Okay, so let's start with that killer question that every author dreads - where did you get the idea from for 'What If...?'?
Ah. That question... I honestly don't know. Usually there's a catalyst for the things I write about - an incident, a news item, a conversation, something unique that begs a question or conjures up a striking image - but the idea for 'What if ?' simply flashed into my mind one day from nowhere.
A crude idea, that is - the central characters; their basic makeup; what happens at the end - not the fully-fledged story. But for a long, long time I didn't have anything but these disjointed ideas.
For years I kept going back to those, but nothing else came until I purposefully sat down to create the full story, then the ideas just wouldn't stop. I've a file of stuff I didn't use but the book's 109,000 words as it is, while, I believe, the average novel is only around 80,000, so it's a good job I left so much out. Like they say, always leave your audience wanting more, not wishing there was less!
And that's what drew you to the weighty issues 'What if...?' covers - poverty, the environment, climate change, religion? People trying to make a difference in a world gone mad?
Exactly. I wanted to really push the envelope. I mean, who hasn't dreamed of changing the world? Unfortunately, most of us never even come close, but it doesn't stop us wondering from time to time 'what if...?'. So I figured that would make a great story - feeling you're one of life's losers only to get one last chance to live the dream you've always believed you were meant to live. What do you do? Refuse the call and bury yourself in your miserable life? Or risk everything and grab your once-in-a-lifetime chance to achieve something extraordinary?
So it's about a little guy coming good?
It's an underdog story, yeah. The little guy sticking it to the Man.
Which the book does in reality, too, by highlighting many of today's global issues.
And one of the scariest aspects of writing the book is that everything it says about poverty and disease, about climate change and extinction levels, about human rights abuses, everything is 100% true. And that's really scary for me.
It was hard
work finding entertaining angles to get these ideas across, but I knew it
would pay off big time if I could do it. Luckily, the feedback suggests
I got it right - readers are finding it as moving as I did. One woman even
sent me an email saying I'd made her cry on umpteen occasions.
She found it so moving?
Either that or my writing was so bad!
No, but, I love travel but sometimes it's just heartbreaking to see what we're doing to the world.
For example, a few years back I spent two days cruising the Yangtze River, which is supposed to be one of China's most breathtaking journeys - mile upon mile or towering gorges with sheer cliff faces. Unfortunately, construction was underway for a gigantic dam and water levels had risen so high those spectacular gorges had been reduced to little more than hills. Then, of course, there's the villages and people the project has displaced. And the fact that the Yangtze River Dolphin has been pushed into extinction. Yep, we sure did a top job there.
But the problem
is, things like that are happening everywhere. We'll destroy anything, no
matter how irreplaceable, without a single care, just so long as it makes
our lives easier for just a few minutes. It's criminal.
Yet the strange thing is, if someone breaks into our homes to steal our treasured belongings, we're outraged and scream for a lynching. Yet so few of us raise so much as a finger to stop someone plundering the true treasures that lie just beyond our doorsteps.
So you wrote the book to change people's attitudes?
It [Laughs.] I wish! If only it was that simple.
No, it would be incredibly naive to think my little book could 'save the world'.
call 'What if
?' a suspense thriller, inspirational thriller, religious
thriller, or eco-thriller, the primary word there is 'thriller'. If you
clobber people over the head with a 'message', no matter how righteous your
cause, they'll ignore you because they don't want to be preached to. The
only reason I wrote 'What If
?' is that I believed it was a terrific
So why include all the 'change the world' stuff?
opportunity was there. I couldn't have lived with myself if I'd ignored
an opportunity to say something important.
My book is never going to end poverty, or global warming, or bring some extinct species back to life, but no one who writes, or paints, or composes, or creates anything, does it for any reason other than to move people. So if my story not only entertains, but makes the odd reader question things, that's great. After all, even if you're 99.9% sure you're going to fail, you still have to try, or what's it all for?
And that's why you gave the book the philosophical angle?
Well, yes and no. Early on, I realized there'd have to be some philosophical exploration of life and how we live it - or fail to - or the main character just wouldn't ring true. So it came straight out of the character - as true character development must. That realization dominoed into the complete ethos of the book.
But when the book's so full of twists and action and intrigue was it a struggle to keep the philosophy under control so it didn't overpower everything else?
Oh, yeah. Big time.
You see, I
wanted the book to be enjoyable to two very different kinds of readers:
those who simply want a cracking, page-turner of a thriller and those who
want a deeper, more thought-provoking tale that reveals something of the
world, of life. It was a major headache reining in the philosophy for the
first group, while tantalizing the second enough to keep them hooked. And
it made it a long slog - 19 months, writing 6-12 hours a day, virtually
every day - but I think I've pulled it off.
That's a lot of writing. Was it a trial or a pleasure by the end?
Oh, a pleasure. Always. It's wonderful seeing characters come to life; sticking them in seemingly impossible predicaments and watching them claw their way out; watching them fall in love, die, laugh, cry. Apart from writing the book, I've revised it so much I must have read some parts 30 or 40 times, but there are still sections that touch me.
I suppose that's not surprising after spending thousands of hours watching those characters struggle against everything you could possibly throw at them.
Okay, so if you loved writing this book so much, despite the 19 months of 12-hour days, what's next? A sequel? A prequel? A movie?
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Oh, I know just what you mean. There's nothing worse than a book that rambles on and on and never seems to get going properly.
some reviewers are comparing 'What if
?' to 'The Da Vinci Code'
but what makes it standout as a thriller?
Layers. 'What if ?' is primarily a thriller, but it's really so much more. It's got all the usual thriller elements of car chases, shootouts, conspiracies, double crosses and what-have-you, but it's also got extra layers for readers who want a deeper, more satisfying read.
You see, given the opportunity, people can achieve truly remarkable things - fly to the moon, paint the Mona Lisa, cure diseases - and yet 99% of us do nothing more than work our butts off to get a bigger house, a bigger car, more and more stuff.
And does all that stuff make us happy?
Yeah, right! Instead of living happy, fulfilled lives, we work too hard at jobs we invariably don't like because we're conditioned into believing that that's all there is and that if we try to do anything else not only will we fail but just trying to be different will alienate us from the people around us.
And the result is that millions and millions of us live mundane lives, too frightened to do anything to try to be happy. It's an awful situation.
No argument there. When I was stuck in a dead end 9-5, I hated getting out of bed in a morning because of what was to come.
Yeah, and there's millions of people feel just like that every single day. But it doesn't have to be that way. The reason it is is because most of us see dreams as just that - dreams - impossible, unattainable fantasies. If we could see them instead as simple goals, we could create a world that even the most enlightened of us have never imagined and lives that make each moment feel like we've won the lottery.
this aspect of our modern culture that I wanted to explore. In 'What
?', readers follow one of life's losers trying to realize
their dream - someone who battles against the odds because they know
right from wrong, because there's a tiny chance they can change things,
because they're determined not to live a wasted life, but a life to
be proud of, a life that makes a difference, even if failing costs
them that life. I hope this can inspire people to look at their own
lives and see how they could be happier and more fulfilled.