Tom Harper is the international bestselling author of 11 historical thrillers, including his latest, Zodiac Station, which is published in paperback in the US in May 2015.
Tell us a bit more about you and how you got into writing
It’s something I’d always wanted to do. I remember being eight years old and telling my teacher that I wanted to be an author when I grew up. By the time I finished university, I hadn’t shaken that idea and I knew it’s what I wanted to do. I also knew that it was incredibly unlikely.
So I went to work for an actuarial consultancy for a while, which was a really boring job, but at an interesting company. Then I decided to have a crack at writing seriously. I saw an advert for a crime writing competition, the Debut Dagger Competition, run by the Crime Writers’ Association in the UK. It was one of those moments that changed my life.
It was just an advert in the Sunday Times one weekend. If I hadn’t bought the paper or if I’d not read that section, or it had gone into the recycling, I shudder to think how my life would be different. They wanted a first chapter and synopsis of a crime novel, and the deadline was several weeks away. I sent mine off to the competition, trying to think no more of it, but it turned out that I had come runner-up, which was amazing and then I started getting contacted by the judges who were editors and agents.
I took a sabbatical from work and blasted out that book as fast as I possibly could, signing up with an agent who judged the competition. She was able to sell the book very quickly once I’d actually finished it. So it was all very fast and it’s one of the real good luck stories in publishing.
All my other books have had some kind of an historical angle to them but Zodiac Station is a bit different. It’s a contemporary thriller set in the Arctic on the fictional island of Utgard. If you go to Svalbard and then up and right a bit, that’s where it would be if it existed. It’s a completely deserted island in the high Arctic and the only population there is a research base with a dozen scientists in it.
It’s the story of a guy in his early 30s who has had a scientific career, and then lost it in a scandal. He gets a second chance when his old PhD supervisor calls him up and invites him to Zodiac Station. He goes up there, and the day he arrives, his PhD supervisor has gone missing and is subsequently discovered dead at the bottom of a crevasse. So it’s his story of trying to discover what happened to his PhD supervisor because the top brass at the base want to explain it away as an accident. Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that.
There’s a whole genre of Arctic thrillers actually. There are people, and I’m one of them, who just love ice and snow and cold and these really wild places.
There is a line in Zodiac Station: ”For as long as I can remember, I dreamed of the north.” It’s in the voice of your main character but how much of that is from you?
That is exactly from me. It’s straight from the heart, because as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved snow. I love ice, I love winter. I think it’s because these places are so otherworldly. It’s as far as you can get off the planet while still being on the planet, if that makes sense. As a writer, I think you’re naturally drawn to these places. For me, the joy of writing and reading these sort of books is being taken away from normal life. And I’d say the Arctic is about as far from normal life as you can get while still remaining on planet Earth.
Tell us about the research for the book. You went to the ice, didn’t you?
For every book, I visit the places I’m writing about. I find it very difficult to write about a place I haven’t been to. So obviously when I started doing Zodiac Station, I knew I was going to have to go and visit the Arctic, which was absolutely fine with me!
I went to Svalbard, which is an archipelago belonging to Norway. It’s about 800km north of continental Norway and on the same latitude as northern Greenland. It’s about as close as you can get to the North Pole without actually having to put on skis. It’s this amazing set of islands with a land mass that’s the area of Ireland but with very few people. I think their slogan is, 2,500 people, 3,000 polar bears. There’s one main town there, originally a coal mining town, and now turning to tourism.
I based myself there and took various snowmobile and snowshoeing trips, going up glaciers. I went into a glacier cave which was incredible. You’re on your belly with a tiny space between your back and the roof. And the roof is 30 meters of solid ice except a glacier is not actually solid, it’s more like a river of ice and is always moving. I was hoping not to be under it when it started to move. That was pretty cool.
We went on these long snowmobile drives across sea ice, and we got lost in a white out once, which was pretty scary. You cannot even see your hand in front of your face. It’s just cloud, and snow, and more snow, and ice. All those experiences went straight into the book.
What are the other thrilling and exciting things you’ve done for research for your books?
It’s one of these paradoxical things, that in order to write a thrilling book, you have to lead a very un-thrilling life most of the time. But in between, there are these bits that are just brilliant and thrilling.
The next book, Black River, which comes out in the U.K. in September, is about a group of treasure hunters going up an uncharted tributary of the Amazon looking for a lost city. And so obviously I had to go up the Amazon! I was looking for these petroglyphs, rock carvings that are on this ginormous lump of rock in the middle of the Peruvian jungle.
No one knows who put them there or what they mean, and it takes about four days just to get there. You’re wading through swamps and portaging your boat up the river, and cutting your path through the jungle and stuff. It’s just incredible. It was one of those moments where every so often you just had to stop and look around and think, “Yes, I am really doing this. This is me and I’m here.”
Certainly for me, the excitement of being a writer comes from finding out new stuff. Some of that’s historical, but a lot of it is geographical and new places, the cultures and the people, the landscapes. I find it incredibly exciting to learn that stuff, and it’s that excitement that I’m trying to put into the book. If it’s exciting for me, then it’s going to be exciting for the reader. And that’s really what fires me up.
I wonder if you ever get the experience of synchronicity, as I often do in research. When you think you’re writing fiction and then you discover there’s something real behind it. A coincidence of research, perhaps.
Yes, it does happen. In fact, it happened on the Peru book. I’d read a lot of stuff about different expeditions into various jungles and researched the huge area of the Amazon which is many billions of square miles of forest covering 11 countries or something. I couldn’t decide where my lost city was going to be. So eventually I had to get a big map of South America. I plotted where all the different expeditions that I’d read about had gone. Then I thought about what my lost city would have to be like.
The real lowland, central Brazilian rainforest is out because there weren’t any particularly advanced civilizations there that we know of. It would have to be built out of stone because obviously it’s got to survive. That means that you basically have to put it up against the Andes, and it’s going to be some kind of Inca or proto-Inca civilization. Almost the moment I made those decisions, I discovered that there is indeed a legend of a particular lost city called Paititi, which I’d never ever heard of before, which is supposed to be in exactly the place that I’d decided it should be. Amazing!
You’ve written widely in the conspiracy and historical thriller genre. What are the themes that keep coming up over and over again in your work?
Travel is in most of my books. Zodiac Station is quite unusual in that it’s quite claustrophobic. It all takes place on this one island and you can’t get on or off. It’s almost a locked room mystery in that respect. All my other books have a chase element where people move quickly from place to place, often internationally. I like moving. I like keeping things in motion. I have a restless imagination.
Another thing that I realized after I’d written about eight or nine books, was that a lot of the people I write about are involved in the quest for perfection. It’s about the gap between what they’re trying to achieve and what they actually achieve.
So I wrote about the emperor Constantine, who was trying to achieve this perfect empire. I wrote about Johannes Gutenberg, who was trying to create the perfect book that can be replicated perfectly without any scribes messing it up and making mistakes.
As a writer, when you start writing a book, you have this vision in your head about how perfect this book is going to be. As you write it, it’s a series of compromises, and inevitably it’s never quite as good as that initial, pure dream you had. But you do the best you can and then you try again. You try to make it more perfect the next time. And I think a lot of the people that I write about are doing the same thing in their different fields.
You’ve lived in a number of places around the world, but now you’re based in York in England. What is so awesome about York from a historian and thriller writer’s perspective?
It is an amazing town going back to Roman times. It’s still got its city walls intact, surrounding almost the entire city, built on the foundation of the Roman walls. There’s a beautiful city center that’s a mix of medieval, Georgian, Victorian, and more recent architecture. Then there’s this incredible 15th century Minster, a huge gothic cathedral right in the center of town. York is quite a small town and then you’ve got this massive cathedral in it. The first time I saw it, it was like an alien spaceship that landed in the middle of the square. You saw it almost as the medieval people must have seen it, as this very otherworldly thing that is just beyond scale or comprehension.
You can tour the Undercroft, which is basically a basement. The 15th-century church stands on top of the Norman church, which in turn stands on top of a Saxon church, which in turn stands on top of the headquarters of the original Roman fortress. And you can see the different layers of stone, one built on top of the other, as you go down.
To me, that’s just like this beautiful, perfect metaphor for history itself. It’s not that one era finishes and then you’re done with it and then you move on. Everything is actually built on top of the last, seamlessly integrating. It’s also a great metaphor for York, because everything is built on the past. You can do a 360 degree turn on a York street, and you can see buildings built in every century from the 1500s through to the 21st Century. And all still are in use. That’s what’s amazing.
Moving away from the serious topics now. You made a very cool Lego trailer for Zodiac Station. Tell us about that.
It was just too much fun not to do! I love film, I love movies. Like most writers, I would love to see my books turned into films. I had a really vivid, visual idea of how Zodiac Station would look as a film. And of course, I would’ve loved to do a full-on cinematic trailer for the book. But unfortunately, that would involve helicopters, and ships, and being in the Arctic and probably would cost millions of pounds.
I’ve got two boys, who are 7 and 4, so I’m quite up on what’s happening in the world of Lego. The story opens with a coast guard icebreaker battering through the sea, and last year Lego released a coast guard ship set which my son wanted for Christmas. Then six months later, they released a whole set of Arctic Lego.
So I bought a couple of those sets and re-purposed them slightly. I’ve got this friend who works for a big visual effects company in London. So he came up, and between us, we built these models and animated them and made a film. It was just an absolute blast.
Who are the authors that you read for pleasure, whether in the thriller genre or more widely?
I’m a big fan of John le Carré as a classic in spy thriller. I love his ‘Smiley’ books. He tells you very little, and has these really obscure and oblique scenes. You really have no idea what’s going on and yet, you’re completely hooked and you have to know what happens next.
Neal Stephenson is really interesting. He started out as a science fiction writer, and then he turned to historical fiction. He did a big book called Cryptonomicon, and then an even bigger trilogy called “The Baroque Cycle,” set in the 17th century. He writes historical fiction unlike anyone else I know. Coming from a science fiction background, he’s just got this really anarchic, freewheeling, swashbuckling way of writing about history. He’s writing about the very early roots of computing and some of the really interesting stuff that was going on in the 17th century with Isaac Newton and Leibniz. It’s just got this tremendous energy about it. So I love Neal Stephenson.
I love Dan Simmons on the Arctic theme. He wrote a book called The Terror, which reimagines the last days of the Sir John Franklin expedition where they get stuck in the ice for two-and-a-half years and were never seen again. I thought that was an amazing book.
Robert Harris. l like both his contemporary thrillers and the historical stuff he’s done, particularly with Cicero. And in the more contemporary vein, I like Chris Ewan, who writes these really nicely put together, beautifully written thrillers that I just can’t get enough of.
So where can people find you and your books online?
Joanna: Brilliant. Well, thank you so much for your time, Tom. That was great.
Tom: Thank you, Joanna.