Interview: Simon Conway, author of Rock Creek Park

SIMON Conway tells Stephen McGinty how a visit to where Soviet scientists once tried to breed a human drone led him to a sex-crazed Russian woman called Katja and his latest novel

When Sarah Smith, daughter of the late Labour Party leader John Smith, left her elegant Washington DC flat to report on Barack Obama’s rise to the White House for Channel 4 News, husband Simon 
Conway would spend his days with Katja, a beautiful Russian, with dyed blonde hair, a row of silver rings in her ears and a proclivity for the act of love so vigorous that restraints were not an optional fetish but a necessity.

Conway was not alone in his appreciation of a woman so experienced at sex as to prove irresistible to the jaded palates of the politicians who patrolled the corridors of power on Capital Hill, he was simply the only one to know the secret behind her racing libido and exceptional artistry between the sheets. For, thankfully for the sanctity of Ms Smith’s marriage, her rival existed only on the flickering computer screen and now, printed and bound into her husband’s latest novel, Rock Creek Park.

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I wasn’t familiar with Simon Conway before we met in Edinburgh last week. He had driven north from London, where the couple are now based, to deposit his husky dog, Tostig, with his sister, before he and Sarah flew off for a fortnight’s hiking in Tuscany, and his publishers, Hodder & Stoughton, had lined up a few interviews. A proof copy of Rock Creek Park had sat on my desk, unopened, for a couple of weeks and it was the night before our lunch that I finally cracked open the spine with a view to sampling a few chapters then alluding to having read the whole book by the judicious placing of a few yellow post-it notes, as if to say: ‘not only have I read the entire book, but I’ve made notes too. May I please direct you to page 207?’

Well, it had me at ‘Hello’. A reader can usually remember when the hooks sink in and you realise you won’t be released until the last page. Stephen King defined the phenomenon as the ‘gotta’. You ‘gotta’ keep reading regardless of the fact there is work to be done or the clock has crept past 2am.

For me, as I’m sure it will be for many readers who pick it up on publication next month, the ‘gotta’ kicked in with the allusion to the fact that Katja may have derived her sex drive from a genetic experimentation undertaken by the Russians to splice the DNA of humans and a Bonobo chimp with the view of creating the ultimate Mata Hari. Who wouldn’t want to know how this weird and breathless tale of international intrigue is going to end? When I praise the book, he says: “I’m a slow learner, it’s book four and I’ve finally written a page-turner.”

The heroine of the novel is 
Harriet ‘Harry’ Armstrong, a Scottish former police protection officer, who follows her husband, a high-profile TV journalist, to Washington, and who stumbles on the naked body of a young woman while out running at Rock Creek Park. Familiarity with Conway’s own story will let the reader recognise a few similarities as Harriet marries into a political family and the knot is tied on Iona, where John Smith was buried and where Smith and Conway married in September, 2007, with the reception held in the village hall.

Today Conway, the author of three previous novels – including A Loyal Spy, which won the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger from the Crime Writers Association – is a full-time writer, but his previous day jobs have provided plenty of material. After graduating in English literature from Edinburgh University, Conway, who was born in California while his academic parents were working there, moved to New York and tended bar while writing a novel. After one year and just 35 pages, he decided he needed an experience. “You can blame Hemingway and Robert Stone.” At first he considered joining the US Marines before a friend persuaded him that he would have more fun in the British Army. He spent five years with the Black Watch and the Queen’s Own Highlanders, serving in Northern Ireland and Germany. “It was before things got exciting,” he jokes.

After leaving the army, he moved to the Scottish islands, with his former wife, a vet and their two small children and wrote his first novel, Damaged, about a drug deal gone wrong, which was published by Canongate. Later, when a former army colleague called to offer him a job clearing land mines in Cambodia with the HALO Trust, the lure of adventure proved too strong and his marriage didn’t survive the eight-month assignment. He went on to work in Kosovo, Abkhazia, whose broken city and deserted landscape partly inspired the new novel, before becoming director of Landmine Action, where he ran clearance projects in the Western Sahara and Guinea Bissau.

“The year in Abkhazia was fascinating and helped inspire Rock Creek Park. It was 80 per cent ethnically cleansed and bombed out and there is nothing to sell but scrap. I was in a house with four armed guards, the mountains behind me, some flats in front and then the Black Sea with boats sunk in the bay. HALO was the largest employer. That was when I went to the Primate Research Centre.

“It was there they trained the monkeys that went into space and they worked on a polio vaccine. In the 1920s Ilya Ivanov, a horse breeder and scientist who was a specialist in artificial insemination, was tasked by Stalin to create a breed of human drone that would fight and work in the factories. They tried to cross chimpanzee sperm with human eggs but it didn’t work.”

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Conway met Sarah Smith in 2006 when he was co-chair of the Cluster Munition Coalition, which was campaigning, ultimately successfully, for an international treaty to ban cluster bombs. “She interviewed me in 2006 and I had met her a couple of times before, just to say hello. She had worked with my sister on Channel 4. I met her and we kind of hit it off pretty quick and got married in 2007. I remember there was a bull that wandered into the hall. We had to get the bull out before we could have the reception. Then I went out to Washington in June 2008 and I wrote A Loyal Spy, which was published in 2010 and it was when I was out there I started writing Rock Creek Park.

“We were living on the edge of Rock Creek Park during Snowmageddon [the heavy snowfall that paralysed the eastern seaboard for four days in 2010] and I have a dog so I was out for a couple of hours a day. It is a real wilderness. We spent a few days blundering around the park. I had this notion of setting a book in DC and because of Sarah I had the opportunity to come along on the campaign trail and see the politicians in their element. It is a weird town, though. Just journalists, lobbyists and politicians. Edinburgh without the festival. It is a government town.”

For Simon, the chance to spend his days at home in front of the computer screen was a welcome change after a decade of writing in his spare time. “I felt like I had spent ten years careering around battlegrounds and post conflict zones and I did writing evening and weekends to catch up. I wrote Rage at evenings and weekends, It was really nice to have a bit of time and it was nice to be married and it was great time to be in Washington.

“But since we moved back to London I have done some consultancy work. I had a week in Kabul in January, in Somalia in February, I was in the Congo for a week in March and then Libya for a week in May, so I am doing a bit of this and that just now, but it was good to be out of it and concentrate on the writing.”

During his time in Washington he attended a few conferences at the Pentagon which offered interesting insights into the future of warfare. “One organised by Janes and one by Slate magazine it was all about the future of warfare and how genetics will produce better soldiers. I got quite interested in it.”

The novel has blockbuster stamped on every page, so I ask if there has been any interest in Hollywood? “It is early days yet. A Loyal Spy got a bit of interest. We had to send a copy off to Ridley Scott but they came back and said that they couldn’t place it in the current market – whatever the f*** that means. It was quite exciting to think that I might be able to pay off my mortgage.”

Finally, we have to come back to Katja, his literary mistress on whose fate he spent so much time.

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So what did Sarah think?

“I don’t know. She hasn’t said anything. ”

Then he laughs.

• Rock Creek Park by Simon Conway is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 2 August, priced £12.99