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Saturday 1 July 2017

Paul E Hardisty

Radmila May talks with Paul E. Hardisty

Canadian-born thriller writer Paul E. Hardisty has lived all over the world in his career as a professional scientist, hydrologist and engineer, and is now settled with his family in Perth, Australia, where until just recently he was Director of Australia’s national water, land and ecosystems research programmes, and he is an adjunct professor at Imperial College, London, and at the University of Western Australia.  In addition, he is a pilot, sailor, outdoorsman, and conservation volunteer. And in all this, he has found time to write in vivid, eloquent prose three long, fast-paced, action-packed, complex eco-thrillers, with a fourth one coming out soon. In all those the protagonist is South African Claymore Straker, very much the action man but whose experiences over many years, which take him on what might be called the classic ‘hero’s journey’, lead him to view the world very differently in his maturity to the way he viewed it when young. 

Radmila: Paul, it is a pleasure to talk with you. To begin at the beginning, you were born in Canada and brought up there?
Paul: I was brought up in Vancouver where my father was a lawyer and my mother was a teacher.  My father loved to travel so we holidayed in many countries and so I suppose I inherited this love of travel. I trained as a scientist but I always cared about the environment so I chose a career which gave me the opportunity to work in that field in many different countries of the world. But that has meant that I have witnessed a lot of bad things done to people and the environment, and this has had a big effect on me. Over thirty years I have seen, studied, sampled, interviewed and reported on environmental and social problems which were often rooted in the quest for profit of one kind or another. Often, violent and bloody conflict ensued.  But I felt that most of the reports I wrote for clients, for fellow-scientists, for students, for the public drawing attention to the harm done by exploitation of the environment were ultimately ineffective: I was writing just about facts, but facts do not necessarily represent truth: truth can only be understood through experience.  So I turned to writing fiction. This way readers can experience these issues through the characters. Much of what I write about is firmly based on fact and on thereality of what I have seen, or researched.

Radmila: Your first novel, The Abrupt Physics of Dying, is set in the Yemen. It received great critical acclaim and was short-listed for the Crime Writers Association John Creasey (First Blood) Dagger. What was the inspiration?
Paul: In the first Gulf War (1990-1991) Iraq under Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and was overwhelmingly defeated by an international force backed by the U.N. The Yemen had supported Iraq, so in revenge Saudi Arabia expelled a large number of young Yemeni men then working in Saudi (Yemen being a desperately poor country) which caused massive unemployment and consequent unrest. In 1991, I was working in Yemen as part of a U.N. mission reporting on water shortages and had fallen in love with the place and the people and its stark scenery. Not long after, I survived a bomb blast in a cafĂ© in Sana’a. The U.N. was deeply unpopular in Yemen and it is possible that I myself was a target. However, the plot of the book concerns Claymore’s gradual discovery that the Yemen’s sparse water supplies are being gradually poisoned and that this is not accidental.

Radmila: That is a shocking statement. Based on fact?
Paul: Yes.  I won’t give away the plot, of course, but it remains a fact that in poor countries riven by conflict, war, and corruption, concern for the environment and protection of the interests of the poor are almost non-existent. In arid countries (and Yemen is one of the driest on the planet), damage to vital water supplies can have immediate and horrible consequences. The key events described in The Abrupt Physics of Dying, are based on things that actually happened. Fictionalised of course, names and circumstances changed, but essentially, real.
Radmila:           And your second novel, The Evolution of Fear, is set in 1994, largely in Cyprus, and concerns exploitation of the environment and deliberate extermination of a rare species of turtle for the purpose of tourism development. Is this also based on your own personal experience and observations?
Paul:                  I lived in Cyprus for almost a decade, while working throughout the middle east. It was a great place to be based, and we loved living there. It really is a beautiful island. But like everywhere, it has its problems. First, it is a divided island, with a militarised border splitting the country in two, the Turks in the North, the Greek Cypriots in the South, since the Turkish invasion of 1974.  This colours everything that happens on the island, and the UN still has a force there separating the two sides.  Again, I don’t want to spoil the plot, but I can say that the drive for profit does not usually seek to damage anything specifically, rather it does not pay attention to its external consequences. Unless, that is, something stands in its way. The Evolution of Fear is more a parable for the plight of so many similar species around the world, whose ongoing existence is seen as a barrier to profit, progress and economic growth.

Radmila:           Your third novel, Reconciliation for the Dead, goes back into Claymore’s (very) young manhood when he is called up and finds himself serving in the South African army Angola conflict. The
conflict was very long-drawn out with periods of unbelievably vicious conflict between the two main factions in which South African forces backed one faction and Cuba the other and occasional episodes of stalemate and has been described as a proxy war between the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union. Claymore himself becomes increasingly troubled by the way he finds himself witnessing atrocities and even taking part. Interspersed between Claymore’s hair-raising experiences during the fighting is the testimony he is going to give many years later to the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Paul, you yourself lived in South Africa for some time. Was this before or after the time apartheid came to an end? What were you doing at the time? Tell me how living in South Africa shaped your writing?
Paul: I have spent a lot of time in Africa over the last 30 years. I was married in West Africa, and have worked and travelled across the continent extensively. The place has driven itself deep into my psyche, somehow, from Egypt to Ghana, to Namibia, Botswana and South Africa. The novel is set largely in the south – Angola, Mozambique, and Namibia, during the 1980’s.  I wasn’t there during that time, but I have friends who were. The people of Africa are amazing, resilient and long-suffering, and it is they that inspired me to write this book.

Radmila: Would you like to tell us if Claymore is based on a particular person? For instance, although Reconciliation is your third book I get the impression that Claymore’s life and experiences were planned by you from the outset with a view to depicting his growing awareness of his moral responsibility to bear witness. Is that so? And he seems also to have a growing religious awareness divided between some form of Christianity and Islam (the latter influenced by his lover Rania). How important is that in Claymore’s growing moral development? But at the same time nearly all the characters he encounters are duplicitous in one sense or another. Even his lover Rania and his friend ‘Crowbar’ have their own hidden agendas. Could one say that Claymore loses his innocence but finds his moral core and finds the absolution you say in an interview with the BBC World Service he is seeking?
Paul: I think that is an excellent way to put it. From when we first meet Clay in The Abrupt Physics of Dying, in 1994, he is man searching for that - absolution for the sins of his past, reconciliation with his demons, whatever you want to call it. He is a moral man, at the core, I think, but has lost part of himself during the war.
Reconciliation for the Dead, set in 1980, explains why this is so. His moral development as the series progresses is due in a big way to Rania, and in the fourth book of the series (and probably the last), her influence on him will continue to battle with the other big influence in his life, Crowbar, his ex-platoon commander in South Africa during the war, now turned mercenary. In a way they are two poles, fighting for control of his psyche and his moral centre. One represents life and hope and the future, the other all that is the antithesis of those.

Radmila: Your next novel will be the last in the Claymore series. Can you tell us about it? Will it be, like the others, based on your own personal experience?
Paul: The settings for the new novel are Zanzibar, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, places I know well. Again, the plot will be based on key issues that I have worked on during my career, but of course, as with the other books, I hope it is the story, the mystery, the twists and turns and fast paced action that will come through. It follows
immediately after Clay has finished testifying to Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation commission. It is 1997, and he is on the run from those he exposed with his testimony in
Reconciliation for the Dead (book 3). At the same time, Rania returns from work in Paris and finds that her husband and son have disappeared. Without knowing it, each is set on a journey that will eventually bring their worlds into collision, and change their lives in ways they could never foresee. Something like that, anyway. It is called The Debased and the Faithful, and is out in 2018.

Radmila: And after that?
Paul: I just signed a contract with Orenda Books for another standalone novel, This Turbulent Wake, (working title) which is set up as a series of short stories woven together. It is not “crime” per se, but rather more literary, with themes of love and loss and growing old.  Quite autobiographical, in a sense.  I am finished the first draft, and will start polishing over the next few months.

Radmila: Thank you for this illuminating interview. Good luck with your future writing.

Radmila May was born in the U.S. but has lived in the U.K. since she was seven apart from seven years in The Hague. She read law at university but did not go into practice. Instead she worked for many years for a firm of law publishers and still does occasional work for them including taking part in a substantial revision and updating of her late husband’s legal practitioners’ work on Criminal Evidence published late 2015. She has also contributed short stories with a distinctly criminal flavour to two of the Oxford Stories anthologies published by Oxpens Press – a third story is to be published shortly in another Oxford Stories anthology – and is now concentrating on her own writing.

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