Chaos and Tumult as Fuel for Fiction
By Tom BradbySeptember 19, 2022
Ten novels—and more than a few screenplays—into my writing career, an interview question rather took me by surprise the other day. What prompts you, I was asked, to open your computer and start writing a new story? Is it the characters, the setting, the politics, the moment in time?
And I thought; hell, yes, what is it? I mean, precisely? What is the process? Sometimes, you are so used to something happening in a (mostly) seamless way that you assume it is obvious to others, when perhaps it isn’t.
It is partly about the characters. This must be true of every writer. They come into my head from nowhere, albeit with themes I certainly get drawn back to. My latest novel, Yesterday’s Spy, involves a father desperately seeking redemption in his fractured relationship with his son. But a previous book, The White Russian, revolved around an eldest son’s alienation from his father and indeed the rest of his family as a result of a devastating childhood tragedy in which he was blamed for the death of his younger brother.
But, on reflection, if I had to pick out a consistent theme, it would be that I seem consistently drawn to tumultuous times and ideas. This may be no surprise, given that I have worked as a journalist for the major UK commercial broadcast news service for thirty-two years, often at the sharp end. I began my career in Belfast in the midst of ‘The Troubles’ in the early nineties and moved on to become a foreign correspondent in Asia before being shot and seriously wounded on a particularly violent night of rioting and anarchy in Jakarta.
For most of the last five years, I have been writing a trilogy of novels (Secret Service, Double Agent, Triple Cross), which have obviously drawn inspiration from the mad politics of the modern era. The catchline has been simple; imagine if you were the MI6 officer with the nuclear weapons grade intelligence that the man who is about to become the UK’s Prime Minister could be a Russian spy. It was an idea born of a long-standing preoccupation that our old adversaries in Moscow were far more advanced in their attempts to undermine Western democracies than most people knew.
Cold wars can become an addiction, particularly for writers drawn to their nuanced shades of grey. So for my new novel, I wanted to switch from the new Cold War back to the old. I returned to 1953 and Tehran, a city in the crosshairs of the first Cold War, where the CIA and MI6 plot a coup to remove a democratically elected leader in order to make sure a successor is more in line with Western policy (particularly over oil). It turned out to be one of the great examples of the law of unintended consequences, with Iran careering first into dictatorship and then the theocratic and hostile state we see today.
The shift from present to past obviously has challenges. When I am telling a story of today’s Westminster, I am describing things I see every day and people the like of which I talk to all the time—and have throughout my career. For Tehran in 1953 and the novel’s protagonist, Harry Tower—an ageing, cynical, world-weary spy down on his luck and with much too much to regret—I have had to do a research deep dive and a thoroughly enjoyable mental leap back in time to try to give the novel a similar sense of authenticity. In this, every resource from memoirs to old maps can be a friend and the extra challenge certainly brings its own satisfaction. If you want your novels to be the greatest possible escapism for readers, it helps if the journey is such for you, too.
I found, though, that if the epoch and setting has changed, the ideas remain timeless.
I can’t be alone in finding the increasing violence of people’s opinions in our culture now consistently alienating. And this seems to find its way into the world-weariness in Harry Tower’s voice in Yesterday’s Spy. In the most important conversation with his son’s girlfriend (as they both search for Sean, a foreign correspondent missing in the chaos), Harry suggests that political ideology is really a form of tribal identity that acts as a barrier to human connection. But aren’t ideals what give us our humanity, she asks, in a debate that helps define the novel. Whether in the past or present, I am still trying to work out the answer to that one.
About Yesterday’s Spy by Tom Bradby:
London, 1953. Harry Towers is a recently retired, and even more recently widowed, British intelligence officer. After a night spent drinking away his sorrows, he is awakened by a phone call with chilling news. His estranged son Sean has gone missing in Tehran after writing a damning article about the involvement of government officials in the opium trade. Harry springs to action, eager to reunite with his son and atone for past wrongs.
When he arrives in Tehran, a city roiling with political dissatisfaction and on the brink of a historic coup, Harry joins forces with Sean’s Iranian girlfriend Shahnaz—seemingly the only other person interested in finding the disappeared journalist. Harry’s career as a spy soon proves perfect training for this much more personal mission as American, British, Iranian, and French players flit in and out of the scene. But as the first attempt at a coup in the city fails and foreign powers jockey for oil, money, and influence, Sean’s disappearance takes on a more sinister tone. Was he really taken in retribution for his reporting, or is this an attempt to silence a globally significant revelation he was preparing to make?
Or, most terrifying of all, does Sean’s disappearance have nothing to do with him at all? Has Harry’s past caught up to them all?