Interview with G.W. Eccles – The Oligarch: A Thriller
“Upright in the back seat, the FSB officer waited for the Range Rover to glide to a halt outside the battlemented walls of Novodevichy Convent.” This is the opening of writer G.W. Eccles’ exciting political thriller, The Oligarch.
As you state in the subtitle to the book, this story is about “the battle for Russia.” And you seem to have inside knowledge of the situation. Can you tell readers a little about your background and how you came to write The Oligarch?
I spent ten years living and working in Russia and Central Asia. I started in Moscow in 1994, shortly after the episode when Yeltsin stood on the tank outside the (Russian) White House to halt the coup against Gorbachev by members of the government opposed to the whole concept of perestroika and wanting a return to the former Soviet style of government. The next few years were a tumultuous period in Russian history as a sick, ailing Yeltsin struggled to govern a country running out of control.
It was during this time that the notorious ‘loans for shares’ scheme took place. Yeltsin was rapidly running out of cash as government revenues stalled, and a group of enormously rich businessmen who had profited from the fallout of the Soviet Union agreed to lend the State money in return for taking shares in major Russian companies (particularly in the natural resources sector) as security. The theory was that the State would borrow money for a year, then repay it and the security would be returned, but everyone knew that Yeltsin would never be able to repay the money in that timescale. As a result, the security crystallised and the oligarchs gained ownership of enormous companies for a tiny amount of money.
While I was working there, I was involved in several assignments for some of these oligarchs helping them come to grips with the companies of which they had gained control. These vast enterprises were all operating in a cumbersome, inefficient Soviet manner, and the oligarchs were quick to put in measures to make them more competitive, adopting Western practices and wholesale rationalisations.
This is the key background to The Oligarch: A Thriller. It begins with the election of a Russian President for a third term amid widespread accusations of vote rigging, and deals with the consequences of the President’s determination to claw back from the oligarchs what he regards as the family silver they obtained for a song as a result of the ‘loans for shares’ episode.
What impressed me about this book is the strength of the storytelling and the pacing, particularly in the opening. Given that you know so much about the setting and the background to your story, how hard was it for you to set aside your expertise while you concentrated on telling an exciting story?
Extraordinarily difficult. On reflection, I think some of the earlier drafts read more like a business history of post-perestroika Russian than a thriller. Looking back, although the story was good (I think), the early drafts made very slow reading.
At various stages, a number of different people read the manuscript, and it soon became clear that radical surgery was required. In the back of my mind, I’d always wanted to write a story where the action and twists moved really fast, almost before the reader had time to catch his breath, so in the end I decided to re-plan the book and rewrote it almost from scratch since this seemed the best way of achieving this objective. To put this in context, the final version of the manuscript was some 100 pages shorter than the original version.
Politics, power, money and the struggle for supremacy – this is no place for the weak or the insecure. What sort of personal qualities do your characters have to have to operate in the world of your story?
They have to be strong or, at least, get strong. Let me explain what I mean.
The Russian business world is not for the faint-hearted. While I was there, bankers and oil industry executives lived in constant fear for their lives. Western oilmen lived in an armed compound outside Moscow formerly reserved for the Politburo. Directors of aluminium companies tended to have a fairly short lifespan. The Russian approach to a contractual relationship, even after the contract’s signed, is that it’s always renegotiable. The people who get to the top not only need a certain presence, but they are tough through and through.
In The Oligarch: A Thriller, there are three main characters. Leksin, the hero, who is brought in by the President to investigate what is happening at Tyndersk prior to its appropriation by the State. He is tough both physically and mentally, and has the confidence not to be intimated. Anton Blok, the oligarch, who gained control of Tyndersk though the loans for shares scheme, has his own private agenda (about which we learn about as the book progresses) and will stop at nothing to thwart the President’s plans. He’s essentially a thug in a suit: rude, insensitive, greedy, ruthless. Finally, Anya, Blok’s daughter. She’s a particularly interesting character, I think, because, when we first meet her, she comes across as a rich, spoilt waster, obsessed yet bored with the Moscow social world. However, as she gets to grips with what her father’s doing and the danger in which it’s putting Leksin (with whom she falls in love), she has for once a purpose in life and she shows steely determination in pursuing it.
The Oligarchs is an impressive debut for a first-time novelist– or have you had other fiction published?
No, I haven’t. That of course doesn’t mean that I haven’t written any fiction before. Probably like all authors, there are plenty of manuscripts in the bottom drawer. The early ones are, I suspect, pretty terrible. One or two of the others I might revisit one day to see if anything can be salvaged from them.
Given the quality of the writing, I am surprised that you have not been taken up by an agent or a publisher. Did you submit this to agents before deciding to indie publish?
How nice of you to praise the writing. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Yes, I did look at mainstream publishing, and through an agent it was sent to a few publishers. The feedback in most cases was pleasantly flattering, but two relatively consistent themes emerged from their replies. First, there was a reluctance to take on new authors in the present climate, especially I think thriller writers. They wanted to stick with the tried and tested. Second, they all had Russia-based novels already in their lists. This second point I found particularly depressing. There are of course numerous thrillers set in Russia, some of them with good stories. However, with only a few exceptions, they appear to be written by people whose knowledge of Russia is limited at worst to the internet and at best to a two week Thomas Cook tour of Russia! By contrast, my family and I lived in Russia and Central Asia for ten years, and I was painstaking about trying to make the novel authentic: how people live, what it’s like to travel within Russia, the cold and drabness of the Siberian Arctic, what they eat, how they dress, and so on. I got a number of my Russian contacts to read the manuscript and highlight anything they felt was odd.
Anyway, getting back to your question, after I’d received a few publishers’ replies, I had to make a decision. One of the key things about the book is that it is immensely topical. It begins just after a Russian President has been controversially elected for a third term, and concerns his battle to wrest control back from the oligarchs. All these things are happening in Russia in real life right now, although of course the rest of the story is fiction. With this in mind, I had to choose between persevering and hopefully finding a mainstream publisher (which even if successful would mean that the book wouldn’t be published for at least another year), or publish it independently. Rightly or wrongly, I felt that, to achieve most impact with readers, the thriller needed to be published now, so I went down the self-published e-book route
What’s next for G.W. Eccles, thriller writer?
I would very much like The Oligarch: A Thriller to be the first in a series of Leksin thrillers. I have the next story firmly fixed in my head. However, at the moment I’m waiting to see how this novel goes. If enough people read it and like it, then I’m sure that’ll provide the necessary motivation to get on with the sequel.
How long did the book take to write – from research to publication and can you tell us a little about the writing process?
A very long time. The first draft was done several years ago, then left in a drawer. Once I picked it up again, as I’ve mentioned, I realised that tinkering with it wasn’t the answer. I spent about a year writing and rewriting it, then sending it off to contacts for their feedback, then writing it and rewriting it some more. My wife, who speaks Russian and has a far greater knowledge of Russian culture than I do, spent a massive amount of time helping with the editing process.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Not really. I just hope people read the book and like it. Personally I think it’s a very exciting and pacy story, taking place in an interesting and unusual setting. but that’s not really the point: the key thing is that the readers share that view. That’s what would make all the effort worthwhile.
And finally, Russia is in the news at the moment, for all the wrong reasons and even though we in the West would like to understand what’s going on it’s hard to make sense of it from here. What do you think will happen to the young women in the punk band, Pussy Riot, who dared to publicly humiliate Putin?
To be honest, no idea. All I can say is that upsetting Putin is a very dangerous practice. Look what happened to Khodorkovsky. [currently serving a 12 year prison sentence].
The Oligarch (ASIN: B007T48YV2)is available through:
It is also available on Apple iTunes (UK, US and France), Barnes & Noble, and Kobo eBookstore