David Rollins: Australian thriller author

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image-davidrollins200David Rollins is an Australian author whose books mix crime, politics, terrorism, action adventure, flying and war. His books have been reviewed as incredibly dramatic blockbusters.

He has written five books which involve corruption, special agents and serial killers and David has been hailed as the next Tom Clancy.

After a bit of a midlife crisis, he took some time off to learn to fly and wrote his first novel Rogue Element in 2002. These were closely followed by Sword of Allah in 2003, The Death Trust in 2005, A Knife Edge in 2006 which was short-listed for the 2007 Ned Kelly Awards Best Crime Fiction and his latest novel Hard Rain which was released in June 2008.

After not getting into the military and being a flying fighter David opted for work in the publishing industry. And he got to drive cars and bikes for a variety of motoring magazines. He switched to advertising and spent many years having too much fun.

He lives in Sydney with his wife and three children.

Click play to listen. Running time: 33.08

 

A Knife Edge Hard Rain Rogue Element Sword of Allah The Death Trust

Transcript

* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie:
David thanks for joining us today.

David:
Thanks for having me.

Valerie:
Now tell us when and how did you start writing about action and adventure and crime fiction?

David:
Well I read Tom Clancy’s Hunt For Red October and it just opened my eyes to a whole other world of writing. I’d always enjoyed things like Ian Fleming’s James Bond.

I just thought, well, I’d like to have a crack at that. And one day, I’d had an idea sort of sitting in the back of my head and it was a slow day at the office one day and I just started writing.

Valerie:
And a slow day at the office – tell us what were you doing at the time, because you came to writing kind of later in life, didn’t you?

David:
I did, yes. Look, I had my own advertising agency at the time and I’d been pursuing that career and in advertising, it’s all or nothing. I’d always been a writer as well and I think I had a view that you can’t really call yourself a writer because I’d started out as a journalist, then I was a copy writer, which is sort of the advertising equivalent of a writer, and I think you can’t really call yourself a writer until you’ve written a book.

So it was always in the back of my mind to do that and I had the opportunity one day, with a few spare hours, just to jot down that thought and once I’d done that I thought, “Oh, I might as well just keep writing.” So that’s essentially what I did.

Valerie:
So when you had that slow day in the office and you jotted down some thoughts, were the thoughts an actual story, a plot, a character? What actually started it all?

David:
It was an idea that I’d had for quite some time and I’d only – I can’t even remember who told me this but someone had said to me once that the Indonesian military regarded Australia as South Irian Jaya.

I thought, “That’s interesting,” and when we invaded – when the Australian army was under the guise of the United Nations force invaded East Timor to assist the East Timorese in their drive to become separate or autonomous from the Indonesians, I thought “Wouldn’t it be interesting if a clique of Indonesian generals decided to get to pay us back sometime down the track?” Because they’d always regarded Australia as their territory in a funny sort of way, hence the South Irian Jaya bit and so I – it was more a bit of plot and never having a written a book before and there being no real, sort of cause to do that.

I made the mistakes that people usually do when they write their first book and I learned them as I went and so as a consequence, I had to write the story – rewrite the story 35 times to make it halfway reasonable.

Valerie:
35 times!

David:
Yeah, I got nauseous by the time – by rewrite number 10, every time I started I would just get physically sick with the thought of reading this thing again but each time I did it I made it better and things occurred to me and the characters got better. That’s kind of how my first book, Rogue Element began.

Valerie:
And how did you, apart from rewriting it 35 times, how else did you hone your skills? Did you get support or advice from other people?

David:
Well, my mother’s a journalist and, in fact, I’ve got quite a few journalists in my family and writers and Mary Moody, for example, is my second cousin.

Valerie:
Right.

David:
I had some writers sort of in the family that I could call on to read the material. I also hired the services of a professional manuscript assessor and I guess I was just waiting for someone to tell me the story was crap, but no one ever did. But by the same token I sent the manuscript out to 78 publishers around the world and got 78 rejection slips.

So the fact that I did get published is more of a testament to my doggedness than anything else.

Valerie:
And after the 78th rejection slip, how did you keep going? What motivated you to keep on going down this path?

David:
Well I picture – these letters kept appearing in my letter box. The first dozen or so I would tear open with anticipation. “This is going to be the one! This is going to be the, Yes, welcome to – you’re now a writer. Here you go. We’re going to publish this thing and give you a ton of money.”

But none of that happened so I did have doubts and I went back to the people, who’d read the stuff before and I said, “Tell me honestly. Is this crap or is it not?” And as I said, no one said – and I’m not a stand-out guy either so I wasn’t threatening the throng; I said, “Please, tell me its crap and put me out of my misery,” and they said, “No. It’s actually pretty good.”

So I thought “Well, okay”. What I’d done is I tried to get it published in the wrong way. Let’s assume – let me assume that the story is reasonable. Maybe I’m just going about this the wrong way and it turns out that a lot of publishers these days just don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts and most of them don’t even open them, even though they’ll send you back a letter saying “Thanks. We read it and we’re not interested in this kind of material at this time.” Most of them just send you a form letter back.

So I decided to go it a different way and I went directly to an agent and that turned out to be the thing to do, because these days, if you want to get published, a lot of the – all the publishing companies don’t – none of them hire readers to sit through what they call the slush pile. They figure that if the book is worthwhile, somehow it’ll find its way through the system and mostly, the gatekeepers of that system are the agents, because the publishers figure, “Well, an agent’s only got 80 hours in the day to make a living and they’re only going to promote books that they think are really worthwhile.”

So they listen to the agents and I happened to find a fantastic agent. Her name is Rose Creswell and the only reason I went to Rose is that she just happened to be in and answered the phone at the right time. And she had a terrific reputation and she read the manuscript and – I sent her 100 pages and she rang me back almost the same day and said, “Look, I’ve just read them. I’m really excited by this book. I don’t think you’ll have any problem getting it published. Come and see me; send me the rest.”

So that’s what I did and pretty much, within two weeks, I had a two-book deal with Pan MacMillan, who was one of the publishing companies that sent me a rejection slip.

Valerie:
So persistence pays off.

David:
Yeah. Well, it did in my case, anyway.

Valerie:
So Rogue Element involves elements of the SAS. How well do you know about the inner workings of the SAS or is much of it the result of research or your imagination?

David:
It’s a combination of both those things. I didn’t really know too much about it at all when I started. I just assumed – I wanted an SAS kind of character and the story required a unit of SAS guys to go in and do their thing and I really didn’t know too much about it.

So I just wrote the story and researched back from that. I needed these guys to go in over here. How are they going to do that? What sort of clearances do they need? What sort of unit would they send in? What sort of equipment would they take with them?

And I just researched it all, I asked about face and it saves you a lot of time doing that. If you have the – this is my story, this is my plot, this is what I want to happen. Now, what are the details that flesh that out? I don’t know whether other writers do it that way but that’s just the way I did it for the first book.

And I found when it comes to research that if you ask experts to kind of give you a leg-up on their experience, just about every one will help. There are very few people in the world, when you say to them, “Look, I’m an author. I’m writing this book. I want to get it right. Can you help me please? Just tell me what, this is my idea. Where is it wrong? And how can I make it right?” And I haven’t really struck anyone who’d say, “Look, go away. I’m not interested in helping you.”

Valerie:
And so did you interview people from the SAS or how did that go?

David:
I did. Yeah. I wanted to get these guys to parachute in to East Timor, because I’d say I’m a little bit of a news junkie and I’ve read a bit anyway about the Australian military and about the SAS so I’d read a bit, and that helps. At least your questions aren’t completely stupid then.

And I wanted these guys to parachute in. I thought, “Well, how am I going to get hold that – an SAS or someone who jumps for the army?” And I had done a parachute jump myself fairly recently, so I called the Australian parachuting club down at Picton – I think that’s what they’re called and spoke to the boss there and said, “Look, it’s me. I’m writing a book, do you know anyone who’s got any military experience jump like military parachuters?”

“Well, actually, yeah, we do. There’s a guy that jumps out of here and he’s in the SAS.”

I went, “You are kidding!”

And that’s pretty much how I’ve reached most of my sources. I just go to the civilian, like if I want to talk to a military pilot I’ll go through the Sydney Aerobatics School because that’s where military pilots go when they’re flying civilian air craft. I just find where these guys are likely to hang out and get to them that way because it’s almost impossible to get them.

If I rang Piesse, for example, where these guys, where the SAS, are based over in West Australia, I wouldn’t get past reception.

Valerie:
No, of course not.

David:
So yeah, this is the way to do it.

Valerie:
So you wrote Sword of Allah or you released Sword of Allah in 2004, a book about terrorism, which is set in Canberra, Israel, Papua New Guinea, Persian Gulf, Manila. What inspired that book? What gave you that idea?

David:
Well, when I got the publishing deal with Pan MacMillan for Rogue Element, they’d said, “Look, we’re not interested in a one-book wonder. Do you have two books in you?”

“I mean of course, yes,”

And so they said, “Oh, okay. Fine. Well,” and they went ahead and published Rogue Element, but they said, “Okay, now, we want this book delivered in 12 months time.”

And I thought, “Oh, okay. Well, that really – that’s a problem” Because I had no idea. I had no idea for another book so I picked on a couple of the characters from Rogue Element and thought, “Okay, well what might be their next mission,” and just chased that story through and I’m a news junkie and I was very interested in Middle East and trying to sort of muddle through that problem, I guess.

And so Sword of Allah was born of that and I also wanted to try – because Australia, at that stage, was really stepping up to the plate thanks to Ironman, John Howard, wanting to be the sheriff of this part of the world and Australia was flexing its military muscles and I thought, “Okay. Well, how can Australia help in this kind of – this area of the world, the Middle East. It’s been problematic since the Romans decided to invade it.” And, yeah, Sword of Allah was the result of that.

Valerie:
And your lead character in the first two books is Tom Wilkes, an SAS sergeant. Is he based on anyone?

David:
No, I guess Tomjust kind of just appeared, really. I needed a character and Tom fit the bill but it was interesting writing those two books because I found, when it came to my lead characters, quite a few people seemed to like Tom, but he was too good for me.One of my issues with Tom Clancy is I find his handling of technical detail is terrific and his plots are great, but I think his characters are incredibly two-dimensional or even one-dimensional.

And I felt that Tom was in danger of falling into the same camp. He’ll always make the right decision, he’s awfully good, he’s motivated by all the right things and would I want to have a beer with the guy? Probably not really.

So I wanted to do a different kind of character and so really, it was Tom that sent me back to the drawing board.

Valerie:
So your next character, then – your next lead character, Vin Cooper, is someone – is that somebody you would have a beer with and how did you develop him?

David:
Yeah, he’s a bit of a rogue. It’s Vin; he doesn’t necessarily make the right decisions. He’s not – he’s not in the least politically correct and yet he does – his heart is in the right place, although sometimes it takes him a while to figure out sort of what’s right and what’s wrong.

He’s a much more realistic character. He is someone I think I would like to have a drink with and he’s driven by irony and sarcasm and finds himself in these situations that aren’t of his choosing or of his making and he uses humor to to kind of help him deal with them and I kind of like that. Even though he’s written as an American character, that feels quite Australian to me as well.

So I like Vin. He’s some – he’s someone I can be around for quite some time.

Valerie:
Your books are quite escapist in some – in a way because they take readers to a completely different world. Do you live in that world while you’re writing that book or how do you get into, you know, a life that’s so different, really, to your own?

David:
Yeah, well, it helps that having an imagination, on the one hand.

Valerie:
Yes.

David:
But look, there’s a guy called – there’s a poet called Robert Frost who said, “An idea is a feat of association,” and that’s really where most of my ideas come from. I just draw together different strings into something hopefully new.

But when it comes to some of those strings like, for example, in the latest book with Vin Cooper called Hard Rain, he finds himself in Istanbul and then in Egypt and when it comes to that sort of detail, in order to have a really good – to convey a sense of place, you need to have an understanding for it. What does it smell like when it rains? What do they eat? What’s the music like that you hear on the street?

All that stuff is really important, I think, if you’re going to establish another world in a reader’s mind. So I go there. There are some places, however, that I haven’t been to, which feature in my book and one of those, of course, is Iraq. I haven’t been to Iraq but I’ve talked to a lot of people who have and that – I would love – I would like to go. Part of me would like to go but the part of me ruled by my wife won’t let me go and so yeah, I’m not having done it.

I also haven’t gone to Riga, which features in The Death Trust, and interestingly, I went to Riga through the pages of The Lonely Planet. I bought the book, read it from cover to cover, went on the internet, had a look at photographs of Riga and I know enough about European cities to have a reasonable sort of feeling for them.

And so then I settled this of fog over the city so that all I could see where the spires of the churches through the top of the fog and kept the locations within the city very tight. So I didn’t have to give people too much of it, a bigger picture of what – of what Riga is like.

Whereas, in Istanbul, I had to give people a really good impression of what Istanbul is like and my editor at Pan MacMillan, after The Death Trust was written, we went to lunch and she said, “Isn’t Riga the best place?” I went, “I’ve never been; I wouldn’t know.” So you can do it convincingly just so long as you really toughen yourself in your controlled environment.

Valerie:
Good technique.

David:
Yeah.

Valerie:
You obviously have a real sense of adventure yourself. What do you do in your daily life to fuel that sense of adventure?

David:
The honest truth is I’m just a one of those Walter Mitty types, you know? My wife is often says to me, “Where are you?” And I can’t tell her that I’m having an affair with a Russian spy or I’m jumping out of a plane that’s on fire. I just think about these things and what it would be like and how would I feel. And I know I read about them but of course, okay, when it comes to the flying stuff, I’m an aerobatic pilot, so that helps. And I’ve raced motorbikes in my time and I’m a speed junkie, I love fast cars and so that kind of goes into the mix.

And as I say, it’s that whole feat of association thing. You bring all these sensations and feelings and knowledge into the stories and somehow – hopefully they come out as being halfway entertaining.

But I love to travel as well. I really think that that is the sexiest thing you can do with your clothes on.

Valerie:
Whatever happened to the advertising agency?

David:
Oh, it got sold. The Japanese bought it, and an agency called Dentsu and then it merged with some other agency and that agency merged with another agency so three mergers in the space of six months later, I went, “I can’t do this anymore,” and I went out and had a crack at thing – I got some money, of course, and used that to bankroll trying to be a professional writer.

Valerie:
That’s when you decided, “This is it. I’m going to do writing full time”

David:
Yeah. It’s a dumb decision, in retrospect, because I blew a huge amount of money but it’s taken a long time. I wrote my first four books at night, really. I had to go back to work after a while because the money did run out and I still didn’t have the publishing contract – this Bantam in the States that I now have and I’ve got a wife and three kids and you kind of do what you’ve got to do to support them.

And so I went back to advertising on a freelance basis just going to work at nine and coming home at six and leaving all of the advertising stuff behind and going home and writing from 8:00 to 11:00 most nights.

Valerie:
Wow. That’s discipline.

David:
Well, if you want to do something, there are only 24 hours in the day. You’ve got to earn a living.

Valerie:
Good story.

David:
Where are those hours going to come? Well, they’ve got to come out of your sleep.

Valerie:
So now tell us about your typical writing day. What does that look like?

David:
Okay. Well, up until a week ago, my typical writing day was I would get out of bed. My desk is in my bedroom. In our bedroom – we’ve got a large bedroom and I just sit down and start tapping away and I kind of assist getting the kids off to school, write until midday, then I go for a run or I go flying or something and then I come home in the afternoon and I’d write again.

And then the kids come home and I help them with their homework and at 8:00 I keep writing and I probably get around 2,000 words, 2,500 words done each day and then the next day I edit the previous day’s 2,500 words to get me back into the story.

And then all the time in between, I’m thinking about conversations, playing them forwards and backwards, thinking about the plot, what’s going to happen, where’s it going to go, even though I do have a synopsis. The nuances of the subplot and just keep playing back and forth in my head and somehow it just comes out the next day.

But a week ago, I got – or two weeks ago I got a call from a friend of mine who is running a huge multi-national agency in Sydney that’s having a few problems and they didn’t have a credit director and I’m doing that job in the interim.

Valerie:
Right.

David:
An interim job to help out until they get the real McCoy in.

Valerie:
So you can kind of flick between the two?

David:
Yeah, I’ve actually decided there are aspects of advertising that I quite like. I’m an ideas junkie; I really like a great piece of communication and I do enjoy a blank sheet of paper and a brief so if I can do some advertising, my future is writing, definitely. That’s where I’m going but a little bit of advertising every now and then is good because I get to talk to lots of different people. I’ve spent essentially three years in my pyjamas and I have boots in my bedroom so it’s good to get out and talk to some different people.

And in fact, the idea for Hard Rain came from a conversation that I had with a production manager at an advertising agency who told me that Israel buys a lot of its water from Turkey, and that’s not what the story ended up being but it sent me down this track and that was a really interesting thing that I didn’t know.

So those kinds of conversations – those sort of random conversations that you have, you only get when you’re not just talking to the people between your ears.

Valerie:
Yes, that’s an interesting place to stay.

David:
Yes.

Valerie:
So what has been the response from readers? Do you get readers emailing you or contacting you or telling you what they think about your books?

David:
I do. I get a lot from America, actually. The Death Trust, they bought the three Vin Cooper books and the third one’s come out in Australia but the first one has only just come out in the States and only in hardcover, so the numbers are reasonably small. And that won’t come out in paperback until next February when they’re going to print, I don’t know, 750,000 of the things and sell them pretty much everywhere.

But up until fairly recently, I was getting two to three emails a day from readers of The Death Trust in the States to tell me they enjoyed the book but I got a fact wrong or something, you know?

Valerie:
Yeah.

David:
And yes, so I get fan mail and I answer every single letter with a personal response because after you get someone to taking the time to write to you, I think it’s good manners if nothing else, just to write back and say, “Thank you for taking the time.”

Valerie:
Sure.

David:
And I get some weirdos too. I get one guy sort of wrote to me and said, “Well, I really enjoyed your book but you blaspheme far too much.”

Valerie:
Right!

David:
“And I think the next book that you write you should be careful because God is watching and so no more blaspheming from you. Thank you.”

Valerie:
Wow!

David:
Okay, sure.

Valerie:
Okay. And finally, what advice would you give to other people who would like to write? Any – and thinking about it kind of later in life as well.

David:
Well, don’t give up your day job, really. I mean, writing is a hobby, I think, I’m just only incredibly lucky that I’ve just happen to have got this contract in America. Most writers, with rare exception, do it at night and love it but as a full-time career, I think you’ve got to be incredibly lucky.

I mean, you’ve got to be lucky all the way along the line: to be lucky to have a good idea, lucky enough to be able to have the time to put it down, lucky to get a publisher, lucky to get to sell enough to keep the publisher interested. You know what I mean? You’ve got to work at it but you need luck throughout the process.

So I guess my advice would be, as a writer, ask yourself whether you’ve got a good idea. Ask yourself whether you enjoy your characters. Don’t stop writing and edit the stuff – put the book on the wall, put the words away for a few weeks and then come back to them when they’re no longer yours and you can look at them dispassionately and kill the bits that just don’t work.

And you only – you can only do that if you have a little bit of distance.

Valerie:
Or rewrite it 35 times.

David:
Yeah, but I actually think a lot of that rewriting stuff I did I just didn’t want to kill stuff. I just didn’t want to kill stuff. And so it just took me so many times to come to the conclusion that this bit didn’t work or that bit didn’t work or whatever. And I also – that first book was diarrhoea to some degree. I just wrote it; I didn’t think about it too much. I knew what the story was and everything but I just put everything down and it has so many clichés in it and it just took me forever to purge the book of all that stuff.

Valerie:
But what’s left is the cream.

David:
Hopefully. I mean, I can’t read that book. In fact, I haven’t read that book in seven years.

Valerie:
Wow.

David:
But a lot of people who read it say, “It’s really good, I love it. It’s the best thing you’ve done,” and I go, “Your kidding, really?” I feel actually bad about that because I kind of hope I’m getting better.

Valerie:
Oh, well, we look forward to Hard Rain then. Are you working on the next thing?

David:
I am, actually. I’m 10,000 words away from completing book number six, which is not a Vin Cooper book and it is, I guess, it’s – I’m having a real hard look at Russia.

Valerie:
Right.

David:
At Russia as in this – when it was part of this early – major part of the Soviet Union and the post-Soviet Union Russia and it’s centred around the shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight 007, off Sakhalin Island by a Soviet missile in 1983.

Valerie:
Wow.

David:
I was in Siberia earlier this year, researching some aspects of that book. That’s kind of my next thing. It’s kind of a – if Vin Cooper is a cross between Raymond Chandler and Robert Ludlum, so I’ve been told, it’s not me talking.

Valerie:
Right.

David:
Then this one is a cross between Robert Ludlum and John le Carré. So it’s kind of a very much – it’s kind of a spy type thing.

Valerie:
Great. We look forward to it. Well, good luck with the next 10,000 words.

David:
Thank you very much.

Valerie:
Thanks for your time today, David.

David:
Thanks very much, Valerie.


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