Tell us about your bookG.W. Eccles: The Oligarch is unashamedly a thriller. At its start, the Russian President is determined to destroy the oligarchs. He not only resents the fact that they own most of the country's natural resource wealth which should be available to benefit the whole population, but also sees them as a threat to his power base. When the global economic meltdown decimates their wealth, the President seizes this chance. His greatest opponent - Anton Blok, owner of the mighty Tyndersk Kombinat - has a secret agenda: he wants to fund a separatist rebellion in Southern Russia and therefore faces far more than just financial ruin as his empire threatens to fall apart. The President knows that his old enemy will stop at nothing to avoid such a catastrophe, so with battlelines clearly drawn, he turns to Alex Leksin, a British troubleshooter of Russian descent, to thwart Blok's plans. Against the challenge of hostile Arctic conditions, Leksin has to tread a dangerous path through a labyrinth of corruption, terrorism and FSB intrigue until the final showdown in Russia’s northernmost seaport.
The story starts immediately after the controversial election of a Russian President for a third term amid protests and accusations of vote rigging. Are you referring to Putin?
G.W. Eccles: Not really. For most of the time the book was being written, the Russian Presidential election had not taken place. Of course, it wasn't rocket science to guess that Putin would be re-elected, that this would be controversial, that there would be protests and that the election would involve a fair degree of vote rigging. Additionally, Putin has gone on record many times since he first came upon the political scene to say that he disapproves of the way that the oligarchs obtained their stranglehold over his country's assets and would like them returned to State control.
However, there the similarities really end. In fact, you never actually meet the President in the book. You only learn about him through references by other characters, who see him, if anything, as a tough, but more or less benign, figure determined to destroy the shady oligarchs. In reality, though, who would portray Putin and his thuggish, bullying cronies as benign? His former position as head of the FSB tells you a lot about the real man, I suspect. In any sequel, you'll most likely learn much more of what is really going on in the President's mind, and that might well make him more like Putin.
The hero of the story is Leksin, a British former investigator of Russian descent and now living in Russia. In many ways, he's not the usual clean-cut charmer that one's used to seeing as hero. Was this your aim?
G.W. Eccles: Absolutely. I wanted a hero who was every bit as manipulative as the oligarch he would confront in the story. Russian oligarchs are generally not nice guys - while there may be exceptions to the rule, many of them are more akin to gangsters than businessmen, and they react very badly to anyone or anything who gets in their way. For evidence of this, just look at the number of company directors and owners who were murdered during the turf war that went on while the oligarchs were amassing their fortunes . If Leksin is to take on such people, then he needs to share many of the same qualities - a wallflower wouldn't survive a minute.As a human being, Leksin is flawed. Like the oligarchs, he is driven to succeed. This amounts to an obsession: he cannot tolerate failure either in himself or other people. In his personal life, this means he is unable to sympathise with his dependent and unstable sister. To him, she is a chore. He pushes himself so hard in his work that he has to resort to cocaine in order to cope with this self-imposed pressure. Moreover, although attractive to women, his personal relationships always come unstuck because he regards them as an unacceptable distraction from his assignments.
In one sense, Leksin is amoral. He tends not to pass judgement. If the President had been portrayed as a much more sinister, Putin-esque character, that would not have stopped Leksin working for him. Similarly, Leksin might not like Blok, the oligarch, but he has an underlying admiration of the way the man had played the system to build up his vast business empire. Such disapproval as he expresses reflects how third parties feel about Blok rather than his own views.
So why do we empathise with Leksin? Well, partly because we like the people who like Leksin: their fondness for, and loyalty to, Leksin indicates that he must have things going for him. We learn how Leksin took Nikolai, now part of the government and his closest friend, under his wing when Nikolai first arrived in Cambridge out of place and an outsider. We approve of the way that he takes great pains to care for his mentally-ill sister despite his disappointment with her. His love of art and the meticulous manner in which he is gradually buying back the paintings that were appropriated from his grandfather during the revolution also gives us an insight into a different side of Leksin's character. And we like Anya, the oligarch's daughter, who falls in love with Leksin.
You paint a very bleak picture of Tyndersk, the Arctic mining town owned by the oligarch. Did you base this on experience?
G.W. Eccles: Yes. Some people's image of Siberia is the glossy postcard image portrayed in the film of Dr Zhivago. Indeed, when you are in the depths of the Siberian countryside and the landscape is covered with snow, it can look very pretty. But in reality the working towns in Siberia, many of them ex-gulags, are nothing like this.
I spent a considerable amount of time in Siberia when I was working in Russia, and many of the towns there are just like Tyndersk: polluted, dirty, one-company towns built around giant mining or oil operations. Some of them are so geographically cut off from the rest of Russia by the lack of transport in and out of the region that locals refer as a trip to (say) Moscow as 'going to the mainland'. In winter, these places are staggeringly cold: while the average winter temperature might be -30C, it will regularly fall below -60C. Spending any length of time in these dehumanised places is a depressing and disheartening experience.
G.W. Eccles: Let me say first that the novel is a work of fiction. Although I think the plot is entirely possible in today's Russia, it isn't in any way based on real events - at least, so far as I know.
However, the depictions of life in Russia - shopping in open air markets, the food the Russians eat, the way they dress in freezing Siberia, the nightmare of its airports, hotels and restaurants, and so on - are all based on what I observed when living there.
Many of the anecdotes are also based on something that happened to me also. For example, like Leksin I once arrived at a Siberian airport where the snowfall was so thick that during the walk to the terminal I could only see a few metres ahead. If I'd lost sight of the person ahead of me, I wouldn't have made it to the terminal or, indeed, at all.
With the action moving a breakneck speed alternating between Moscow, Ingushetia (Chechnya’s neighbour), and Tyndersk, a Siberian mining town inside the Arctic Circle, your book has all the ingredients of a good movie? Who would you cast as the main characters and why?
G.W. Eccles: Interestingly one of the most consistent comments I have received from people who have read the book so far is that it is almost tailor-made to be a film. I have to admit that I felt this myself as I was writing the book, though it was not at any time an influencing factor.
Who would I cast? I can see Damian Lewis as Leksin. In Homeland he plays another complex character struggling to relate to people and to cope with the pressure, just as Leksin does. Dustin Hoffman's portrayals often have similar characteristics.
Blok, the oligarch, is slightly more difficult. He is not a very nice man, yet notwithstanding his outrageous behaviour, we can't help having some sympathy for him. Thinking a little out of the box perhaps, I have in mind Hugh Laurie for the role since we all have a similarly ambivalent attitude towards House.
Anya, his daughter, is easier, so far as I'm concerned. Rooney Mara. Anya starts off as a spoilt, bored, rich girl, but once the man she loves is under threat she really shows her mettlel. When this happens, I see Anya in many ways as a somewhat better-adjusted version of Lisbeth in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
What was the hardest part: writing the book, getting it published or marketing it? Why?G.W. Eccles: Although writing the book seemed hard at the time, it turned out to the easiest part of the process. Finding a publisher to take a chance with a new thriller writer nowadays, even if they like a project, seems nigh on impossible. These publishing conglomerates have their portfolio of established writers whose works automatically sell the day they are released. To the publishers, these writers are a sort of herd of cash cows, as a result of which they don't see the need to risk a debut author. It's the same in any industry that has consolidated as publishing has done: choice is one of the first things to disappear. Where twenty or so years ago an aspiring author could find forty or fifty publishers to consider his or her book, the options are much more limited nowadays.
As for marketing, it's early days for me. The jury's out at this stage, so far as I'm concerned.
What other projects do you have coming up?G.W. Eccles: I have the manuscript of a second 'Leksin thriller' in my drawer, although it pretty much needs a complete rewrite if it is to be published. Will I get around to doing this? Probably, though I need something to spur me into action. Some good sales figures for The Oligarch would go along way towards providing the necessary impetus!
Is your family supportive of your writing?G.W. Eccles: I definitely could not have written The Oligarch without my wife's help. While she might describe her role as that of editor, she was in fact much more than this. Having lived in Russia herself throughout the time I was there, she had a unique insight into the way things work in Russia which she was able to add as she worked her way through the drafts. She was the one who brought the conversations and scene descriptions alive.
My two 'children' (they have both recently graduated from Cambridge helped in different ways. My son read the various drafts of the manuscript and was pretty ruthless in persuading me to cut any scene that didn't really progress the action. My daughter designed the cover, which I love.
Where can we find out more about you and buy your bookG.W. Eccles: The novel's website contains more information about both me and the book. The address for this is http://www.theoligarchthriller.com.
You can buy THE OLIGARCH: A THRILLER from all major online bookstores, including Foyles, Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble and Kobo. A full list (with links) can be found on the 'where to buy' page of the website.