“I’ll just take six months off and write that novel I’ve promised my agent for the last five years,” thought the man who’d spent the previous decade and a half writing graphic novels and video games. “How hard could it be?”

Bloody hard, it turns out. But then you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you? After all, you’ve been here before. But for me, this is fresh territory. Two years ago I had the good fortune to see a film adaptation of one of my graphic novels, The Coldest City, begin production — eventually becoming this year’s Charlize Theron movie Atomic Blonde. And I thought, well, surely now I’ve earned the right to take some time off from the grind. I’d been promising my eternally patient agent that I’d turn my hand to fiction for some time, only to be constantly distracted by my regular bill-paying gigs, writing almost everything except a novel.

But now… now I would finally get round to it, and defy expectations. Right? The resultant book, The Exphoria Code, certainly goes against the grain in many ways. In a market filled with tales of young women meeting gruesome ends, our hero Brigitte Sharp is instead herself a young woman haunted by, and driven to solve, the deaths of two men in her life. Bridge is a hacker, a cyber-analyst working for a specialist department within MI6; but while she’s unquestionably a geek, she’s a middle-class Anglo-French woman whose outcast status is a result of her own choices, not a tragic upbringing. And though The Exphoria Code is a spy thriller, the espionage in question revolves not around whispered Kremlin secrets, but around computer code, cyber-warfare, and high-tech military drones.

Is this spark of defiance something inherent in me, or did I simply write what made the most sense in a modern spy story? I’m honestly not sure, but one thing I do know is that I’ll never utter the words “How hard could it be?” again without a dozen colourful emoji in tow.

First, there was the need for a plot literally three times the size of that in a graphic novel; then an incessant series of judgement calls over what modern technology would stand the test of time, and what would be dated before the book even hit shelves (such as briefly-mega-popular video service Vine, which shut down as I was writing the book, for heaven’s sake); and finally, the actual writing process. Luckily, I’ve spent the last 17 years sitting at my keyboard and writing every day, so the discipline itself was business as usual — but hey, turns out that writing 110,000 words is kind of exhausting.

In summary, this novel was more work, more stressful, and more tiring than anything I’d previously written. That’s how hard it could be. But… it was also enormously satisfying. So if you thought all these complaints would dissuade me from doing it all over again, au contraire. I’m already planning Bridge’s next mission. Maybe that need to defy expectations really is somewhere deep inside me, after all.


The Exphoria Code by Antony Johnston is out now from Lightning Books.




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