Sydney writer Christopher Hepworth’s Hollywood-paced international thrillers feature a 21st century “James Bond” hero, a high body count and lots of action in exotic settings. It’s Indiana Jones with high stakes conspiracy.
Hi there: I’m your host Jenny Wheeler, and today Christopher tells us why he loves the thriller genre and how growing up in Zambia has influenced his writing.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- What Christopher loves about writing thrillers
- The magic Sydney location where he works
- Why Sam Jardine is a particularly “21st century” hero
- The mentors who’ve inspired him
- How he survived a guerilla attack in childhood Zambia
- And why he’d rather go down the Nile than camping in England
What follows is a “near as” transcript of the conversation in full with links to many of the key books and events discussed.
Where to find Christopher Hepworth
Jenny: Hello there Christopher and welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us.
Oh thank you Jenny, it’s a pleasure to be here.
Jenny: We were just having a little introductory chat before starting this podcast, and you were describing to me the setting that you usually do your work in and it sounds totally idyllic. For those of us who are entering a northern winter, give us a picture of yourself working at your lap top in Sydney.
Christopher: Oh yes Jenny . . . well I am very, very fortunate. My study is a balcony really, at the back of the house, which overlooks an area of Australian bush known as The Glen, which is a stopping place for bird, notably rosellas, lorikeets and kookaburras, who come by and stop in.
They are extraordinarily friendly birds, the lorikeets in particular are probably the friendliest birds in Australia, and they’ll even perch on my laptop as I’m out here trying to write. I’ve managed to film them doing some extraordinary things which I’ve put on my Twitter feed in the past.
Jenny: That’s remarkable – I’ll have to look it up and see! I was wondering – you have had a distinguished career in corporate life before you turned to writing and I wonder – what was the catalyst? Was there a “Once Upon A Time” moment when you realised you something would be missing from your life if you didn’t write – and how did you go about it?
Christopher: I’ve always been a voracious reader – I read probably five or six books a month – mainly thrillers but also historical fiction, and I’d always thought I could give it a go myself, but I never had the time because I was so busy at work.
The one moment which decided me to be an author was when I tried for a very senior role at work. The role would have involved a lot of overseas travel in three different cities – London, Chicago and Sydney. I didn’t get the job, but rather than feeling disappointed I thought “How can I use this to my advantage – and use the time I’ve been given?”
And I decided to pursue my life long ambition to be an author, and use the time writing – on the train going into work, on the train coming home from work, a couple of hours each evening and three or four hours during the weekends. And it paid off, and it’s ended up into a very positive experience, instead of getting me bitter and twisted.
Jenny: Yes that sounds like a very “lemons into lemonade approach” you’ve got there. Your work has a very confident feel about it, your books are fast paced financial and geo-political thrillers, and it sounds like you had no doubt right from the beginning about the genre you would write in.
Christopher: Yes although I mentioned at the beginning that I also enjoy historical fiction and that really is my great love and I thought really I would weave a lot of history into my thrillers, but after the first draft of my first book The Sleepwalker Legacy I was getting feedback that people loved the action and the thriller aspect but felt the history was dragging it down. The test readers said “Can we have more thriller and less history?” so by the time I’d finished it, it was 90 per cent thriller and ten per cent history.
With my later books it’s about 95 per cent thriller and five per cent history. I still like to put a little bit of history in there, but thrillers just give you such a broad canvas. The history is because it has to be a pleasure for me too! Writing thrillers allows me to explore new races, new countries, new places. I’m the sort of person who would rather go on a holiday down the Nile than in a holiday camp in wet and windy England, and being a thriller writer allows me to have that adventure.
Jenny: You certainly have the exotic settings and high body count that Hollywood likes and when you’re reading it you’re almost imagining it as a movie. Are you a big movie buff as well?
Christopher: Yes certainly. While I am writing I have to give up TV watching because time becomes precious, but I do enjoy the blockbuster Indiana Jones type movies with lots of action and some history which mirrors the books that I write.
The big business part of it provides the conspiracy angle. Everybody believes that money is behind all the bad things that happen in the world, and that business is behind the money. So in my books I am taking that as true, and taking an industry like the pharmacy industry, or big oil, or social media, or the weapons industry and I allow Sam to be the victim of office politics. I think that gives him an element of relate-ability and believe-ability. Most people have worked in an office – so that gives it a bit of structure.
Jenny: Yes we haven’t mentioned so far but they are all built around the central character of Sam Jardine who is like a second James Bond type of hero – a different style of hero from James Bond, but nevertheless he’s international and he gets himself out of some very dangerous situations.
Christopher: Yes Sam is a hero for the 21st century whereas James Bond was the hero for the previous century. Sam is full of flaws, but he is an excellent negotiator, so his negotiation skills equal Bond’s weapons or fighting skills. He gets through most of his crises by negotiation. I wanted to make him much more believable with a lot more flaws.
In the early days I tried to model him on myself because that’s what you tend to do as a starting out author. But when I gave the first book to my proof reader, I asked her what she thought about Sam and she said “He’s a bit wet, to be honest.” Of course that’s not what I was hoping so I had to seriously re-write him and make him a lot more aggressive and adventurous – more heroic really.
Jenny: I think one of the refreshing things from a female point of view – and it is very 21st century when you consider what’s been going on in America lately – it that he is not sexually aggressive. In fact he conducts himself in a very gentlemanly way with the many beautiful women who cross his path and that is really refreshing and it is a different slant on a male hero.
I think your antennae about how the world is perceiving the relationships between men and women in a corporate setting is very accurate and on the money because I don’t think a sexually aggressive hero would work in those settings just at the moment.
Christopher: Yes I agree and I have tried to make the female characters very strong and in some cases they are the heroes rather than Sam Jardine. Sam tends to bumble along and save the day with his negotiating skills, but it is really the female characters who are the thinkers and the heroes in the background.
The majority of readers are female and they don’t want a “Bond girl” – someone who is pretty and acts dumb – they want somebody who is heavily involved in the plot as the protagonist and decision maker. Most of the females in the books have come out well and women readers relate to them as well as Sam.
Jenny: Yes that’s great. You’ve also said that if my readers do not emerge from the books with “a tweaked social conscience then I have failed to do my job.” You tackle some big issues like climate warming – how do you manage to get across a viewpoint without being too preachy and didactic?
Christopher: Yes it’s a great question Jenny. I think all story tellers from Aesop and Grimm a bit later on, all were trying to tweak our social conscience. All stories had to have a message and readers had to come away feeling uplifted and with an enhanced spirit, if you like. So I have tried to do that with some of the issues we face at the moment and I do this by taking it from the “baddies” point of view.
So for example when I talk about terrorists in Egypt I have quite a lot of the story around their point of view , and why they are fighting, and the reasons behind they are fighting. Or I might take the CEO of a fracking company and explain why he is doing what he is doing and make it very believable.
I might have Sam going along with this journey, so for the first part of the book he might be on the side of the “evil fracking CEO” but then his opinion is turned around by events and people so by the end of the book he has come a full circle and is on the side of “good” So by him making that journey I hope to present the various viewpoints and bring out the “good” so it isn’t done in a preachy way as you mentioned.
Jenny: Yes . . and obviously you are also fascinated by the rise and fall of empires. There’s a strong underlining of what is happening in America, what is happening in China and in Russia – the break up of old empires and the rise of the new – I wonder if that awareness come perhaps of a childhood in Africa?
Christopher: Yes I think so. My parents emigrated to Zambia in 1968, so I was just a very small child at the time . . . that was just after the break up of the empire. Zambia had been an independent country for six or seven years at that stage, so it was right at the tail end of that process but it was still a very exotic lifestyle and I had the chance to interact with the different cultures, particularly the African – Zambian – lifestyle and I felt a great affinity to it and a great love for the Zambian people and the situation they were in.
Zambia was a very peaceful culture, there was no animosity towards the British when you’d think there might have been, we were all very friendly.
That has influenced me, I think the other advantage is that Britain was in so many parts of the world that a character like Sam Jardine could have a great many relatives – great uncles and great great grandfathers so forth, who were born in different parts of the world, and that allows it to be very personal to Sam and I hope to the readers when he is interfacing with different cultures and different cultures so it’s a great facet of British history and again I try and do it in an empathetic way because there are good and bad things about Britain’s empire.
Jenny: Yes. Have you had any writing mentors and who would you say you model your writing on?
Christopher: I wrote a first draft of my book without consulting anybody or even really taking any notice of the classical ways of writing thrillers. Then with a first draft done I decided I would go to the Australian Writer’s Centre here in Sydney and the teacher, the mentor, there was a lady called L A Larkin, she ran the course of thriller writing, and she is a fantastic novelist in her own right, she’s written some great books and coincidentally a lot of them have similar themes to my own. She’s a tremendous author, a great teacher and someone I really look up to.
Jenny: You seem to have a very active way you relate to your readers. I see you have a launch team and beta readers . . .you really have got alongside your readers and you listen to their feedback, would that be right?
Christopher: Yes I think as a writer you must listen to your readers. When the first book was completed, The Sleepwalker Legacy, I gave it to the book club here in Sydney with a list of questions and asked them what they thought and told them to give me honest opinions about what they thought of it, and that gave me the opportunity to craft it into a much better book than it had been at the beginning. Now I get a lot of feedback from Twitter particularly, and the launch team, I get some fantastic reviews on Amazon.
They do say they like Sam, I’ve even had someone say they are in love with Sam, which was a really nice thing to say because I felt I’d succeeded with him. They do like a good conspiracy, in every one of my books I try and weave in a good conspiracy – something believable and current, and they like the Hollywood block buster feel. There’s a lot going on with sub plots and so forth, but it is also an easy read. There is no complexity about the book. It’s designed to be easy to pick up and hard to put down, I hope most people will read them in a few sittings. They are addictive, that’s what my readers tell me.
Jenny: Sure and although they are a series they can be read as stand alone books . .
Christopher: The only common denominator is Sam himself. I sometimes refer back to characters but you don’t have to have read the first two, you can pick them up and read them in any order.
Jenny: We’ve talked about the Hollywood aspect – have you had any interest from that area so far?
Christopher: A little bit from Twitter followers – very superficial at this stage as you’d expect. With my Twitter account I have a lot of actors, directors, producers and I’ve formed friendships with them, I’ve floated the idea of having Sam as a James Bond and there is one production company have expressed quite a lot of interest in it, but it is early days. But it is something I am certainly trying to push.
Jenny: Sure. Moving from talking about your particular books to your life and your career generally, is there a mystery in your own life that might make the basis of a book?
Christopher: Ah yes, not so much a mystery, but there was a dramatic event when I was living in Zambia – when I was caught up in a moment of history.
I was at boarding school in England and I returned home to Zambia for the three months long summer holidays. My father owned a farm in Zambia, and during the Zimbabwe (Rhodesian) war of Independence – cos at one stage Zimbabwe/Rhodesia was run by the British, and then by Ian Smith, – a white rebel regime who refused to accept the right of Zimbabwe to independence – so it was run by a white rebel faction – when the independence movement set up camp right next door to my father’s farm. so there were about 16,000 guerilla fighters living right next door to us.
And there were a couple of incidents in 1978 and 1979 when the Rhodesian government sent over a fleet of Vulcan bombers and bombed that camp. All the glass in the windows at my father’s farm got blown out, and there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of deaths in the camp and as you can imagine, the guerillas became quite agitated.
So when my brother and I turned up for the summer holidays, we were 17, 18 year old school boys, but to the guerillas we could easily have been Rhodesian spies. We looked like them, we were about the right age and they actually believed we might have guided these bombers to their camp.
So one night they raided our farm and they killed a couple of our workers on the farm, which was really tragic, but it just happened my brother and I weren’t at the farm, we’d been there the previous night, but we’d gone into Lusaka and missed the whole event. That was pretty scary, but we survived it.
My father went marching into the guerilla camp the very next day and remonstrated with the camp general and assured the general my brother and I were just English school boys out on holidays and all was resolved. In the course of it my father managed to get a very big order for his chickens – it was a chicken farm – and he continued trading with them for quite some time. It is quite a famous incident – – you can look it up on Wikipedia.(See footnote for more details)
Jenny: Wow! sounds pretty scary! Your parents are here in Australia with you now?
Christopher: No. They both lived in Zambia till they end. They both died there about ten years ago. I’ve lost that contact with Zambia now. I am hoping to take my children there next Christmas so that will be an adventure for them and a real tear jerker for me because I spent a lot of my formative years there and love the country dearly.
Jenny: Yes. Turning to Christopher as a reader, you have mentioned you are a big reader, and the series is called “The Joys of Binge Reading” Who are your “binge read” favourites and who would you recommend people try?
Christopher: I have read an awful lot of authors. When I was growing up Wilbur Smith was my hero, he was born in Zambia and mainly wrote about Africa, and a little bit of Egypt. I have always loved and followed popular writers like Peter James, Dan Brown, John Grisham, and Frederick Forsyth – he wrote some wonderful spy stories and thrillers. Then there’s the British writer Robert Goddard, and more recently in Australia, Marcus Zusak, he wrote The Book Thief, he lives just down the road from me, and Matthew Reilly another thriller writer from Australia.
I mentioned my mentor, LA Larkin, and I have a stable mate, someone who shares the same book marketing company as I do, Gabriel Farago, he writes really good historical thrillers. I do wish I had that ability, I do like my history. He’s nailed it. And one I came across recently, a comedy, Lucy Brazier who wrote the Portergirl series. She was the first only female porter at Oxford and wrote some hilarious stories about that experience.
More recently also, because I am now a writer, I’ve had other authors asking me to review their books and potentially provide feedback and there is an excellent book I am reading at the moment, one by Max Karpov who is about to launch a brilliant spy novel called The Children’s Game. It’s all about Russia and what it is doing in social media and propaganda in the White House, so it is very up to date and current.
There are some fantastic books out there and some fantastic writers, but you can’t read them all because you need to be writing and its one of the things that I really miss.
Jenny: Some names there I don’t recognise so I certainly will be looking around them. You mentioned about being indie published . . Tell us a bit about that process. . .
Christopher: Yes there are real pluses and minuses. You have more freedom to write what you like, and you keep more of the profits from what you sell, and I think there is now a trend for self-publishing even amongst established authors. They are seeing the benefits of being indie published, but it is a struggle. The average income of the indie author is about $12,000 Australian dollars a year, which is really tough – you actually have to keep your day job unless you are a Wilbur Smith or a Frederick Forsythe. That’s applies whether you are an indie or a traditionally published writer.
And its also very expensive being an indie author you have to pay for your own proof reading and your own publicity, so its actually very difficult to get known. I mainly do that through Twitter and the followers I have there. If you are trad published your books just appear in the book shops.
Jenny: Yes. When you build a back list it probably becomes easier but it is a long game isn’t it?
Christopher: It is. You have to regard it as an investment, and you have to love it. You are not going to suddenly become famous and rich. With every new book you get a new following but you have to be dedicated and love it.
Jenny: So Christopher we are coming to the end of our time together, tell us, what’s next for Christopher the writer. Are there new things in the pipeline?
Christopher: Yes I am right at that point where I have finished The Last Oracle, the third book in the Sam Jardine series, and I’m been busy with the launch activity and my brain has been ticking over the next book, which will definitely be Sam Jardine Book Four. It almost certainly will be based in Zambia because that’s where I was brought up and I think I’ve got a lot to add. People loved the first two chapters of The Last Oracle, which were set in Zambia, so the next one will pretty well all be set there. It’s going to catalogue that moment in history when China is one the rise and is just overtaking America in dominance, and it is going to trace the American retreat into this “America First” ideology and allowing China to move into the areas they used to be in.
I think that’s a very exciting space to be in, I am going to have Sam based in an elephant reserve, probably sitting on top of a “rare earth” deposit, and probably have the Americans and the Chinese competing to get those rare earth metals and Sam has to wrestle with his conscience and decide whether he is going to deal with them or protect the elephant sanctuary.
Jenny: Sounds absolutely fascinating. there are several threads there which sound highly tantalising! So tell me where can readers follow you on line, can they follow you on Twitter? Where is the best place to go?
Christopher: Best place to go is my website, or Twitter, probably best going on through my website. I’m quite a prolific blogger so there’s a lot of material there on all sorts of topics as well as links through to the books.
The website is quite simple, just my name:
and Twitter is Twitter: @CHepworthAuthor
Jenny: I loved the blog about what do you about trolls.
Christopher: Yes I was the victim of a Trump troll pile in and that wasn’t a nice experience.
Jenny: Thanks so much its been great talking to you.
Footnote on the Camp Bombing:
The trigger event was the shooting down of a Rhodesian airliner (Flight 825) by Zambian based Zimbabwe guerillas on September 3rd 1978.
The Rhodesians retaliated by bombing three camps, one of which was Chikumbi where our family lived next to a guerilla camp. (Westlands Farm was one of the other targets.) The date of the raid on the guerilla camp was October 19th 1978, but our farm was not attacked by the guerillas until my brother and I returned from boarding school in the UK for the Xmas / New year holidays a few months later.
The Wikipedia article is:
Gatling‘s primary target, just 16 kilometres (10 miles) north-east of central Lusaka, was the formerly white-owned Westlands Farm, which had been transformed into ZIPRA’s main headquarters and training base under the name “Freedom Camp”. ZIPRA presumed that Rhodesia would never dare to attack a site so close to Lusaka. About 4,000 guerrillas underwent training at Freedom Camp, with senior ZIPRA staff also on site. The Rhodesian operation’s other targets were Chikumbi, 19 kilometres (12 miles) north of Lusaka,and Mkushi Camp; all three were to be attacked more or less simultaneously in a coordinated sweep across Zambia.
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