Who am I? What brought me into writing?
I am the youngest of three by some distance. I grew up in a stable family background in a small town in Yorkshire. My childhood was characterised by love, support, encouragement and loneliness.
I was the first in my family to go to college and get a degree. This was the late seventies in the northeast of England. It was a shock, I was obliged to live an alternative life, renting a dilapidated terraced house with no heating, learning to invent new meals to make with a can of beans, getting into debt and feeling the consequences, including personal threats and casual thuggery. I stopped returning home after a while and took a job pulling pints in a local pub to pay my way. That is when I properly joined this community as a participant not just as a commentator. That said, working in a social setting at the time I had a unique ringside seat observing how real people lived and survived in spite of everything life had thrown at this disadvantaged community. My audience in the pub at that time consisted of unemployed people looking to stay warm for an evening, petty criminals, prostitutes, police, fellow students…even some trainees from the local football club.
The experiences – too many to recount here – introduced me to a realisation that most people navigate their life through often stark ambiguities and showed me how people could get by, often without love, money or hope. It was not necessarily a depressing experience either. On occasion the situation was the background for a unique form of ‘gallows’ humour that has stayed with me ever since and ended up introducing me to my life partner.
I progressed to get a traineeship in a local media organisation, learning the tools of the journalist`s trade producing human interest stories based on the outcome of council meetings and local low-level crime. At that time I was lucky to work alongside a number of now well-known individuals who became household names with the BBC.
Money then started to influence my career choices and rather following a traditional route to a writing career I went into business, selling Scotch whisky and from there, I went into retailing.
Retail was a great way of making a living – sales activities require a fundamental appreciation of human nature – the needs and aspirations of customers. As a result I met thousands of characters (not always pleasant) but memorable – elements of which I have sketched out in my writing.
It’s weird I have always known I would end up as a writer. My business experience taught me to write forensically – with clarity and conciseness. The discipline to develop an extended piece of work, I thought may be beyond me. For years I toyed with but ultimately ducked the challenge. It took an unscheduled extended period in hospital following an accident to help me on my way.
I know I have been fortunate and owe a debt of gratitude to so many NHS workers in Leeds & Huddersfield. For a period I was bedridden and ended up spending time with people with no prospect of recovery, some who were getting used their new prospects as amputees. Somehow they had come to terms with making the best of their situation. Nurtured by the attentive care of strangers, many seemed naturally to find chinks of light in their personal darkness. They were a great inspiration. It made me start to imagine what it must be like to become institutionalised- to live your life within the boundaries set arbitrarily by some anonymous organisation which seemed to dictate every aspect of daily life and behaviour. Dangerous too – as though your mind has gone on to automatic pilot. When to eat, what to eat when to rest and when to take medication. Planning a trip to the loo took some forethought almost like a military operation.
It was amazing how this regime challenged the ability to think rationally and independently. Whether you`re in hospital, prison or working in a corporate environment the pressure to conform is universal.
But thank goodness for the enquiring curious mind.
Freedom of thought with the opportunities for the imagination is the final frontier of personal freedom. My experience of hospital was to try to imagine the burdens carried by prisoners of conscience and to marvel at their survival against seemingly impossible odds.
So these are some of the random thoughts that led to the creation of The Primary Objective.
At first reading, this is an adventure story with a plot, beginning, middle and end.
But to me it has always been more than that.
It is a book about fate – how a disparate group of characters interact, often unwittingly, to make the best of the situation they find themselves in.
I hope it shows the resilience of the human spirit as well as the limitations of the world of politics.
I am privileged to have travelled extensively (but never enough) in the past and had many experiences as a result.
What I have learned is no matter where you live on the planet, no matter how much or how little you have, on one level we all share the same hopes and fears for ourselves and our loved ones.
I hope this shows through in The Primary Objective.
Why is the book set in Iran?
The country creates a rich backdrop for a writer. It is a land of extremes, opposites and contractions. No doubt it has a unique, largely unexplored culture so significant it would be impossible to document the social history of the world without it, despite its oppressive regime which uses the blunt tool of fear to justify its legitimacy.
Iran is a land of diverse and impressive physical landscapes – the Arasbaran Protected Zone one of its most under explored natural habitats and has UNESCO designation. The land is complemented by its diverse peoples, some nomadic, who share a widespread appreciation of art, poetry and mythology.
Yet it is also a kleptocracy where everyone has their own primitive form of capitalism. The Primary Objective suggests, as a work of fiction, one way or another, everyone is on the make or on the take – from local government officials to the neighbourhood priest running a profitable line in temporary marriage licences. Drinking alcohol and dressing up in private is common despite the rules and then there is the ‘morality police’ keeping watch for illicit sex amongst the young.
These strange circumstances have bred a fiercely proud and resilient society which we can only hope to have the opportunity to learn more about.
Characters in The Primary Objective
Despite what you may have read on the sleeve, this book does not have one central character, but a group of them.
They can be split into the “outsiders” – those who are new to the country and its ways. For these people, I try to depict what they experience through their eyes as it happens. Then there are those on the “inside” – the people who either control or exploit the system. All have their own reasons for being involved and for me that is a cause for optimism. None of them can know what the future holds, but all believe in one way or another they can influence it for the better.
Do you agree? Let me know what you think.
Want to know more about the culture of Iran?
BBC4`s Art of Persia series, presented by the excellent Samira Ahmed is a good place to start. For the serious researcher there is wealth of good books on the topic. A favourite of mine is the collection of essays Iran: A Modern History by Abbas Amanat.
Is there any connection between The Primary Objective and your new novel, The End of the Road?
No, other than the fact both are geo-political thrillers, designed to entertain my reader.
But doing The Primary Objective gave me some real insight into the challenges of commercial novel writing. Self-publishing, however you manage it, is a more complicated business once to get into than most people imagine. I am not sure I have the mental discipline to produce a series of books featuring the same group of characters.
With regard to lessons learned, I think there are three key points. The first thing is to be credible, and that means ensuring your characters are supported by sufficient descriptive detail. The second is to provide an overall storyline built from a number of subplots that are engaging to the reader. The third is to have a critical friend who can guide you through the intricacies of editing.
For those who have read The Primary Objective, I think The End of the Road demonstrates my writing style is developing and I hope each book I write is a step forward.
And what about The End of the Road ?
Well, it`s set in the present day and seeks to relate to some of societies most pressing concerns – climate change, sustainable energy generation and assisted dying.
Most thrillers have the topic of death and destruction as key issues, but in the End of the Road I have tried to present these concerns in a different way. I think we will start to hear more about the legalisation of assisted dying in the UK in the course of the next few years.
Also, the theme of an individual taking on a world of vested interests is always attractive to a writer.
Most of the action takes place in Denmark. Why?
Several years ago I accompanied my son to a university interview, and we drove through southern Jutland on our way to the airport. This part of the Denmark is generally flat and featureless, a point he commented to me about at the time. I remember him saying “not much seems to happen here” and thinking it sounded like a challenge for a book. I visited Romo on several occasions as part of my research and came to know it as an excellent place to go, precisely because it is quiet and peaceful. Take a look at https://www.romo-tonder.dk/en/ to find out more.
And who is who in The End of the Road ?
The main story revolves around a scientist who has been diagnosed as terminally ill precisely as he has achieved an outcome from his lifetime of research. He has come to terms with his fate, but as a scientist he wants to control the process, so it occurs at a time and method of his choosing. This desire is a cover which hides a natural level of fear about what is to come and his personal faith. He doesn’t like loose ends and wants to leave his affairs and his relationships tidy. Many of those around him confuse his personality and research regarding him as a commodity to be acquired for their own reasons. Chief among them is his boss, an old flame from his past, a US corporation and a government in the Middle East. The book charts how these interests compete to control his future and delivers an unexpected outcome.
What is next from Martin Venning?
The End of the Road will be released as an audiobook in summer 2022 and a third novel will follow next year.