Wednesday, October 28, 2015

My Guest: Jaye Rothman

My Guest this week shares a couple of things with me: First she's a lover of hard-core Spy thrillers, having cut her teeth on Ian Fleming just like yours truly, and second, she uses strong female protagonists in her novels. Ladies and Gentlemen...

Jaye Rothman

Love and Cold Wars

If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, you must be the one to write it. ~ Toni Morrison.

I grew up in a sleepy little town outside London, England during the Cold War. Perhaps because of that, I have always been fascinated by life behind the Iron Curtain.

When I was just a teenager, I watched my first James Bond movie. It was one of the very early ones – I can’t remember which one, now – and I vividly remember being absolutely mesmerised by the action, the intrigue, and the exotic locations. The next day I rushed to the library and over the next few weeks I devoured all of Ian Fleming’s books. Shortly after that, I discovered Len Deighton and John Le CarrĂ© – and so began my lifelong love affair with espionage novels and movies.

In particular, I think Deighton’s three trilogies, featuring Bernard Samson as the disillusioned MI6 spy, perfectly capture the era and the paranoia of the Cold War during the 1980s. They are still among my favourite books.

One thing that always bothered me as a female reader, though, was that most of the protagonists in spy thrillers were men. I desperately wanted to read about a female James Bond–type character, but there was nothing.

In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War officially ended – but my fascination with it did not. Nor did my quest for stories about female Cold War protagonists.

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During the 1990s, Stella Remington, who was then Director General of MI5, wrote a series of books featuring Liz Carlyle, who (unsurprisingly) worked for MI5. I devoured them, hoping against hope… But no. Close, but not quite: the books were set in the 1990s. “Too little, too late,” I thought.

Fast forward again to 2012 when, like many people in our middle years, I was becoming increasingly disillusioned with my job. One evening after I’d had a particularly horrendous day at work, my partner turned to me and said, “You spend hours reading thrillers. Why don’t you write one?”

Why indeed? I wondered, and the die was cast.

But where to start?

When I was at university I had written papers, of course, but I had never written anything fictional. So I Googled “writing classes in New Zealand,” and came across a correspondence writing course with the intriguing title “How to write a thriller in 10 weeks.”

I enrolled, and four days later a package arrived. Eagerly, I ripped it open, read through the contents and began my first assignment.

First, of course, I needed a protagonist. That part wasn’t actually all that difficult: during my years of searching in vain for a female Cold War spy/protagonist in other people’s books, I had been constructing “what if” scenarios in my head, imagining a female character I would have wanted to read about. She even had a name: MI6 agent Nikki Sinclair, the heroine I write about now. But writing a believable character proved to be more of a challenge: I had to give her a past, a life story, lay out the reasons for why she behaves the way she behaves and does the things she does.

Next, I needed a plot.

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Again, I had one handy: during the 1980s I had had a hair-raising adventure in Kinshasa – for real! – and I’d always suspected it would make a great story line for an espionage thriller: I was flying to Johannesburg and we were scheduled for a two-hour stopover in Kinshasa, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo but was then known as Zaire. On landing, we were told that the plane had developed mechanical problems and, as the parts had to be flown from Lisbon, it would take three days to fix.

All of us white passengers had to surrender our passports, and we were then bundled into a clapped-out bus manned by armed soldiers and told we were being taken to a hotel outside the city.

I tried to remain calm as I stared out the windows at the streets and the people – not an easy task. We passed an army camp, and the soldiers barked at us not to take photographs or we would be arrested – believe me, photography was about the last thing on my mind!

Eventually we arrived at a run-down hotel in the middle of the rain forest. The soldiers jumped down first and ordered us all off the bus. Among other instructions, we were given explicit orders not to leave the hotel grounds. Someone asked to use the telephone, and we were told that all the communications had broken down and would be fixed in a few days – long after we were scheduled to depart again, of course.

We all settled in as best we could, and then descended en masse for dinner. The dining room at the hotel and the uneasy small talk we made among ourselves are what I remember most vividly about that first evening; the forced camaraderie and simultaneous anonymity of hotel dining rooms are a feature in many of my books.
And if you’ve read my book 'The Hell of Osirak (Betrayal)', my description of the route my characters take through the streets of Kinshasa is actually the route our bus took on that night in the 1980s.

Back to my assignment: to add to the visuals of the Kinshasa plot, I recalled reading in a newspaper about the shipment of yellowcake uranium from South Africa to Israel. Once again I started Googling information about it, and came across the back-story of Israel’s bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor called “Osirak” in 1981 during Operation Opera (a.k.a. Operation Babylon). Although there is not much verifiable information on the build-up to the actual bombing, it didn’t matter: I had found my story.

It took me about a year to write it, then to rewrite it and rewrite again – this is a fact of life for most authors. And like many of us who are just starting out, I worked full time during the days, and wrote at weekends, during the evenings, and in any and all down-time I had. Towards the end, I started to get restless, which is usually a good sign: I just wanted to finish the thing and get it published!

When I could see light at the end of the tunnel, I employed an editor to clean it up and a graphic designer to create a cover. When the text was finally ready, I had it formatted and then, heart in mouth, I self published it.

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Did I sell thousands of books? Of course not – few authors churn out a best-seller on the first try. But considering that I was a “newbie” who hadn’t had a clue about marketing, design, or the importance of a good book description, 'The Hell of Osirakactually had good reviews and some very positive feedback.

By now I had caught the writing bug in earnest. During my research for Osirak, I had stumbled across the so-called “Umbrella Murder” of Bulgarian dissident writer Georgi Markov in London in 1978. The details were gruesome, of course, but also fiendishly clever, and I had another one of those “what if…” moments: what if my heroine Nikki Sinclair were to be tasked with investigating a similar murder? What if there was not one victim but two – say, two Soviet defectors? And what if they were working away in a secret facility right under the noses of their British hosts?

And thus the plot for 'Murder by Umbrella' was hatched.

I had actually intended for it to be a stand-alone book, but as I wrote it, more ideas popped into my head for yet another book (did I mention that writing bug??), so I decided rather ambitiously to write a quartet.

As part of my own career development, in July of this year I attended Thrillerfest in New York City – it was my first trip abroad in ages, and although (thankfully!) there were no gun-toting soldiers on rattle-trap buses or isolated hotels, I did come away with some excellent ideas, and some solid advice: Write, write, and write some more. Write a quality book that has a good story and is edited well, and then repeat and repeat again.

Easier said than done, of course, but I am most definitely up to the task. Stay tuned!


London-born author Jaye Rothman is a seasoned explorer, having travelled all over Europe, as well as to the United States, Australia, and Africa. She has also lived on a kibbutz in Israel.

A long-time lover of Cold War espionage stories, Jaye brings her own brand of unique wit and sense of romance to other fans of this genre. Her first book, The Hell of Osirak, features British agent Nikki Sinclair, a tough and uncompromising hero for all lovers of exciting spy drama.

Jaye currently lives in Auckland, NZ with her dog Izzy, who is a large and loyal English bull terrier-lab-pointer mix, whose soft white fur is adorned with coffee-coloured splashes.

When Jaye is not penning fast-paced, action-packed Spy Thrillers she can be found here:

                  (Many of her boards relate to her books.)

Thank you, Jaye. Reading the above was like deja vĂ¹ all over again (to quote Yogi Berra). My own trajectory is so similar to yours in so many respects, it was spooky.  I strongly recommend 'Murder by Umbrella' to lovers of great spy fiction - I read it last year and it was outstanding!

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