Monday, January 16, 2023

Q&A with Conrad Delacroix




Conrad Delacroix is the author of the novel The Lensky Connection. He has worked in the field of financial services risk management.


Q: What inspired you to write The Lensky Connection, and how did you create your character Valeri Grozky?


A: I have always appreciated a good read and somehow that morphed into me deciding that I owed those authors whose books I had enjoyed reading to throw my own hat into the ring.


I had this idea about setting a story in the chaos of post-Soviet Russia and I was lucky enough to come across a nonfiction book, Violent Entrepreneurs (Vadim Volkov), which covered the breakdown of Russian society and the rise of the gangs and I saw how my story could come together.   


The brush strokes for my protagonist, Major Valeri Grozky, were mainly influenced by two literary characters; Arkady Renko (from Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith) and Socrates Fortlow (from Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley).


Grozky is more conservative and conventional than Renko, and he’s not a criminal (like Fortlow), but he lives by a code which is tested in a similar way to Fortlow, who decides he will keep himself in check when he leaves prison.


Grozky’s father is an ex-soldier from Georgia.  Soviet officials referred to the countries south of the Caucasus mountains, like Georgia, as the “small countries.” Although duty runs strongly in his family, Grozky knows he’s an outsider in White Russia. 


I was lucky enough to come across Inside the KGB: An Expose by an Officer of the Third Directorate by Aleksei Myagkov, which confirmed the KGB didn’t even trust its own operatives. It’s those little validations which helped colour his frame of mind. That, and you couldn’t live in Russia after the fall of communism and not wonder about what had just happened to the world you had known. 


Q: Did you need to do much research to write the book, and if so, what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: A long time ago an editor told me the three key attributes a good story must have: “To be credible, authentic and accessible.” I did a lot of research to validate the historic events and the local geography.  I’ve been lucky enough to have flown into Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport to know that area.  

What surprised me was how real-life events which I had been unaware of began to complement a fictitious story. Part of the backdrop is the end of the Afghanistan War (1989) and we fast forward to Spring 1996 when the First Chechen War had been going for 12+ months. I discovered that many of the Afghan Mujahideen went to Chechnya to fight against the Russians under the black flag of the “Arab Mujahideen in Chechnya.”  


Q: How would you compare the Russia you write about to today's Russia?


A: Since the breakup of the USSR in December 1991 (when Yeltsin became president of the Russian Federation) and then Putin took over in 2000, the economic reform has continued except the key shift has been how the role of the security services or the power ministries (“siloviki”), previously in decline, has been steadily restored at the expense of the Russian population.

It was the attempted coup led by the KGB in August 1991 which led to its dissolution in October 1991 once Gorbachev realised it had become too powerful. In my novel, Valeri Grozky is struggling to readjust to his post-KGB life.


However, since Putin came to power, the role of the siloviki has been notably restored with key appointments given to ex-KGB and military personnel. This has formed a very powerful network of Putin loyalists who oversee and control Russia’s economic interests. Some commentators have pointed out that the “state within a state” (pre-1991) has become a “the state itself” (post-2000). 


Even the terminology has altered to reflect this: whereas there was a distinction between the siloviki and the oligarchs (connected entrepreneurs), some have collapsed this into the “silovarchs”: the Putin-appointed security staff who have enriched themselves.


The fall of communism and the hope that Russia could adopt a more capitalist model may have been realised but this has been usurped to become a deeply autocratic state (some refer to it as a neo-KGB state) whose leadership retains its historic enmity against the West.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I love this question because there are two ways I would answer; the “cool” way and the “this is what actually happened” way. I once saw an interview where David Bailey (the photographer) was asked a question at the end: “What’s the worst photo you’ve ever taken?” Bailey considers the question and says, “I don’t take bad pictures.” Cool answer.


So my “cool” answer is “Not really. It’s pretty much as I expected it would turn out.”


The reality is, although the events in the novel have remained as I envisaged them, two years after I started writing I saw that the story wasn’t working as well as I had hoped. Grozky was a minor character and then I realised he’s the sort of person who doesn’t back down from a challenge, would push the boundaries, and could bring a better perspective.


It turns out he was a much better protagonist than I would ever have given him credit for. It is still the same story I hoped I could tell, except how I have told it changed significantly.  


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a sequel, The Shadow Empire. If all goes well (fingers crossed), I’m hoping to get that one over the line in 2024.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I read a very good article on Nick Drnaso, the literary cartoonist, who said “There’s something therapeutic about problem solving, figuring out how a sequence is going to unfold and be structured.”


I am quite a graphic thinker (I did the flag motif for my front cover) and when I look back on the evolution of my first novel, the experience was akin to designing a massive jigsaw and then cutting it to size: What’s in the different parts of the picture keeps changing, the cut of each piece has to be rescored, and even then you often have to scatter the pieces again, like casting the runes, because the look and fit of the jigsaw still doesn’t feel right. 


I won’t say it was always therapeutic, but when it finally came together the blend of plot, people, and places was exactly what I had been trying to achieve.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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