Saturday, 16 July 2016

U is for URALS

It’s a year to the day since The Madagaskar Plan was published. Have you read it yet?

The URALS are a range of mountains in Russia. If the Nazis had defeated the Soviet Union, the Urals would have become the natural boundary of Germany’s Eastern Empire. Many historians, however, believe a total defeat of the Soviets would have been impossible and that a guerrilla conflict may have continued on the fringes of the new Reich for years. Such a proposition is referred to in other alternate histories such as Fatherland and more recently Dominion. Hitler himself acknowledged the possibility with his infamous quote: ‘People say to me: “Be careful! You will have twenty years of guerrilla warfare on your hands.” I am delighted at the prospect... Germany will remain in a state of perpetual alertness.’

The Urals, looking towards the east

The Afrika Reich began as a more ambitious, five novel sequence. Originally it contained a trilogy set in Nazi Africa featuring Burton and Hochburg, bookended by two standalone novels. The first of these, Seven Bridges to Toledo, was set during the Spanish Civil War and included Patrick, Tünscher and Cranley. You can read more about this project here. The final book in the sequence was called East of the Urals and was set during the collapse of the Nazis’ Eastern Empire. The main character of Urals was Tünscher, returning East on a mission to assassinate a renegade colonel: Standartenführer Kanvinksy, the only SS officer ever to be recalled because his methods were regarded as too extreme – think Kurtz in the mountains. Horrifyingly, he was a real person. Tünscher also had a softer, more personal motive for his journey East, what he describes to Burton as his ‘debts’.

Because I plotted the sequence of five novels well ahead of writing them, much of the Urals story was foreshadowed in Madagaskar. Kanvinsky is even mentioned in Chapter 50. That is why the Urals are such presence in the book, like a gust of icy wind blowing through the narrative. Globocnik would most certainly have served out there too which is why his sections are peppered with references to the East.

For commercial reasons it’s now very unlikely that the Spanish and Urals books will be written. In the original sequence of novels Tünscher was only going to appear in the odd-number books – so we wouldn’t discover the truth about his debts till the fifth book. I have now truncated this – with his debt subtly explained at the end of Madagaskar and the full significance playing out in Book 3.

Beyond the Urals is Birobidzhan. It is never mentioned in the novel (only in the historical note), though Globus and Tünscher occasionally allude to it. Madagascar is where the Nazis planned to deport the Jews of Western Europe; the Jews of Russia were to be exiled to Birobidzhan, in Siberia. If it’s possible, Birobidzhan would have been worse than Madagaskar: monsoons and insufferable heat in the summer, thirty below in the winter.

Birobidzhan is one of the many things I wanted to include in Madagaskar but was unable to because of word length issues. In the final couple of blog entries I’ll discuss others things that didn’t make it into the published book.

U is also for URANIUM MINE

The URANIUM MINE that Hochburg visits in Chapter 7 – Shinkolobwe – is a real place in Congo. The reason I chose it as a location is that it was the source of the uranium used in the two bombs dropped on Japan at the end of WW2. You can read more about the place in this excellent article by Patrick Marnham.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

S is for SALOIS

Reuben SALOIS is the main new character in The Madagaskar Plan, and one of the three mentioned on the back cover: ‘Burton... Hochburg... Salois... the fate of the world is in their hands’. I’ve mentioned Salois before – here, in this blog from the first book. He’s another of my recycled names/characters... though his first name gave me months of anxiety. I must have gone through thousands of Jewish male names to find the right one, only settling on Reuben in the final weeks before the book was finished.

From the start it was important I had several Jewish characters in the book. Partly this was to assuage any criticism of writing about the subject matter solely from a Gentile point-of-view, partly so the reader could experience the world I had created at ground level. Salois is one of the first Jews to be shipped to Madagascar, so we see the whole Jewish experience through his eyes – from the journey to the equator, to the work gangs, the first rebellion and beyond.

The character went through various incarnations from the entirely realistic, complete with ‘normal’ backstory, to the more mythic figure he is in the finished book. [Spoiler alert.] Salois is borne from the ancient tradition of heroism. The Greeks believed a hero was someone who performed great deeds; the idea of morality – whether in the deeds themselves or the person doing them – was irrelevant (the link between heroism and doing good arrives in the medieval period and Age of Chivalry). The other big influence on Salois was Harmonica from Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, which leads me to...

I’ve left this entry as one of the last because I want people to have the chance to read the book before turning to this blog. There is a revelation about Salois I must make. Some readers understand it, others don’t. If you’ve read Madagaskar and are happy with your interpretation of Salois, there’s no need to read on. From what people have already reported, he’s one of their favourite characters. But if you want to know my intention, it is this. [Major spoiler alert.] Salois is a phantom; he is not entirely of this world. He is ‘Azrael’, the avenging angel of Jewish mysticism. Of course it is possible to read the character in an entirely naturalistic way, but I wrote him as a man returned from the dead to put right a great wrong. It is the sin of his own life and the sin committed against his race. There are clues to this everywhere in the text.

Two final pieces of trivia. His parting line is based on Prospero’s farewell in The Tempest. We never learn Salois’s actual name. Like Harmonica, and very much in the Leone tradition, he is a man without a name.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Y is for YAUDIN

Sometimes I have ideas that I just can’t get to work. In the early drafts of The Madagaskar Plan I introduced the character of YAUDIN.

The idea for him had been inspired while travelled to Prora. As I reached the Baltic coast I glanced out of my train window and happened to see fishermen on sea-slits. These are literally as they sound: stilts for walking in deep water to fish from). [Spoiler alert.] After Burton crashes the hovercraft in Chapter 33, I had an image of a character approaching him by walking on water; only as he neared the shore did it become apparent he was on stilts. This was Yaudin, a Jew born on Führertag (or in different versions of the text, 30 January 1933) and thus hated by his fellows. He would accompany Burton on his quest and later join Salois travelling to Diego. He was a mix of Caliban and Kaspar Hausar, a kind of jester character whose role in the narrative was constantly to undermine Burton and the Jews of the rebellion, showing the futility of the acts.

He was very much part of the fantastic realism I’m so drawn to in the Afrika books.

I was also incapable of writing him. For a start he spoke in a unique patois which I could never quite nail. I also think – on reflection – there was something too fantastical to him, as though he was a character who had wandered in from a different book.

Kaspar Hauser (top) and Caliban

For months I struggled with him, going through hundreds of subtly different permutations of the character. Every time I failed with his scenes, so I would move on... until there came a moment when I had nothing else to write. I had to deal with him once and for all. Several days of misery followed; he was central to the ending of the plot, so simply exorcising him wasn’t an option. Finally I had a flash of inspiration: an alternative path through the narrative which meant I could cut the character. This flash came about mid-morning and I started working through the possibilities for the rest of the day. The next morning, having slept on it, I woke with a sense of utter relief and knew removing Yaudin was the right decision.

So out went one of my more unusual and original ideas. Perhaps if I hadn’t felt the pressure of the deadline so much I could eventually have found a version of the character that I liked, but reading the book now I think his presence is not missed. In fact, it’s probably beneficial as it means the fantasy/realism elements of the book are better balanced.

Never one to waste a name, however, I gave it to another character... so a Yaudin still appears in the book, albeit in a minor role. [Spoiler alert.] Despite all of the above, you might like to know that the role of both Yaudins is effectively the same in the Diego scenes.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Q is for QUORP

One of the questions I’m regularly asked is whether I base my characters on real people. I always find this rather strange. I’m a novelist, not a biographer. So the answer is no: the majority of my characters are the product of my imagination. I do, however, make the occasional exception – and QUORP, Governor of the Western Sector was one such example.

He’s actually based on a writer of some fame. For libel reasons I won’t name him, or even hint who he is. I confess I’ve never actually met this man but as I was writing the Quorp scenes I read an interview with this writer, complete with an odious photograph – and found him so insufferably smug and unreflective I just had to base Quorp around him.

Quorp's Red Setters

You might also like to know that Burton’s aunt was also modelled on a novelist – this one much more agreeable, though once again I will spare everyone’s blushes and not name her.

I can see how I might be accused of being terribly coy in this entry, but I have dropped a few tiny hints in the text as to who the people are. I’m sure the more astute of you might be able to decipher who I’m referring to... though obviously I will deny everything!

Quorp is also the embodiment of a theme that runs through the book (and links all the characters I despise the most). Excess. If I were drawing up a new list of deadly sins, excess would be at the top. Without wanting to sound too preachy, so long as mankind’s excesses remain unchecked the future will always be bleak. Excess is also a theme in the new novel I’m currently working on (not an Afrika book).

[Spoiler alert.] Hochburg’s threat to Quorp – ‘nice family’ is a quote from The Good, Bad Ugly, a line Christopher Frayling once described as the most menacing in the film.

Q is also for Quince

Many people have commented on the use of quinces in The Afrika Reich, in fact I’ve been asked why Q wasn’t for Quince in the previous A to Z.

Quinces return as a motif in The Madagaskar Plan. Burton owns a quince orchard. Partly this was to give him an unusual job but the symbolism of the fruit was not lost on me either. Through the centuries the significance of quinces has varied from culture to culture. In Ancient Greece they were a symbol of love. In early readings of the Bible, the devil tempts Eve to pick a quince from the Tree of Knowledge (it morphed into an apple during the Middle Ages). Quinces are an amazing, perfumed fruit that turn the most extraordinary pinkish-orange when cooked. Delicious! I have a quince tree in my own garden.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Germania - revisited

One of the most popular entries from the A to Z of Afrika Reich was the blog on Germania, so I thought I’d return to it with some more pictures, especially given the city actually appears in The Madagaskar Plan. Germania, as I’m sure you know, was the capital Hitler planned to build if he won the war; it would have been overseen by the Führer’s architect, Albert Speer. Here they are admiring a model of the city:

Here is a plan of the intended layout of Germania:

At the centre of this new metropolis was the Great Hall. The first illustration gives you some sense of the scale of the building. Below it are various artists’ impressions of how it would look: 

 Finally, a miscellany of views of Germania:

Wednesday, 4 May 2016


Early in the plotting of The Madagaskar Plan it became clear that I would need to include the GOVERNOR OF MADAGASKAR, not only to rule the island but also to thwart Hochburg. Three possibilities are mentioned in the narrative.

My research soon revealed that the Nazis had a candidate in mind as early as the 1930s: Philipp Bouhler, Head of Chancellery in Hitler’s personal office and an old comrade of the Führer’s. However, Bouhler didn’t make for a particularly dramatic character. He was too dry, a bureaucrat, so I decided to project the story beyond his governorship.

I considered a fictitious character but wanting to keep things grounded in reality I started looking at other, real possibilities. One name kept cropping up: Odilo Globocnik. He had run the Lublin Reservation in Poland (a precursor to the Madagascar Plan) and later built the death camps; he seemed a very likely contender.

Globocnik and Bouhler

Yet I was reluctant to use him because of Fatherland (where he is the main villain). It was only after I read a biography of him that I realised his potential. Although Robert Harris depicts the psychopathic qualities of his character well, he omitted lots of the bizarre details. I included many of these in Madagaskar: Globocnik’s two wedding rings, his alcoholism, womanising, horsemanship, love of Austrian folk music. All this is true and made him spring alive for me. So is the fact he never employed women older than twenty-four and that he used to speak to Himmler while lying on the floor, raising alternate legs as he agreed with the Reichsführer. As mentioned in my novel, Globocnik had a real breakdown in 1943.

[Spoiler alert.] In the final chapters of the book a replacement for Globus is mentioned – Herr Bischoff. Again he was a real person and was considered by Heydrich to run the island. Bischoff’s reign would have been different to Bouhler’s and especially Globus’s. He was an accountant and married to a half-Jewish wife. This illustrates well my feelings on alternative history. Often people say to me this or that couldn’t have happened, but how can they be certain? All of the three men above when credible candidates as Governor of Madagaskar. Each would have ruled the island in a very different manner.

Saturday, 23 April 2016


When I’m working on scenes I’m always looking for ways to make them more original or unexpected. Initially Burton and Tünscher’s first meeting was set in an anonymous bar in Roscherhafen. After working on it for a while I was happy enough with the dialogue but thought the background should be more interesting. This is where the research kicked in and I decided to move it to the Tiergarten (the zoo). Bizarre as they may seem, the scenes set in Roscherhafen are all based on real places the Nazis intended to build, including an ‘education and entertainment park’ – this a decade before Disney started building in California.

The memory is an odd thing. While writing these scenes I was trying to imagine what it would be like to drink steins of beer and eat sauerkraut beneath boiling skies... then in a flash it came back to me that I have actually experienced this. There used to be a German African theme park in Florida called Busch Gardens. It is long gone, but I went there in the 80s and remembered the bierkeller with the waitresses dressed in traditional Bavarian costumes and the heavy German food in the sweltering Florida climate. I’m positive there was an oompha band.

As well as originality in a scene, it’s also important for me to delay giving away too much of the plot too quickly. As the drafts of Chapter 14 were laid down I realised that the key moment was upon the reader too soon. I needed a device to withhold it that went beyond Burton and Tünscher pausing to order another round of drinks – hence the FERRIS WHEEL. I’m sure you got this as a reference to Graham Greene’s The Third Man.

The Ferris wheel in The Madagaskar Plan is described as ‘the largest in the world’. My US copyeditor picked up on this fact and said that the time it took for a complete revolution – 4 minutes, 41 seconds – was too fast. In her diligence she had checked the timings with similar sized wheels: ‘In Japan, the 115-meter Daikanransha takes 16 minutes to go around; the London Eye (135 m) takes 30 min’. That’s what I call an attention to detail! The reason I settled on 4 minutes, 41 seconds is because that’s how the long the Ferris wheel sequence is in The Third Man. I admit this is an utterly obscure reference.

The other reason I referred to the Graham Greene scene is because it’s about two characters, Holly Martins and Harry Lime, who don’t trust each other. This mirrors the relationship between Burton and Tünscher. Thus far I haven’t said a great deal about the new characters in the book, something I’ll redress in the coming few blogs.

Saturday, 2 April 2016


Schubert’s HUNGARIAN MELODY appears several times in the book, a motif that links past and present. When I wrote The Afrika Reich I also wrote extensive backstories for the characters, including Burton and Madeleine’s first meeting. I decided that Madeleine should be playing the piano at that moment. But what music?

A contemporary song seemed out of keeping with her character, so it would have to be something classical. Certain clichés came to mind – such as the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ or Rachmaninoff – but I wanted something more unusual. I toyed with the second movement of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto, though this presented all sorts of alternative history problems because the piece wasn’t composed until 1957, more than a decade after the USSR had been defeated by the Nazis in my world. Which begs the question, what would have happened to Dmitri in this new world order? I can’t say, though even if he had survived I doubt there would have been much time for music in what was left of Russia. I often get asked arcane questions like this by readers: what would have happened to so-and-so, how would such-and-such event have played out? Mostly I have to wing it or admit I don’t know. Although I’ve constructed the immediate alternative history of my world, I don’t have an exhaustive store of knowledge for every person or event post-1940!

I digress.

Since the scene where Burton and Madeleine meet for the first time wasn’t in Afrika Reich, I didn’t need any more detail than ‘Madeleine is playing the piano’, so I put the question to one side. When I started the first draft of The Madagaskar Plan I happened to be listening to Woman’s Hour [a daily radio programme on the BBC for foreigner readers of the blog] where Imogen Cooper was being interviewed about her latest CD: a collection of Schubert’s piano works. She played ‘The Hungarian Melody’. I heard it only once – but it was an instant earworm and I couldn’t get the tune out of my head for days.

There’s no deeper significance to it appearing in the book than that. As much as I like to build layers of references sometimes details arrive through whimsy or happenstance – and nothing more.

If you’re not familiar with ‘The Hungarian Melody’ you must listen to it. It’s a wonderful piece, mischievous and melancholy. You can find a recording of it here:

Friday, 18 March 2016


Whereas set pieces such as the Ark, hospital, dam and Diego were in my mind from early on in the writing of The Madagaskar Plan, the NACHTSTADT sequence came late in the process.

The inspiration for Nachtstadt...

[Spoiler alert.] It went through multiple incarnations – the only consistent thread being it was the store where Salois gets replacement explosives. At one point it was on an island in the middle of a lake (a real place I passed on the road to Mandritsara); in another it was an oil-rig like structure protected by Walküre gunships. The actual action changed as well, including at one point Globus being present and taking Madeleine hostage. None of these worked – they struck me as overly dramatic, more akin to the train/helicopter chase in the first book and I was consciously trying to move away from such ‘excessive’ set pieces. For months I was unable to find an alternative.

As always when I’m stuck I turn back to Homer and began thinking of the scene set on Circe’s island – where Odysseus’s crew are turned to pigs by magic. Then when flicking through the hundreds of photographs I took in Madagascar I came across this one:

Through that odd, alchemic process that is creation – and tying into the modus operandi of the second rebellion – the location for the scene became a gigantic pig farm. So far all the places I’ve described in Madagascar were based on real locations. Nachtstadt was entirely made-up, though with a nod to reality: Himmler did have several farms where he experimented with livestock techniques.

In keeping with the Homeric reference, I initially wanted to name the place after Circe’s island but that is called Aeaea which I thought was too difficult to pronounce; the Roman equivalent, Ponza, sounded too comic (and Japanese) to me. So I turned to James Joyce. The Circe equivalent in Ulysses is set in Nighttown, the red light district of Dublin... which translated into German is, of course, Nachtstadt.

N is also for Nightingale

I often take a long time to come up with the right name for a character. In the meantime, while plotting or writing, I need some signifier (I hate using just A, B, C etc). In Fatherland there is an American diplomat called Henry NIGHTINGALE. So when I came to write the scenes with America’s envoy to Madagaskar, and before I had a name for him, I temporarily used Nightingale.

I never found an alternative and as time went on the name just stuck. So I confess indolence on my behalf rather than some clever reference! In the early drafts Nightingale had a much larger role in the book – but it got trimmed back. [Spoiler alert.] If you want to know how he originally fitted into the plot I suggest you compare the description of him in Chapter 34 with that of the unnamed fourth man at the table with Rolland, Salois et al in Chapter 13. I based my description on the assistant director and occasional actor Jerry Ziesmer.

Jerry Ziesmer

Sunday, 6 March 2016


[Major spoiler alert for all of this entry.] One of the first plot elements of The Madagaskar Plan I came up with was the ending, inspired by the climax of Metropolis (one of my favourite films). Plotting is often like doing a puzzle. I start with a solitary piece and then have to find others around it to create a picture. The RESERVATIONS are a good example of this.

Filming the flood in Metropolis

In my very earliest notes for the book I have the following: ‘Ending = apocalyptic flood’. What could cause such a thing? The only thing I could think of was a dam burst. There is a brief mention in Afrika Reich about Hochburg using dams to harness the power of the continent, so it seemed plausible something similar was happening in Madagascar. I looked to see if there were any real dams on the island but there aren’t, at least not of any significance. Then in my research I came across a lucky find. In 1949 France’s main electricity company sent a team to Madagascar to survey the island’s hydroelectric potential. Their report – a document running to hundreds of pages – was invaluable as it not only listed potential rivers that could be used for electricity but also the drawbacks of them. I knew the dam would have to be in the north of the island and by a process of elimination settled on the one proposed across the Sofia River. Then another great detail – the French team feared the river might carry too much silt, leading to turbine clogging. Rather than discouraging me this inspired me – because it said something about Globus’s character: he was prepared to build a folly.

The next question was why would so many Jews live in the valley of the dam – a potentially dangerous site. If the creative process is alchemic (as I’ve written elsewhere) or a kind of puzzle, it is also like weaving a tapestry; individual threads come together to form an image. Much of this ‘mind weaving’ is an unconscious process. The Nazis were obsessed with putting Jews in reservations. The most famous of these was the Lublin Reservation, often considered a precursor to the Madagascar Plan. It was overseen by Globocnik. So somewhere in my head I made a link between dams and reservations and they tied together perfectly.

The only thing left to do was to visit an actual dam. I wanted a remote one, so when I was in the US a couple of years ago I made a lengthy detour to Idaho and the Hell’s Canyon hydroelectric plant – upon which the dam in the book is based. As with my trip to Madagascar, walking the ground was invaluable, providing details I couldn’t have picked up from books alone: the constant hum of generators; the faint smell of brine from the reservoir. It also made for an eventful drive, like something out of Duel... but that is a story for another time.

Hell's Canyon Dam, Idaho

R is also for Rolland

Vice-admiral Rolland is the man who gives Salois his mission. Some of you may recognise the name. Admiral Rolland is also the character that sets Smith and Schaeffer on their mission in Where Eagles Dare. He was played by Michael Hornden.

Hornden as Rolland in Where Eagles Dare

Originally, I wanted to give Salois the call sign Smith uses, ‘Broadsword’. But in recent years it has become too ubiquitous, so I settled instead for another, less well known call sign, one that subtly ties into the plot: ‘Dragonfly’. I’ll leave you to discover where it’s from...