|Levi, Boyd & FSF|
Sunday, 23 August 2015
The Afrika Reich was very consciously influenced by other works: from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to films like Where Eagles Dare, from which I took the ‘Men on a Mission’ formula and played around with it. Writing The Madagaskar Plan I made an equally conscious effort to be less influenced.
That’s not to say the book is without INFLUENCES. I’ve already mentioned The Empire Strikes Back; and Sergio Leone looms large again, especially in the fantastic realism and interweaving narrative strands. I also drew on Marek Edelman’s accounts of the Jewish uprising in Warsaw (which inspired the infighting between the Jews in the face of annihilation) as well as childhood passion for Homer.
In terms of other literary influences, two books were significant: William Boyd’s An Ice Cream War and The Great Gatsby, though traces of them may be hard to discern. The Boyd is set during the East African campaigns of World War I, all German colonialism, suffocating cities and rain lashed jungles. It helped with the tone. As did Gatsby which constantly made me reflect on the purpose of characterisation and concentrated my mind on sentences that were fresh and precise. I suppose these two books were like stabilisers on a bike: I had them either side of me during the first drafts but eventually freewheeled off in my own direction. Having said that, one scene in Madagaskar was heavily influenced by Gatsby – the ‘showdown’ between Jay, Tom and Daisy in the Plaza Hotel... expect in my version I’ve added the danger of a loaded pistol.
Another important book, for obvious reasons, was Primo Levi’s If Not Now,When? a novel based on the true story of Jewish partisans fighting the Nazis. This informed much of the background of the Jewish uprising and specifically Salois’s character. Levi’s novel is replete with extraordinary, vivid details. For example, one of the things I’d never considered before was how hungry freedom fighters must be surviving in the wilderness. Hunger was also a painful motif from Marek Edelman and so it became a central theme in the Madagaskar. On a more light hearted note, my favourite scene in If Not Now, apparently based on fact, is when Gedaleh gathers the pumpkins. For all its bitter logic there’s something rather Leonesque about it, which is why I have Burton and Tünscher do the same in Chapter 33.
Sunday, 9 August 2015
ZELMAN is one of the new characters in the book and has replaced Kepplar as Hochburg’s deputy in Kongo. Although he only appears in a couple of chapters he will take on a more significant role in Book 3. His name comes from the psychedelic, original version of Afrika Reich, where he was an engineer building an opera house in the jungle, a character constantly goaded by Uhrig (remember him?). As I’ve written before I’m quite happy to recycle names from unpublished projects.
In fact The Madagaskar Plan is populated with unused characters. In the first version of Afrika Reich there was also a sardonic mercenary called Tünscher. And Jared Cranley comes from an unpublished pirate novel I wrote called An Oyster for the Devil (I always liked that title).
The issue of names is fitting for Madagaskar because one of its motifs is names and how we use them. Throughout the book names are either avoided, or changed, or morphed, or used for dramatic effect. This was not a conscious choice, rather something that crept into the text and I became aware of at a later stage. Once aware of it, I emphasised it more. Names are essential to our own identity but we rarely consider them so, perhaps because they’re as familiar, as taken-for-granted, as limbs. I always wonder, for example, whether Sting’s closest friends, call him Sting or Gordon (his real name). Similarly with Michael Caine / Maurice Micklewhite. Did anyone dare call John Wayne Marion Morrison?
This is salient to my world because the original surname of the Hitler family was Schickelgruber; Hitler’s father changed it in 1876 (thirteen years before his son was born). This may have been the most devastating name change in history. Some historians believe Hitler could never have risen to power with the name Schickelgruber. The massed ranks of Nazis shouting ‘Heil Schickelgruber!’ certainly has a comic ring, and comedy never led to war or death camps.
Elsewhere no name in the book was chosen at random. Mrs Anderson, Pebble, Dr Pavel, to mention a few, are all references. I’ll leave it to you to discover their origins...
Sunday, 2 August 2015
You may be surprised to find KEPPLAR returning for The Madagaskar Plan. Kepplar?! Wasn’t he burned at the stake in the first book? As it turns out, no. I always knew he was going to be a main character in the sequel.
In the first draft of The Afrika Reich, there was an extra scene that explained Kepplar’s true fate, leaving the door open for him to appear again. It came at the end of Chapter 34, after Hochburg threatened to burn him alive. Thirty-Four is the longest chapter in Afrika Reich and this additional scene stretched it out too far. In subsequent drafts, I therefore moved the scene to Chapter 37, including it as a flashback while Hochburg looked over the map of central Africa. As it happens, 37 is the shortest chapter in the book and this time the Kepplar scene affected the clipped pacing I wanted. Its inclusion didn’t feel right.
‘Feeling’ is important to me as a writer. There are a whole series of technical and structural considerations when writing a novel and for the most part these guide my writing. Sometimes, however, things can be technically correct (there was no reason why the Kepplar scene couldn’t be included in 37) but instinct tells me otherwise. Writing is a pirouette of technique and intuition.
In the end I decided to cut Kepplar’s final scene altogether... which led some readers to point out what they perceived as an error. When Hochburg’s helicopter takes off in 37 there’s only one pyre beneath him i.e. Dolan’s. Now you know why: Kepplar was never burned; his story makes better sense across the two books. I filed away the deleted scene, and with a few tweaks, it appears as originally written in Chapter 17 of The Madagaskar Plan. So Gruppenführer Derbus Kepplar is back...
|An even more famous deleted scene... see PPS below|
Except he’s been demoted, to Brigadeführer. And with his demotion a change of character. Nazis are often portrayed as fanatics in fiction, but Kepplar is a disillusioned fanatic; a man increasingly distant, and weary of, the cause that once inflamed. He is also grappling with the issue of violence. One of the criticisms about the first book was that people said all the Nazis were violent sadists... when this was empirically not borne out by the text. Kepplar does not commits a single act of violence in the whole book. The same is (almost) true in the sequel.
PS – just in case you miss it, his parting line in Madagaskar is meant as a joke!
PPS – I could think of no photo to illustrate this entry, so I put ‘deleted scene’ into Google. As you’d expect hundreds of movie stills came up... but I was intrigued by the one I have used. It shows Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark clutching hold of a U-boot’s periscope... this explains how he manages to get to the island where the Ark is opened. I always wondered how he survived the sea journey. Sometimes you can cut things and the audience doesn’t notice; others times they are left scratching their heads in bewilderment. Apparently the scene with Harrison Ford was half-filmed before Spielberg decided to cut it altogether.
Sunday, 26 July 2015
Much is made of the ‘Point of Divergence’ (PoD) in alternative history: the moment where real events end, and imaginary ones begin. Indeed I’ve written about the subject before (see previous blogs). Most people view the PoD of my world as the British defeat at Dunkirk. However, as previously stated I don’t view Dunkirk as the moment history takes a different path; I see it merely as the symptom of a much earlier change. The true deviation is more subtle and comes before the Nazis have taken power.
Some people have asked whether the PoD is the beach burning scene in the first book... those readers are on to something. But to get to the bifurcation you have to go back even further. In The Madagaskar Plan, the true Point of Divergence is revealed for the first time. It is Hochburg’s use of the word ‘BUTTERSCOTCH’ to describe the skin above Eleanor’s heel. I like the idea of how the course of the 20th Century might turn on a single, illicit adjective. It strikes me as a more intriguing idea than whether a battle was won or lost.
The point I’m trying to make is that history is not decided by headline events, men of destiny or the fate of armies – but in the obscure moments of our personal psychology. We make seemingly unimportant choices and these ripple through time in ways we can never imagine, informing much later decisions that can have profound effects on the world.
The misuse of the word ‘butterscotch’ leads to a multitude of other events and in the prologue of Book 3 you will see the full geopolitical implications of it (which admittedly tie back to Dunkirk). All this grows from that one misplaced word. History pivots on the trivial, the insignificant, as all our lives do. Though I should add, you don’t have to read the book in this way. If you’d prefer to keep Dunkirk as your PoD, that is your privilege as a reader!
B is also for BAYERWEED
One of the main new characters in Madagaskar is Tünscher, an old friend of Burton’s from the Foreign Legion and now an Obersturmführer in the SS. He’s meant as a trickster figure, someone neither the reader, nor Burton, knows whether to trust completely. [Spoiler alert.] To add an extra piquancy to this, and make him more unpredictable, I gave him a drug habit. Tünscher is a user of BAYERWEEDS.
During my research I read how Germans on the Eastern Front were prescribed cigarettes laced with heroin for lung injuries, and how some soldiers started smoking them to counteract the freezing air of the Russian winter. A trade in these cigarettes soon began and it seemed a likely thing for Tünscher to get involved with. I coined the slang term ‘Bayerweed’ from the German pharmaceutical company that first developed heroin. Its name: Bayer AG.
Thursday, 16 July 2015
|UK hardback cover|
More than five years after I first sat down to start writing it, The Madagaskar Plan is finally OUT NOW! The UK edition was published in hardback today – 16th July 2015.
There are plenty of previous blog posts that attest to the trials and tribulations I’ve had writing it and why it has taken so long, so I won’t repeat them again now. Instead, all I ask is that if you enjoyed The Afrika Reich please do buy the new book. For US fans, you’ll have to wait another couple of weeks. Madagaskar is published in North America on 4th August. Foreign translations will follow in 2016.
|US hardback cover|
And now, I’m going to hand this particular page over to you: the readers. Here are some of the first reviews by bloggers. I’ll add more as they come in. (NB - these do include spoilers, so if you'd rather not know plot details, may I suggest you look at them after you've read the book).
Fellow alternative history writer, Graeme Shimmin
Man of la Book
If you’d like your own blog included, contact me via Facebook. If you’re not a blogger or don’t have a review site, feel free to leave a comment below. I always like hearing what you think.
Which just leaves me to say that I hope you enjoy The Madagaskar Plan, and as always thank you for your support.
Wednesday, 15 July 2015
Everyone has heard of second novel syndrome: that difficulty writers have with their follow-up book. I have to admit I suffered a troubling case of it. As I’ve written elsewhere, I was also beset by bereavement and chronic illness – hence why The Madagaskar Plan has been so long coming.
But that wasn’t all. It seems for the past five years if it could go wrong, it did. With relentless regularity. Life became a catalogue of disasters and inconveniences: from IT meltdowns, to research notes mysteriously vanishing, to building work on my house overrunning (which made it impossible to write), to brinkmanship with my US publisher. Even when I hid myself away on a writing retreat to get some peace and really crack on with finishing, a group of Peruvian pan-pipers set up beneath my window and proceeded to play at full volume for eight hours a day!
I began to believe in the CURSE OF BOOK 2. And as the bizarre events piled up and delayed me further I wondered if these impediments were a sign from the gods. A warning not to finish Madagaskar, lest something terrible happen. I pictured all sorts of calamities upon publication: from my office burning down to having a heart attack to being assassinated by neo-Nazis. If further proof of the curse was needed, on the day I finally submitted to my publisher, this happened:
Indeed it happened less than two hours after pressing the send button. It was the first crash in my life and it wasn’t even my fault. The car was a complete write off. The mishaps didn’t end there and have continued to hound me to this day.
So is there a curse? Will terrible things happened when the book finally reaches the shelves, things to make me wish I’d never finished it? Of course not! I don’t really believe in such nonsense, everything that befell me was just an accumulation of coincidences. Having said that, I’ve set this entry to post automatically on the eve of publication... so who knows whether I’ll get through the next twenty-four hours alive.
Sunday, 12 July 2015
The A to Z of THE AFRIKA REICH ended on a note of VANILLA & VIOLENCE, so it’s time to revisit these subjects.
Madagascar is the world’s largest producer of vanilla, something the SS planned to profit from if they took control of the island. To be clear: this is more than my imagination; it’s in the real documents. So vanilla is a motif that runs through the book, indeed the Jewish uprising that haunts the backstory is called the ‘Mered Ha-Vanil’: the Vanilla Rebellion.
Originally there was much more about vanilla, including scenes set around its cultivation and processing. But as happened repeatedly while writing Madagaskar, I had to lose things to keep the word length manageable. It’s already a long novel at 160,000 words (40K longer than the original). As fascinating as vanilla production is, it wasn’t central to the plot, so was edited out. If you want to learn more about the subject I recommend one of my research books: Vanilla: A Cultural History by Patricia Rain.
When you read Madagaskar, you’ll discover it’s less violent than Afrika Reich. One of the important things I wanted to do with the new book was to take it in a different direction, this included giving it a different tone. Before the first book was even published, I decided I wanted the sequel to be less frenetic and less violent. There’s no complex rational behind this: it was an intuitive choice. As it happens it was also a fortuitous one, a synergy between my instinct, my publishers and readers. Many of the latter worried that Afrika Reich was too violent, and my publisher (and especially publicist) fretted about the commercial implications for the same reason. One major retailer refused to stock the book because of the violence... something I found strange given you could buy The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in the same shop, the rape scene in which is worse than anything in Afrika Reich.
However, before you worry that Burton has become a conscientious objector with a penchant for vegan quiche or that Hochburg is now a born-again pacifist, there’s still plenty of bang for your buck... it’s just less explicit and bloody (though interestingly, the body count is higher). In terms of cinema classification, I’d say it has dropped from an 18 to a 15; R to PG-13 for US readers.
V is also for V (i.e. 5)
Although I wanted a different tone, it was also important that there were continuities between the books. One of the more subtle examples is structural. Like the first book, Madagaskar has seven points of view: the story is told from the perspective of six characters and an alternative history narrator. Both books are also divided into four parts each starting with an epigraph; the style of epigraphs is identical, i.e. one proverb, one quote from Hitler, one general Nazi quote, one made-up quote from/about Hochburg. Originally I wanted the first part of the new book to be Part V to suggest the continuation of a wider trilogy, and as a nod to The Empire Strikes Back, aka Episode V. My editors on both sides of the Atlantic vetoed the idea, saying it would be confusing for new readers.
Nevertheless, I always liked the Episode V reference. Not only is Empire one of the best examples of a middle part of a trilogy, it’s also different in tone and plot to its predecessor (see above). And when I was struggling with the ending of Madagaskar I read something that Irvin Kershner, Empire’s director, mused upon. To paraphrase: he said that his film didn’t have a narrative climax because so many strands remained unresolved, so to give Empire a resolution he needed an emotional climax. They were wise words. And that’s exactly what I’ve done with my book.
Wednesday, 1 July 2015
I’ve written before how The Afrika Reich came about (see A is for Apocalypse Now) but what were the ORIGINS of The Madagaskar Plan?
The plan itself is one of those things that seem to have been in the periphery of my knowledge forever, but I can remember the first time it focused sharply. It was in the spring of 2001 when I was doing the initial research for the first version of Afrika Reich and I was reading Michael Burleigh’s history of the Third Reich. On p.472 there is a passage about the Jews being exiled to Madagascar as an alternative to the Holocaust. The idea was fantastical, intriguing and full of dramatic potential; I knew I had to include it in the book I was working on. That was the ‘psychedelic’ version of Afrika Reich, the one that was too wacky for its own good and was ultimately rejected by all publishers. In that version there was an extensive subplot, told in flashback, about Burton the journalist (as he then was) travelling among the Jews of Madagascar trying to get a scoop. His failure to do so would lead him to the Congo and an even bigger story – i.e. Hochburg.
The finished draft of this book was huge, coming in at 240 000 words. Cuts had to be made and the Madagascar strand was a self-evident place to start, a pointed reinforced when an early reader from the publishing industry advised me that it was such a good idea it needed more space. It’s a book in its own right! she told me.
When I came back to Nazi Africa in 2007 (see Y is for...) that piece of advice stuck with me. I knew I wanted this new incarnation of The Afrika Reich to be a trilogy and Madagascar seemed the obvious setting for the middle book, with the original subplot expanded beyond all recognition into its own story. This is what would become the novel soon to be published.
As an aside, the final act of the psychedelic Afrika Reich was set in the Sahara – and is the basis for Book 3. But I’m getting ahead of myself...
In the meantime, I like the idea how a single moment on a spring day would become a significant event in my life years later. There’s something incredibly optimistic about that, something we can all draw hope from. Because what seems trivial at one point may lead to all sorts of unexpected places. Who knows, perhaps someone, somewhere is reading this blog and one day will see it as the origin of their own adventure.
Wednesday, 24 June 2015
So, welcome back. After many months of idling, this blog is about to start up again at full pace with an A to Z of THE MADAGASKAR PLAN. As you can see I’ve had a little re-jig of this page, and now am raring to go...
If you read my original blog you’ll already know the state of play with The Madagaskar Plan. If not, or you want a quick recap, Madagaskar is the follow-up to The Afrika Reich and is based around the Nazis’ real plan to deport the Jews of Europe to Madagascar, a remote island off the coast of East Africa. The book was originally due for publication in 2012 but a series of mishaps means that it’s only coming out now.
Like the original A to Z, the 25 upcoming entries will give you some background information on how The Madagaskar Plan was conceived and written, as well as insights into the characters, settings, the research trips I made for the book, the links between real and imagined history and various other ‘behind the scenes’ titbits. Think of this blog as the extras on a DVD, though the style will veer more to the picaresque than exhaustive. There may also be an occasional word about the third book in the trilogy.
There will, however, be one major difference with the original blog, which was written over several years. This time I’ve been much more efficient and done everything in advance. I intend to post new entries on a fortnightly basis between now and the publication of the UK paperback (in March 2016) which means some of you may not have read the book. So to warn you in advance, there will be spoilers... though I will always let you know beforehand.
Of course the easiest way around this problem is to get hold of a copy of the book as soon as possible. It’s available to pre-order here, and unlike its predecessor, the two versions of the text are pretty much the same: Amazon, UK Amazon, US
The other disadvantage of writing everything in advance is that will be less opportunity for reader feedback. Plenty of the previous blogs were influenced by readers’ questions about the first book... so I’ll add a miscellaneous entry before the end to cover any unforeseen issues. In the meantime, if you want any questions answered about the book, do let me know – either here, on Facebook or by messaging me directly.
W is also for the Wall of Eyes
This will make no sense until you’ve read the book, but the inspiration for this came from a visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. If you’ve been there, you’ll know exactly what I mean. If you haven’t, there’s a wall inside the exhibition that is several stories high and covered entirely in photos of those murdered during the Holocaust. To stand beneath those eyes is a haunting experience. Of course, in my novel there has been no Holocaust, which begs the question: am I portraying a more benign world? I’ll leave you to read the book and decide...
Friday, 6 March 2015
Later in the year I’ll be bringing you an A-Z of THE MADAGASKAR PLAN which, like its predecessor, will give a ‘behind the scenes’ insight to the writing of the book. In the meantime I’m going to sneak in the letter E.
I never write ‘The End’ when I finish a book. I’ve always found it rather juvenile (with apologies to all those writers who do). I also think it inaccurate. A novel doesn’t end just because you finish putting the words down on the page. An author can revisit their work (and here I must admit I’m still tinkering with the text of The Afrika Reich; the definitive version of which is not the paperback but the one on my computer.) A book also develops a life of its own once it’s published and readers begin to make it theirs. If it stays around long enough, different generations of readers will interpret it in different ways. ‘The End’ sounds presumptive, and far too final.
Nevertheless, Madagaskar is at last finished. I’ve checked the proofs, made my final alterations, and from this point to publication I can no longer make any substantial changes to the text. I require something to mark the moment and tell my publisher that I’m done.
When I worked as a foreign correspondent, I needed a similar word to signify an article had reached its final paragraph. This was especially true when I was filing from some dodgy country abroad in those days of more primitive telecommunications, when articles were sometimes cut short in transmission. The word I was advised to use was ‘ends’. There’s something about the present tense of the verb with its double connotation of conclusion and continuation that seems ideally suited for being the very last word in a manuscript. I’ve always used it for my books. It seems appropriate today.
E is also for Epic
I’ve written before how I planned [geddit?] to do something different with Madagaskar. One of the qualities I wanted was a much bigger feel than the first book. To give it a truly epic sweep. To that end it’s meatier than the original in both the physical sense - it’s almost 100 pages longer – and in terms of content which sees six interweaving narrative strands, much more world building and a story that will take you from Britain to Africa (Kongo, Sudan, Deutsch Ost Afrika, Mozambique), to Madagaskar and finally the heart of the Reich and Germania itself.
Intriguingly, if you look at this Wikipedia entry and its list of ten characteristics of the epic, Madagaskar uses all but numbers 3 (evocation of the muse), 5 (epithets) and 6 (epic catalogue):