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Written by Michael Jecks


I am really grateful today to have the chance to talk to Simon Conway about his life as a soldier, writer, munitions disposal expert, and author of probably the best thriller this year: THE SABOTEUR. – Mike Jecks.


MJ - Simon, before talking about your writing, could you give us a little background. What sort of education did you have? Where were you at school?

SC - I went to a boarding school called St George’s in Surrey that was run by a Catholic order called the Josephites. I wrote my religious studies thesis on the Vatican’s failure to speak out against the Holocaust, which didn’t endear me to them. Richard Moore, the current head of MI6, also went to St George’s.

MJ - That I hadn’t expected. I was born and raised in Surrey, and one of my favourite early clients was based in Weybridge. What did your parents do?

SC - My parents are both academics. My father worked and still works in International Development and my mother is an artist and an authority on South East Asian textiles. They met when he was working in Borneo in the sixties. He was living in a house right up against primary rainforest and when my mother moved in, she had to evict the gibbons that were living with him. From there they moved to California where my father did his PhD and I was born there. I’m a dual citizen, a UK and US National. They went on to live in Lebanon, Thailand and India. Some of my earliest clear memories are of Lebanon and Syria. I remember visiting Aleppo in in Syria 1975 and the call of the Muezzin the morning. That city is destroyed now. I haven’t been back but I got pretty close when I crossed into Syria in 2015. It was inevitable that I would end up an itinerant.

MJ - My father travelled a fair bit, and I still recall the sound of the Muezzin when we stayed in Mombasa for a while. I don’t miss the huge cockroaches, though. You never wanted to live in Surrey after school?

SC - Scotland was a long way from Surrey which suited me fine. I arrived in Edinburgh in 1985 and I have considered it home ever since. I have lived elsewhere including Cambodia, Georgia, Eritrea and the United States, but I always come back to Scotland. I’ve lived in the Highlands, the Islands the big cities and the borders. My wife is Scottish and both my daughters were born here, though they also have become global nomads and are currently barricaded in COVID-free New Zealand.


MJ - Your books are wonderfully authentic when you talk about the life of a soldier. When did you join the army?

SC - I was in the army from 1990 to 1994, a short but formative period. I was originally commissioned into the Black Watch but switched to the Queens’ Own Highlanders to go to Belfast. I wasn’t was easiest fit in the army but one thing that entertained me was the number of other soldiers I met who also had a problem with authority.

MJ - Were you involved in bomb disposal then?

SC - No, I was an infantry officer and not an Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician as you might expect. Like many of my colleagues, I did my land service ammunition and aircraft bombs disposal courses after I joined HALO. That was in in the late nineties and I was fortunate to be in a breakaway part of Georgia called Abkhazia that was littered with unexploded aircraft bombs for us to practice on. 

MJ - Hmm. As a writer who is very keen on avoiding any potential dangers or risks, the use of “fortunate” to go to a place littered with unexploded material doesn’t sound like the word I’d use!

SC - In the army, I enjoyed the adrenalin rush of commanding a platoon of Scottish soldiers – streetwise casuals and hardy teuchters - in West Belfast back before the first ceasefire, when it was still punchy. I didn’t enjoy the tedium of garrison life in Munster in Germany. The army is less stuffy and class-ridden these days and that’s a good thing.

MJ - Yes, I can imagine that. The way you describe it reminds me of George MacDonald Fraser’s memoir of his time in the Border Regiment in Burma, and the very tough guys he served with. 


MJ -How did you move from a career in the army to working with the HALO Trust?

SC - A friend who I’d been in the army with pitched up on the Hebridean Island of Islay where I was living and told me that there was a job going with HALO in Cambodia. I’d just had my first novel Damagedpublished by Canongate and I was wondering what to do next. Like many who joined HALO at that time, I felt like I wanted to see more of the world than I had in the army. Soon I was living with 300 Cambodian deminers many of whom were ex-Khmer Rouge clearing the K5 Mine-belt which is one of the densest minefields in the world. Twenty-three years have passed and I am working for HALO again. 

MJ - Was it a difficult move to make, going from a regimented life to a charity?

SC - It was a very easy move to make from the army to HALO, essentially it was the same job: commanding men (and it was all men in those days) in hazardous conditions. I’m pleased to say that half the thousand or so deminers that HALO now employs in Cambodia clearing landmines are women. They’re good at it.

In 2004, I joined Landmine Action, later renamed Action on Armed Violence, which combined practical work in Africa with advocacy work. In 2006, I was lucky enough to be elected one of three co-Chairs of the global Cluster Munition Coalition. It was exciting to be part of a global movement campaigning to get rid of a weapon that I had seen cause so much unnecessary and indiscriminate harm. Part of my motivation was witnessing the death of two British soldiers in Kosovo who were attempting, against our advice, to clear unexploded cluster munitions from a school.

MJ - And then you returned to HALO?

SC - Yes, in 2012 I returned to HALO, first as a trustee and then as an employee. It has been a busy time. We have expanded our operations globally and in the last five years I played a part in getting us established in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, working out how to clear IEDSs in the rubble of destroyed cities. At times I am reminded that it can be a dangerous task. In June this year eleven of my colleagues died in an attack on a remote demining camp in Afghanistan. Later Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack although it was more likely an armed robbery that went wrong.

Moving On

MJ - Sickening that so many trying to help the people in that country are themselves victims of attack. Thinking more about your writing now. As a writer, I find the process entirely self-absorbing, and if I couldn’t dedicate my time to the act of writing, I doubt I’d get anything done, but you mix working with charities while also writing thrillers. Is that a difficult process, setting the charitable work to one side while you write, or can you do both?

SC - It’s not easy to balance a job that can consume every waking hour if you let it and the dogged business of writing novels. When it works, writing is a good way of switching off and relaxing. It is self-absorbing. When it doesn’t, I can go days or weeks without writing and I feel like I’ve become unmoored. It is important to acknowledge that my job has allowed me to travel to some very interesting locations and meet memorable people. It is clear that has influenced my writing. I’m very fortunate.

MJ - A lot of readers are fascinated by the process of writing. I had the (mis)fortune to lose my job several times until I was forced to pick up a keyboard: what made you first feel that you had a story inside you? Was there a sudden inspiration, or was it a slow-burning ambition?

SC - I have always wanted to write. I wrote my first novel when I was eleven. In pencil on foolscap. It was a World War Two commando story about a motley crew of rebels and castoffs who pull off an audacious rescue mission behind enemy lines and mostly die in the process. I don’t remember anyone encouraging me to do that. Later when I was doing my A-levels at St George’s I had a very supportive English teacher, an American called Auden Witter. 

MJ - Was it hard for you to sit down and write a novel, because compared with your other work, the life of a writer, playing with made-up figures and characters, could seem - well, frivolous!

SC - I don’t think it’s frivolous to want to entertain people - especially if they learn something more about the world and its vulnerability in the process.

MJ - Do you have a work routine? Do you sit at your desk at certain times, stop and walk the dog at other times? How does a typical writing day look?

SC - Because of my job, I tend to write in the evenings or at the weekend, unless I’m travelling in which case I write on trains and planes. I try to write 500 words a night. If I have a clear day, a thousand words at least punctuated by dog walks. I have a Siberian Husky called Tostig who needs a lot of walking, and I surprise hikers sometimes in the hills, muttering to myself as I work through thorny plot issues. 

MJ - Ah, the risk of being a committed writer! When you write are you a committed planner? Do you write a synopsis and then develop a chapter by chapter plot before writing, or do you work with a rough outline and then fill in the gaps as you write? 

SC - I know how to plan and I do a lot of it in my work but I do it less and less in my writing these days. I like to juggle courses of action in my head and surprise myself with outcomes. I am constantly thinking, plotting, and adding and deleting scenes.

MJ - It always surprises me to hear that - it’s how I work, but I suppose I always have the impression that other novelists must have some scheme to plot detailed synopses before they start to write. The first book of yours I read was “Rage”, which hugely impressed me, as well as a lot of other readers. Was much of it based on your own experiences at the outbreak of the Second Gulf War? 

SC - Ragewas very loosely based on the experience of an army friend of mine who was attached as a UN observer in the demilitarised zone on the Iraq-Kuwait border in the mid-nineties. I moved it to the final weeks before the Second Gulf War and used it as a way of writing about all the ungoverned spaces that I had worked in, the places that fall between the cracks.

MJ - What first tempted you to write a new character in Jude Lyon? Do you imagine you’ll be using Jude Lyons again? I noticed that at the end of THE SABOTEURyou left the reader wondering about the potential for a third story in this series - is that on the cards?

SC - I like writing new characters. It keeps things interesting. Jude Lyon’s cvmay be a whistle-stop tour of the establishment and he is privy to secrets that are denied to most civilians but there is nevertheless something solitary and non-conformist about him. I like that. It means that there is more to explore. And yes, you’ll be reading more about Jude Lyon.

MJ - Out of interest, when you wrote “The Stranger”, did you originally plan for it to be first in a pair? It read so perfectly as a stand-alone story, I hadn’t anticipated that “The Saboteur” would follow on from it.

SC - When I started writing The Stranger, I didn’t envisage a follow on but I once I was elbow-deep in the book, I knew that there would be more of Guy Fowle. They problem was how to get him out of Belmarsh Prison. I asked my friend Misha Glenny and he said Wagner – the Russian private military company – who are called Valkyrie in The Saboteur. Then I started researching attempted prison breaks from Belmarsh and riffed on the most successful one. As an aside, when I was editing the final draft of The Saboteur last October, I was also involved in surveying front lines in Tripoli in Libya that had been occupied by Wagner mercenaries. 

MJ - I saw that “A Loyal Spy” was almost bought by an American film company - do you want to see a film or TV series made of your books? If so, would you be able to sit back and let the production company take over your characters, or would you be more hands-on, demanding that Jude isn’t played by an American, that he isn’t changed in appearance …?

SC - My 2012 novel Rock Creek Parkwas optioned by a British and then an American production company with the intention of making a TV series. They wrote a pilot episode. Nothing came of it. My view is that once you’ve handed over the work it’s up to the production company what they do with it. I’m not precious. That said, I have written the first episode of The Strangeras a six-part TV series and I’ve had some good feedback. We’ll see…

MJ - You have enjoyed a highly varied career. What are the high points so far?

SC - Winning the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for A Loyal Spywas definitely a high point particularly given that it was so unexpected. When it comes to my work some of the most satisfying experiences have been visiting communities that I was involved in clearing the landmines from years before and finding them completely transformed. We are often most successful when we are forgotten, when people don’t have to give a second thought to stepping out their front door.

MJ - After a career in the army, then a hugely successful writing career - what are your goals for the future? Do you see yourself continuing to write, do you see yourself more as an activist against dangerous munitions, or do you think you’ll take another route entirely?

SC - As for the future, I’d like to be spending more of my writing. But I am keen to continue to work with HALO as long as I can make a meaningful contribution. I’ve just come back from El Salvador where we are looking to set up a project giving employment to former MS13 and Barrio 18 gang members who have come out of prison and want to leave the gangs. We’ll be drawing on our experience of re-integrating former Taliban and Hizb-I Islami fighters into our workforce in Afghanistan. That will keep me busy.  

MJ - Simon, I need hardly say, I wish you all very best of luck with THE SABOTEUR, and with your future writing, but also with your work with HALO. Best of luck, and thanks again for your time. 

HARDCOVER / ISBN-13: 9781529334296

PRICE: £16.99


ON SALE: 19th August 2021


Click Here to Read Mike Jeck’s review of THE SABOTEUR

Simon Conway

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