Monday, March 27, 2023

Q&A with Gary Born




Gary Born is the author of the new novel The File. An expert in international law, he is based in London.


Q: What inspired you to write The File, and how did you create your character Sara West?


A: I love spy thrillers – stories about secret agents and hidden agendas. I always have. And my travels and work took me to many places, and introduced me to many people, both of which made me think I could write a spy thriller too. That I could use pieces of places and of people to tell my own spy story.


My work – as an international lawyer handling cross-border disputes – also involved complicated stories that I had to write about, but confined by the facts and the law. A spy thriller gave me the chance to tell another kind of story, but this one was unconstrained by an evidentiary record or legal procedures. And so, almost since graduating from law school, I have wanted to write a thriller. 


It took a very long time to get from a two-page concept, which I started literally decades ago, to a more detailed, chapter by chapter outline. But, once I did that – figured out who the characters would be and what the chapter-by-chapter story was – things started to move along.


Sara grew with the book. I always had the idea – from when I started my two-page concept paper – that the lead character would be a woman.


I had that idea when I hiked in the Rwenzori Mountains (the so-called Mountains of the Moon) in Western Uganda and Congo, imagining what it would be like to be lost there, and to discover something in the forest that others would want, and would want to chase you to get. Sara grew out of those thoughts, and, somewhere along the way, developed her own personality and will.


I am sure it sounds odd or contrived, but in a funny way, Sara really wrote herself. At points throughout the process of writing the novel, Sara would rebel against something I had envisaged – insisting, honestly insisting, that she do something one way or refusing to do something else.


And so, although Sara involved pieces of many people I have known, including close family members, she ended up being very much her own person.


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


A: I did need to do lots of research. I have hiked the Rwenzoris, where the first 15 or so chapters of the book are set.


I needed to recall the impossibly difficult and steep terrain; the (almost) impassable trails straight up the sides of mountainsides, which only local hunters used; the impenetrable jungle that surrounded you on every side; the sounds and smells of the rainforest in the night. And I went back to those kinds of jungles to check my memories and to track down details.


I also had to research Nazi aircraft, troops, and airfields in the final weeks of WWII, as well as efforts by highly-placed Nazi leaders at the same time to stash money abroad, especially in Switzerland. And I needed to research the infinitely interesting topic of secret Swiss bank accounts, making visits to Swiss private banks in Zurich and elsewhere, to make sure that I got this bit of the story right.


Q: Without giving anything away, did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I absolutely did not know how it would end. And I debated how the book should conclude – what would happen to each of the characters – at length. I changed the ending a couple times, and came very close to going with a different conclusion. Some of my early readers also lobbied hard for particular variations.


But, in the end, Sara’s character answered the quandary. Not by suggesting or insisting on an ending, but because, by force and strength of her character, she defined what would happen to others and how.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: Many things. First, excitement and enjoyment of life. Sara (and Jeb) face extraordinary odds and impossible tasks. But they never lose their love for life and, later, each other – nor their senses of humor. If Sara can make it through the jungle, and the Sahara, despite 40 or so mercenaries on her trail, and do so with a smile, then we can too.


Second, courage and honesty. Sara says at one point that what she wants is justice and truth. Maybe that has a bit of the lawyer in it, from me, but I also think it’s something worth fighting for and something I hope readers take away.


Finally, I hope readers take away the complexity of the relationship between Sara and Jeb (and also the oddly parallel, but different, relationship between Petronov and Yan Wu).


Sara and Jeb don’t trust each other at first (they meet when she tries to kill him, after he is sent to kill her) or later (as they are forced to flee together from the teams of hit men chasing them, but with each one thinking that the other is after something else). That mistrust ultimately changes (no spoilers…), but their relationship and its evolution is one of the things I hope readers appreciate most.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am working on a couple things. Less interesting, maybe, is another book on international law. More interesting, I think, is another thriller, titled The Priest – it’s about a gang member who becomes a priest and then, unexpectedly, is entrusted with exceptionally important information (in documents, photos and videos) – which hostile governments don’t want him to have.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I think readers will love Sara as much as I do. I hope they can also see themselves in parts of her. In many ways, she seems like an ordinary young woman, not that different from all of us. But she has extraordinary capabilities too, even if she hadn’t realized it – just like most of us do, if we push ourselves the way Sara is forced to push herself. Her courage, creativity, honesty, and dignity are things I hope everyone takes away.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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