To my parents’ dismay, I was not a normal girl. I dressed in army fatigues, sported a crew cut, used to line my cuddly toys up at either end of the lounge and send them into battle. My favourite game was to traverse blocks purely by climbing over fences, cutting through people’s gardens, sneaking through their open back doors and slipping out the front, unnoticed. My mother and father despaired, entirely nonplussed by my army obsession. However, my interest probably developed from the many hours I spent hiding behind the sofa when I was supposed to be asleep, watching such World War 2 classics as Bridge on the River Kwai and The Dirty Dozen through my dad’s legs.
When I went to University to study psychology, it felt like a natural progression to join the Territorial Army, and later, Jane’s Information Group, the world’s leading publisher of defence intelligence information. It was whilst working at Jane’s, responsible for land-based weapons, that I was inspired to write White Crocodile. As part of that role, I spent a few weeks working alongside professional mine clearers from two clearance charities – Cambodian Mine Action Centre and Mines Advisory Group – in the minefields of northern Cambodia. I was privileged to get to know both Western and Khmer clearers and to spend time talking with Khmers who had lost limbs to land mines. Cambodia has more amputees per head than any other country and many of these amputees are children, some who thought that the mine they picked up was a toy. I also visited many of the locations that appear in White Crocodile, such as the Red Cross Hospital for the victims of land mines.
Cambodia is a colourful, vibrant country, but it has a very traumatic history, including five years of mass genocide under the Khmer Rouge, depicted in the famous film The Killing Fields. It is incredibly poor, the government is corrupt, there is no social security and unless people make a living for themselves and their families they, quite literally, starve. The presence of six million land mines, buried mainly in the northwest region around Battambang, where White Crocodile is set, makes the job of survival for the families who inhabit that region even harder. Off the tourist trail, Cambodia is a heartbreaking place to visit, and left a huge and lasting impression on me. I felt very strongly, on getting back to England, that I wanted to shine a light onto what I found to be a very dark and disturbing world, layered with exploitation. The device of a page turning thriller, that drew people into the story and characters, whilst at the same time taking them into this horrific real world was, I felt, a great way to shine that light.
Whilst working at Jane’s, I also met Paul Jefferson, a mine clearer who had been seriously injured in Iraq, losing a leg and his sight. He was, in part, the inspiration for the character of Johnny in White Crocodile, and he talked me though what it feels like to step on an anti-personnel mine – the immediate shock, pain and psychological devastation – and the physical and psychological battle to recover afterwards. With his help, I was really able to enter the mind of someone who has been grievously injured by a land mine.
Studying psychology for my degree has also helped me enormously in developing multi-dimensional characters who feel real. The heroine of White Crocodile is Tess Hardy, a ex-British Army mine clearer who, against her better judgment, is drawn to Cambodia to find out the truth behind her violent husband, Luke’s, death. But whilst Tess is strong, clever and independent, she is also a complex character who has her own very personal demons to deal with.
White Crocodile is published by Faber