jack is exactly the type of smartass I enjoy in thrillers, and everyone who ends up in a dramatic office meeting hates on modern furnishings (“Ernest wondered how many of his tax dollars were paying for the office of Senator Patrick Mahoney, Democrat for Massachusetts. The office looked as if it had been painted by a drunk spinning around on a chair and then furnished by a child.”) But, mostly, The Foundation really is intense. In case you’ve ever wondered what World War Three beginning would be like, you couldn’t really hope for more visceral terror than Emery listening to it start via radio in a helicopter out in the sea in the middle of a war between China and the United States. Missiles fly around him as their craft tries to make it to a US ship in the middle of the South China sea, and I was almost in a panic myself about it. The politics themselves feel legitimate: China vs USA isn’t immediately fuelled by nuclear bombs, but a strengthening of defences, attempts at peace, and countries scrambling to pick a side in a superpower head-on collision.

I almost wrote “this is an explosive political thriller” but surely that’s on every blurb, right? This is a jet-setting, alarming, bang-pow-kaboom read full of metaphorical and literal bloodshed, political machinations you’ll hope desperately will never become reality, and late-night giant-popcorn-wielding funsies. The Foundation is solid. You can use that joke too. Sorry.

The Foundation is available here from today!