The old man pointing the crossbow at me wore a khaki shirt and no shoes, and his rope belt had a couple of carrots and a machete stuck into it. He was dark and small, and, I guessed, a member of the Wa minority. He chuckled. We were on a narrow trail, with bamboo groves either side so tall that they cut out most of the light.
The crossbow was clearly homemade – perhaps a family heirloom – rather cumbersome, and, fortunately for me, it wasn’t loaded. He was just having a laugh with the foreigner. Still, it got me thinking; a crossbow would be a great weapon to use, bookwise: because of the long loading time, you would have to shoot once then run away, so a crossbow duel could be dragged out over dozens of suspenseful pages.
I was in China, in the jungly zone close to the Burmese border, researching a guidebook. Though this area was too marginal to justify many pages in the guide, it fascinated me. Like all border areas, there was an intriguing mix of the sleazy and exotic; plenty of shady characters and cross cultural confusions and connections. Northern Burma is pretty lawless and one of the main industries here was receiving smuggled goods – teak, jade and drugs, usually – from over the border.
I knew it would make a great location for a novel, and another encounter furnished me with the leads: a couple of gap year backpackers turned up at my guesthouse, and seemed blithely unaware, so it seemed to me, of the need to take a little care as they searched out local temptations. I remember thinking, you could really get into trouble here.
Slowly the book took shape. I wanted to write an adventure story – I love the rather old fashioned stories about derring-do in foreign places. Something a bit like Deliverance, a holiday nightmare. Plus I’ve always loved that classic noir staple – doomed characters trying to get away with a crime and just digging themselves further into a hole. And I wanted all the action to take place over a single day – starting at dawn, and finishing at dusk. And – just to make it harder for myself – the whole story would be told from one character’s viewpoint, and, further, there would be no flashbacks or foreshadowing, or any of that literary stuff. Just one event after another, for the whole book; something like a film (I also write scripts) shot in real-time.
I knew it was going to end in a crossbow fight, but I didn’t want to take the obvious route, of creating a situation where the locals take on the westerners – no, I thought it would be much more interesting if the westerners ended up turning on each other… So. That’s how it happened. I hope you like Border Run, and don’t let it put you off travelling.
Border Run is published by Sort of Books on April 5th 2012