Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Oliver Dowson, author of Spies on Safari: The Repurposed Spies, Book 2.
FQ: I want to thank you for the pleasure of chatting with you today. Before we get into the nuts and bolts of this fantastic read, I’d like to learn more about you. I was fascinated to read that you have visited 149 countries (so far) for business and pleasure, and you "...try to add at least another new one every year..." What is the latest country you have added to your list?
DOWSON: Turkmenistan! Actually I added four countries, all on the same trip, all in Central Asia – so Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan as well. But it’s Turkmenistan that feels like the achievement, as so few foreigners go there – it’s said to be the second most closed country on earth (after North Korea – no, haven’t been there yet).
FQ: In line with my previous question, why this country?
DOWSON: I’ve wanted to visit the famous Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Khiva and Bukhara (all in Uzbekistan) ever since I read stories about them as a child. There’s a relatively short window of travel in spring and autumn – it’s too hot in summer, too cold in winter – and the timings never worked out until now. It was fascinating to include the other countries too, as although they are all thought of together, they are completely different to each other.
FQ: I have great respect for authors who have ‘editor’ as part of their resume. It is my strong belief that a strong editor not only has to have an exceptional command of the language but must also be a voracious reader. Given you have ‘editor’ as part of your credentials, did you embark on editing your own work? If asked for advice on how to find the ‘perfect editor’ what would be the top element an aspiring author should look for when seeking an editor for his/her work?
DOWSON: I’m a total believer in the need for editors too, but I wouldn’t presume to ‘edit’ my own work. Re-read, tweak, improve, yes, but it’s impossible to constructively criticise one’s own work. I now work with two editors. Both give me lots of useful comments as beta readers once I have the first draft ready, but that’s not the end of their involvement. One, Roger, who is an academic and teacher (he’s really a Chartered Biologist!), acts as my ‘developmental editor,’ finding flaws in the plot, suggesting improvements, and so on. After I’ve taken his comments and corrections to heart, my copy editor, Danny, takes my near-final version and highlights issues with grammar, interpretation and spelling. She, being American, also provides the invaluable role of pointing out words and phrases I’ve used that could be misunderstood or misinterpreted the other side of the Atlantic. Both have become good friends – but that hasn’t dampened their ability to criticise!
I despair of reading books by authors who haven’t invested in an editor. It’s essential. I think the most important for aspiring authors is to find an editor who actually enjoys reading their writing but pulls no punches with their criticisms.
FQ: Last question about you... It was interesting to learn you "...live in North London and Oviedo Spain..." Of the two locales, what appeals to you most in each ‘home’? Why?
DOWSON: I’ve loved London since I was a child. I left my provincial town at the age of 17 to go to university in London, and never went back! It’s the whole world in one city, arguably in one street (our neighbours in the next ten houses are from ten different nationalities), and the cultural scene is probably only matched by New York. My wife is Spanish, and her family and friends are all in or around Oviedo. Living there is a big contrast to London – the city is just as historic, but quite small, so we can walk to the centre in less than ten minutes. There’s a disproportionately big cultural scene – opera, theatre, concerts – and it’s just gained the accolade of ‘Gastronomic Capital of Spain.’
FQ: The character development of each of the ‘spies’ was exceptional. Humphry, Richard, Beatrix, Pilot (a/k/a Robert), Latviana (a/k/a Maria), and Chameleon. The dimensions of each of the characters ran deep, and I have to know how you ever kept the order of who was doing what (and when). Did you have a storyboard that was peppered with Post-it notes? Who did you identify with most and why?
DOWSON: Thank you – and for the idea of the storyboard with post-it notes, I wish I’d thought of that! Once I’d written the first 20,000 words and was reasonably sure where the story was headed, I wrote a detailed plot outline in bullet-point format and tried to follow that. Even then, I admit to confusing myself on several occasions, with the wrong person in the wrong place – thank goodness for beta readers and editors!
FQ: The landscape and descriptions of the jungle, the diversity of the terrain, and the level of detail were beautiful. I’m assuming you have traveled across many parts of the African continent. Do you have a favorite?
DOWSON: I’ve never been to a country that hasn’t had some special fascination for me, so no, I can’t pick just one. Safaris are our favourite vacation, though, and we’ve done them in Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Africa...the one that always comes first to mind is the most recent, and in our case that’s Botswana, which was wonderful. Writing parts of Spies on Safari was just like writing a travelogue!
FQ: I enjoyed the exchange when the terminology of ‘industrial espionage’ was used and character Humphry and Chameleon immediately corrected him, "...we don’t call it that. We prefer the term ‘covert research.’ The name of the organization you’ll be working for is CASCADA (Classified and Sensitive Commercial Data Acquisition)…" Being the research junkie I am, I looked up CASCADA and the definition is "...a German dance music act founded in 2004 by singer Natalie Horler..." How did you arrive at this name for the organization?
DOWSON: To be honest, I just made it up. I like acronyms, and when I was in business invented product names like that (some of which are still in use). For this fictitious company, I dreamt up a few options and then checked them out on the web to make sure nothing similar actually existed and I was unlikely to get into trouble using the name.
In doing that, I obviously overlooked the German music act – I hadn’t heard of it until you told me. Coincidentally, the first of their videos I found is set in a library – like my reading group in Spies on Safari. I quite like the music, by the way! youtube/4G6QDNC4jPs
FQ: I was intrigued with your relevance/tie-ins with modern-day commerce: references to Brexit, Covid, Vaccine thefts, LGBTQ, etc. Without traveling down a political rabbit hole, if you had to assign a one-liner to each of these terms and what they stand for, what would that be (in your opinion) and why?
DOWSON: Phew! I try to avoid making political points except with close friends, but here you go:
Brexit – a predictable economic and cultural disaster wished upon us by an electorate hoodwinked into thinking that Britain might regain some mythical powers of a bygone empire.
COVID – an exemplification of why governments the world over need to be better prepared for the unpredictable, such as pandemics and natural disasters.
Vaccine Theft – an example of audacious theft on a huge scale, probably state-sponsored and driven by greed (but which may never have happened).
LGBTQ+ - to which I’d add all the other letters of the alphabet, as all humankind should have the right to adopt their own identity and accept that of others so we can all live in peace together.
FQ: In an earlier question, I shared my view on how an accomplished writer should have a solid editor, but also must have a strong love of reading. What authors in the spy/espionage thrillers genres would make your ‘top five’ list, and why them?
1. John le Carre – the greatest of them all
2. Mick Herron – a style of writing and plotting I aspire to be compared to!
3. Gerald Seymour – gentle plots and just so credible
4. Charles Cumming – keeping the threads of the Cold War going
5. Robert Goddard – weaving amazing plotting with international intrigue
FQ: You reference Cryptocurrency at one point. Do you think the world will eventually migrate toward a total digital currency? There is an exchange (pg. 68) when Jane is at the hospital checking on the care of a patient, and the administrator advises her: "…He will settle up with the doctors and the hospital… Crypto, Jane looked blank. What’s that…" What is your philosophy on a world where all currency is digital? Please explain (in your opinion), the ‘pro’ and the ‘con.’
DOWSON: I’ve adopted every new technology since childhood – except for cryptocurrencies. I agree that the concept is wonderful, but I’m still not able to trust the protagonists. If it were universally accepted and the currency was stable and secure, I’d probably be positive, but up to now all I’ve seen is it promoted as an investment (that strikes me simply as gambling) or a secretive way of making illicit payments.
FQ: I want to thank you again for delivering a page-turning event! There was no drag (or limits) when it came to the excitement delivered. You referenced at the end of Spies on Safari that ‘Spies on the Silk Road’ is coming in 2024. Are you able to share a teaser of what we can expect?
DOWSON: Inspired by my recent travels that we talked about earlier, I’m setting my third ‘Spies’ book in Central Asia. Almost all the team are back, this time investigating the multi-million dollar theft of medical equipment (think of MRI scanners and robotic surgery) that goes astray between the manufacturer and the intended destination. In land-locked countries bordered by Russia, China, Afghanistan and Iran, there’s a lot that can befall our heroes before they reach the truth and identify the villains!
Thank you so much for your kind words and thought-provoking questions, and I’m thrilled that you enjoyed Spies on Safari so much.