What gave you the idea for Outlaw?
Kidnapping and terrorism have always been good thriller material, with lots of potential for character development and plot twists. I knew I wanted to write a kidnapping story and the Sahara Desert provided a great setting – it is a raw, hostile environment, very much the Wild West of Africa.
There are two main characters in this book – one African, the other English. Can you tell us any more about them?
The Chameleon is an eighteen year-old Fulani cattle herder. He is a very low-tech hero who relies on cunning, quick-thinking, clever disguises and local knowledge. Jake on the other hand is an English teenager, obsessed with Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. He is totally out of his depth in the Sahara desert but even there he does find uses for his smart phone.
And he has one interesting physical skill, doesn't he?
Oh yes, he can run up walls! Wall-running is a parkour (freerunning) skill. This was a nod to my last book HACKING TIMBUKTU, which had lots of parkour action.
Tell me about Jake's sister.
Kas is a thirteen year-old emo and she was a beautiful character to write. Her emoness is more than just a fashion statement – it's a heartfelt response to the suffering she sees all around her. Kas is the one with the social conscience, the one who questions the gap between rich and poor – it's she who sees the beggar by the side of the road when the rest of her family walk on by. At one point Jake accuses her of being attention-seeking and melodramatic, but he couldn't be more wrong. If either of them is self-obsessed, it's him.
Why did you make Jake and Kas the children of a British ambassador?
There are a limited number of reasons someone might be living in a place like Burkina Faso. Aid-worker or missionary felt a bit too close to home. Archaelogist has been done to death. Ambassador felt right. The diplomatic setting meant that I could structure Outlaw as a 'voyage and return' story, with the embassy as the safe haven. I wanted to create that feeling of being in a hostile environment and trying desperately to get back to the safe place. This choice also provided some interesting plot devices. Embassy premises are a little slice of home in a foreign country, and there are strict international rules to protect them. But what if a wanted terrorist were to enter an embassy compound and be granted diplomatic refuge? What kind of tensions would that produce with the local police? What kind of showdown might it lead to?
You've described Outlaw as 'a thriller with a social conscience'.
Yes. Both Kas and the Chameleon are deeply aware of the injustice and corruption all around them. Kas's tendency is to respond with helpless anger and withering sarcasm, but the Chameleon demonstrates a different response – he and his gang go about righting wrongs, outing villains and fighting injustice. The Chameleon loves nothing more than to rob from the rich and give to the poor. He is swashbuckling, optimistic and endearingly naïve, and all the authorities despise him!
He sounds like an African Robin Hood.
Exactly. The comparison is never explicit, but it was definitely in my mind. Outlaw has a very distinct Robin Hood flavour: the feasting and friendship, the simple camp well-hidden in the bush, the low-tech weapons training, the use of disguise to infiltrate the enemy, the hosting of 'villains' at the camp (with a view to teaching them a lesson), the humour, and of course the anti-rich pro-poor politics. There is a Sheriff of Nottingham character, too, as it happens – a powerful individual hellbent on the Chameleon's destruction.
Apart from the Robin Hood legend, what else influenced you during the writing of Outlaw?
I wonder if any of your readers are old enough to remember the American TV series MacGyver? Angus MacGyver was a secret agent who regularly found himself in life-or-death situations – he usually got out of them by using his knowledge of physics, chemistry, technology and outdoorsmanship. There's quite a lot of this sort of 'modern survivalism' in Outlaw, including a scene where Jake charges his phone using AA batteries and butter! Incidentally, something else I liked about MacGyver was that he hated guns and didn't use one himself. In Outlaw, too, it's the bad guys who carry guns. The good guys ride horses and carry slingshots (catapults)!
Were you in Africa when you wrote Outlaw?
As it happens, no, I was back in England. We took a year out of Africa in 2009/10 because my wife was expecting our first child. I wrote the book in Chichester public library – sitting at a desk on the second floor by a huge window overlooking the cathedral. I wrote from 9 to 5 every day with a half-hour sandwich break. It felt nice to have a normal life for a year and to be so completely inconspicuous. The kidnapping plotline felt very close to the bone, though, because I knew that my family and I would shortly be heading back to our home in the Sahel, an area of Africa where kidnapping for ransom is increasingly rife. Some scenes were deeply discomforting to write, especially the 'hostage video' chapter. No one wants to be that person in the orange jumpsuit.
What are you writing at the moment? Anything in the pipeline?
I'm in the process of writing a big action trilogy. The first book will be called Tracker. I can't say much more about it at this stage!
Huge thanks to Stephen for taking the time to answer these questions. Outlaw was released last week and is well worth giving to adventure loving boys of 10/11+.