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Clinton Smith on the genesis of EXIT ALPHA, and his favorite reading...

RV: How did you gain your military contacts to help you in your research for EXIT ALPHA?

CS: I have an inside track which I’ll keep to myself. But you still have to locate the people who know. If you want to manually open the ramp of a crashed Hercules and don’t know precisely how it’s done, you can fudge it and a lot of writers do. Or you can contact a loadmaster in the US air force and an engineer at Lockheed. Then you have a chance to write something effective.

RV: What was the genesis of EXIT ALPHA? Was it an interest in the Antarctic or international intelligence?

CS: Neither. I had the notion of extending the life of Pope John Paul the First in fiction. A kidnapped Pope trying to survive in Antarctica? That’s unusual. The plot also required me to replace two world leaders with doubles. So I had to find another who died more or less at the same time as John. The best bet was President Zia of Pakistan. That meant the hero had to become half Pakistani. Change one thing, you change everything. But it must be over seven years since I plotted EXIT ALPHA. So I can’t remember the process very clearly. By the way, it was an honour to get to know the Pope who proved to be an exceptional man.

RV: How long did the book take to write? Were there any false starts or dead-ends along the way and how did you overcome them?

CS: A book take me three years to write. That’s ridiculously long for what appears to be a commercial novel. Perhaps I’m just slow. But I try to do it as well as I can – to write a multi-dimensional text – a 3-D thriller if you wish. I try for ‘intelligent escapism’. For instance, the theme of EXIT ALPHA is a survey of the different types of love – from human and carnal to the love of God. Fit that into a thriller if you dare. A writer who depended on sales to eat couldn’t spare the time to attempt this. He’d need a book out each Christmas. But as I’m retired, with little else to do but await my dissolution, I have the luxury of being able to immerse myself in such madness.
False starts are rare with me. I work from a full plot like someone following a recipe. Of course over many revisions, the thing expands and changes. It’s like weaving. You go back and revise small parts of a chapter or groups of scenes, hundreds of times. Sometimes you do find dead ends. Then it’s a matter of sitting a long while and puzzling it out – hurting the head. Glitches can take a week or two to recast.

RV: Can you list some of the most important books you’ve read, whether fiction or not, and what you liked about them?

CS: The Age just asked me this. The reply was: ‘I’m not beguilded by Jane’s and other military manuals but by the Upanishads, the Tao, the Masnavi. For passion with profundity: Attar’s The Conference of the Birds. The C.S. Nott version remains unsurpassed. As for novel writing, there are fine stylists but I’ll still say Steinback, for visual clarity with force. Simple to read. Hard to write.’

RV: Do you have any other novels in mind in the thriller genre?

CS: I’ve finished the next thriller (another three years invested there) which, among many other things, is an examination of the future of war. Now I’m plotting my fifth, but still don’t know if the publisher will take the fourth.
Writing is an obsession. And obsession is a character flaw. So my advice to new writers is, don’t. It took me forty years to get a book published. Do you want forty years of rejections? Get a life. But if you’re too driven or dumb to desist, for what it’s worth, here are two statements I keep on the whiteboard: ‘You’re it. Get on with it.’ And ‘Never hold the head too high or too low.’