Let’s start with an introduction: Who is James Brabazon?
I’m an author, journalist and documentary filmmaker. I live in the UK, and I’ve travelled a lot for work — 72 countries and counting — investigating, filming and directing in the world’s most hostile environments. When I’m not writing I oversee the security protocols for high risk deployments on behalf of the UK broadcaster Channel 4.
Your new novel, The Break Line, was recently published by Berkley. It looks really interesting.
How would you introduce it to a potential reader?
The Break Line is a thriller that follows the adventures of the Irish spy-assassin Max McLean – a completely deniable, off-the-books operator who works for the British Government. After more than two decades of loyal service Max is given a target he decides not to kill. The consequences of that decision take him on an adrenaline fuelled operation to Sierra Leone in West Africa where he uncovers a sinister plot to bring the West to its knees. Trouble is, the bad guys are a lot closer to home than Max could ever have imagined possible…
Is it part of a series?
Oh yes! With any luck this one will run and run.
What inspired you to write the novel and series?
The inspiration specifically to write The Break Line really came from a night in a hotel in Johannesburg, South Africa. I’d had dinner with a friend of mine who was a sniper in an Israeli black-ops team during the Lebanon war in the 80s. He and I had met in West Africa nearing the end of the war in Sierra Leone. He told me that the purpose of his training had been to create a legally sane psychopath. And that was it. I wrote the prologue in one sitting immediately afterwards and then thought about it for a long time — working out whose backstory that was: a young man who wants to be a soldier but ends up becoming a killer. When the pieces fell into place, I tweaked what I’d written and the narrative followed from there.
And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
I worked for many years filming the civil wars that tore West Africa apart — Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and especially Liberia, where I lived with a rebel army in the forest off and on for a couple of years. After that I spent time in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria and other conflicts. The intensity of filming in locations like that stays with you forever, and gives me a lot to think about then I write. More than anything, though, it’s the people I met when filming who inspired me the most. From mums and dads trying to carve out some semblance of normality for their kids, to the soldiers, spooks, rebels and mercenaries fighting over the spoils, I’ve been fortunate to get to know some truly exceptional (and crazy) people.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
My dad read science fiction short stories to me at bed time when I was a kid, and they fired my imagination. My favourite story was in a book called A Book of Boys Stories by Robert Bateman and Nicholas Marrat. It was about a school in space where the kids got up to all sorts of zero-gravity pranks. When I was older, I discovered the novels of John Le Carré and Frederick Forsyth, and with them fiction based on real experience. Unbeatable.
But I also grew up on a diet of graphic novel and comics like 2000AD, Battle and role-playing games like The Call of Cthulhu based on the worlds of H.P. Lovecraft. From a very early stage I always had a deep fascination with the monstrous, the macabre and exaggerated, graphic action.
The ground where myth and nature and cryptozoology intersect has been a fertile one for writers since antiquity… and the possibilities of scientific discovery to help mankind are deeply compelling — but, as all good scientists forget at their peril, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The consequences of discoveries made for Good but employed for Evil proved irresistible to me in The Break Line.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
Being paid to write is a luxurious way to earn a living. But I find it meaningful, too, and it helps me to make sense of the less pleasant things I’ve seen while filming. Most importantly, though, it allows me spend time with my kids… and, of course, no one is trying to kill me… at least, not that I know of…
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I try and write for four hours a day, in the morning if possible (which it isn’t always). I write my stories sequentially, as they unfold for my character Max McLean. I know how the story starts, where it twists, and how it ends. Everything else is a mystery until I think of it and write it. If I knew what I was going to write each day, I’d pack it in. I write to discover what it is I have to say.
I’m fortunate to have met an incredible array of experts in a lot of different fields while I’ve been filming. Rather than spend hours online or in the library, I call them up so I can talk through scenarios with the people who have direct experience of the thing I’m trying to bring to life. Friends and colleagues have been really generous with their time, helping me with The Break Line — so much so that it’s really blown me away. I couldn’t have done it without their help and support.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
Yes, the cliché is true: I always wanted to be a writer. And I’ve earned at least part of my income from writing (reportage and TV scripts) for many years. My first book — My Friend the Mercenary — was a memoir of the time I spent at war in Liberia and subsequent involvement in the Equatorial Guinea coup plot.
I don’t really re-read my own stuff once it’s been published. But a while back I found an old school exercise book, in which – aged nine or ten – I’d written pages (and pages) of a story for my English project. It involved a lot of fast cars, shoot outs and dangerous women. Plus ça change!
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I think there are some really great authors out there – including old hands like Gregg Hurwitz, who’s writing some of his best material now. Have you read Out of the Dark? Magisterial.
I don’t want my work to fit in. I’d like it to stand out. I hope I’ve created a world that is hyperreal, and based on lived experience… in which the line between possible and impossible is skirted very closely – at times delving into the speculative, at others delivering a verité punch. More than anything, though, I hope my work is entertaining. I want people to finish THE BREAK LINE and say “that was fun”.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I’m busy with the sequel to THE BREAK LINE right now, as well as overseeing the security on some particularly exciting TV shows for Channel 4.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I just finished reading Killing Eve: Codename Villanelleby Luke Jennings and I’m about to start Aller Retour New Yorkby Henry Miller.
If you could recommend only one novel or book to someone, what would it be?
In the Skin of a Lion, by Michael Ondaatje. It’s a spell-binding, gritty, magical ode to a lost generation of anonymous migrant workers who built Toronto in the 1930s, and a masterpiece of changing perspectives preoccupied with the transformation of identity and the revelation of whole lives lived on the ragged margins of society. It’s the most perfect story I have ever read, and the one that has influenced most what and why I write.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I play blues harmonica in a friends and family jam-band — not, mercifully, coming to a venue near you anytime soon.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Canada! I have Canadian family — in Toronto and BC — and come over as often as I’m able to. 2019 will be a Canadian Christmas, for sure. When everything seems dark and dangerous, look north and there she is, the Maple Leaf Pole Star: the hope of the free world.
James Brabazon’s The Break Line is out now, published by Berkley (North America) and Penguin (UK). The next novel in the Max McLean series, All Fall Down, is due to be published by Berkley in 2020. My Friend the Mercenary is published by Grove Press (North America) and Canongate (UK).