Foretold by Thunder

Ed Davey

Ed Davey, an investigations producer at BBC London, has had his first novel published by Duckworth Overlook, London's oldest independent publisher.

It's a historical thriller called Foretold by Thunder, researched on the ground in Turkey, Ethiopia and Italy.

His pen name is E.M. Davey and he's just signed a three book deal, but says there's no danger of him leaving the BBC because he loves the work too much.

So we find out about the story behind the book, and the man behind the story.

First up, you've written a novel, what's it about?

A journalist discovers a declassified World War Two document showing that in 1941, Winston Churchill held a meeting with MI6 to discuss the ancient Etruscan civilisation.

The Etruscans studied bolts of lightning and created a holy text which it was believed could predict the future. Our journalist is cast into a lethal tug of war between MI6 and the Chinese Secret Service, who are both looking for the text.

The novel starts in London, and we visit Istanbul, Ethiopia and Italy. There's a love story in there (of course) and during the course of the book he begins to question whether all of history is a lie.

If the book is about a journalist, does it tie in with what you do at the BBC?

Foretold by Thunder in a bookshop Foretold by Thunder is the first of the three books Ed has signed up to write

I'm one of two investigations producers at BBC London, where I work under the multiple-award winning Guy Lynn.

We specialise in bespoke undercover investigations into unlawful and unethical behaviour. Earlier in the year we exposed colleges that were fraudulently sitting exams for students so they could become bodyguards or to gain jobs providing security to some of the UK's most sensitive places.

Using a security license obtained by our undercover researcher, we obtained a job offer to guard a major UK power station. The story made the national Six O'Clock News and was reported in the Telegraph.

I also provide assistance with Freedom of Information work and general digging to the wider newsroom. I've previously worked on local papers and for the BBC website and enjoyed the investigative aspect of both of those jobs, so having the time to dig deeper has been a real privilege.

That seems like a pretty intense job, did you have to take time off to write the book?

I wrote it entirely alongside my day job. I think people over-estimate the amount of time it takes to get a novel's worth of words on a page. I do two sessions a week - four hours after work one day, another four on the weekend.

In four hours anyone can write 2,000 words - so that's 4,000 words a week. In ten weeks you've done 40,000 words, in twenty weeks 80,000 - which is a short novel.

That's going like the clappers admittedly, but certainly within a year it's possible to produce a novel alongside the day job, in terms of the word count alone. Historical fiction takes longer of course, as there's another entire aspect to the project - I think I've spent more time on the research than the writing.

How does the world you make up compare to the world you live in?

Man of the forest, Lefini, Republic of Congo Man of the forest, Republic of Congo, photographed by Ed during his travels

The geographic locations I describe are as true to the real world out there as I can possibly manage - otherwise, what would be the point? But the fictional adventure is certainly more outlandish (and dangerous) than anything I've done in real life.

That makes me feel a bit sorry for my main character, because in terms of personality he is my diametric opposite - very much a reluctant adventurer, forced to fight for survival in worlds he would never have dreamed of setting foot in.

You have two more books to this deal - what are your plans there?

Book two, entitled The Napoleon Complex, is a straight sequel. Whereas Foretold by Thunder looked back to Roman history and World War Two, this one deals with Napoleon and the British Empire.

The third book, The Sapien Paradox, will be a stand-alone title - a thriller about prehistory and the human condition.

They say everyone has a book in them - how did this one come about?

The germ of the story came from a lecture I went to at the British Museum about the ancient Etruscans.

I barely knew about them then - but there was something so otherworldly about their lightning beliefs and the fact that their entire culture was based on it which just blew me away, especially for a people who lived right in the centre of the Mediterranean world. It was a pagan belief system that they treated as a meticulous science, and that gave me the idea for a thriller. What if this "science" actually worked?

What was the hardest part, or the biggest surprise in the whole process?

Writing it was a doddle compared to finding a publisher. I had previously written two other novels I couldn't get published, so I had my systems in place for producing a manuscript and knew how to stay disciplined.

Finding a literary agent who believes in the project and a publisher willing to take a gamble on a complete unknown is ten times harder than the writing process. Ultimately a huge slice of luck is needed to get you out of the dreaded slush pile.

Did you tell your colleagues and work mates? Did you get the support of your bosses? Or was this a private venture?

I think I'd let the cat out of the bag to one or two colleagues at BBC London, but to most of the newsroom I think it was a big surprise.

The chances of failure are so high that it's not something you tell people during the writing, or you are making a stick to beat yourself with. My editor nearly fell of his chair when I told him that I was going to be in print. But he's been massively supportive, as have all of my colleagues.

It's been humbling to have all my friends at BBC London being so enthusiastic about the project.

What do those friends and your family think of what you do?

Photo of people playing cards Ed prefers to travel to the road less travelled and see places as locals see them

In terms of the travel, I don't think my parents are a huge fan... especially as my companions are always my two brothers. If we do end up getting squished by a wild animal that's the entire dynasty wiped out, right there. When I called my father to say we'd landed at Heathrow from Sierra Leone, his knee jerk reply was "oh thank god".

But my parents are big travellers too, so I think deep down they grudgingly admire it. Taking history, adventure travel, news and geopolitics, stirring up the ingredients in a big pot and producing a thriller that hopefully holds together - it's just such a fun project. So I suppose they're pleased I'm doing what, along with my day job, I enjoy most.

Have you always been the type to grab life and run with it?

I've always been the type to simply turn up in weird and wonderful places where most people just don't go, and simply seeing what happens. Sometimes countries that don't even have any tourist sites to speak of are the most wonderful places to visit. You see ordinary lives totally different to ours that are not sanitised by constant contact with tourism. You tend to be invited into homes and become impromptu guest of honour at the odd wedding.

I'm off to Kyrgyzstan next week and will be driving overland into Tajikistan, then along the border of the Wakhan Corridor - that's north-eastern Afghanistan.

I bet you're a hit at parties with all the stories - which one story do you know will always go down well?

If only that were true!

I suppose the real "banker" of an anecdote is the time I was chased by a hippopotamus in Sierra Leone. I was deep in the rainforest with my brother, tracking chimpanzees. We could hear them screeching and yelling and generally making a racket, but they could detect our scent and kept on eluding us.

I should say that this point our tracker was armed only with a machete. Then through the trees we saw something moving - something big. Its side was curved and I took that to be the hunched back of a chimp. We were poised with cameras when there was a sudden crack of breaking wood - and we were charged from about twenty feet. And let me tell you, those things are like Usain Bolt. Powerful, ferocious and very, very fast.

The tracker didn't even shout "run" - he just dropped his machete and legged it. We were sprinting too and it was pure terror. I was cut to ribbons by the jungle. The scariest moment came when I saw the guide half way up a tree - it was an "is this really happening?" moment. I managed to scramble up a tree too, and when I looked down the hippo was gone.

How many times in your life have you had that "this is how it all ends" feeling?

Twice - first "hippogate", and the time I was on a local airline in the Republic of Congo when the plane began de-pressuring. But all these incidents make good copy. And actually, you are far, far more likely to be killed by a road crash in even commonly visited countries such as India or Kenya than to come to any more of an exotic end.

The most lethal country per capita for the British tourist is Thailand, but nobody bats an eyelid about jetting off there.

If you're interested in finding out more about Ed Davey's writing, you can find full details on his website here, and find out more about the ancient Etruscans here with the BBC Radio 4 - In Our Time, The Etruscan Civilisation.

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