Sunday 20 December 2009

** Interview with Stephen Davies (author of Hacking Timbuktu)

A the beginning of December I wrote a review of Stephen Davies' Hacking Timbuktu, an exciting modern adventure story for boys, set in London and Africa. Shortly after I published the review I was really flattered to receive an email from Stephen praising my blog, and offering to do an interview by email. Needless  to say, I jumped at the chance!

How did you get the idea for Hacking Timbuktu?
Back in 2003 I watched a Channel 4 documentary called Jump London and I was instantly hooked by parkour: the cinematic and anarchic 'art of escape'! Throughout the decade, parkour featured a lot in films and advertising, and provided the inspiration for Hacking Timbuktu – I wanted to try and capture the dynamism and poetry of parkour within the action sequences of a thriller.

Your writing of the parkour scenes in Hacking Timbuktu must have involved a lot of time researching the sport. How did you go about this?

Most of my research was online. I watched hundreds of parkour clips on YouTube (my favourite was Extreme Tag), browsed dozens of parkour blogs (my favourite was Blane's Blog) and eavesdropped on the technical forums at Urban Freeflow.

And the hacking scenes?

A computer expert called Kybernetikos helped me with the hacking scenes. First I asked him how someone would go about hacking an airline computer system. He wrote back the following day with six possible methods! I chose the most exciting one, which involved our hero going to an airport, climbing into the ceiling beams and splicing an intranet cable to launch a devastating 'Man in the Middle' hack attack.

How have you used your own experiences and adventures in Africa in your writing?

'Write what you know' is reliable advice. I have lived in West Africa for the last eight years, and Hacking Timbuktu relies heavily on first-hand experience. The sheep on the roof of the bus, the mosquito-ridden youth hostel, the rasta tourist guide singing Premiership terrace chants, the women pounding onions on the Dogon cliffs – these settings and characters feel authentic because they are.

In my spy thriller The Yellowcake Conspiracy, the main character is a Fulani cattle herder called Haroun. He adores cows and his conversation is peppered with genuine Fulani proverbs. Nevertheless, I found it hard to get inside Haroun's head in a totally believable way. That is why I chose Westerners as the main characters of Hacking Timbuktu.

What do you see as being the other main influences on your writing?

When I write for boys I always bear in mind the best action films I have seen. I ruminate on the tension and trickery of heist films (Ocean's Eleven, The Italian Job), the urgency of chase films (The Fugitive, The Bourne Identity) and the gadgetry of spy films (Mission Impossible, Casino Royale).

Poetry is another big influence. In Hacking Timbuktu, the chase through the British Museum was inspired by Robert Minhinnick's wonderful poem The Fox in the National Museum of Wales. I believe the sound and rhythm of words plays an important part in action scenes.

Your Sophie and the Albino Camel books, whilst being full of action and adventure, are obviously written for a younger audience than Hacking Timbuktu. Which did you enjoy writing more?

The Sophie books are like cartoons – bold, joyful, fast-flowing and inane. Hacking Timbuktu and The Yellowcake Conspiracy have more depth and complexity. I honestly cannot say which I prefer. Whether the target audience is younger or older, the ingredients of a Good Writing Day are the same: dialogue that makes me laugh and action 'set pieces' that make my heart beat a little bit faster. I always write the most enjoyable bits first and then go back and fill in the gaps as briefly as possible. Sections that are fun to write are generally fun to read.

You have described Hacking Timbuktu as "a King Solomon's Mines for the twenty-first century". Is this a book that has influenced your storytelling?

King Solomon's Mines was a great African adventure story with intrepid explorers and lost gold. It was written in 1885 by Rider Haggard, as the result of a bet. His brother had bet him five shillings that he couldn't write a novel half as good as Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island! Pre-launch publicity declared King Solomon's Mines 'The Most Amazing Book Ever Written', but if you read it today you might disagree. The story seems slow if you compare it to modern adventures by the likes of Anthony Horowitz or Charlie Higson, and the way Haggard writes about African people does reflect the colonial attitudes of his time. So when I wrote Hacking Timbuktu I wanted to preserve the adventure quality of King Solomon's Mines but ramp up the pace and add a sprinkling of modern gadgets.

Are there any books or authors that you would recommend fans of your books to read?
If you like African thrillers, try The Door of No Return and Last of the Warrior Kings by Sarah Mussi. They are intelligently written and hugely exciting. The Devil's Breath by David Gilman is another rollicking read set in Africa. If you want the same genre in a different continent, read The Joshua Files by MG Harris.

What were your favourite books when you were younger?

When I was young I would read books over and over again. From the humour and cunning of Brer Rabbit, I progressed to Just William (by Richmal Crompton) and Molesworth (by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle – just look at these rave reviews on Amazon!). After that I started enjoying books by Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilbur Smith and John Buchan.

Can you recommend one book that you think every boy should read at some point?

The Bible. In my teens, this book gripped me like nothing else and completely transformed my life. This is Story with a capital S, endlessly inspiring and thought-provoking. It's got poetry, adventure, heroic self-sacrifice, the lot. If in doubt, don't start with Genesis, start with Mark.

Do you have any more plans for Danny and Omar in the future or any other writing projects in the pipeline?

Danny and Omar are fun characters to write, so I would love to do a sequel to Hacking Timbuktu. Before I do that, I must finish my current book: another thriller set in the Sahara Desert. It is about an outlaw who robs from the rich and gives to the poor – a sort of African Robin Hood.

Is there anything else you would like to say to your readers?

Now is a really good time to be a reader. Never before has there been such a wide choice of books for every age and taste. Read everything and anything. If you don't like a book, abandon it and try another. When you find an author you like, read everything they have ever written. Keep an eye on Book Zone 4 Boys and Achuka. If you are on Facebook, add the 'Visual Bookshelf' app to your profile, so that you can review the books you read and get recommendations from others. Use your local library. Read on buses and on park benches and in bed. And if all that reading inspires you to write something yourself, go for it!

Many thanks for taking the time to answer my questions Stephen, especially at this busy time of year. I want to reiterate what Stephen said about the Jump London parkour documentary (and its Jump Britain companion DVD) - if you are even remotely interested in parkour then these are incredible, must-see films. If you want to find out more about Stephen Davies, his books and his life in Africa then you should visit his Voice In The Desert website. Thanks again Stephen, and on behalf of all of my blog readers I wish you and your family a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.   


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