What inspired you to write The Afrika Reich?
I always admired Robert Harris’s novel Fatherland and wanted to write my own alternative history where the Nazis win the war. However, I thought Harris’s book was so definitive there was nowhere to take the story. Then in 1999 I read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (perhaps the most influential of the what-if-the Nazis-won novels). In it there is an oblique reference to the Nazis’ terrible experiment in Africa. That stuck in my head and I began to imagine what Africa would have been like if the Germans had conquered it. I began some initial research and spent 2001 to 2003 writing a “psychedelic” version of the book influenced by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now; it was interesting but unpublishable! My agent suggested I re-write it as a thriller.
Thinking back to Fatherland, I realized it was a sub-genre of the thriller: the police procedural; while another classic, Len Deighton’s SS-GB, was an espionage novel. To take my book in an original direction, I decided to make it an action-adventure thriller in the tradition of Alistair MacLean (The Guns of Naverone, Where Eagles Dare) or, in keeping with the Africa setting, H. Rider Haggard.
The Afrika Reich is based on Nazi Germany’s real documented plans for Africa. What did these plans entail, and what was their intent?
The Nazis proposed conquering Africa a year after coming to power in 1934. However, it was not until the defeat of France in 1940 that these plans accelerated. Their aim was to create a colonial empire that stretched from the Sahara to the Indian Ocean, divided into six colonies. This vast area would then be exploited for its natural resources, which Germany’s European empire would be built upon. Training academies for the SS in Africa were established from 1941 onward and it was expected that the SS would control the continent as well as running its economy. The plans are ambiguous about the fate of the native populations: some suggest using them as slave labor, others that they must be exterminated.
How does it feel to have your first novel become an international bestseller, with 11 countries publishing the book? And why do you think this story has translated to so many countries?
When I finished writing The Afrika Reich I was confident I had written a book that could be a bestseller. However, one by one all the U.K. publishers rejected it, mostly because they felt it was “uncommercial” and/or would be “impossible to market.” I strongly disagreed and so kept submitting it, confident it would find a home. For nine months I had to maintain this belief; at the lowest point I feared it was all over. In the end fifteen publishers rejected it, then in a twist worthy of the book itself, the final two publishers said yes within forty-eight hours and my novel went to auction. It subsequently sold around the world. This was deeply gratifying and justified my conviction, as all along I believed the book had the potential to be a success.
Why do I think it had translated to so many countries? There’s a perennial interest in speculating what the world would have been like if the Nazis won the war and my book is the first to examine Africa in detail, so it is offering something fresh. Beyond that, it’s a human drama of love and revenge – something that has a universal appeal.
How did you prepare to write a book of such magnitude? What research was involved?
I planned extensively and exhaustively! Before writing a single word of the novel I took nine months to prepare an outline of the plot. This resulted in a detailed chapter-by-chapter synopsis of fifteen thousand words that became my guide as I wrote.
In terms of research I did an initial burst to get a general sense of what a Nazi Africa would look like. Then, when I had completed the main part of the writing, I did in-depth research so I could furnish the narrative with unusual details.
It was important to me that the African characters had a ring of authenticity (I didn’t want to be accused of being patronizing or, worse, racist). I therefore taught myself some basic Herero (a native language from south-west Africa) using a primer by Reverend F.W. Kolbe, which was published in 1883 for missionaries working in the region. I must have got something right because a French academic and expert on the Herero wrote an article about the book praising the realism of the African characters.
There are several literary influences in The Afrika Reich, including Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Homer’s The Odyssey. How do you think (or hope) these influences will affect the reader?
The book is a tissue of references from the literary (such as Conrad, T.S. Eliot, Homer) to contemporary culture (Sergio Leone, the movie Aliens, Batman, etc.). It’s possible to read and enjoy the book without picking up on any of these. However, if you are aware of them, they should add an extra level of resonance, especially since I often subvert or play with the reference. A good example would be the villain, Hochburg, who was influenced by Kurtz in Heart of Darkness. In Conrad’s novella he dies, but I imagined him not only living but thriving…
Though this is an action-packed book that will surely appeal to a male audience, you have written a great female character in Neliah. How do you think female readers will react to her? What other aspects of the book do you think will appeal to women?
My experience from the U.K. edition is that women readers enjoy the book as much as men and seem particularly drawn to Neliah, a tough and resourceful African warrior. Driven by the horrors and injustices she has seen, she is the match of any of the male characters. A powerful thread running through the novel, like Odysseus struggling to get home to Penelope, is Burton’s love for Madeleine. Despite all the action and mayhem in the narrative, this aspect also gives it a gentler side, which I hope will appeal to women as well as to men.
You have worked as a freelance foreign correspondent in South America, the Middle East, and Northern Africa. How did your assignments in these regions prepare you for writing The Afrika Reich?
Working in these regions exposed me to environments very different from our cosseted Western lives, which helped in creating the world of The Afrika Reich. My time spent in the Amazon, for example, allowed me to imagine the suffocating heat and clouds of insects in the jungles of Congo.
You are working on a sequel to The Afrika Reich. Can you tell us anything about it?
The sequel continues the story of Burton and Hochburg and is mostly set in Madagascar. Prior to the Holocaust, the Nazis planned to deport the Jews of Europe to this island in the Indian Ocean, and it is the historical backdrop of the novel. I’ve been working on it for the last two years, including a research trip to Madagascar. New characters include Odilo Globocnik, who readers might recognize as the villain from Fatherland.