I’m delighted to be taking part in the blog tour today for debut novel The Unbeliever by Oggy Boytchev.
Oggy Boytchev shares with us the restraints in the small town he grew up in and the event that inspired his career as well as a window into his writing process.
I’m sure you’ll join in with wishing Oggy good luck on his blog tour.
Publisher: Quartet Books (9 April 2018)
Available to purchase in paperback format.
December, 1963. It’s a decade since the death of Stalin and the world is on the brink of a nuclear war. In Sofia’s Great Ceremonial Hall of the People an unassuming Communist and UN diplomat turned Cold War spy stands on trial for treason and espionage. He is accused of betraying the Bulgarian people by selling secrets to the CIA. With his fate in the balance, facing death by firing squad, he has been offered a way out: make a full confession and his life will be spared. But has he been tricked? And how strong is the case against him?
The Unbeliever is a panorama of Cold War paranoia and intrigue spanning four decades, told through the life of one extraordinary – and real – spy. A story of love, loyalty, ambition and betrayal, it is a gripping and highly original debut novel by a journalist who was born behind the Iron Curtain.
I grew up in a dusty god-forsaken place behind the Iron Curtain in communist Bulgaria, in a small town with unpaved streets and a military factory in the outskirts. My father was interned there for anti-communist activities and was made to break stones in the quarry for ten hours a day. We couldn’t leave the town without a permit from the police. The only entertainment was a small cinema which only worked on Sundays. We didn’t have a television set but listened to the radio. One morning during the winter holidays I heard a voice on the radio, a calm educated voice of a man pleading guilty of being an American spy. This was soon after the assassination of J F Kennedy, after the Cuban missile crisis, and after the defection of Kim Philby to Moscow. Who was that man? And why was he so calm when he pleaded guilty? To find out more, we tuned to the BBC World Service – a crime punishable by jail – but there was no further detail. Until then I only knew about spies from the books, mainly WW2 spy novels. But I wanted to know more about this real-life spy whose voice boomed in our living room. It was the beginning of a life-long obsession. Many years later, after the fall of communism, I did some research about that spy. It turned out that the only surviving documents were the notes from his trial and reports of the trial in foreign newspapers. It appeared that the trial was a media sensation around the world. Was it deliberately staged as a propaganda exercise? The story became so vivid in my head that I invented characters and plot lines to make it come to life. The Unbeliever was born.
Once I had the characters and the structure in place, it took me just over eight months to write it. With my background in journalism – after my defection to Britain in 1986 I worked for BBC News for 25 years – I have learned to write pretty quickly. But even with the best planning in the world, writing a novel has its twists and turns. The story took its own course and I had to re-draw the plan several times.
The Unbeliever is my second book. Before it, I had a memoir published, “Simpson & I”, a factual account of my work with John Simpson in war zones and trouble spots around the world. I was his producer. Writing a memoir is a different experience and, in my judgement, a much easier task.
The writing process for me is like a day in the office. I have breakfast, walk the dog and sit down at the writing table at 9 AM. I work until 5 PM with a short break for lunch. Then I take the dog for a long walk which clears my head from the day’s work. Writing requires discipline and a huge amount of sacrifice. I try to set daily targets, usually between 1000 and 3000 words depending on whether the chapter needs additional research. Anything under a thousand words a day I treat as a failure.
Being a writer is not as glamorous as it sounds. It involves hard work and, in most cases, doesn’t make you much money. I think it is an obsession, an obsession with telling stories.
Oggy Boytchev escaped from behind the Iron Curtain in 1986. Soon after, he joined the BBC in London where he spent the next twenty-five years covering international conflicts. Latterly he became John Simpson’s producer and accompanied him on dangerous undercover assignments around the world. His memoir Simpson & I (Quartet, 2014) chronicles this time. The Unbeliever is his first novel. He lives in Belsize Park, London.
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Don’t forget to check out the other hosts on tour.