Hi Colin Falconer, thanks so much for talking to me. You’ve seen more exotic stuff than anyone I know and also written more novels (which I love).
Readers, Colin migrated from his home country, England, to Australia, where he spent most of his adult life, then moved to Spain.
Now he’s back in kangaroo country, thanks to a romance (it’s a secret, don’t ask).
In the meantime, he’s written more than thirty historical novels and thrillers, traveled the world for research and been translated everywhere.
Q. Colin, What’s the most interesting historical facts you’ve run across?
A. That Xanadu was a real place and not just Coleridge’s drug habit (and an Olivia Newton John song). That there was a Christian church in China in the thirteenth century (SILK ROAD). That the Sultan’s mother ran his harem (HAREM). That Isabella of France invaded England (ISABELLA)!
I went to school in England and the teachers only ever told me about William the Conqueror. They didn’t mention that one out of every 200 living males shareGenghis Khan’s DNA (SILK ROAD again). That sort of stuff.
Or that the British MI6 conspired to keep World War Two going and sabotagedGerman peace efforts (ISTANBUL).
(Because MI6 was thoroughly infiltrated by the Russians – and Stalin didn’t want the war to end until he’d annexed half of Europe).
Q. How do you write so many books?
A. I don’t know. I just have so many ideas, once I’ve started on something I want to get it done.
Also, I am very strong on structure, I believe, so a book is pretty much written in my head before I even write Chapter One. It means there’s no getting stuck halfway through or rewriting whole chunks of book any more. That helps. Plus I have seven fingers on each hand, it means I can type faster.
Q. You seem more attracted to women historical figures than men. Why?
A. Two reasons; one is very prosaic, the other less so. First, more women read historical fiction than men and they mostly like reading about women.
But second, I find the women more interesting. Their predicament was much more complex than mens’ situations, historically speaking. They had to be extraordinary to stand out – men just needed a bloodline and some sort of sharp weapon.
Q. Is there any one historical period you enjoy more than another, and why?
A. I’ve always loved the twenties and thirties. Perhaps I read too much Somerset Maugham as a kid. I’ve written a few books about that period but they don’t do as well as earlier time periods so I don’t do them much now.
A publisher once told me not to write about anything after 1800 and now I see why. At the time I thought (the publisher) was just being difficult.
Q. You’ve seen a lot of things; such as the Mexican witch you told us about on your blog. Can you tell us a few stories, including the one about the black witch?
A. The witch was a scary individual. He looked more like a gangsta rapper than a refugee from Macbeth; he was also quite hard to find. His ‘office’ was a room in a huge house in the back streets of this little Mexican town, filled with skulls and statues of native Indians and lit with hundreds of red candles.
His first words to me were: ‘Is this business or love?’ I really didn’t have anything in mind so I said love.
He said: ‘Do you want her back or do you want her to die?’ Just like that.
I stammered a bit.
Colin, in 2012 interview
He said: ‘Give me a picture of her and twenty dollars and I will bring her back to you.’
It happened that I still did have a photo of her, and I did want her back in my life, but I wasn’t giving it to him, no matter how badly I wanted things to be different. (Even though it’s all superstitious nonsense, of course).
So I walked out.
But THE BLACK WITCH OF MEXICO is about a guy who hands over the photo and the twenty bucks even though he doesn’t believe in it … and what happens next.
That was an interesting trip, but then Central and South America are interesting places; I got to dance with a voodoo queen in a favela in Salvador and take ayahuasca with a shaman in the Peruvian jungle – the real stuff (not the crap they give to backpackers that’s laced with cocaine.)
I asked the shaman if ayahuasca was dangerous: ‘He said no, only if you see a purple jaguar and run away screaming into the jungle. But that’s why he’s here.’
He pointed to the young guy with him. ‘He’ll run after you and catch you before you jump in the river.’
Fortunately I never saw a purple jaguar.
But Don Antonio was an interesting guy, he taught me and my mate a lot about shamanism.
I also went to see a guy called John of God, a famous Brazilian faith healer. So far I’ve only used the witch in a story; I’m sure these others will work their way in somewhere.
I make out I’m a pagan, but I am actually fascinated with all forms of spirituality. I’m always asking questions about the Unseen, it’s there as a shadow in many of my books.
Q. What’s the most interesting two things you’ve ever witnessed?
A. Well one would have to be John of God. He does these insane things, like sticking forceps up people’s noses and cutting them open with rusty scalpels.
People say it’s all a conjurer’s trick; but the odd thing is, that’s what he says too.
He asks people ‘Do you want a visible or invisible healing?’ So he pulls these stunts only on request, he says he can heal without all the sideshow, that they don’t need the magic tricks.
And he gets these amazing results on the people he chooses to heal; yet he doesn’t choose everyone.
You can be picked first time up; other people have been living at his ‘casa’ for six months and he’s never chosen them once.
It was one of the most fascinating places I’ve been, like nothing I’ve ever experienced.
The other interesting thing, for a very different reason, is the flag lowering ceremony at Wagah, on the Indo-Pakistan border near Amritsar.
It takes place every sunset and starts with all this posturing by soldiers from both sides, and ends in the perfectly coordinated lowering of the two nations’ flags.
There are thousands of people – mainly Indians – who watch it from the bleachers, screaming and yelling abuse at the other side through the fence.
I saw the ceremony in 2003; the theatrics have since been toned down. The ceremony I saw was just as Michael Palin described it; ‘a display of carefully choreographed contempt.’
It also featured something that British comedian John Cleese once made famous on television; the Silly Walk, performed by an Indian sergeant major.
I have a video of it somewhere. I just sat there, astounded. Never seen anything as ridiculous – or as scary – as that ceremony, before or since.
Q. You volunteered for the ambulance service in Australia. Was that a deepening experience?
A. It was a highly rewarding one. I did it for 13 years and I’m proud of what our team achieved. It wasn’t easy; because we lived in a country beachside town, with many retirees and tourists, we had a high proportion of car smashes, beach rescues and cardiac events.
I’d be tapping away at my laptop one moment, half an hour later I’d be crawling into an overturned car.
But we had a brilliant team of people that it was a privilege to work with, and I know there’s people walking around today who wouldn’t be if our guys hadn’t given up the time and effort to train and volunteer to go on call.
Once three of the crew spent a night shivering up a cliff and finally got help to haul, drag and heft their guy down at four in the morning, then got up at six to go to work the next day. And their guy made it. I’m proud I was a part of it all.
Q. You were formerly published by a traditional publisher, but seem to have launched out on your own. Is that correct? Why have you done that?
A. I got heartily sick of traditional publishers. I’m sure they work just fine for Lee Child and James Patterson, but if you’ve not made that sort of breakthrough and don’t have a key to the liquor cabinet in Hachette’s lunch room, then the whole experience of trad pub is probably going to leave you feeling a little frustrated.
I had an appalling experience last time out with a British publisher, but since I’ve been with Bob and Jen at CoolGus – great people – I’m actually enjoying being a writer again. I have control of my own destiny to a large degree.
It helped that I had a large backlist to start with; but I’ve produced new books such as ISABELLA with them that has gone gangbusters, and also brought SILK ROAD to the US.
They promoted the hell out of (SILK ROAD) and got a result, while in the UK they managed to stuff it up completely despite great reviews. It would have broken my heart if that had been the end of it because it was a fantastic book.
Bob and Jen still encourage me to remain a hybrid author, but as I can easily put out four-five books a year, I’m keeping all my options open and I love being a CoolGus author.
Q. Are you staying in Australia or moving to yet another country?
A. Australia for the time being. It’s a brilliant place – a hundred million bush flies can’t be wrong.
Q. What are you working on?
A. I have three at different stages.
One is set in 18th century Africa and India; I’ve just come back from a long research trip to finish the research. The backdrop is the Coromandel Coast of India, the British East India Company, the beginning of the Raj.
But what’s it about? It’s about losing everything and still finding the strength to keep going and win out.