An Interview with James Harland
Are you coming to mystery writing from another job?
My background is as a financial journalist. I worked at The Sunday Times as a business reporter for seven years, and I now write a European business column twice a week for Bloomberg News, which is syndicated in quite a few papers as well as on the Bloomberg.com website. I split my time about half and half between journalism, and writing fiction. I find that is a good division. Journalism is great background for finding out about how lots of different industries work, and what different jobs involve. Journalists are good at finding out information quickly and efficiently, and they are also good at sorting out the interesting information from the dull. The only downside is that while journalism teaches you a lot about writing, it's the wrong sort of writing. You have to break a lot of habits when you start writing fiction.
What led you to write mysteries?
I'm a big fan of mystery and thriller writers, so that is what led me into writing in that genre. My favourite authors for a long time have been people such as Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Graham Greene, John le Carre and Frederick Forsyth. But the genre also chooses you. I read all types of different authors in a mix of genres, but when I start thinking of a story I start thinking of a mystery, so that is what I write. Mysteries and thrillers are a very flexible genre. There is almost nothing you can't write about.
Tell us about your road to publication.
I had written two business books as a journalist before I turned my hand to writing fiction. That was helpful in two ways. I already knew something (although not as much as I thought) about structuring a book. And I had already signed up with one of the main London literary agents. That was a big help. The hardest thing for any new author is to get an agent to take them on, and without an agent it is almost impossible to get taken seriously by a publisher. That is really the big breakthrough you have to make.
The book went through a couple of drafts with the agent. He is a good critic, very acute at pointing out the flaws in a plot, and over those drafts the book got a lot sharper. That is the second most important step in getting published. You need to find an agent you get on with, and who can help shape a book. The publishers are not very interested in editing anymore. They leave that to the agents.
The processes of getting it published was dealt with by the agent. Agents like to tell you good news, not bad news, so they don't mention all the publishers that might well have turned it down, just the one that wanted to publish it. I'm sure it got lots of rejections, but I'd rather not dwell on those.
What inspired you to write The Month of The Leopard
The inspiration came from a variety of different sources. I started taking notice of hedge funds after George Soros forced the pound out of the European exchange rate mechanism in 1992; that seemed to me to be a lot of power to put in the hands of one eccentric individual. I became more interested after an American fund called Long Term Capital Management crashed in 1998 with debts of one trillion dollars: for a few weeks that fund seemed capable of plunging the world into the kind of recession it hasn't seen since the 1930s.
I was fascinated by all the money that leaked out of the Soviet Union before that regime collapsed. Two years ago, reports surfaced of Red Army accounts in the Channel Islands: it seemed likely to me that what had been made public was probably just the tip of a very large iceberg.
Then I was intrigued in what might happen to a guy who's wife vanished, then turned out to be a completely different person from the women he thought he married. How would he react? What would he do? Try to forget her, or try to find her?
The fun of writing a thriller and a conspiracy thriller in particular is that you can take a whole group of things that interest you, and tie them all together into one story. Thrillers, at least the good ones, are about making connections.
What kind of research was involved for your first book?
>The Month of the Leopard is a conspiracy story, and a conspiracy by definition is something that reveals hidden connections. There are three different threads that make up the story. Giant hedge funds, such as the one run by George Soros. The hidden fortune of the Red Army. And the story of the Metsavaned, the liberation movement in Estonia which fought a forgotten war against the Soviet Union from the end of World War Two until 1979. So there was a lot off research that went into the book, mainly about how the financial markets work, and about the history and geography of the Baltic States in Northern Europe, particularly about Estonia which is the most Northern of those three countries, right next to the Russian border.
Travelling around to research a book can be a strange experience. It isn't at all like tourism. If you were there on holiday, you might be looking for the most interesting places, or the most beautiful buildings, but if you are researching a mystery story, you are looking for the most secret routes, or the most discreet bars. And you are doing it in the middle of a freezing winter, because that in when the book is set. You are cold, you travel in the most uncomfortable way, and you go to all the worst places. That doesn't stop it from being fun, though.
Who are your influences as a writer?
In mystery and thriller writing, my biggest influences are John Buchan, Graham Greene, John le Carre and Frederick Forsyth. For me, they are the inventors and masters of the genre. But I admire lots of different authors, and I think they influence you as well, although in different ways. Apart from those mentioned above, my favourite authors are Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Joseph Conrad (who could also turn his hand to mysteries - try The Secret Agent), George Orwell and Joseph Heller.
Of authors writing now, I most admire Tom Wolfe, Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen, Michael Crichton, and Martin Amis. If I could keep just one book, it would probably be Nostromo by Conrad.
What does your family think of having a mystery author in their midst?
My wife, Angharad, likes it. She's a journalist, so she's interested in writing as well. Most of the people around the part of London we live work in the financial markets, so writing for a living is different. My eldest daughter Isabella is just two, and Leonora was born in March, so I don't think they have noticed yet. Perhaps when they go to school they'll wonder why their father doesn't go to the office every day like everyone else.
Tell us about plans for future books.
I'm finishing a new book at the moment, which will also be published by Simon & Schuster, probably in 2003. It's working title is The Bonus. It's about two brothers. The elder brother Edward is successful with a fair amount of money, the younger brother William doesn't have any money, and works for a green, anti-globalisation group. At the start of the story, William has died. At the reading of the will, he leaves all his money to his older brother to look after his daughter. Edward, is amazed. He didn't even know William had a girlfriend, let alone a daughter. And he had five million pounds in his bank account, which was paid in two days before he died. So Edward knows something very strange happened to his bother, but the only clues he has are the money and the girl. The story takes off from there.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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