Monday, 18 July 2011

Interview: John M. Green

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us! Let’s start withan easy one, what are you reading at the moment?
Recipes about truffles. Fellow author Sulari Gentill (A Decline in Prophets, the second in her sparkling Rowland Sinclair series of historical crime fiction) grew a crop of black truffles on her farm in Batlow and kindly gave me some.

How would you describe your new book, Born to Run?
It’s a rags-to-riches political thriller, with lashings of murder, terror and treason, and just a bit of sexual intrigue.

Isabel Diaz, born in squalor in America to a Bolivian widow, shakes off poverty and shocking abuse to become an inspiration to the nation, and is set to be the first woman to win the White House.

But her chances plummet when a Muslim protégé is accused of syphoning funds to terrorists and, seemingly unrelated, an Australian software whiz is tossed off a London skyscraper. Then, an investigative journalist digs up a dark secret from Isabel’s past, and her presidential hopes shatter.

With the public stunned, and only days before the vote, terrorists use the Australian’s software to launch a daring attack on New York City.

Isabel Diaz is born to run. But can she ever win? …And should she?

How deeply did you immerse yourself in US politics to write Born to Run?

Hugely, but it was no chore since I’ve been a Washington tragic for years, soaking up books, newspapers and magazines about US politics and gluing myself to the TV when a race gets serious. And I’m an addict of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, possibly the best political satire and commentary (on the Comedy Channel here) as well as Bill O’Reilly on Fox.

Not long ago, when visiting Dallas, Texas, I even visited the grassy knoll (Dealey Plaza) opposite the former Texas School Book Depository where John F. Kennedy was shot. But this sad triangle of patchy grass squeezed between three busy roads near a railroad bridge is hardly the inspirational place I expected.

What inspired you to write about a US Presidential race?

My mother’s tears over JFK’s assassination led me, decades later, to create Born to Run. My late mother wasn’t American, and her taste of US life was sweetened by episodes of I Love Lucy and Hollywood movies. We lived in far-away Australia, yet JFK was idolised here and, for this kid in short pants, her grief fired a spark: that American presidents matter.

I’ve often scratched my head at why the charisma genie has blessed so few of the nine US Presidents since, and why they’ve mostly been Democrats. Only Clinton and Obama approached Kennedy’s lustre, although Obama’s seems to be sputtering right now. Many say Reagan had the gift, but it didn’t seem like it at the time.

Before Kennedy’s day, revered Republicans weren’t as rare. Start with Abraham Lincoln, who abolished slavery, and the startling snippet of history that the Democrats were the pro-slavery party back then.

Given recent history, I thought it was high time for an inspirational, thoughtful Republican, a woman, too, but not a glib Sarah Palin-type. So, impatient for a real one, I created my own: Isabel Diaz. I hope you like her.

How do you think US politics contrast with Australian politics?
They tell better political jokes, and we have bigger political jokes, Donald Trump and Sarah Palin aside.

One thing that’s very disappointing in Australia is how, unlike in the US, rival politicians show little respect for each other, especially for the high office of their opponent. This is both sides of politics. By resorting to crass, uncivil and sometimes offensive abuse – it’s not even clever - they are debasing an attractive Australian trait, our egalitarianism.

But I do cringe whenever I hear US politicians end a speech with “May God bless America”. To me, it is strange that an Amen is expected in a country that boasts the same foundation as ours of a clear separation of Church and State. Then again, Kevin Rudd was big on promoting his Sunday church step photo opportunities. But I cringed over them, too.

Born to Run covers issues such as terrorism, digital culture, race and identity, did your vision always encompass all those issues or did they grow in the writing process?
Wow, you’ve really done your homework. These topics were part of the fabric from the beginning. To craft a thriller around an important election, I wanted to pepper it with some of the vital issues confronting the world today, and not only America.

What do you hope readers take away from Born to Run?
Optimism about the human spirit. But most importantly, that they feel satisfied that they’ve enjoyed a great ride and a good read.

Can you tell me a little about what prompted you to quit your day job and become a writer?

Sure. There’s this great quote from 19th century novelist George Eliot: “It’s never to late to be what you might have been.” This was the sentiment that pushed me to ditch wearing a suit every day to focus on writing. For the last few years while I was still working in an office, I’d slip out of bed between 4 and 5am with my blood already pumping through my fingers anxious to hit my keyboard. Then I realised, if that’s what gets me out of bed, it’s what I need to do, so I did.

It was also a time when I was very worried about the state of global markets, and wanted to write a novel that asked, ‘What if the world is in a great big financial bubble, and it bursts big time, bigger than we’ve ever seen before?’ This was prior to the GFC, and it became my first novel, Nowhere Man. (The bad news was that I was right about the markets, and the other bad news was that I should’ve quit work sooner and focused on getting Nowhere Man published before the onslaught hit us! Instead, the bust happened, and I had to rewrite the story, this time setting it in the midst of the real crisis which, to tell the truth, was even wilder and scarier than I had imagined possible.)

How do you approach the writing process?

You can find me writing everywhere. My computer is virtually glued to me, so it might be on planes, in hotels, on trains, wherever. I wrote most of this in St Petersburg, Russia where I’m setting a scene for my third novel (more on that with your next question.)

But as I mentioned above re Nowhere Man, I like to start with some big “What if?” questions and develop the story and the characters from there. One of the things I admire most about Michael Crichton’s thrillers Jurassic Park, Disclosure and Prey is that they’re great stories but based on some worrying questions about then emerging hot topics (in order: ethics of cloning, sexual harassment, nano-technology).

In Born to Run, my starter questions were:
    •    ‘What if a truly inspiring minority woman has a good shot at being elected leader of the free world?’
    •    ‘But what if she seems just too good to be true?’ and
    •    ‘What if the good guys are really the bad guys?’

I also had a lot of fun researching ‘What if you want to destroy New York City by blowing up its entire subway system?’ To do that, I investigated Manhattan’s geology and dusty subway archives in New York and London, and I also tapped a specialist who devises extreme disasters then, using complex algorithms, theoretically tests their effects on complex structures. But rest easy for your next visit to the Big Apple. Technical issues, which I intentionally blur in the book, are serious obstacles for any mimicking evildoers.

What are you working on next?
I’m really excited about my next thriller. It asks: ‘What if the modern technology we rely on today—like the internet—utterly collapses?’

With a question like that, I have to work out not just how and why it might happen, but critically for a thriller, who the bad guys are, and most importantly, who will try to stop them.

By the way, as of yesterday, I’ve popped Isabel Diaz into it, too. But to find out if she’s a good guy or a bad one, you’ll have to wait.

Thanks for your time!
Born to Run is released in August and is available to pre-order at Shearer's Bookshop

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