Nafeez Ahmed is the author of Zero Point.
1) What originally inspired you to get into writing?
I’ve written ever since I was a kid. It started proper when I was around 12, and reading lots of science fiction, fantasy and horror. I used to try my hand at writing my own. Once I got into my teens and began to grapple with my place in the world and all the usual angst, I dabbled in poetry. As a teenager I increasingly read a lot of nonfiction – philosophy, religion, spirituality, politics, again, mostly because I was confused about life and trying to understand what it’s all about. As I read, so I increasingly also began to write, taking notes of what I was reading and then formulating my own stuff.
Before I became a published writer, I’d already written four books worth of material, three on philosophy and religion, and one on politics. Still, at that time, I didn’t really have a clue how to become a professional writer (arguably I still don’t!)
But I wrote for free for a number of online magazines on current affairs and foreign policy, and eventually that process evolved. Then 9/11 happened.
I ended up writing a lot of about 9/11 – the events leading up to it, how and why it happened, its repercussions around the world, how citizens of the world should respond to it… and in the end I wrote so much it turned into a book-length manuscript. I’d not intended to do that, but then once I was sitting there with a manuscript, I began to look for a publisher. One thing led to another, and it was published as The War on Freedom. It went on to get reviewed by Gore Vidal in The Observer and win the Naples Prize for non-fiction in 2003, before actually being officially used by the 9/11 Commission.
2) Where did the idea for Zero Point come from?
I decided to write ZERO POINT based on my experiences as an investigative journalist and academic working on international security issues. As an environment writer for The Guardian, I’ve found myself on the frontlines of some of the biggest challenges to ever face the human species as a whole: environmental degradation, climate change, energy crisis, and how they interlink with food, water and social crises.
But I’ve also covered international security and foreign affairs for many other publications, much of which has focused since my first book on how corporate skullduggery and political corruption work together to undermine national security and counter democracy. ZERO POINT is very much inspired by both these themes.
There’s a third intersecting theme where I got the idea for ZERO POINT – and which explains the title – which is to do with a friend of mine who used to work as a physicist in the British defense industry at a senior level. Among the issues he worked on were classified projects related to advanced quantum physics, anti-gravity technology, and energy. He not only is extremely well-connected with senior officials in and outside government that have worked on US and UK related projects of this nature, but also played a big role in providing the main leads for another journalist, Nick Cook, for his book, The Hunt For Zero Point. Nick Cook is also a serious guy – a military correspondent and aerospace consultant for Janes Defense Weekly, the reputable defense industry journal. So my friend turns up in his book under the name ‘Dr Dan Markcus’.
So Dr Markcus also turns up in ZERO POINT as a character! His character brings a lot together in terms of the core ideas that made me want to write this novel – from classified efforts to weaponise quantum physics, to the little-understood role of the Nazis in the evolution of the US intelligence community.
3) Was there any particular character that you liked or felt able to relate to?
My main character David Ariel relates to me a fair bit. He swears a lot. Which is very much like me. And he can also be flippant and direct – which is also like me. But he’s also very different in that he’s a badass ex-military dude, and has all the personal and psychological baggage that comes with it (much of which it more conventional thrillers ignore)
4) Was there any particular character that you dislike?
There’s a few really bad guys in the story somewhere but it’s up the reader to figure out who they are. In that sense, it’s a bit of a whodunnit. But the blurriness here also serves a purpose, in that often the root cause of our problems isn’t one bad guy, or even one easy to pin down group of bad guys. Sometimes it’s a system, and the people running it don’t even believe what they’re doing is bad, assuming they even understanding the ramifications of what they’re doing.
5) Were there any scenes in particular that were hard or easy to write?
Some of the action set-pieces were difficult to put together and got quite complicated simply due to the number of things happening in different scenes. Thankfully I had some amazing beta readers who were able to pinpoint potential problems and help me iron them out. One of the biggest challenges was writing fight scenes that make sense, and for that I needed to run my scenes by people with direct knowledge.
6) Did you draw on any personal knowledge or experience for this book?
My experience as an investigative journalist, including many big stories I’ve broken during my career, fed directly into crafting the story.
One of the things I’m known for is my multidisciplinary approach, both to scholarship and journalism. A lot of what I do is about drawing seemingly disparate threads together and understanding how things work as a whole, systemically. ZERO POINT takes a lot of seemingly disparate threads – national security, political corruption, mass surveillance, militarism abroad, radicalisation/extremism, environmental crisis, economic recession, civil unrest, and brings them together into a single narrative of a plausible near future world.
This applies also to the setting of the story. ZERO POINT is set after a Fourth Iraq War, where the US and UK have re-invaded and re-occupied Iraq to shore-up a collapsing Iraqi client-regime in the face of a domestic al-Qaeda affiliated insurgency. I started writing this six years ago, so when ISIS began rampaging across Iraq earlier this year, resulting in US airstrikes and now the prospect of a long-term military engagement in the region, I surprised myself at how accurate my story was.
Obviously, it’s supposed to be fiction, but the setting is based on trends that I’ve been tracking quite closely in the region over the last few years.
I just hope that all the other crazy stuff that comes up in the book (like “Quantum Apocalypse”!) stays well in the realm of fiction!
7) Have any of your characters been inspired by real people?
The character of David Ariel, my main character, is inspired by the many heroes of our age who have worked in government, military or intelligence agencies, but having witnessed firsthand wrong-doing, corruption and incompetence, have put their careers on the line and spoken out about it in the public interest.
8) Are there any particular authors or books that have inspired you?
I think Jonathan Maberry’s Joe Ledger series and Jeremy Robinson’s Chess Team series have played a big role in inspiring the general thrust, but my story is quite different to theirs. For one thing, both Maberry and Robinson seem pretty naive about the nature of military intelligence agencies and how they work. Invariably, the stories focus on big threats ‘out there’ which the heroic spy agencies alone can deal with. My story has lots of big threats ‘out there’, but also a lot of big threats ‘in here’, and drawing on my direct understanding of the real workings of espionage, puts forward a narrative that views of the operations of intelligence agencies in a much more complicated light.
Readers will learn a great deal about the way these agencies really work from this story.
9) Do you have any future books planned?
Yes! ZERO POINT is the first in the Unravelling Trilogy.
10) Do you have any advice/pearls of wisdom for budding writers?
My main piece of advice would be to just keep writing. Don’t write to please others. Write for yourself – write what you’d love to read. But also, don’t be afraid of criticism, and be your own worst critic. A writer who can’t take criticism is a crap writer. A writer who is incapable of going back to their own writing and seeing what’s wrong with it will never make it. Equally, don’t constantly beat yourself up about your writing thinking it’s rubbish. Be compassionate, pragmatic and realistic with yourself. Appreciate the good stuff you have written, but be willing and open to improving it and making it better. Sometimes that means re-writing everything. That’s okay. You’re a writer. It’s what you do. No one said it would be easy. So just get on with it 🙂