David Lowe – A Dirty Game

What is your most recent book? Tell us a bit about it.

The book is A Dirty Game: A David Hurst Story. It is a crime thriller based in the UK, where the main character is David Hurst, a detective sergeant in the UK’s Special Branch counter-terrorist unit based in Manchester in the north of England. While his team are keeping an Al Qaeda cell under surveillance, MI5 inform him and his team that a notorious Chechen rebel has entered the UK and is believed to be joining the Al Qaeda cell they are watching. As result, Hurst and his team, along with MI5, monitor the Chechen and Al Qaeda to work out what it is they are planning. Setting most of the story in northern English cities of Manchester and Liverpool, Hurst and his team find time is against them as they try to stop the terrorist attacks, which, if successful could bring the UK to a halt. The climax of the story ends in London with Hurst assisting the Metropolitan Police’s counter-terrorist unit, SO15 and MI5, who are having to liaise with the Russian FSB, in preventing a combined renegade Chechens and Al Qaeda terrorist attack.

Tell us something about yourself.

Since 2007, I have been a principal lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, but before then I was a police officer for 27 years. Most of my service was as a detective in Special Branch in their counter-terrorist unit. During my time there, in the 1980’s and 1990’s I dealt with the activities of the Provisional IRA during their terrorist campaign on the British mainland. During my investigations, there were many occasions I had to go over to Ireland. When enquiries led me to South Armagh in particular, on occasions it was a bit hair raising. It wasn’t referred to by both sides of the conflict as ‘bandit country’ for nothing. For example, on one occasion I was on an enquiry with an officer from the Royal Ulster Constabulary. We were travelling down a narrow country lane and came across a Provisional IRA roadblock. When they realised we were the security forces, they opened fire on us. We did manage to make an effective (but not a very dignified) retreat to safety!

During my latter years, the counter-terrorist investigations I was involved in were mainly into Al Qaeda and other Islamic based terror groups. Now, I was a detective sergeant leading a team of detectives. What was interesting was how prior to 9/11, following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 that led to the cessation of hostilities with the Irish groups, Special Branch was scaling down its resources. Following 9/11, the resources were increased three-fold. What was also different in these investigations compared to the Irish ones, they were truly international. I found myself working with colleagues from similar counter-terror agencies throughout Europe and the USA, including the FBI and Homeland Security.

Following an injury sustained during an investigation I, reluctantly, had to retire on medical grounds from the police. Fortunately, during my police service, I studied part-time at university. Having acquired a BA in Criminal Justice, an LLB (a law degree), an M.Phil and was still in the throes of completing my PhD (researching counter-terrorist techniques) I got the job as a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University. That meant me returning home to the city of my birth, Liverpool, and making my family feel a lot happier in having a safer, more sedentary job. That said, last year a couple of terrorist suspects were arrested yards away from my office at university by my former Special Branch colleagues and the major firearms unit. Pictures of which were shown across the world’s media. My students and my family thought I had a hand in this, but it was as much a surprise to me as it was to them. At that moment, I felt a bit like being one of my fiction heroes, Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan!

In my current job, I research terrorist activity and lecture on this topic as well as criminal law, policing and constitutional law. I also have more time to follow my football team, Everton, with my son Patrick, go out more often with my wife, Kathleen, as well enjoying taking my dogs for walks on the beach.

What inspired you to write this book?

It stemmed from lectures I was giving at university as well as presenting papers at conferences on counter-terrorism. Having signed the UK’s Official Secrets Act, I’m limited on what I can reveal in my factual work. One popular question I was asked was, ‘what’s it really like?’. After talking to some of my university colleagues, I realised through the guise of fiction, I could relate what really happens during counter-terrorist investigations. This includes not just about how agencies go about investigating terrorist cells, but I could also cover the relationships between the various agencies and the conflict between the operational officers and the police managers. So, based on my own experiences, I started writing the David Hurst stories.

How did you choose the title?

I found this to be one of the hardest parts of the process in writing the book. I knew it had to be a catchy title. When I went through the plot, and trying not to give too much away, as it involves the terrorists using a dirty bomb, I came up with ‘ A Dirty Game’. It was only after publication one of my friends pointed out it sounds like a kinky book!

What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?

The first thing is, being an unknown, agencies and publishers see you as a gamble. I sent drafts off to numerous agencies, mainly in the UK. All were rejected, with only some giving feedback. In that feedback it stated while my work shows specialist knowledge, they did not feel it fitted their profile. The feedback added this was a subjective view and it may be acceptable to other agencies.

I found this frustrating as while I was trying to get a publisher for my fiction work, I was having success with my academic work on terrorist studies. My chapter ‘Spooking the Spooks’ was published in ‘Police Without Borders’ that came out originally in the USA in May 2010 (now available in the UK and Europe) along with academic journal articles (one is coming this autumn in Policing and Society on discretion in high policing investigations). In addition to this, my academic book ‘Spooks, Provo’s and Al Qaeda’ got through the first hurdle and is being considered for publication with Oxford University Press. It is currently being peer reviewed.

I found fiction was a totally different process. Wondering why I was having success on the academic front but not the fiction one, I learnt what the single most important consideration for literary agents and publishers of fiction was. Whereas academic work is not a major money making exercise being specialist and expected to have only a limited readership, for fiction it is important for agents and publishers that your work is a money maker.

I studied the rejections that were good enough to contain feedback. Then working on my draft of ‘A Dirty Game’, I adapted to the different style of writing required for fiction compared to academic work. Seeing rejections simply as a temporary defeat, I remained positive that I had a good product. Tenacity and a positive state of mind resulted in the first US agency I contacted taking it up. So like my favourite rock band, Led Zeppelin, my fiction and academic work seems to be recognised first in the USA before my own country!

How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?

As I said, I have been writing academic based work on terrorist studies and policing. In addition to students and colleagues asking what really happens, There’s always been that a bit of the entertainer in me. I found many people were fascinated by my ‘war stories’ from my days in Special Branch. It was capturing that fascination that really inspired me to write fiction. I decided to give it a go. I sat at my laptop, drafted out a storyline and off I went. It is nice to know that my writing can entertain a reader when they are reading my book.

Do you have any writing rituals?

Not really, only that I need to have my favourite music playing in the background. I can’t stand silence when I write.
How do you come up with the names for your characters?

The main character, David Hurst, as he is based on me, the first name is mine. Hurst is my grandmother’s maiden name. For the other names of the characters in the book, strangely, they were already there in my head.

Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book? What?

I have learnt so much, but the key lessons I learnt when writing includes enjoyment. By this I mean, do you enjoy and have a passion in writing the story? Do you enjoy and like the characters you are developing? Would enjoy reading this story if you had not written it? There would be nothing more of a block than writing about something that did not interest you or you were not passionate about. If it doesn’t interest you, it won’t interest your potential readers.

Another lesson in writing is, make sure you are honest with yourself as you work on each draft. Polish it off so it reads well, no adopting an attitude of ‘that will do’, make it the best you can. Make sure there are no typo’s (get family and friends you can rely on to proof read for you). If you have people you can trust proof reading for you, listen to their feedback, even if they are giving tips on developing plot lines. Think of them as your potential readers. Readers owe you nothing and will be critical.

Regarding publishing, make sure you carefully read the pdf proofs sent to you. If need be, ask your proof readers to help out once more. They will spot the errors you don’t see. Don’t be afraid of asking the publisher for changes to be made to your draft, the blurb produced by the publisher, the design for the cover and so on. They want the book to be a success as well as you. As that is their business, they want it right too.

If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?

Leave my job, get a place in the countryside by a long deserted beach having only my family and dogs as a company to ensure I have that solitude to focus on the writing! But seriously, as I need the day job to pay the bills, I have learned to schedule in writing time in my week. The difference I found between academic writing and fiction, is in fiction I have to be in a more creative frame of mind.

When not in a very creative frame of mind, I will still write something. It makes you feel better and removes the guilt of having done nothing. I will come back to it later when I am more in the mood (including 2 a.m. when I can’t sleep) and polish up what I’ve written.

I will not be so desperate to get an agent or publisher. I found that rushing to get my work out there, some of the drafts I sent out did not read too well. Also, when sending out your work, make sure you follow the requirements of the respective agent/publisher to the letter if you want them to read it. Where they did read it, even though many agents and publishers rejected it, I did get some very useful feedback.

What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors? Why?

Apart from reading the academic work related to my topics, for pleasure I like to read historical fiction and thrillers. My favourite authors in the historical fiction are Bernard Cornwell, especially the Sharpe books and Patrick O’Brien and his Jack Aubrey novels. Both are set during the Napoleonic Wars and being a bit of a history buff, it is a period that interests me. I like them, as not only are they ripping good yarns, they contain some historical facts and accuracy to add to the authenticity. The thrillers I enjoy the most are John le Carre’s spy novels, Tom Clancy, especially the Jack Ryan stories and Lee Child and his Jack Reacher stories. All three produce work that gets you caring about the main characters, as well as keeping you guessing how the characters will get out of the situations they are in. All are good page turners that lets your mind get into the story and for a few hours, forget what’s going on the world.

Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?

I am. It’s the second David Hurst story, titled ‘A Real Job’. I am finishing off the eighth and final draft before polishing it off. The main plot centres on the Real IRA (an actual splinter group that broke away from the Provisional IRA after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 as they did not want to lay down their arms against the British).

The book starts in 1996 when Hurst was a detective constable in the Branch keeping surveillance on four Provisional IRA targets. His colleague and best friend is hiding at the rear of the house and is found by the four men. They are about to kill him when Hurst saves his life and shoots two of the targets. When they arrest the other two and during the subsequent trial, the Provisional’s make death threats to Hurst. Just like the Provisional IRA have in reality, they meant them and still have never forgotten or forgiven, even today.

The story then goes straight to today where Hurst and his team are in a pub outside the Old Bailey courts in London after a trial of a terrorist cell. Celebrating the conviction of the Al Qaeda terrorist cell, with his friend who was nearly killed that night, Steve Adams, Hurst sees one of the men they arrested who made the death threats. Thinking the former Provisional’s are going to make good their threat, Hurst’s time is torn between his work where he and his team have to investigate another suspected Al Qaeda cell, while in his own time he makes his own enquiries to see what the former Provisional is doing on mainland Britain. His unofficial investigation unwittingly unveils a plot by the Real IRA to start a terror campaign on the British mainland.

As a result, Hurst’s personal investigation is made official. Special Branch and MI5 try to trace the Irish terrorists, find out what they are planning, as well as finding out the financial muscle who funding the Real IRA’s proposed campaign of terror in Britain. Clues are found linking Real IRA funding with Islamic terror groups. While carrying the investigation, Hurst also has to keep one eye over his shoulder for his own and his family’s life, as the death threat is now a reality.

This scenario is not so farfetched. Over the past couple of years the Real IRA have become increasingly active in the province of Northern Ireland. Many of its members are former Provisional IRA members who have experience of mounting campaigns on the mainland. In reality, it’s only be a matter of time before mainland Britain could suffer its first Real IRA attack. If the Real IRA manage this, Britain will have a war on terror on two fronts, the Islamic as well as the return of the Irish threat.

What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?

Pick an area of life that lights your fire and that you are passionate about. You will be writing the book for at least the next six months, up to a year or so. It will help you stay motivated. Also if you are passionate about a topic, your enthusiasm will come through. That is more likely to make readable.

Always have a notebook with you. This will allow you to record conversations you overhear. Think about it, these are actual words used by actual people that will add to the authenticity of your story. You can record descriptions of buildings, feelings and so on. Also you might get an idea that enhances your storyline. As these ideas come up when you least expect, you can jot them down to use when you sit down to write.

Don’t forget, tiny details count. The reader will pick up on it, so if you mention a small side issue, make it relevant and don’t forget it. Don’t leave it hanging there. The reader won’t forget and will be distracted when reading the main part of your masterpiece. They will keep wondering what happened to the very minor character that may have only mentioned in a couple of lines. The reader will keep trying to work out why they were there, thinking they must have been mentioned for a reason. It’s the same with objects the main character has even if only for a brief moment, then was never mentioned again.

Be patient when you are writing and be patient when you are waiting for replies.

This is more on the marketing side with Amazon. As my publisher is from the USA, everything was set up on the Amazon.com site. Being from the UK, in the early weeks before my big marketing push (at the time of writing is to happen mid-September 2010) there were those in the UK looking for it. Naturally they were on Amazon.co.uk. Not knowing the two sites are relatively independent of each other, there were very few details on the UK site about me or the book. Make sure that you have the details on both sites. Putting the information on the one site does not mean it is automatically on the other. It’s simply a job of setting up one of the sites, then copy and pasting onto the other. Even for those potential authors in the USA, to help sell your books in the UK, set up the site as you want it. The more that see it, the more sales you make.

Who is the perfect reader for your book?

Those whose favourite fiction genre are thrillers. It will also appeal to those that enjoy reading spy thrillers or who have a general interest in terrorism and counter-terrorist techniques. I have tried to make the stories as realistic, authentic and believable as possible to give them that edge that what they read could actually happen.

In both ‘A Dirty Game’ and in the forthcoming ‘A Real Job’, as I have said, they are based on my own experiences. On my part, there’s no guessing as a writer what is it really like in situations covered in my stories, what emotions will officers have in the various scenarios they have to deal with. I tell it like it is. Just like Hurst and his colleagues, at the end of the day, police officers are only human, not super-human. They have their own prejudices, failings and weaknesses. Hurst does not need rules to tell him what is right and what is wrong, like many actual police officers, he instinctively knows. To illustrate this point, if you liked the television series ‘The Wire’, you will equally enjoy ‘A Dirty Game’ and the rest of the Hurst stories when they come out.

Where can readers learn more about you and your book?

As the book only came out at the end of July 2010, the main marketing push started mid-September. It’s on Amazon, so in the USA/Canada go to www.Amazon.com, in the UK go to www.Amazon.co.uk. On those sites are my author pages and I’m waiting for Amazon to post up the chapter samples for potential readers to peruse.

Alternatively, it can be ordered through Barnes and Noble website in the USA or in the UK order through Waterstones using www.waterstones.com or by simply calling in at your nearest Waterstones store.