Today it's my absolute pleasure to do a spotlight feature for Paul E. Hardisty and his book The Abrupt Physics of Dying which is the debut novel for new publisher Orenda Books founded by Karen Sullivan.
Canadian by birth, Paul Hardisty has spent 25 years working all over the world as an engineer, hydrologist and environmental scientist. He has roughnecked on oil rigs in Texas, explored for gold in the Arctic, mapped geology in Eastern Turkey (where he was befriended by PKK rebels), and rehabilitated water wells in the wilds of Africa. He was in Ethiopia in 1991 as the Mengistu regime fell, and was bumped from one of the last flights out of Addis Ababa by bureaucrats and their families fleeing the rebels. In 1993 he survived a bomb blast in a café in Sana’a, and was one of the last Westerners out of Yemen before the outbreak of the 1994 civil war.
Paul is a university professor and Director of Australia’s national land, water, ecosystems and climate adaptation research programmes. He is a sailor, a private pilot, keen outdoorsman, conservation volunteer, and lives in Western Australia with his family.
Claymore Straker is trying to forget a violent past. Working as an oil company engineer in the wilds of Yemen, he is hijacked at gunpoint by Islamic terrorists. Clay has a choice: help uncover the cause of a mysterious sickness afflicting the village of Al Urush, close to the company’s oil-processing facility, or watch Abdulkader, his driver and close friend, die.
As the country descends into civil war and village children start dying, Clay finds himself caught up in a ruthless struggle between opposing armies, controllers of the country’s oil wealth, Yemen’s shadowy secret service, and rival terrorist factions.
As Clay scrambles to keep his friend alive, he meets Rania, a troubled journalist. Together, they try to uncover the truth about Al Urush. But nothing in this ancient, unforgiving place is what it seems. Accused of a murder he did not commit, put on the CIA’s most-wanted list, Clay must come to terms with his past and confront the powerful forces that want him dead.
Gritty, gripping and shocking, The Abrupt Physics of Dying will not only open your eyes. but keep them glued to the page until the final, stunning denouement is reached.
How close was your own experience to that of Claymore Straker?
Clay is someone I could have become if life had gone a different direction (except that he is taller, braver, tougher and better looking than me). I was very close to going to SA in the early eighties to join up to fight in Angola. In the end, thankfully, it didn't happen. Eighteen is simply not a rational place. The core events described in the book are based on experiences I had in Yemen in the 90's doing the same work Clay does, fictionalised of course.
Your descriptions of Yemen are beautiful, vivid and affectionate, yet you call it one of the most 'tortured places on earth'. Can you explain why?
Yemen is such a beautiful place. Stark, rugged, strung with gems. But, yes, tortured. Bound hand and foot to the past, to ancient traditions, being brutally forced into the present. When I was there in the early nineties working for the UN, I modelled water use in Sana'a, the capital, and found that the whole basin would start running out of water between 2010 and 2020, without major reforms. Of course, nothing has been done, and wells are starting to run dry. Millions of people in one of the driest places on Earth. Oil was discovered in the 90s too, and rapidly exploited by foreign companies. The oil, too, is now starting to run out. The development stats are shocking, especially for women. Ninety percent are illiterate, each will have on average 9 live births in her lifetime. Half the population is under 13, and every male over 9 is armed. The government has no control outside of the two main cities. And with all that, it is a place that everyone should see before they die.
It's unusual to find such a page-turning, action-packed and often violent thriller written so poetically. What are your influences?
I'm not trying to be poetic. Just trying to write as well as I can. Write so that the reader can actually feel, see and smell it, so they can be transported there. I'm an engineer and a scientist. I guess what I'm trying to do is meld the factual with the sensory, merge perception with determinism, logic with faith, the real with the impression. A science-art hybrid? Beauty and fact. Oil and water. Calculation and feeling. Influences: Houellebecq, Hemingway, Newton (Isaac), James Gleick, Kim Stanley Robinson, Robert Stone, Balzac.
How long did it take you to write The Abrupt Physics of Dying?
The basic idea for The Abrupt Physics of Dying came to me about ten years ago. I really didn't start writing it seriously until 2009. I was learning. It went through a lot of changes. I have a lot of people to thank for helping me find the story that was buried in there.
The sequel has already been signed by Orenda Books. Are there more in the pipeline?
I'm thrilled about Orenda agreeing to publish the sequel, The Evolution of Fear. It's writted and ready to go (save a few minor edits). I haven't started working on another in the series yet. Clay is out there doing whatever he's doing, I guess. Certainly there is a prequel there - he's lived all that already. I'm not sure yet though if those stories are going to be told. I guess it depends on whether anyone is interested. I'm almost finished another novel that has nothing to do with Clay.
Were some parts of the book more difficult to write than others?
The whole thing was pretty tough to write. I got way too close to it, way too many times. I was falling in love with my characters, with what they were doing, and I needed detachment. It hurt letting them go. I work full time at a job I think is important, and yet it hurt that I couldn't write every day, especially when it was all there wanting to come out.
You deal sensitively and respectfully with issues of faith and religion, which underpin some of the plot. Can you talk about that a little?
When I was Yemen, and working in other parts of the Middle East, I learned a lot about Islam. I read the Koran. Twice - I didn't understand it at all the first time. I have a lot of Muslim friends. One of them called me from Egypt the day the Twin Towers came down, crying over the phone for an hour, he was so upset. I flirted for a while with letting myself be converted. It's a compelling faith, in a lot of ways, it infects you. I've come a lot closer to Islam than I have to Christianity, despite all those years of Sunday School. But violence in the name of religion is one of the great tragedies of humanity. In the end, it's the most powerful argument against organised religion. I believe in the Sun. In the Earth. In air and water and life. I believe in people.
Some of the violence inflicted on the hero, Clay Straker, is difficult to stomach. Were you worried that it would put readers off?
When you're in a fight, win or lose, there is pretty good chance you are going to get hurt. I used to fight a lot, and have a lot of broken bones, scars and missing teeth from it (I wasn't very good at it). If there are weapons involved, that probability becomes a near certainty. Faced with that, most people chose not to fight. Clay has to make that decision. And he suffers for it. He can't skip unscathed through this. Some other protagonists might - but he's a pretty average guy. Not an ex SAS sniper, not an international spy, not ex-CIA, MI6, or Navy SEAL. He not brilliant, and not trained in much except how to shoot a gun, throw a punch, and do some math. And he's pretty screwed up, to boot. So he gets smashed up. He needs to get smashed up. He wants to get hurt. A lot of people are like that.
You've had some extraordinary experiences in your life – did they guide your writing?
I want to write more. I've had a few experiences that could make pretty good stories.
How does it feel to have your book in print?
Great. It wasn't real for me though until a few days ago when I got the first real (paper) volume. I flipped through the pages and inhaled the thing. Love that book smell.
If you had one piece of advice for aspiring authors, what would it be?
Hemingway had the best advice. I'll paraphrase: Whatever happened the day or the night before, you've got to get up and bite on the nail. My advice: Learn when you write best, and build a wall around that time. For me it's morning between about 7 and noon - it comes like a river. After that, it's gone, dry. Hurts like hell when I have to dam it up.