Interview: Tony Auffret Author Of Unsavoury Business
Your background in the biopreservation industry seems fascinating. Can you explain how real-life experiences from that world influenced the storyline of your novel?
Although my work in biopreservation gave me a general awareness of just how difficult it is to preserve biological material and maintain its viability, it wasn’t the science that triggered writing ‘The Death of a Smoker’. Many events described in that first novel, the small biotech company run by an ex-spy, importing a potential germ warfare agent from an unfriendly power, the visiting Russian scientist, the foiled burglary, the factory inspector visit, the Rules and Regulations for the Prevention of the Proliferation of Chemical and Biological Warfare all happened. As they say, ‘You could not make it up’ though, thankfully, the death of the ‘Smoker’ is entirely fictional. When I discovered our faxes were delayed by about seven minutes between transmission and receipt, it seemed plausible that we had come under some form of scrutiny and I thought this has the makings of a good tale. It just took me twenty years to get around to writing it.
How has the character of MI5 agent Harry Nevile evolved since we last saw him in "The Death of a Smoker"?
‘Unsavoury Business’ does see Harry being involved more directly in the investigation, visiting DCM diagnostics, the Natural History Museum and the island of Aegina for example, but, at heart, he is a bit of a rock, unchanging and dependable. Whereas other characters in the Tufton Street team are developed, Harry remains the same man. Quiet, steady, thorough and keen to support and involve his team actively, and to ensure that they get their due credit.
Sequels can be challenging. What considerations did you take into account to ensure the continuation felt both fresh and familiar to your readers?
When writing ‘The Death of a Smoker’ there were a few incidents and actions that were included but never followed up. Originally, they were ideas that could have been developed to become part of the plot, but were not. I left them in there, because, in real life, everything is not tidied up, there are always elements that are unexplained, avenues that are not closed, incidents that ‘just happened’. Some of them provided hooks which were developed in ‘Unsavoury Business’. In many ways ‘Unsavoury Business’ was born from a remark Harry makes on page four of ‘The Death of a Smoker’. Although this sequel may be regarded as ‘same team, different problem’ I developed some of the characters who were background figures in ‘The Death of a Smoker’, for example Ben and Veronica. I also shifted the emphasis on the ‘bad guy’. Although Quinton remained, so to speak, the villain, most of the dirty work was undertaken by disgraced detective Rod Graham.
The bioweapon plot targeting the government is a bold choice. What research or background work did you do to make this plotline credible?
The original idea was to have a weapon that did not need a sophisticated laboratory to produce, and which could be delivered by a simple device. Rodent borne diseases seemed an obvious choice, as rats and mice are easy to keep in small cages in sheds and outhouses. The need for a simple means of delivery narrowed the field to infection by inhalation. I was also looking for a virus or bacterium that was not particularly effective. Partly because it would be readily discounted by experts in the government, and partly to explore the idea that the objective of terrorism is not to kill, but to induce terror. Killing is a very effective strategy but it isn’t the only way to achieve that goal. It did not take that much internet searching to come up with a suitable potential, but simple weapon. As for a target, well, if you want to paralyse a country with fear, who better to attack than the government? The incident, in 2004, when flour bombs were thrown into the chamber of the House of Commons showed that this was a real possibility.
In terms of credibility, it is a moot point if such a weapon would be effective, but, thankfully. entertainment is driven by imagination rather than objectivity.
Many would see botany, chemistry, and molecular biology as far removed from the world of spy novels. How did your scientific background influence your writing style or the content of your novels?
When I started secondary school, classical grammar was mandatory, but was dropped from the syllabus a few years before O-levels. In some ways I knew the information but was poor at putting it into practice. Writing technical reports, and papers for scientific journals, with the need for clarity had a greater effect on my style. The person who really made me think about how I was writing was a work colleague, and friend, who had written several text books after learning English as a second language.
As discussed above, my professional life had a very direct influence on aspects of ‘The Death of a Smoker’. As a sequel, ‘Unsavoury Business’ needed the same characters but a different storyline. I felt much more comfortable basing this on the bioweapons theme, albeit a different threat, rather than venturing into less familiar territory.
You mentioned allowing the suspected villain to escape in the first novel. Was it always the plan to pick up this storyline in the sequel, or did it evolve over time?
It had never been the plan to let him escape in the first novel, but an ending that I found satisfactory proved to be elusive. As soon as I had completed the manuscript for ‘The Death of a Smoker’ I knew there had to be a second novel.
Writing a follow-up to a much-applauded book must come with its challenges. What were some of the hurdles you faced while writing "Unsavoury Business"?
‘The Death of a Smoker’ took a long time to be accepted for publication and ‘Unsavoury Business’ was completed before I secured my first contract. Consequently, there were no issues regarding meeting ‘customer expectation’, at least not in the writing. Even so, the challenge was using the same characters in a plot that was different enough to engage the reader’s interest, stood as a storyline on its own merits but still allowed that thread of continuity with unresolved issues.
What draws you to the world of spy novels? Are there any real-life or fictional spies that inspire you?
I have always enjoyed the espionage genre, for example John Le Carré, Mick Herron, John Lawton and Edward Wilson. More directly, having secured a job after a lengthy period of unemployment, I was flying to the US with my new boss, who later became my best friend. As we came in to land, he leaned over and advised me that there was a slight chance he could be detained on arrival. When I asked why, he said he had lied on his landing card declaration. Pointing to the card he added ‘This question here, “Have you ever been involved in espionage?” Well, I put no, and it isn’t true.’
Are there elements or traits of your own personality that you see reflected in your characters, especially Harry Nevile?
When I look at one of my characters, I often see a coat hanger on which I have draped various characteristics from people I have known over the years, including myself. Harry Nevile certainly shares his background and early career with me. Although I would like to think we share the same logical rigour and concern for those working for us, Harry is what I aspired to, rather than what I achieved. It has occurred to me that Harry could start writing spy novels when he retires.
The title "Unsavoury Business" hints at the many morally ambiguous situations in the book. How do you approach writing about topics that might be considered 'unsavoury'?
I realised that there is a moral ambiguity in ‘The Death of a Smoker’, though it arose simply as a consequence of the way the story unfolded. If the greater good is served, does it matter if the guilty are not caught? Although ‘Unsavoury Business’ was not the initial title of the sequel, I had thought about exploring the concept at different levels. The simplest is the unambiguously criminal activities of Quinton and Rod Graham. The management team at DCM Diagnostics Ltd played a part in this but they could be regarded as victims rather than perpetrators, yet their own conduct was hardly innocent or honest. No action was taken against them, but did it matter as the Security Service was pursuing a greater evil? A more serious issue was the death of Graham; was it an accident or was it written off as an accident by collusion? Who cares if a villain gets what he deserves? The same can’t be said about the meeting with Quinton in the Blue Café. Was that the ‘good guys’ resorting to coercion, simply to get the result they wanted?
Do you have any specific routines or rituals that you adhere to when writing? Any quirks that help you get into the zone?
I did get into a routine of writing at the same time every morning, in the same place, the breakfast bar in my kitchen. So much so that I doubt I could write elsewhere now. It was not, however, done by design, it just fitted, rather conveniently, with my other activities.
How has early feedback on "Unsavoury Business" compared to your experiences with "The Death of a Smoker"?
Direct feedback suggests that most readers prefer ‘Unsavoury Business’ and cite better character development and a plot that flows more easily. Overall, however, one aspect of the feedback, the reviews, has been disappointing – not in their content or ratings, which are good, but there are simply less of them. I think there is a frisson of excitement about a first novel that you can never quite recreate with subsequent publications. I suspect that applies to reviewers as much as writers.
Can fans expect more adventures from Harry Nevile in the future? Are there other projects you're currently working on?
I hadn’t really planned any more Harry Nevile novels, just yet, but one of the most pleasing aspects of the feedback about ‘Unsavoury Business’ is the number of people who have asked me when the third part will be published. I have two other projects, both half finished novels about a detective in Cambridge. One explores the issues raised when a respected pillar of the scientific community, and a Knight of the Realm, starts to look like a cold blooded murderer. I am struggling with both, and Harry Nevile ‘No.3’ does have a certain attraction. A prologue and most of chapter one have been written!
Considering your unique journey from science to fiction, what advice would you give to budding writers looking to pen their first novel?
Whenever this question is asked, whoever answers it, the advice is always the same. Just do it. Your book, your story, your way. You will learn as you go along, be prepared to make changes, your first draft will not be the last.
The journey from a one-parent family on a northern council estate to a successful scientist and novelist is truly inspiring. How have your personal experiences shaped your narratives, and what message do you hope readers take away from your journey?
‘Inspiring’ is not a word I would have chosen to describe my life story. I was lucky enough to go to University, at a time when most people did not, and I was fortunate enough to stay and eventually begin a career in academic research. Such posts, however, were all short, fixed term, two to three year appointments, so there was always a random element in what came next. Permanent posts in Universities were scarce in the 1980s, necessitating a move into industry. Having done that, then my career was shaped more by serial redundancies than any kind of a plan, and I ended up running my own consultancy business. Perhaps, I had grown accustomed to change, so turning to writing didn’t seem that unusual. I once confided to a good friend (and former spy) that I probably never had succeeded in achieving what I had set out to do. He was wiser than I and asked if I had enjoyed what I did. When I said yes, he told me to shut up and be thankful, I had more to be grateful for than many.