Henry Porter's Firefly won the 2019 Best Published Novel. Firefly follows Naji, a highly intelligent 13-year-old Syrian refugee who is on the run from an Isis terror cell, and Paul Samson, MI6 agent tasked with locating Naji before his enemies do.
About the author:
Henry Porter was a regular columnist for the Observer and now writes about European power and politics for The Hive website in the US. In 2009 he was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize. He has written six bestselling thrillers, including Brandenburg, which won the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger, A Spy's Life and Empire State, which were both nominated for the same award. His most recent thriller was the universally praised Firefly. Henry Porter is frequently described as the heir to John le Carré. Aside from his writing, Henry is a dedicated champion of civil liberties. He lives in London.
WNSF: What does adventure writing mean to you? Would you have considered yourself an adventure writer before being shortlisted for the Prize?
No, I don’t consider myself an adventure writer. What makes Firefly an adventure is Naji’s journey through the wild, mountainous landscape of Macedonia and the pursuit by Paul Samson and the Isis hit squad.
WNSF: Are there any particular books or authors which have made a lasting impact on you?
Yes, but they are generally not thriller or adventure writers. I have always greatly admired John Buchan, Mark Twain, Forsyth, Le Carré’s early books, Primo Levi, Austen, Orwell, Wodehouse, Tolstoy (the short stories, especially) and the great nature writer Barry Lopez, who is a remarkable!
WNSF: Can you tell us about any adventurous experiences in your life? Have they influenced you as a writer or your writing?
I guess I’ve had a lot of adventures – antique firearm smuggling in India 1972. Getting caught up with German terror gang in Italy in the 70s. Watching Berlin Wall come down 1989. Investigating war crimes in Bosnia 1995 Negotiating with Sudanese government on behalf of Washington DC law firm 2001 on government’s Al Qaeda database. Interviewing defecting Iraqi generals in Lebanon 2001
WNSF: A strong sense of place is vital to any great adventure story. What role does research play in your writing? How did you make your setting feel realistic?
Vital to get this right. I spend a lot of time in the field. I walked some of the migrant route in Macedonia. Spent time on the island of Lesbos, interviewing rescuers and aide workers who were dealing with rubber rafts crossing at night from Turkey. I travelled the length of the migrant route to Schengen, studying the scenery, seeing how migrants reacted to their new surroundings and how they coped – where they slept, how they acquired and cooked food, their preferred routes, the weather they had to deal with as winter came, and the friendly and hostile reactions among locals.
Above all, I wanted to know how they kept going, some of them with children. Every detail was important to me and I filled many notebooks, took many photographs, which are important for the particularities of the landscape - the trees, rocks, types of crop, look of the houses. So, yes, this is the key part of the process and I hope I got it right.
WNSF: There is an unusual relationship between the two main characters in Firefly, Naji and Paul Samson. How you made it feel genuine?
The most important relationship in Firefly is between the hunted and the hunter – the young boy Naji and Paul Samson, whose profession is tracking people. They do not meet until the end of the book but they are aware of each other and, in Samson’s case, he has to imagine what, as a boy, he would do when confronted with the enormous challenges of the Macedonian highlands in the cold.
He has to imagine himself a boy again, and of course his background is not too different from Naji’s – his family were refugees from the Lebanon – so he has, to some extent, mentally to return to his own childhood. And then, when he eventually manages to speak to Naji by phone, he has to gain his trust. The relationship continues in the series and builds to a very close bond.
WNSF: What would you consider the upsides, and the downsides, are of being an author?
Upside: independence and do not have to work in an office. Downside: if you are stuck, you have to get yourself out of the hole. There is no one who can do that for you. It can be lonely and you miss working with others. I tend to mix my life so it is not all staring at a computer screen.
WNSF: What would you say is the hardest thing about writing? And the easiest?
Undoubtedly the greatest pleasure of living with your characters for the period of writing the book and seeing how they develop independently. This is magical and a great delight. The hardest part is the sheer effort of using your imagination so intensively every day.