A troubled starlet dies in a helicopter crash off the Irish coast after sending a series of mysterious text messages. Three years later, a hungry young reporter desperate for work takes an assignment to write a quickie celebrity biography of her — but finds complexity and danger.
That seemingly accidental death is the catalyst for the events in Bloodland, a new thriller by Irish author Alan Glynn.
Glynn tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Mary Louise Kelly that his book takes the reader from Dublin to New York to the Congo in pursuit of a tangled story of murder, corruption and illegal mining of rare ores.
"It's an exploration, if you like, of the power dynamics that go on" between New York boardrooms and warlords in the Congo, Glynn says.
But he plays out these grand themes — the global economic crisis, America's battle with China for dominance in Africa, the human costs of illegal mining — on a very personal scale, through a group of deeply flawed but compelling characters.
"I think the danger with something like this is to be polemical," Glynn says. "If you start with an agenda, a political agenda in fiction, you're asking for trouble. It's important to kind of not preach, even though at the heart of the story, there is a kind of a political point."
Glynn says what interests him is the psychology of the powerful characters on his pages. "Characters which, on the surface ... might seem extremely unsympathetic, [but] I think by getting close to the way they think, there's a certain ambivalence that comes out, which is interesting," he says.
None of those characters really know how the story will turn out — they're all piecing it together as they go along. Glynn says that's the way he likes it.
"I don't really plan in great detail at all," he says. "I'm always reminded of that great quote by E.L. Doctorow. He said writing a novel is like driving a car at night: You can just see as far as the headlights will show you. But you can make the whole journey that way ... and I think that keeps it fresh for the writer as well as the reader."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.
In war-torn Congo, the heart of Africa, a convoy of private military contractors carrying a U.S. senator to a secret mine is about to run into trouble.
ALAN GLYNN: (Reading) In the little car, the package is still staring out of the window, a look of horror forming on his face. It's as though the anticipation has spread, as though it's a virus or a stain alive somehow, crimson and thirsty. Ray swallows. He's thirsty himself, the feeling in this veins now inexorable like a dark, slowly uncoiling sexual desire that senses imminent release. He puts his finger on the trigger.
KELLY: That shooting is the first strand in a complicated web that makes up our book this week, the new thriller "Bloodland." Author Alan Glynn - that's his voice you just heard - unfolds a story of corruption and murder and cover-ups. And Alan Glynn joins us now from Dublin. Welcome to the program.
GLYNN: Hi, Mary Louise.
KELLY: So tell me in just a few seconds what's the book about.
GLYNN: The book is a political thriller, which takes us from Dublin via New York to the Congo. It deals with illegal mining of metals in the Congo and the relationship that they have to corporate boardrooms in New York. It's an exploration of the - it's like the power dynamics that go on between these two things.
KELLY: A lot of manipulation of power and shady backroom deals in all this. I was so struck by - you do have all these kind of grand themes, as you just mentioned. But instead of, you know, lecturing about them from lofty heights, you really take it down to these just - you have this great cast of quite seedy characters, people who are outwardly powerful but inwardly have their issues. Was that a deliberate way to tell the story?
GLYNN: Yeah. I think that the danger with something like this is to be polemical. If you start with an agenda, political agenda, and infection, you're asking for trouble. It's important to kind of not preach, even though at the heart of the story, there is a kind of a political point, I think. But what really interests me is the psychology of these people in these positions of power, characters, which, you know, on the surface of the page might seem extremely unsympathetic. I think by getting close to the way they think, there's a certain ambivalence that comes out, which is interesting.
KELLY: Which character did you have the most fun writing?
GLYNN: I like James Vaughn, the character. He's a kind of a gray eminence, if you like, behind the book.
KELLY: He's the international financier, right...
KELLY: ...kind of a George Soros gone bad like that.
GLYNN: Yeah. He runs a - yeah, a private equity company called The Oberon Capital Group. He's a guy in his early 80s. He's been around for a long time. I'm just fascinated by someone who's been so involved on so many levels of the power structures and the way the world has developed to today.
KELLY: Without giving away any of the twists and turns in your book, it is safe to say that a lot of the characters here make very bad choices. They - you know, they land in trouble, and it's entirely of their own making.
GLYNN: Yes. Yes. And I think - and then they make further choices, which get them further into kind of naughtier trouble spots, which is fun, I think, to - fun to write and fun to watch how they dig deeper into the hole that they're in.
KELLY: Let me ask you to focus in on one of them, and this is the character Larry Bulger. He, until quite recently, in your book was prime minister of Ireland. He's now out of a job, and he's also an alcoholic who had not had a sip in a decade until now. And you have a great scene in there where you describe him in his living room. He's standing in front of his liquor cabinet. He's reached out, and he's touching a bottle of whisky. I wonder if you would read that passage for us, page 63.
(Reading) He raises the glass to his lips and slurps whisky. The taste of it, the feel of it going down, oh my God. He holds the glass in front of him, stares at it in disbelief, raises it to his lips again, takes a couple of gentile sips just for confirmation. Already, he can feel it, that burning sensation in his stomach. Already, he can feel those familiar cravings, sudden and impatient for a cigarette, for company, for another sip. He turns around and takes one.
KELLY: One interesting thing hearing you read that, it's all in the present tense. It's a little jarring...
KELLY: ...because most fiction, you realize, is written in the past tense. Why did you choose to do it that way?
GLYNN: You say most fiction is in the past. I suppose it is. But there's a pretty good tradition of writing in the present tense. Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" is written in the present tense. It's just it's more immediate and we're just - we're swept along, I think, with the events of the story in a more immediate way.
KELLY: I'm speaking with Alan Glynn about his new thriller "Bloodland." And, Alan Glynn, let me ask you about the character - your kind of protagonist who's the one who's trying to unravel all of these various twists and turns is a journalist named Jimmy. And you write - I mean, as a journalist reading this, I felt, well, he kind of got it right. He gets how it works. Were you ever a journalist yourself?
GLYNN: Oh, thank you. That's good to hear, because no, I haven't been a journalist. I don't think I have what it takes to meet deadlines.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GLYNN: But, I mean, I know journalists. I've spoken to some. And it also deals with the whole crisis that's going on at the moment in newspapers, with newspapers closing and all that stuff. He's kind of (unintelligible) in the middle of that. He's very young, he's not that experienced, and he's looking for a place in a news organization where he can, you know, do what he wants to do, which is follow a story.
KELLY: Now, as this young reporter is trying to follow the story, the reader is following along with him. And that's how a lot of the plot twists in the book unfold. I am always fascinated when I speak to writers to find out did you know what was going to happen? I mean, when you start writing a book like this, do you know how it's all going to end?
GLYNN: No, I don't. I don't really plan in great detail at all. It's - I'm always reminded of that great quote by E.L. Doctorow. He said writing a novel is like, you know, driving a car at night. You know, you can just see as far as the headlights will show you, but you can make the whole journey that way. And I think that keeps it fresh for the writer as well as the reader.
KELLY: So you're getting to know the characters yourself as you write them on the page, yeah.
GLYNN: Yeah. And it's kind of a tightrope walk in a way, too, because, you know, it's a confidence trick that you play on yourself as well as the reader. If you look down, you know, you can fall.
KELLY: We've mentioned this - the action in this book is set largely in Dublin - where you live - and also, action unfolds in New York, in Italy. But several of the key scenes are in Africa, in Congo, a place I'm assuming you have not personally lived in. How do you deal with that challenge of describing a place that you haven't yourself gotten to know very well?
GLYNN: I did a lot of research. And also, the scenes in the Congo are filtered through characters who are not from there. And I think that helped me a bit too.
KELLY: You're not trying to write in the voice of an African. But on the other hand, it's fiction. I mean, you could make up whatever you want.
GLYNN: Yup. Absolutely.
KELLY: How important is it to you to get it absolutely right?
GLYNN: Perhaps 100 percent accuracy is not so important. I think James Joyce kind of, you know, flogged that horse to death, really. You know, when he wrote "Ulysses," everything had to be inch perfect, everything he described - he used to write home to his relatives to measure things of the street, you know? So I think once he did that, you know, it was left open after that for anybody to make it up as you go along. But you want to get it right to a certain extent.
KELLY: Well, again, without wanting to give away any of the twists and turns that unfold on these pages, I think I can safely say that at the end of this one, it seems as though you're setting us up for an epic battle between two of the characters: your reporter hero Jimmy and the wicked Jimmy Vaughn. Are we going to see these characters again?
GLYNN: Yes. The third novel in the - it's kind of a loose trilogy, I've described it. The books could be read separately, but I think they will go together quite well. The third one is called "Graveland." I deal with the character of James Vaughn in quite a lot of detail in this new book through his father, his grandfather, his great-grandfather back as far as the 1870s and the railroads. It sounds pretty ambitious, but we'll see how it goes.
KELLY: You got your work cut out for you.
KELLY: Well, we'll look forward to that one. Alan Glynn, thank you very much.
GLYNN: Thank you, Mary Louise.
KELLY: That's Alan Glynn talking about his latest novel, "Bloodland." And we just spoke with him from the studios of RTE in Dublin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.