Interview: Geoffrey Seed Author of Death In A Time Of Conspiracy
Geoffrey, your novel intriguingly blurs the line between fiction and reality. What inspired the story behind "Death in a Time of Conspiracy"?
I write fact-based fiction. References to events, places etc must be accurate to make a story believable in the reader’s mind. This adherence to accuracy comes from my TV current affairs background and a fear of getting things wrong. “Death in a Time of Conspiracy” is really several stories woven into a fictionalised whole but all based on the experiences of people I’ve known or those I’ve had myself.
You mention that "not everything a TV journalist learns makes it to the screen." Can you give us a glimpse into some of the untold stories that influenced this novel?
Its main character, “Robbo”, draws on my friendship with an undercover agent who’d operated against various drug cartels in Latin America. Had his life and times been put on screen, he’d have been murdered. Guys like him do not lack for enemies. The only way to tell part of his story was to fictionalise it in a book.
Your background in investigative journalism seems to play a significant role in the depth and authenticity of your narrative. How has your career informed your approach to fiction writing?
My career producing investigative programmes in bumpy places like Northern Ireland, apartheid southern Africa, Colombia, the Balkans etc, and meeting people caught up on all sides of those conflicts, is entirely responsible for the authenticity of “Death in a Time of Conspiracy" and the depth of the characters within. They are modelled on real people, sometimes cast in impossible moral situations, and prey to all the weaknesses of the human condition. That’s what makes them fascinating.
How do you strike a balance between drawing from real events and crafting a compelling, fictional narrative? Are there times when the two come into conflict?
Given my personal knowledge of events that are the backdrop to the book’s linked stories, I know how far I can - and cannot - stretch the narrative. I also rely on contacts to tell me if a spin I want to put on an element in the story could have happened or not.
The settings in your novel are vast, spanning multiple continents. What research did you conduct to capture the essence of these diverse places?
I’ve worked in the places described, not always in hospitable circumstances. Therefore, my impressions and memories remain in sharp focus aided, of course, by my notebooks from those times.
The characters in your book are described as being "flawed by ambition, greed, and jealousy." How do you delve into the complexities of these emotions to make them relatable to readers?
Doing my sort of TV work sometimes comes with an access all areas pass. Everyone wants their side of the story out there be they politicians, criminals, terrorists, the cops and spooks who would catch them, those who take risks and those who don't. All such people are in extremis. They talk, the reporter listens. And once you’ve dyed your hair grey, it isn’t hard to work out the motives of others. And thus with their frailties, they come alive on the page and the reader gets the picture.
In "Death in a Time of Conspiracy", the lines between good and bad are blurred. Why did you choose to challenge the standard 'good versus bad' narrative? And What challenges did you face while writing a thriller that is "far more nuanced" as opposed to the traditional fast-paced action stories we often see?
Most of the characters in “Death in a Time of Conspiracy” - like their real-life templates - are not entirely good or entirely wicked. I say “most” because I can find no mitigation for those who run murderous drug cartels. But for the rest, they are compromised by ambition and politics, small ‘p’. This makes them credible, human like the rest of us. Life and people as I have observed both are infinitely complex and I wanted to represent this as fully as possible. I simply couldn’t - wouldn’t - write a car-chase-bang-bang-you’re-dead thriller. That’s not been how it works…not for me, anyway.
How do you feel your experiences being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and being investigated under the Official Secrets Act influenced the tension and stakes in your narrative?
Being investigated by Special Branch and MI5 under the Official Secrets Act, and being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, allowed me to witness the State exercising power for its own ends - in my case, anyway. I was doing my job. The State didn’t like it and moved against me. In so doing, I met its operatives who were doing THEIR job. It was possible to get a sense of them as people with strengths and weaknesses, not just as instruments of the State. These brushes with the security services plus others gained making challenging programmes about the State’s covert - and illegal - actions in Northern Ireland, gave me rare and telling insights when writing the related section in “Death in a Time of Conspiracy”.
With your in-depth knowledge of investigative operations and the political backdrop, how did you decide what to include in the novel and what to omit for the sake of storytelling?
All stories benefit by being cut then cut again. If it doesn’t push the tale along, get rid of it. These are simple editorial decisions and shouldn’t be the cause of any sleeplessness.
The novel begins with a haunting line about Ginny Hill. What was the inspiration behind her character and the central event that sets the story in motion?
I once lived near Lake Vyrnwy in Wales where Ginny Hill’s helicopter crashes. Fiction is all about ‘what if?’ What if a helicopter plunged into the lake? What if it was an Army chopper? What if it was carrying a passenger someone wanted dead? And so on, and so on. It all starts with a simple thought.
How did you approach weaving the interlinked lives of the five secret characters? Was there a particular message or theme you wanted to convey through their interconnectedness?
If there is a theme in “Death in a Time of Conspiracy” it is how people and events can be connected, knowingly or otherwise. The Fates at their malevolent worst move us around the board, put us where the baddies have left a bomb, and watch what happens next. We think we are in control but that just ain’t true.
You've described the conclusion as having a "wickedly unexpected twist." Without giving anything away, can you share what you hope readers will take away from the ending?
That sometimes, nothing is what it seems but never, never expect to get the whole story about anything. Just accept that, be content in your comparative ignorance. Only madness awaits those who think otherwise.
Your career has allowed you to interact with a myriad of personalities, from undercover agents to political figures. How have these interactions shaped your perspective on the concept of 'truth' in storytelling?
We are all the sum of our experiences and my truth isn’t necessarily the other guy’s. But mine will, as far as I can establish it in fiction, be supported by evidence gained during my life on the road or by interviews with those possessing direct knowledge of whatever it is I want to write about.
Finally, as a seasoned author and investigative journalist, what advice would you give to aspiring writers who wish to pen stories that are rooted in real events yet captivatingly fictional?
Don’t faff around. Get on and do it.