Alexander McNabb has been working as a journalist, editor and magazine publisher in the Middle East for some 30 years. Today he consults on media, publishing and digital communications.
Alexander's first serious novel was the critically acclaimed Olives - A Violent Romance, a work exploring the attitudes, perceptions and conflicts of the Middle East, exposing a European sensibility to the multi-layered world of life on the borders of Palestine. Published in 2011, the book triggered widespread controversy, finding a receptive audience in the Middle East and beyond.
Olives was followed in 2012 by testosterone-soaked international spy thriller Beirut - An Explosive Thriller. His third Middle East-based novel, Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy, about a man dying of cancer unearthing a deadly past, published in 2013. Together, the three form the 'Levant Cycle'.
A Decent Bomber, set in Ireland, published in 2015. It tells the story of a retired IRA bomb-maker forced to resume his old trade, pitching 'old terror' against 'new terror' in a battle of wits between an Irish farmer with a violent past and Somali extortionists with a questionable future.
Alexander's latest, Birdkill, is a psychological thriller about a teacher who has lost her recent past to 'The Void', a terrible incident she can't recall, which nobody seems to be in a hurry to tell her about. Her friend Mariam embarks on a race to uncover the truth before Robyn is driven over the edge into insanity.
You can find Alexander and his books at www.alexandermcnabb.com.
Welcome Alexander, I would like to ask you the following questions.
Alexander: I did, too. I used to smoke for the British Olympic Team, 60 cigarettes a day and I gave up overnight. I had to find something publicly acceptable to do with my hands and find an outlet for my wildest cravings, so I wrote a book.
I’d been an editor, journalist and publisher before getting involved in PR and communications, so I’d written millions of words: speeches, magazine articles, op-eds, press releases, white papers and pretty much every sort of document you could think of. So I thought why not? I had no idea of how much I didn’t know about writing books and, to be honest, if I had known I might well not have had the courage to start.
But start I did and soon found myself enjoying myself thoroughly writing a spoof of international spy thrillers. You know the sort of thing, man finds shadowy cabal which is trying to rule the world and sets out to defeat them while seducing a very lovely girl and then getting her and saving the world just in time for tea. I wrote a book that sort of clamped jump leads onto the nipples of that genre and plugged them into the mains. It was tremendous fun to write, although I’m not so sure it’s quite as much fun to read. I thought it was enormously funny and still do, but have to note that one of its first Amazon reviews was ‘This book is not funny.’
Alexander: I sent that first book off to agents in London and sat back leafing through luxury yacht catalogues to see which one I’d buy with the advance on my royalties and was devastated to get back a photocopied slip saying ‘No’ from them. I was to get 100 more before I realized Space my first, intended to be funny, book wasn’t going to make me the billions.
One of the last agents wrote a note on their slip, ‘Look, humour doesn’t sell, dear boy’ and that made me decide to write a serious book, so I wrote Olives – A Violent Romance, a thriller about a young British journalist who goes to live and work in Jordan. A got a load more rejections for that, then a request for a ‘full read’ which is sort of like a major date.
I waited three months and they came back to me with ‘It’s a bit low-key’ and that put me into a blind fury. I mean, blackmail, terrorism, betrayal, bombs, dead people and smashed dreams are all ‘low key’? I stormed off in a rage and wrote Beirut – An Explosive Thriller which is a testosterone-soaked international spy thriller. That one landed me an agent, who shopped the book around London’s 14 top publishers. After seven months, they’d all said ‘No’ in various ways. I sent him Olives, to see if he could sell that and, three months later, he hadn’t bothered to read it. At that point, I jacked it in. If my own agent couldn’t be bothered to read my work, I’m done with conventional publishing. I took great personal pleasure in terminating our relationship.
I self-published Olives, printing 2,000 copies in Dubai and then putting it up for sale on Amazon, Apple et al. It attracted a lot of critical acclaim, then controversy and then sales and it sold out. Meantime, I went on to write Shemlan – A Deadly Tragedy, which was the third in what I call the ‘Levant Cycle’, a trilogy of sorts, they follow a roughly contiguous timeline and share many of the same characters.
Of the three, Shemlan is by far my favourite, it’s more nuanced and complex, but is still a thriller. I barely bothered with agents, just self-published it right after I’d self-published Beirut – An Explosive Thriller.
I was advised by someone in publishing who knows what they're talking about to 'get out of the Middle East', so I wrote a new thriller A Decent Bomber, set in Northern Ireland. It’s about an ex-IRA man who becomes a farmer, who’s yanked back out of retirement when a bunch of Somali crook-cum-terrorists blackmails him into making bombs for them.
A bestselling author pal asked me where my next book was to be set. 'Northern Ireland' I replied. He plunged his head into his hands and moaned, 'Dear boy, next to the Middle East, that's the worst place in the world to set a book, if you want to sell it to British agents and publishers. Set one in Tuscany. They holiday there and feel they understand it.'
Which, in its way, is both funny and profoundly depressing.
My newest book is psychological thriller Birdkill. It's set in the UK, which was by no means intentional. So much so that I went to some lengths in the book to disguise its actual location.
A Decent Bomber took a good two years to write. Having finished it, I found Birdkill was in my head and it wouldn't go away, a sort of brain eating maggot of a thing which wrapped me up in a mad, obsessive dash to bring the book to life. So that was written in about six weeks from start to finish. Which is all a bit mad, to be honest. And I do consider Birdkill to be my best work to date. It’s the book I’m most proud of, for a number of reasons. But I still like Shemlan, a lot.
Alexander: I'm so glad I did it in many ways, but I must caution anyone looking at the self publishing route that it can be both exhausting and distracting. I would still rather traditionally publish, but as long as conventional publishers reject my books as too unconventional, I have little choice but to go direct to the reader!
Alexander: Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet is a remarkable work that captures a certain Egypt of a certain period and renders it timeless in a gloriously sensual portrayal of a world we’ve lost. The quartet is a collection of four books that form an interlinear – they each tell the same story through a different narrator’s perspective. It’s a mesmerising journey. Michael Oondatje’sEnglish Patient. Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. The Honourable Schoolboy is my favourite Le Carré and TE Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom is a book I have long treasured.
I’ve just finished reading Ernl Bradford’s brilliant account of the Fourth Crusade. Stellar stuff, honestly! And now I’m onto Steve Coll’s stunning Directorate S, which is a history of the conflict in Afghanistan from 2001-16. His previous work on the CIA in Afghanistan, Ghost Wars won him a Pulitzer and Directorate S should get him another. It’s a fascinating, profoundly alarming book for anyone who questions how we’ve been prosecuting our glibly labelled ‘war on terror’.
Alexander: I don’t really have a process as such, but have learned the hard way that planning ahead is a good thing. I’ll generally have a book sketched out before I start writing. I wrote Olives in a month and took seven years editing and honing it, while other books have taken a more conventional 3-6 months. A Decent Bomber took a good two years but then I wrote Birdkill in six weeks as a massive sigh of relief.
A Decent Bomber was hard because it is set very close to home. I met a former IRA man as part of my research for the book and came away realizing I’d written a cartoon and had to pick myself up and redo things because he was so very, very scary and yet had a humanity and humour to him. I hope that comes through in Pat now, because it hadn’t before. That one meeting cost me a good six to eight months.
I used to use editors, but I now self-edit. It takes a while to get into the groove of editing, there are a whole load of ‘rules’ and things to look out for that signal sloppy writing or bad practice – and the trick is knowing when to rein things in and when to let them go. It’s really not about finding grammatical errors, I do have a proofreader who does that for me and she’s wonderful. She bullies commas and is horrid to full stops.
The last book I had professionally edited was Shemlan. My editor took about 20,000 words of backstory out of the MS to make the story ‘race along’ more. Five years later, I put them back in again. I liked my backstory and it was actually key to the book I wanted to write. I suppose at the core of it, I don’t like being told what to do.
Alexander: That all depends. Do you mean writer’s block as in ‘I can’t work out where the hell this scene is supposed to go now?’ or as in ‘That’s it. I don’t want to write another book. I’m fed up with the whole damn thing and there’s not a shred of an original idea in my tawdry, humdrum excuse for a mind.’?
The former’s a doddle. Cup of tea or take a few hours off – I usually take it to bed and dream the solution. The latter’s a bite of the Black Dog and takes longer to solve. If you have an elegant solution, do let me know.
Alexander: Tootling around the UAE looking up archaeological sites. There are a whole host of lost cities and hints of ancient peoples dotted around here and nobody seems to care quite enough to build things like visitor centres – outside the amazing visitor centre at Sharjah’s Mleiha, which I would recommend to anyone looking at a day trip outside the city. I’m very fond of finding a hotel somewhere nice and just going for a big, fat relax. Hatta’s brilliant for that.
Alexander: Tea. The drink that refreshes and does not intoxicate.
Alexander: Read. Write. Repeat.
Alexander: It’s an excellent idea. Anything that helps young people (or old people for all that) to write is a good thing. The Middle East, in particular, isn’t very good at telling its own stories. And if you don’t tell your story, someone else will do it for you – and you’ll be very unlikely to enjoy the result.