Thursday, February 22, 2018

Q & A with Michael Niemann

Author Michael Niemann joins us today to talk about his novel, Illegal Holdings.

Where did you get the idea for ILLEGAL HOLDINGS? How did you know that was the book you wanted to write?

At the beginning, I had three notions. The first was land, specifically the trend over the past decade where outsiders bought up large swaths of land on the African continent. The second was development aid,  spurred by the increasingly dominant role of global foundations. And, lastly, I knew it was going to be set in Mozambique. With that in mind, I wrote the opening scene. The rest of the story emerged from there. 

Map of Mozambique

For new readers, tell us a bit about Valentin. Where did this character come from? Who is he?

After I decided to write international thrillers, I thought a long while about who my protagonist was going to be. I wanted a globe-hopping character, but I didn’t want a spy. I’ve lived my life in Germany and the USA and the person I am today grew out of those different experiences and cultures. I consider borders and nationalism 19th century phenomena. The world is too small for them today. So a George Smiley or a James Bond were out of the question. Vermeulen comes from a small country, Belgium, which today has no geopolitical ex to grind. And he works for an international organization. His primary concern is not saving this or that country, but fighting for justice.

How did you decide to make Valentin a UN Fraud investigator? How much research did you have to do - or do you still have to do - to make Valentin’s work for the UN authentic.

That was a happy coincidence. I knew, of course, about the United Nations, but it was only in 2010 that I came across a news item that referenced the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services. Once I dug further, I learned more about its purpose, ferreting out fraud in UN operations world-wide, and the issues it deals with. I read its annual reports and the mission reports if they are public. That keeps me up to date on its activities and problems.

What about your own background? What led you to writing thrillers?

My background is academia. I studied political science in Germany and international studies in the U.S. My area of concentration was southern Africa where I did research for many years. My last academic article in 2007 dealt with some of the causes of the wars in eastern Congo in the early 2000s. The UN documents about the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the area read like they came straight from a spy novel. I realized that while my academic work would only be read by other academics, a fictionalized story might be read by a broader audience. So that research served as the inspiration for the first story featuring Vermeulen. That story was included in the 2012 MWA Anthology Vengeance, which was edited by Lee Child.

Your thrillers are international - how do you decide which locale to write about? Once you decide, how do you go about researching the setting? Have you visited the places you’ve written about?

I tend to start out with a story or incident around the world that grabs me. Something that more people ought to know about. The locales are usually determined by that incident, although I can and do move things around. I have visited many but not all the places where my novels and stories take place. So research is important. Of course today’s technology makes that much easier, but it also imposes greater demands. When Eric Ambler wrote A Coffin for Dimitrious, he could ount on the fact that most readers had not been to the locations and he could take liberties. Today, any reader can fire up their favorite map app and look at the places in the novel. I found that one issue that takes surprisingly long is finding appropriate first and last names for my characters. 

If Valentin was actually a real person, would you be friends with him? Why or why not?

Valentin is not like me. He’s younger, he’s much fitter, he’s a parent, he always gets into dicey situations, so there are many differences. Still, I think we’d get along pretty well. Our outlook on life and the world are pretty complementary. And I do like beer and food, so we have that in common. Yes, I can imagine hanging out with him, drinking a beer and contemplating what the world is coming to.

Aisa was a fantastic supporting character. Who is your favorite supporting character in ILLEGAL HOLDINGS? Why?

One of the joys of writing fiction is developing supporting characters. They add depth and complexity to the story. And I like Aisa, her quiet determination, her ability to hold things together. She’s modeled after the many strong women I met during my research work on the continent. I also like KillBill, who really came out of nowhere. I hadn’t even envisioned someone like him at the start. About a third of the way into the novel he suddenly appeared and he was perfect. Kids, especially poor kids, are always overlooked. Nobody pays attention to them. But they are keen observers and can play important roles in fiction.

What is the best thing that has happened to you as a result of your novels?

I get to write. Which is not always easy but always gratifying. I still write about the world, but I like the genre much better.

What was the last mystery novel you read, other than your own, that you LOVED? Why did you love it?

Blackbird, Blackbird by Attica Locke. The book is well plotted, with a setup pointing in one direction, but a resolution that offers a far more satisfying ending. Attica Locke introduces characters not usually found in mystery fiction and the book is very relevant in the contemporary context. 

If you could be any character in a book, who would you be and why?

Hmm. That’s not easy to answer. Part of the fun of inventing characters is that I don’t have to live their lives. I prefer ease in my life and the characters in my book experience anything but that. But, while I don’t want to be Valentin Vermeulen, I do envy his traveling to interesting places around the world. I miss that. 

What are you working on now, and when can readers expect it?

The next Vermeulen thriller is in the revision stage. It is set in southern Turkey in 2015 as the wave of refugees from the Syrian civil war turns into a tsunami. The UN is busy trying to help the refugees, which means they are spending billions of dollars. Whenever so much money is spent in a hurry, there’re always people who are figuring out a way to divert some of that into their own pockets.

What is this interest about chocolate we’ve read/heard about? <grin>

Over the past two decades, I’ve often taught a course “Cocoa and Chocolate from a Global Perspective.” It combines my love for chocolate with my academic interest in showing students how the world works. We start out with the Maya and then basically explore what all has to happen before a chocolate bar ends up in the grocery store. So it’s history, politics, economics, anthropology and psychology all in one course. And we get to taste chocolate.

You can find Michael Neimann on Twitter @m_e_niemann and Facebook.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for featuring my book on your blog. I appreciate the opportunity.