The Ben Hope books have pretty much been my life for the last seven years! They’re thrillers, set in modern times and following the adventures of the main character as he gets into one scrape after another. He’s a former SAS soldier who left the army to go it alone, finding and rescuing innocent victims of kidnapping and generally going after bad guys, of whom he finds plenty in his travels all over the world. When we first met him in The Alchemist’s Secret, he was specialised in finding kidnapped children; his work has broadened out a little over the course of the series, but it’s generally the innocent and vulnerable he’s driven to protect. There’s always a historical element built into each story, some mystery for Ben to solve and into which he always gets drawn as part of his mission. It’s what I call the ‘mystery history’ genre. The historical background covers a wide spectrum from ancient Egypt right through biblical times to the medieval period to World War II, but the main focus is always Ben, and I think that when you boil it down, he’s the main reason the books have been popular. They seem to appeal equally to male and female readers, which I’ve been very pleased about.
Please can you tell us about the character of Ben Hope for those of us who don’t know about him?
On the face of it, Ben is an action hero with all the usual skills and characteristics you might expect from someone of his background: he’s highly talented at all kinds of combat, is a clever detective, speaks several languages and always manages to get out of tight situations against seemingly impossible odds. But he’s also a little different from the run-of-the-mill action hero. Readers looking for a macho hard-man or a strong, silent type should possibly look elsewhere! While he’s very tough and metes out hard justice to those who harm the innocent, I think the side of his character that appeals to most readers is his humanity. He can be extremely gentle, even soft and vulnerable at times. Through the series we follow the many ups and downs in his personal life, which often causes him suffering. He feels guilt for things in the past, and is someone with a very strong sense of responsibility to make things right. I get a lot of mail from readers who have formed a strong personal attachment to Ben over the course of the series. What they say they love about him is that he comes over to them as a very real human being, as fallible and mortal as the rest of us, someone they can really resonate with and root for.
Ben Hope has been described as ‘James Bond meets Jason Bourne’. Did these help form the inspiration for the character?
Of course, I was very flattered and pleased by that comparison, as Bond and Bourne are such iconic characters. And I’d admit to having quite a few of those movies among my DVD collection. But it’s not a comparison I’d take too far, because Ben really is very different in a lot of important ways. James Bond fights for Queen and Country, is very much part of the establishment (with one or two exceptions), and goes through sexual conquests like Homer Simpson goes through doughnuts. None of that is Ben’s style at all – he left the army under a cloud and was never happy with the political agendas behind military operations. I certainly wouldn’t call him patriotic. When it comes to relationships, he treats women with huge respect, doesn’t do one-night-stands and is loyal in love. As for Jason Bourne, this guy is a cold killer who, before he lost his memory, went around indiscriminately assassinating people for the CIA. Ben has more of a conscience than that. Yes, he does kill people . . . but take it from me, they all have it coming!
Your books have been compared to Dan Brown. How does this make you feel?
Again, it’s always nice to see yourself mentioned alongside the names of the illustrious! Whether you like his books or not, there’s no question that Dan Brown helped to popularise the whole ‘mystery-history’ thriller genre. If it hadn’t been for him, many authors, myself included, might never have got their break into this very tough and competitive business. So to me, Dan Brown is something of a hero. Are my books like his? The only real similarity is the historical element. Our characters are very different indeed: Brown’s Robert Langdon is a scholar, a historian, more a man of letters than one of action. My character Ben Hope strayed from the academic path at a young age, quitting his Theology studies to join the army. He’s often more interested in bringing the bad guys to justice than he is in solving the actual mystery. That’s just what he has to do to solve the clues.
Your novels are carefully researched. What can you tell us about this process?
It’s an involved process, to say the least. Before I can start writing a single word of a book, I need to have certain things in place: What’s going to be the historical background? How is that relevant in modern times, i.e. what’s the angle for the bad guys? How does Ben come to get involved in it? Where will the story take us geographically? So all of that needs to be clear in my mind before I know where I’m going. I do a lot of historical research; sometimes I have to do scientific research as well. With all the globetrotting that goes on the books, I also have to get the settings as right and authentic as possible. That sometimes means travelling there, which can be the best way to get the flavour of the place. On top of all that research is the wealth of peripheral detail I have to include on all manner of subjects, from architecture to weaponry to cars to aircraft to just about anything else. After that, all that remains is the simple, straightforward task of crafting a 110,000-word novel with all the twists and surprises it takes to keep the readers hooked and entertained . . .
You have worked in many different jobs. At what point did you decide that your path should be writing?
It was always something I wanted to do. Show me a professional author, or a successful actor or musician, who didn’t struggle for years in all manner of jobs before finally achieving their cherished goal. Unless you’re extremely lucky, it’s not something you can just jump into. So, yes, I’ve done a few things in my time: language teaching, as that’s what I studied way back in another life at University, music teaching, spending five years playing in a band, a bit of journalism, and even weird stuff like paranormal investigation. But I’m completely settled in what I do now. It’s been tough getting this far, and I’ve never worked so hard in my life, but I don’t think I’ll ever want to do anything else.
Please tell us about the independence and control self-publishing gives you.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be on both sides of the fence in publishing. Most of the Ben Hope books, and most of the series still to come, have been published by a well-known publisher, one of the giants in the business. As a parallel to that side of my work, I’ve also been able to enjoy the wonderful new freedom offered to today’s authors to self-publish in ways that never used to be possible. In the olden days, self-publishing was very much looked down upon, and was a risky proposition at best. You’d fork out large sums of money in return for a garage-load of books that you’d have to tout around bookshops yourself, or sell them in the street if you had to. It was virtually impossible to get noticed or build any kind of career that way. Now it’s all changed, and that change has largely come about thanks to two things: the rise of the eBook, and the rise of Amazon. I know a lot of people are very down on Amazon, but I’d argue that they are in many ways the saviour of the writing profession. Authors now have unprecedented freedom to sidestep the whole traditional process of having to submit their work to a publisher, which usually had to be done via a literary agent. It was hard enough getting an agent to look at your work, never mind a publisher! Even if you were taken on, you would generally have little control over key things like titles, publication dates, pricing, and marketing, which caused (and still does cause) huge stress and frustration to many thousands of authors. Now, when you publish independently through something like Amazon’s Kindle Digital Platform (KDP), you retain full control over everything: editing, design, title, pricing, release date, marketing; the lot. You spend nothing, except the time writing the book and whatever you pay a designer to create a cover image. If you’re hopeless with technology like me, you might also employ a specialist to fit your manuscript into the various formats for eBook publication. But costs are low and there’s a huge potential readership out there, hungry for great stories at the right price.
What are the other benefits of self-publishing?
I can think of plenty. For a start, I’ve never heard of a traditional publisher who would pay an author up to 70% royalties for their work. With self-publishing you forego the advance that traditional publishers pay, but a) it often isn’t much anyway and b) if your book does well you can quickly make it up again thanks to those super royalty percentages. I know quite a few authors who are doing so much better financially since switching from traditional publishers to self-publishing that they’d never go back. Aside from money, there’s literary freedom. Fiction genres like the short story and the novella were an important part of literature for centuries, kept popular by writers from Guy de Maupassant to Rudyard Kipling to Edgar Allan Poe, H.P Lovecraft and many, many more, including Stephen King in modern times. But with popular fiction becoming somewhat homogenised into standard formats in recent years by the mainstream publishing industry, that whole valuable tradition had all but died out and publishers were only interested in producing the ‘brick’, the standard-format mass-market paperback, 100,000 words long and about two and a half inches thick, that fills supermarket shelves by the million. But now the venerable old short story is coming back - purely because the flexibility of the modern eBook format allows it. Authors can now explore all kinds of new ways to express themselves creatively, and readers are snapping it up like it never went out of fashion! To make things even better, thanks to Amazon’s CreateSpace program authors can additionally provide print-on-demand paperback editions of their work for readers who prefer ink and paper to digital books.
How did it first feel to post your work?
Getting published was nothing new to me, but it was still a thrill to see it appear up there within less than 24 hours of pressing the button! After having been fully responsible for every stage of the process, you really feel like it’s your ‘baby’. I’ve now been through that process three times: with two Ben Hope novellas, Passenger 13 and Bring Him Back, which are both prequels to the main series, and a horror story called House of Malice. They’ve all done really well, thanks to the support of my readers – to whom I’m massively indebted.
What is next for you?
Lots. I get busier each year, and 2014 is no exception. The next Ben Hope novel, called The Nemesis Program, will be out in June, published by HarperCollins. I’m currently nearly finished writing the follow-up to it, plus working on the next one after that! The plan is to publish two full-length Ben Hope books a year for the next four years, which will bring the series up to 17 books. Meanwhile I have plans for several more short works, including another Ben Hope prequel which I’m intending to get started on very soon. Ben and I will be around for a while yet . . .
About Scott Mariani:
Scott Mariani is the author of the popular Ben Hope thriller series, which has sold over a million copies in the UK alone. His first Ben Hope novel, The Alchemist’s Secret, spent six straight weeks at #1 in the Amazon Kindle chart, and many more have been Sunday Times bestsellers. His latest book, The Nemesis Program, is published in June. Visit the official Scott Mariani site: www.scottmariani.com