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1. First, congratulations on your newest release, Man on Edge, A Rake Ozenna Thriller. You’ve already received some phenomenal reviews for this book, hailing it as “A multilayered tale with plenty of fast-paced action [that] will hook thriller fans…” (Booklist) and “Reminiscent of the very best Cold War fiction, filled with double-dealing, and ingenious political intrigue.” (Nelson de Mille). Give us a little insight into what it’s been like for you to now have the second book in the Rake Ozenna series out after the first, Man on Ice was so well-received.

It’s satisfying that the idea of creating an unusual character from a little-known setting is gaining traction. In this second book, Man on Edge, reviewers are beginning to talk about the role of Rake Ozenna as much as the story itself. It’s a crowded market out there, and I’m forever grateful to my publisher for seeing the potential and the team of people from editors to publicists to booksellers to readers for helping grow the idea and keep it alive. 

2. Mail on Sunday’s “Thriller of the Week” had this to say about the Rake Ozenna series: “Hawksley’s excellent idea is to move the battleground from Eastern Europe to the Arctic North.” What have you found to be the major differences between writing Cold War Thrillers in this more “traditional” Eastern European setting and taking the action, as it were, to the Arctic North? What were the major similarities?

When writing tension on the streets of Warsaw or Budapest, the unknown stems from strangers who could be the enemy, and danger from the bad guys giving chase. In the frozen North, the threat lies as much in extreme weather and hazardous landscape. Its environment and conditions may be unfamiliar to readers who have walked Europe’s cobbled alleys and visited its historic sites. In describing a new setting, nothing can be assumed. You have to bring the reader with you. It was great to read one reviewer who wrote that he ‘could almost feel the biting cold, the driven snow’ amid ‘ice-covered landscapes that test to breaking point.’ 

3. You are a former foreign correspondent for the BBC and have reported on events and conflicts from all over the world. What inspired you to set the Rake Ozenna series in the Arctic North as opposed to anywhere else? Did you have any personal experiences of your own in the Arctic North that became determining factors for writing these high-octane novels in that setting?

The Ukraine crisis in 2015, when Russia ended up annexing Crimea, ended up pitting the U.S. against Russia in a Cold War kind of way. I wanted to see exactly where these two global superpowers came face to face, so I went there for the BBC. The theater of conflict may be Europe, but the United States and Russia actually share a border across the Bering Strait. At their closest point they are less than three miles apart. Little Diomede, an Alaskan civilian village of fewer than 100 people lies across a narrow stretch of water from Big Diomede which is a Russian military base. This border is known as the Ice Curtain, the little known direct U.S.-Russia frontier against the more famous European Iron Curtain. Once there, I learned how this region was becoming yet another flashpoint for global conflict. Melting ice was opening northern sea routes through the Arctic prompting a scramble for control by Russia, China, the U.S and others. The Arctic was becoming the new, untested arena of great power strategy with similar repercussions as in the early 20th Century when the discovery of oil in the Middle East transformed that region into what it is today. I set Man on Ice on that border and for Man on Edge moved Rake Ozenna to Norway’s border with Russia which is also its border with NATO. I had an idea to write a chase across the border with huskies and sleds. I went to Norway’s Arctic and dog-sledded along the border to check how and if it would work.

4. The main character of both Man on Ice and Man on Edge in the Rake Ozenna series is, in fact, Major Rake Ozenna of the Alaska National Guard. We don’t often see American characters from such remote places like Alaska with lead roles in espionage and spy Thrillers. What inspired you to write Rake Ozenna as a character so far removed—geographically and perhaps even socially—from the contiguous United States?

As soon as I arrived on Little Diomede and met that rugged, tough, generous community, I sensed I began to imagine a character who could stand out from the crowd. Anyone raised on the island had to survive extremes of weather and the challenges of a small, remote community. They would also have grown up under the shadow of a hostile Russia which would give them an instinct for global politics. Rake Ozenna joins the military and succeeds in breaking through to officer. Very little phases him, and he applies the same situational awareness skills in dealing with the Army as he would with a sudden storm during a walrus hunt in the Bering Strait. Despite his success, he is always drawn back to his community.

5. Though it’s still a part of the continental United States—and like many other regions of the US varying widely in geography and culture—Alaska has a native history and a culture all its own that isn’t widely explored in much of today’s current fiction. How much research did you perform in writing Rake Ozenna’s character, those in the Alaskan National Guard, and/or any scenes taking place in America’s “last frontier”? Did anything during the process of writing these characters and/or scenes surprise you?

I spent more than a week on Little Diomede, sleeping on the floor of the school. You need to get permission from the tribal council before going and there is no hotel. If there is fog or bad weather, the helicopter is cancelled. Global warming has prevented there being an air strip on the ice during the winter. Several of those on Little Diomede are veterans, having served in Afghanistan and Iraq. I spent time in Nome, the closest mainland town, and interviewed commanders at the Elmendorf-Richardson military base in Anchorage which runs the defense of the US-Russian border and is also the base for the Alaska National Guard. The biggest surprise was how quiet this border was, compared to the tension in Europe. There are no markings, no flags, nothing that proclaims this is where two hostile superpowers meet. Little Diomede itself has no police or military presence. There is an old guard post that was closed during the US-Russia relationship thaw in the early 1990s. It’s almost as if Moscow and Washington want to confine hostilities to Europe and avoid a direct superpower clash across the Bering Strait.

6. Though Man on Edge is a fast-paced thriller, readers are sure to burn through nonstop, it still has a minor romantic thread between trauma surgeon Carrie Walker and Major Rake Ozenna. This thread spills over from Man on Ice and continues in a new avenue now that Carrie and Rake are no longer engaged. Did you plan to continue their relationship in Man on Edge—however tense and complicated it may be—after releasing Man on Ice? Did anything surprise you about how their relationship (or lack thereof) evolved over the course of this second book in the series?

Indeed! The Carrie-Rake relationship surprises me sentence by sentence as I write. I’ve just done a scene for the Man on Edge sequel, writing and re-writing as to how they handle each other and what impact that has on the wider story. Rake is an Alaskan islander. Carrie is a cosmopolitan city woman from Brooklyn. In conflict areas, they work well together. Outside that, trying to establish a stable long-term relationship, they are hopeless. They are from different backgrounds and cultures. They have friends that insist they can never be suited to each other. They remain incredibly attracted to each other, in a way reflecting millions of relationships which cross borders, ethnicity, and cultures. Rake and Carrie know it can’t work. Or could it? They know they’ll never find anyone else as good. Or could they?

7. The list must be endless, so as a former foreign correspondent for the BBC, what are the top three things you’ve taken with you after covering events from all over the world that you have used as inspiration and/or experience for the Rake Ozenna series?

The disconnect between decisions made in government and reality on the ground. The 2003 Iraq invasion is probably the starkest recent example.

How individual leadership, whether at the top of government or in the blood and dirt of a conflict area can change the course of history. The early mishandling of Sri Lankan separatist leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, led to him creating a terror cult group that created the suicide vest suicide and militias of brain-washed child-soldiers, now prevalent in the Middle East wars. Prabhakaran was a formidable leader.

The challenge in returning from a conflict zone to routine family life. Phil Klay’s best-seller Redeployment is brilliant on this issue. Carrie struggles with it. Rake, less so, because Little Diomede is about as far removed from the white picket fence as you can get.

8. In your opinion, what are the most important elements every espionage and spy Thriller needs in order to hit the mark like you’ve so successfully done with Man on Ice and Man on Edge, as well as your other works in this genre?

That’s a tough one, a great one, too. I think they need to take the reader somewhere they haven’t been before and tie it in with a big issue that requires espionage. The narrative must be composed of unanswered questions that the reader knows will come together at the end, running the mystery and the contest in parallel until the very end. If you can, keep the solving of the mystery until the very last page. I tie myself in knots of indecision over when to hold back when to reveal. As a journalist, I am trained to tell what I know as soon as I know it. As a thriller writer, it is about concealing and drip-feeding information.

9. If you could have done anything differently while writing Man on Edge, what would that be and why? If you wouldn’t change a thing, tell us about how you got to the place in your career as a Thriller author where that hypothetical time machine wouldn’t make a difference.

My training as a journalist has embedded a file and move on discipline. There is a temptation to look back and think I should have Rake do this and Carrie do that. Instead, I tend to think, “That could be interesting. Let’s test it in the next book.” Having said that, I wish I hadn’t written Man on Edge so long. Later drafts needed a lot of cutting. I’m trying to be tighter with the next one.  

10. Man on Edge has received quite the impressive lineup of rave reviews from well-known reviewers, New York Times Bestselling Authors, and film creators. In your personal opinion, which of these would you say is the best and/or your favorite?

Ouch! That’s an impossible one to answer. We’re trying to attract Man on Edge readers around the world, and the endorsements fit different markets. The brilliant Charles Cumming is very British in style while also having great success in crossing the pond to the New York Times list. Nelson de Mille is globally huge and for decades has written superbly the type of political and action grit facing Rake Ozenna. Anthony Johnson’s Atomic Blonde has been a massive box-office movie hit. I’m thrilled to get his praise. But I try never to duck a question. The reviews that begin to give Man on Edge that extra edge is the ones that underpin the Rake Ozenna character. Adam Colclough in Shots Magazine says, “Rake Ozenna is proving to be one of the more believable characters in a crowded field,” and Nelson de Mille says “he is smart and tough and we are glad to have him on our side”

Thank you so much for joining us for this interview, and congratulations again on releasing the newest book in your Rake Ozenna series, Man on Edge.

Thank you for such thought-provoking questions. It really is a privilege to be in TopShelf.