Africa: ruled by Nazis . . .
For proof that doggedness and a powerful enough dream can sometimes beat the odds, look towards Guy Saville. After plugging away for years he clinched a two-book deal for his unsettling vision about an Africa ruled by the Nazis. Steven Russell met him – and heard about taking tea with the bin Ladens
THE view from Guy Saville’s house outside Colchester – almost floor-to-ceiling sky, with low fields falling away towards the River Colne – is inspiring. But he rarely stops to stare, for his mind is usually in a faraway place of his own invention – an Africa ruled in large part by the Nazis. History hasn’t turned out the way we remember it. Instead, after Dunkirk, an uneasy truce has prevailed between Britain and Hitler. They’ve divided-up Africa and the swastika casts its shadow from the Sahara to the Indian Ocean. Aircraft guard the skies and autobahns cut through jungle.
It’s a chilling thought . . . one that, while the product of imagination, has a foot in reality. Which is even more scary.
Less than a year after coming to power the Nazis set up a Colonial Office charged with securing more lands. Then, in the heady days after taking France in the summer of 1940, Nazi leaders began secretly sharing ideas about how Africa could be added to the empire.
Other departments worked out how they’d run newly-acquired territories. Adolf Hitler said: “On the day we’ve solidly organised Europe, we shall turn towards Africa.”
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The most jaw-dropping symbol of ambition was the Bielfeld Memorandum of November, 1940. It championed the taking of Belgian and French Congo, Equatorial French Africa and much of French West Africa. The Nazi machine would steal the area’s natural resources. Places such as the Canary Islands and Dakar were listed for future naval bases. Worse, the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar was inked-in as a water-bound resettlement camp for Jews.
Guy’s thriller The Afrika Reich is based on this key document – although he’d had the germ of the idea independently, years earlier.
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His imagination had been sparked by The Man in the High Castle by U.S. writer Philip K Dick, which sees the post-Hitler regime taking over America.
“Hidden in that, in the first 20 or so pages, is a reference to what else the Nazis were doing in the world. There’s one line. [And then he thought about Africa, and the Nazi experiment there. And his blood stopped in his veins, hesitated, at last went on.] That’s all it is. It doesn’t explain any more than that. I literally read that line and it was like a light-bulb going ping. ‘There’s potential in that...’”
When he came to write his own story, Guy realised that – based on what they did in Europe – the expansionists would have divided Africa into sectors. “So I got a map of the continent and drew my own lines, basically. It was after I’d done this that I came across the memorandum, and realised I was pretty much spot on! I hadn’t got all the details right, but I was quite surprised how close I was.
“That’s one of the things that happens when you start doing research; you start thinking the way they think.
“The most chilling thing is that when you read these documents there’s no sense of the impact that the lines being drawn on maps, the decisions being made, are going to have on the lives of people. It is just the bureaucrats in an office somewhere in Berlin – ‘We can do this; we can do that’ – without any empathy or understanding. It’s almost child-like, the way people can ‘play games’ without thinking there’s any consequence to what they’re doing. I found that very disturbing.”
Guy Saville knew at the age of four or five that he wanted to be a professional writer (although he couldn’t have guessed it would be such a tough nut to crack).
Born in Billericay in 1973, he went to Brentwood School, where he wrote the school play at the age of 10 and was delighted to see it compared to the work of famous old-boy Douglas “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” Adams.
“At school, when most people were going off to parties, I’d stay at home and write. Looking back, it’s perhaps surprising I was so single-minded, but it was the only thing I wanted to do.”
After a degree in literature at the University of London he took a variety of jobs to keep the wolf from the door – pub, bar and restaurant work; in newspaper distribution; on building sites, and teaching English to teenagers.
There was early encouragement from an agent who liked some of Guy’s work. He couldn’t get it published, but saw promise. It gave hope to the aspiring author.
“I wrote six books in total, I think, but kept running into a brick wall that many people hit: your writing is really good but it’s not commercial. It’s frustrating when someone says ‘This is a fantastic book, but sales and marketing say they can’t see a way to sell it.’”
Five years or so after graduation and it was time to take stock. Guy had an agent, but clambering up to the next level was proving hard.
At the time, journalist partner Nicole was working for a national newspaper but wasn’t particularly settled. “We said to each other ‘Shall we move abroad?’ It was literally one day while out for a walk. You know: you talk over life. Always wanted to go to Brazil, so six months after that we arrived in Brazil!” That was September, 1999.
They stayed a couple of years. Nicole worked as a freelance foreign correspondent and ended up with so much work that Guy was drafted in to help.
This journalism partnership continued after their return to England, as they based themselves here but worked on writing commissions in places such as Thailand and Burma.
There was a spell, too, in Texas – home, apparently, to numerous tigers kept as pets and seen as a status symbol.
“It’s a really strange place, Texas. Everywhere you look are really good stories. We did this one and it led on to other things.
“We were driving through Odessa one day and saw this perfect replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in this desert town! So we wrote something about that.”
Built in the 1960s, it was the brainchild of a local English professor who dreamed of staging the Bard’s plays in an “Elizabethan” setting.
The next adventure for Guy and Nicole was Egypt – although their timing was unfortunate, as they arrived 10 days after 9/11. Media budgets increasingly focused on political stories at the expense of quirkier and more general material.
“We did do some good stuff, though. We tracked down the bin Ladens! It’s a huge family and there’s an English aristocrat married to a bin Laden. So we found them. They invited us in for tea, which was kind of strange!”
Dissatisfaction with the Mubarak regime was even then simmering beneath the surface, says Guy. “It’s quite clever, quite good PR, because it looks like it’s quite benign but actually it’s a really bad regime.”
He and Nicole returned to England after about a year – partly because foreign news budgets were increasingly being channelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan but also because Guy was finding it hard to combine work abroad with his fiction-writing ambitions.
They had a house in Billericay to come back to, and for a while he worked at a bookshop in Chelmsford.
Over a couple of years Guy completed a book. People felt the dark love story about forgery was the best thing he’d written, but the message from the publishing world was depressingly familiar: too much of a commercial risk at a time when they couldn’t take many gambles.
“It’s an absolutely appalling thing to hear!” he admits. “You understand a publisher has to make money, but it is sickening when you hear a minor celebrity has got a �250,000 advance for something ghostwritten and transitory. It’s out one Christmas and then is gone... while you’re trying to write something that is properly constructed.”
Did it dent his confidence? “Well, I’d been all right until that point! Each time it happened, it would fire me up and I’d think the next one would be it. But that one, really... That was the low point. I did spend several months thinking ‘Well, perhaps it is time to think about getting a “proper” job.’ But I was struck by the thought ‘What would I do?’”
That nadir came in about 2006. Then he ran across an online competition, to which people were asked to submit the first few chapters of a book.
Buried away somewhere, half-forgotten, was a version of The Afrika Reich. After hatching the original idea in Brazil all those year ago, he’d written the story while in Egypt. It was then a very different beast to the book he’s just about to have published by Hodder & Stoughton. The title and premise were the same, but that was about it. The industry thought that initial attempt way too philosophical and literary, so it was banished to a drawer... until it was dusted off for this competition... and triumphed over 12,500 or so other entries.
In the wake of that victory one of the big publishers told Guy it really liked the story, but the book needed to be made – guess what? – more commercial. Could he work some magic?
The writer spent a month trying to tweak it, but concluded that more fundamental changes were required. So he kept the title, retained the theme, but otherwise started again from scratch.
The Afrika Reich Mark One wasn’t quite dead and buried, though. Guy put it forward for another writing scheme and in 2007 found himself one of 10 people from the east of England receiving the Escalator Literature award.
A four-figure sum from the Arts Council enabled him to write full-time for about a year and get the book finished. He also received the help of a mentor: the historical novelist Katharine McMahon.
The story was complete by the end of 2009. In it, Walter Hochburg, the architect of Nazi Africa, threatens Britain’s colonies. Former assassin Burton Cole, torn between the woman he loves and settling an old score with the racist, is nudged out of retirement. If he fails in his task, the consequences for Africa will be cataclysmic.
The last full-stop typed and the manuscript submitted, Guy endured a fortnight on tenterhooks before his agent rang to say it was wonderful.
Trouble was, recession meant publishers were tightening their belts. One by one, 15 out of 17 potential suitors passed on it – “It was heartbreaking” – and then within 48 hours the remaining pair said yes. It went to auction and was won by Hodder.
There were amusing and instructive moments as the contract details were hammered out, with discussions over fractions of a percentage point on copies sold. “There was bizarre talk about who retains the rights to sell it in Somalia!” laughs the writer, who with Nicole moved to the countryside near Colchester about five years ago, Billericay having become too built-up.
So, after plugging away all those years, was signing the contract the literary equivalent of lifting the FA Cup or the Ashes urn?
Well, the strangest thing is going from being a nobody to a somebody, in the eyes of the industry. “I worked in isolation, and now there are literally hundreds of people working on different aspects of the book. “If there is an FA Cup moment, it’s that I went to Clays the printer, at Bungay, a couple of weeks ago – asked if I could go and see the book coming off the production line. Something I started four years ago... and there it was!”
Guy has a two-book deal, though there’s a trilogy mapped out in his head. Work on novel two is under way; it’s about the Nazi blueprint to use Madagascar as a prison for Jews. The extent of the regime’s sinister designs isn’t widely known outside the circles of academics and historians, says the writer, who last year travelled to the island off Africa for a research trip.
Did any of the locals he spoke to know about what was being plotted in the 1940s? “Not one.”
Guy’s content to work on what he hopes will prove compelling, readable, intelligent and thrilling stories. It would be nice if one of his novels took off in a big way somewhere along the line, but he’s a realist about the business – aware there are no guarantees for new authors.
The new Porsche isn’t on order yet, then?
“No! What I love most – and it might sound a bit strange – is the actual craft of writing itself. As long as I can do that and get by, I’m quite happy.”
GUY Saville appears at the Essex Book Festival on March 16. His talk at Colchester Library starts at 8pm. Tickets are �4 (�3 concessions). Box office: 01206 573948. Web: www.essexbookfestival.org.uk General inquiries: 0845 603 7628, or email email@example.com
The Afrika Reich is published on Thursday by Hodder & Stoughton at �12.99.