Jason Elliot: Travelling man

Jason Elliot: Travelling man

Jason Elliot's first two books An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan and Mirrors of the Unseen: Journeys in Iran can be found on bookshelves alongside literary travel writers such as Colin Thubron and William Darymple, but his third is a complete change of direction— a thriller.

The idea of writing fiction first occurred to Elliot before 9/11: "I had a wealth of experience having made so many trips to Afghanistan. I thought well why don't I try to write a thriller? This travel book stuff is all very well but it's never going to have the same reach," but it wasn't until 2007 that he began to take the idea seriously. He had finished his second book on Iran and with small children limiting his ability to start another travel book— "you can't just go swanning off to another country for weeks a time, it's completely impossible" —began to plot the thriller that would become The Network (Bloomsbury, July).

Elliot's first fiction title is narrated by Anthony Taverner, a former army officer now living a quiet life in the English countryside, who is recruited by MI6 to undertake a dangerous mission in Afghanistan— to destroy a cache of Stinger missiles before they fall into the wrong hands. Taverner will be accompanied by H, a former SAS soldier but unbeknownst to H, or MI6, Taverner has another, hidden, agenda.

Originally, Elliot says, the scenarios he dreamed up were very sensational— "fantastic Bourne-esque things because that's what I thought a thriller should be" — but after talking to current and former SAS members he revised these to make the book more realistic. There has been a plethora of SAS-inspired publishing in recent years but Elliot says he wanted to get away from the "raft of celebrity SAS authors".

"I think there was what people sometimes call 'a gap in the market' because I wanted to get away from the fantasy and sensationalism of James Bond and the Ludlum-esque stuff... after a while too much fantasy has a bludgeoning effect: you accept that the guy can fly, or defuse a bomb with bare hands, or whatever." He elaborates: "A story has to have certain mechanisms which are tried and tested. So there's a good-looking girl, hand-to-hand [combat] stuff, [the protagonist] gets to blow stuff up... tried and tested mechanisms of the genre, without which we wouldn't call it a thriller. They have to be in there, but it's the way they're in there that is important. At every step I found myself trying to underplay stuff so, for example, our protagonist makes mistakes all the time, getting things wrong and getting hurt."

The climax of the novel takes place in Afghanistan, which Elliot first visited in 1986 during the Soviet occupation just after he had left school. It still exerts a powerful pull: he estimates he has been to the country about a dozen times, under five separate systems of government. It was the subject of his first highly acclaimed travel book An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan and he acknowledges a responsibility in his fiction to "be true to your authentic experience especially when the mainstream portrayal of Afghanistan is as negative as it is, that it's an irredeemably wicked place. I suppose we have to say that, we can't go round saying the Afghans are lovely as we are killing so many of them."

There are no plans at present for another travel book but Elliot believes literary travel writing remains an important genre, even if more recently lighter, comic travel books have increased in popularity: "They are hard work these books, they eat up a big portion of your life. It's not a light undertaking... a travel book, of the kind that I've written, is a compendium of personal experience, and research, and history and stories and an investigation into culture."

Elliot doesn't know whether there will be a sequel to The Network yet but says he has "quite a good idea about where and when it might be set. I would like to preserve Ant, I'd like to keep him alive as I think he's got more to do."