by Timothy Pike
In the mid-1990s, before he was a bestselling thriller author, journalist Humphrey Hawksley found himself in the office of William Armstrong of Sedgwick & Jackson, pitching a story to the legendary publisher. Armstrong looked over Humphrey’s outline, then pushed it aside.
What in hell’s name are we doing here if he doesn’t like it? Humphrey thought, casting a glance at his agent.
But Armstrong had another idea. “Could you write me a book about America going to war with China?” he said. “I think we should call it Dragon Strike.”
Humphrey was more than willing. “China was fascinating then,” he recalls, “as the cityscapes, high-speed rails, and fashion houses were just beginning to sprout, while human rights violations and repression continued.”
In other words, the perfect time for a novel like this. “Dragon Strike immediately became a bestseller,” he tells me, “and I wrote two more in what became known as a ‘future history’ series, examining tensions in the Indo-Pacific and the triggers that could lead to war.”
The second in the series, Dragon Fire, detailed a fictional conflict between India, Pakistan, and China, and soon exploded in popularity. “India’s defense minister used Dragon Fire to call for a road to peace between the near-warring countries,” Humphrey says. “It went viral, and for some months outsold Harry Potter in India. I guess it was like Ronald Reagan saying everyone should read Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October.”
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It was in 1974 that Humphrey decided he wanted to be a foreign news correspondent. That year, he was living in the city of Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia, when Cyclone Tracy struck, and was fascinated watching the press arrive from all over the world to cover the story. “I thought, this is an interesting job,” he says. “You fly into a crisis, talk to people, get your name on air or in print, then head off to the next story. From then on, I knew what I wanted to do.”
Sure enough, he soon became one of them. “I joined the BBC in the early 1980s,” Humphrey says. “My first foreign posting was to the civil war in Sri Lanka in 1986.” It was the start of a career that would span decades and take him to every continent.
“For some months, Dragon Fire outsold Harry Potter in India,” Humphrey recalls. “It was like Ronald Reagan saying everyone should read Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October.”
Although based in London, it is outside the city that Humphrey feels the deepest connection. “My spiritual base is in Suffolk on the wild east coast,” he says, “where the sea is gray, the wind merciless, the stony beach home to small, colorful clinker-build fishing boats, and an inspiration for writers such as P.D. James and composers such as Benjamin Britten. I have a small place right on the turbulent sea where I write.”
In 2015, Humphrey was sent on assignment to Little Diomede, a small Alaskan island situated less than three miles away from Big Diomede, which belongs to Russia. “The border is astonishingly understated,” he says, “with no markings and no American military or government presence of any kind on Little Diomede. I had time to sketch out a scenario in which a fleet of Russian helicopters flew across in minutes and troops occupied the American island, taking hostages. What would the United States do?”
Intrigued by the question, Humphrey started fleshing out ideas. He even modeled the main character, Rake Ozenna, on the people he encountered on the island. “I was living among some of the toughest people, whose sense of environment and survival is second to none,” he says. The result? A “hard-as-nails hero,” as one critic described him. Author Nelson DeMille himself weighed in, too, saying, “Rake Ozenna is smart, tough, and we’re glad he’s on our side.”
“My spiritual base is in Suffolk on the wild east coast,” Humphrey tells me, “where the sea is gray, the wind merciless, the stony beach home to small, colorful clinker-build fishing boats.”
Humphrey employed clever wordplay in naming the books. “I called the first in the series Man on Ice,” he says, “with the double meaning of literally walking across the ice over the Bering Strait to defeat Russia, and figuratively of mankind living on thin ice. The next, Man on Edge, is set in the frozen steppe between Moscow and northern Norway and deals with new, powerful submarine technology. Man on Fire takes us from action around Little Diomede and the Bering Strait to the Elbe Mountains of Germany and Czechia. Rake races to stop a crippling nuclear-triggered electromagnetic pulse strike.”
For the fourth and most recent installment, though, Humphrey had to switch up his naming scheme, ultimately deciding on Ice Islands. “I ran out of respectable Man on … titles,” Humphrey says. “Ice Islands begins mid-winter on the Finnish Aland Island in the Baltic Sea, and goes to northern Japan, with Rake battling institutional organized crime that is more powerful than governments.”
Humphrey enjoys combining these exciting story ideas with his knowledge of world affairs. “I love this series,” he says, “because I have been able to run from a journalistic assignment in a remote, little-known, and strategically pivotal place to scenarios around the world that show threats and challenges to the United States, in the format of commercial fiction.”
Humphrey’s background in journalism plays a big role in how he approaches any new novel he sits down to write. “I start with a premise, a scenario, and ‘what-if’ conundrum,” he tells me. “I know I should start with the character, but journalists instinctively build characters around real-life situations rather than grow situations from characters. It took me years to work that one out. I structure roughly for the first draft, then in more detail as I revise. I know Lee Child sits down and just writes, but he’s a Mozart-esque genius.”
At the same time, the differences between writing news and fiction created some difficulties at first. “A news journalist’s job is to spell things out clearly, with the most important reveal coming in the first sentence,” Humphrey says. “A thriller-crime writer’s job is to build suspense and stagger reveals so the mystery and action travel together until the very last page. Handling that change has been challenging.”
As he looks toward releasing his next book by the end of next year, Humphrey tells us to stay tuned, and leaves us with a sneak preview:
Forty-five minutes past midnight, June Hunt stepped through a solid metal door and followed the guard toward the maximum-security interior of the prison.
“He’s very, very smart, June. Be careful with him. Get him to trust you.” Her orders came directly from the FBI special agent-in-charge who had called as she was putting her seven-year-old son to bed.
Humphrey Hawksley‘s work as a BBC foreign correspondent has taken him all over the world. He is a regular panelist and speaker, and his writing has appeared in most mainstream publications, such as The Guardian, the Times, Financial Times, and Yale Global. His latest non-fiction book is Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the Asia-Pacific and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion. Humphrey’s television documentaries include The Curse of Gold, Bitter Sweet and Aid Under Scrutiny.
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