Author Neil MacDonald.
Author Neil MacDonald.

1. I was inspired to write The Tears of Boabdil by revelations about undercover policemen having sex with their targets.

We now know that, over four decades, at least 139 undercover policemen spied on at least 1,000 British political, community, and trade union groups. Some stole the identities of dead children, and over 30 women were duped into relationships with these “spycops”. I wondered what kind of man would do this and what it would do to their sense of truth. This is now the subject of an official investigation, the Undercover Policing Inquiry, which began hearings on 2nd November, 2020. I’m not convinced we’ll ever get to the bottom of what really happened, and that’s why I wrote my book.

2. I like to write about big questions, but it’s important to me to do this in an accessible way.

Though The Tears of Boabdil deals with issues of truth, trust, and madness, these are framed within a thriller format. Vince, an undercover cop, tries to infiltrate what he believes to be an Islamic terrorist cell. In doing so, he convinces himself that it’s okay to sleep with Ayesha, the sister of his targets, to get closer to the brothers. The thriller and the forbidden romance story lines give the philosophical questions a clear context.

3. I’m a big fan of narrative philosophy.

Simply put, this is the view that almost everything we believe we know, including ourselves, is a story. Stories are how we make sense of the world—they tell us what goes with what; what’s important and what can be left out; who to praise and who to blame. Taken to the extreme, this view can, of course, be dangerous— loosening our grip on reality and on morality. For Vince, the protagonist of my novel, it’s catastrophic for him and those around him. He’s an undercover cop who comes to believe his own cover story.

4. I’ve been lucky enough to have three careers.

One of my earliest memories is of my father telling me that I was going to spend most of my life working, so I’d better choose something I enjoyed. It’s been an immense privilege to be able to do just that. Trained as a scientist, I spent an early research career working on the embryonic development of the brain. It was wonderful being paid to go in to work every day and solve intricate puzzles. But it began to seem self-indulgent in a world where there was war, poverty, and injustice. So, I transitioned to working in international aid, and learned just how resourceful and inspirational the world’s poorest people are. Now, I’m being self-indulgent again and writing novels!

5. My mother’s advice to me as a child was equally practical.

She liked to recite an old German proverb: “If you drink you die. If you don’t drink, you die anyway.”

The Tears of Boabdil
The Tears of Boabdil

6. I write about what I know.

I know a little bit about being under covert surveillance. When I was a human rights worker during the wars in Central America back in the early 1980s, a ‘spook’ in the British embassy in El Salvador let me know he’d been watching me. Back in the UK, he walked into my office, smiled, nodded, and walked out again. Earlier, I picked up my phone and, without dialling, received a playback of a call I’d had the previous day.

7. Research extends what we can know.

If we only wrote about what we literally know, men could never write female characters and vice versa. In fact, we could never write any character except ourselves, which would be memoir, not fiction. Luckily, we can increase what we know. That’s called research. For The Tears of Boabdil, I researched intensively into Islam, undercover policing, and madness. I also used settings I know, such as Granada in southern Spain and so on. I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of my working life in very exotic locations. Last year, I travelled to the tiny Pacific island of Yap (which is about the size of the city of Oxford) because the novel I’m currently working on, The Star Compass, is set there. It’s an extraordinary place, where traditional money is giant discs of stone; where the highest art form is dance; and where navigators cross the trackless ocean in canoes, navigating using the stars and imaginary islands.

8. I love to read.

I don’t think you can be a writer without first being a reader. Reading allows us to do that most amazing of things—live inside someone else’s head and know what they’re thinking and feeling.

9. My secret for dealing with Covid lockdowns was to develop a project.

I published my novel, The Tears of Boabdil, during lockdown. I could just as easily have painted the house. Except that, after renovating a house on the south coast of England, I vowed the only DIY tool I’d ever use again would be my credit card.

10. My current goal is to be invited to speak at a writers’ conference in Iceland.

That little country is the world’s most literary nation. Apparently, one in every ten Icelandic adults has published a book. Maybe it has something to do with the long winter nights.

The Tears of Boabdil by Neil MacDonald is published through Matador, priced £7.99 in paperback and £3.99 as an eBook. It is available on Amazon

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