Q: When did you begin writing fiction?
In the mid-1990s, I was the BBC’s Bureau Chief in Beijing. China was a fascinating assignment, a vast country waking up and turning itself into the factory of the world, building cityscapes, freeways, high speed rail and everything that makes up the glitter of the modern China we see today. It was also then and still is an authoritarian state run by the Chinese Communist Party. Half my job was reporting the incredible modernization, both in infrastructure and in mindset. The other half was exposing human rights issues of political dissidents and religious repression. As with many correspondents at this stage of the careers, I was looking to do a book and had drafted an outline for a non-fiction analysis of this new China.
During a visit to London my agent, David Grossman,
introduced me to a legendary publishing figure William Armstrong who had just had huge success with a best-seller THE THIRD WORLD WAR by General Sir John Hackett. In an office decorated with awards and mementos, William looked briefly down my outline. “This is very worthy,” he said, “and shows you have great knowledge on your subject. We may sell a few thousand copies.” He slid my proposal to the side of his large leather embossed desk and leant forward, resting his chin on steepled hands. “Now tell me, could you write a fictional account of a war between the United States and China?”
There is nothing a journalist likes more than an experiences editor who knows what he wants. I said I could and recruited Simon Holberton, a colleague from the Financial Times, as co-author because William wanted it in the next few months. DRAGONSTRIKE: THE MILLENIUM WAR was published in 1997 and continues to sell. After that I did two more as sole author in a similar vein, DRAGONFIRE and THE THIRD WORLD WAR.
Q: How did your careers/travel experiences help shape your novel?
Two gritty newsroom maxims were drilled into me from the very first days of my career as a journalist. The first is the closer any story is to nuclear annihilation the bigger its headline. The second is our audience find it a lot easier to care about one little puppy dog than it cares about the fate of all the puppy dogs in the world – the lone, vulnerable character against a high stakes backdrop. My experience as a foreign correspondent whether reporting small wars and insurgency in Asia to headline conflicts like Yugoslavia and Iraq has supplied rich characters, settings and plot lines. The novelist tells stories in a very different way running two parallel strands of mystery and contest together resolving each at the very end with, of course, keeping the mystery until the very last.
Q: Tell us, readers, about what your thriller fiction novel, Ice Islands, is.
ICE ISLANDS is the fourth in a series featuring the hard-as-nails hero Rake Ozenna who comes from the Alaskan island of Little Diomede right on America’s border with Russia. Rake himself evolved from a BBC reporting assignment to Little Diomede back in 2015 when US-Russia relationship was becoming tense. I had expected to find some form of American military or U.S. Customs and Border Protection there. But there wasn’t even a local cop or a state trooper. Little Diomede is a craggy, rough island with a population of around eighty Indigenous Alaskans living less than three miles across a narrow stretch of water from, a Russian military base. It was such an incredible and little-known situation that I wrote MAN ON ICE where Russia seizes the island and takes hostages on the eve of a U.S. presidential inauguration. Rake Ozenna is a compilation of the rugged, gritty, brave characters on Little Diomede who live by their wits and instincts in a remote and hostile environment.
MAN ON ICE was intended as a stand-alone, but both my publisher and I wanted to do another. In ICE ISLANDS, Rake is tasked with breaking into the Kato family, a Yakuza crime organization which is turning Japan against the United States. The weak link is Sara Kato, the family’s rejected daughter, whom Rake plans to turn into an informant. He is to approach her at a peace conference on the Finnish Aland Islands in the Baltic Sea. As Rake flies in assassins murder a delegate who turns out to be the secret son of the Russian president. Sara is implicated. Rake is ordered to get Sara out and keep her safe. The action moves from the Baltic Sea through Washington D.C. to Hokkaido in northern Japan. From my earlier analogy, the vulnerable ‘puppy’ is Sara Kato and the high geopolitical stakes is the unresolved dispute between Russia and Japan over the Kuril Islands or Northern Territories which coincidentally is the setting for NO TIME TO DIE, the latest James Bond film.
Q: What themes will readers find in your novel, Ice Islands?
The impact of a rejected child. Sara Kato is an emotionally damaged young woman whose parents gave her no love and little care. Her father sent her to boarding school in England aged ten. She craves family love and sees her older brother Michio as a figure she can trust. Then, she learns Michio is a killer.
Japan and Russia are technically still at war. In 1945, there was a ceasefire, but no peace treaty. As relations between the West and Russia deteriorates this little-known situation is becoming a flashpoint.
International crime is now so organized that it is threatening democratically elected governments. From the criminal viewpoint, the more there is chaos, the more they can take control. (This is one view of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin). ICE ISLANDS draws on a Presidential Executive Order 13581 from 2011 which shines a spotlight on this threat. Impossible love. A recurring theme is Rake Ozenna’s on-off relationship with trauma surgeon, Carrie Walker, the one woman he can’t get out of his mind. They are soul mates, but could never settle down together, and they are in every thriller in the Rake Ozenna series.
Q: What other projects are you currently working on?
I co-host a twice weekly Goldster book show, an hour-long spot where we interview authors and, once a month, discuss a specific book. June’s title was George Orwell’s ANIMAL FARM. I moderate a monthly Democracy Forum Debate, a two-hour spot with a panel of experts on global issues. Among our recent debates have been the Indo-Pacific, Afghanistan. Ukraine and Taiwan. I am outlining a non-fiction book derived from the Ukraine-Russia conflict with the working BALTIC WATERS looking at the history and future of countries on the Baltic Sea and living in Russia’s shadow. It would be a sequel of sorts to my 2020 ASIAN WATERS: THE STRUGGLE OVER THE INDO-PACIFIC AND THE CHALLENGE TO AMERICAN POWER. I will begin the next Rake thriller around November.
Q: How did you get into the thriller fiction genre?
After publishing DRAGONSTRIKE in 1997, I suggested to David Grossman, my agent, a more atmospheric Asian-based novel. He deterred me by citing the example of THE NAÏVE AND SENTIMENTAL LOVER, an early novel by John Le Carre who at that stage wanted to be seen as more of a literary author. It didn’t sell well, and Le Carre went on to pioneer his fantastic genre of spy fiction. Foreign correspondents write thrillers, David advised. They don’t do poetry. I then outlined for a commercial thriller based in Hong Kong and China. David got a three-book contract with CEREMONY OF INNOCENCE, ABSOLUTE MEASURES and RED SPIRIT. We’re still together. He is my agent for ICE ISLANDS and the Rake Ozenna series.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring writers in your genre?
Work out what you protagonist and antagonist each want and what is stopping them getting it. Read those authors in whose footsteps you want to follow. Take notes of styles, plot lines, language. Examine how the market has changed from say, Ian Fleming and Alistair McLean to Mark Greaney and Mick Herron. Write at least 300 words a day, whatever you are doing. Show no-one until you are least 30,000 words in and then do not show to friends or family – unless they are in the trade.
Q: Using three words, how would you describe your writing style?
Taut. Vivid. Driving.
“‘Hawksley’s excellent idea is to move the battleground from Eastern Europe to the Arctic north. When a maverick Russian commander decides to occupy a tiny American island in the Bering Strait, there’s only one man who can prevent the situation from escalating into a nuclear war: Rake Ozenna of the elite Eskimo Scouts’ Mail on Sunday, Thriller of the Week on MAN ON ICE ‘Knuckle-whitening suspense, bloody violence, dirty tricks, and plenty of surprising twists make this a gripping, can’t-put-it-down read’ Booklist on MAN ON ICE ‘Die Hard meets 1984, fast moving, sophisticated’ Washington Post on SECURITY BREACH.
Humphrey Hawksley work as a BBC foreign correspondent has taken him all over the world. He is a regular panelist and speaker, and his writing has appeared in most mainstream publication such as the Guardian, The Times, Financial Times, and Yale Global. His latest non-fiction book is Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the Asia-Pacific and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion. Hawksley’s television documentaries include The Curse of Gold, Bitter Sweet and Aid Under Scrutiny.
@hwhawksley | humphreyhawksley.com
A sought-after speaker, Humphrey Hawksley has reported on key trends, events and conflicts from all over the world.
His work as a BBC foreign correspondent has taken him to crises on every continent. He was expelled from Sri Lanka, opened the BBC’s television bureau in China, arrested in Serbia and initiated a global campaign against enslaved children in the chocolate industry. The campaign continues today.
His television documentaries include The Curse of Gold and Bitter Sweet examining human rights abuse in global trade; Aid Under Scrutiny on the failures of international development: Old Man Atom that investigates the global nuclear industry; and Danger: Democracy at Work on the risks of bringing Western-style democracy too quickly to some societies.
Humphrey is the author of the acclaimed ‘Future History’ series Dragon Strike, Dragon Fire and The Third World War that explores world conflict. He has published four international thrillers, Ceremony of Innocence, Absolute Measures, Red Spirit and Security Breach, together with the non-fiction Democracy Kills: What’s so good about the Vote – a tie-in to his TV documentary on the pitfalls of the modern-day
path to democracy from dictatorship.
His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Times, Financial Times, International Herald Tribune, Yale Global and other publications. His university lectures include Columbia, Cambridge, University College London and the London Business School. He is a regular speaker and panelist including at Intelligence Squared and the Royal Geographical Society, and he has presented his work and moderated at many literary festivals.
Humphrey is an award-winning author and foreign correspondent whose assignments with the BBC have taken him to crises all over the world. His Rake Ozenna series originated when reporting from the US-Russian border during heightened tension. He has been guest lecturer at universities and think tanks such as the RAND Corporation, The Center for Strategic and International Studies, and MENSA Cambridge. He moderates the monthly Democracy Forum debates on international issues and is a host on the weekly Goldster Book Club where he discusses books and talks to authors.