After nearly forty years working in finance, Jonathan Mark retired early to pursue his long held ambition to write novels. His first novel, The Last Messenger, is a story which evolved from a novel collecting dust in his desk drawer for over twenty years. Despite praise for the strength of his writing style, literary agents advised that there was no longer a demand for conspiracy thrillers, so Mark took the bold step to self publish. As our Author of the Day, he tells us all about The Last Messenger and the story behind it.
Please give us a short introduction to what The Last Messenger is about.
During the German invasion of Crete, an air raid destroys a church revealing an ancient Christian scroll buried under its foundations. It is discovered by Callidora, a young Cretan shepherdess. She meets Hans, a German paratrooper who helps her understand the significance of the scroll. Callidora’s family accuse her of collaboration with the enemy and disown her. While Hans’ commanding officer, Captain Wolfgang Kohlenz, will stop at nothing to force Callidora to reveal the scroll’s secret.
Richard Helford, an MI6 analyst caught up in the London bombings of 2005, helps Masood, a Muslim dying from injuries sustained by the bomb on the Piccadilly line. Masood appears to recognise Richard, who wonders whether they’d met in Iraq when he’d worked there during the occupation by Allied forces. Richard had returned to London, traumatised after his SAS bodyguard was killed by a suicide attack. The London bomb begins to trigger his recollection of the incident in Iraq which had previously been lost in his memory.
If its secret is revealed, it will invoke the terrifying predictions of the Book of Revelations. The book that predicts the end of the world. Arab terrorists want the prophecy revealed but the CIA, Mossad and MI6 want it destroyed.
Was there anything in particular, an incident or something you read, that made you want to tackle this?
Ever since 9/11, I have wanted to understand more about the conflict in the Middle East. It seems to me that religious conflict in the region should not exist as Judaism, Islam and Christianity all trace their roots back to the story of Abraham. There are huge misunderstandings between members of these religions. For example, one of my characters in the novel is fascinated that the angel Gabriel who appeared to Mohammed to give him the Holy Koran is the same angel who appeared to Mary to tell her she was pregnant with Jesus. Both Mary and Jesus (who is known as Isa) appear in the Holy Koran and are respected. Indeed, the Nineteenth chapter of the Holy Koran is dedicated to Mary which describes the virgin birth of Jesus.
What inspired you to use an ancient Christian scroll, uncovered during the German invasion of Crete, as the catalyst for your book?
I wanted to explore the idea that a Christian scroll might explain some truths about Islam highlighting the unity between the religions. There are many duplications of stories in Christian and Islamic texts. The story of the Cave of the Seven Sleepers referred to in the novel is one such example. I also wanted to set the story in Greece, given the association with St John of Patmos , who was the author of The Book of Revelations. Besides my home country - Great Britain, Greece is my favourite place on earth. It has a rich history which laid the foundations of our own democracy. Its people, although proud, are also kind and welcoming whilst fiercely protecting their traditions and culture.
How much research did this book require from you and what was the most interesting aspect of this research?
My research was important in order to make what was essentially fiction into a believable story. Although the book is a fast paced conspiracy thriller in the Dan Brown mode, there are a lot of true research facts supporting the conspiracy. For example, the little scroll is referred to in Chapter Ten of The Book of Revelations. Barnabas was a real saint who was an evangelist and friend of Paul and John of Patmos. He could well have written a Gospel which was rejected by the Pope when decisions were made about what texts should be included in the Bible. There is no doubt that the existing Gospel of Barnabas is a forgery but that does not mean that it did not exist.
The most interesting part of the research was visiting the places in Crete where Callidora's story is set. Many Cretan villages were destroyed during the occupation by the Germans. One of the most famous is Kandanos in the White Mountains. I wanted to see for myself what the village was like and, although it has been rebuilt, the village seemed to be still in mourning for what had been lost. I came away feeling inspired to complete my novel.
What made you get into writing after nearly forty years in finance?
I have always wanted to write novels but there are few novelists who make enough money to bring up a family. As a child I used to write short stories and actually started writing a novel over twenty years ago. Unfortunately, life got in the way of its completion. Now I am retired from finance I can focus on my passion for writing. It's never too late. Plenty of successful writers started in later life.
Which character did you find the most challenging to create?
Richard is a complex character , full of conflict with regard to his feelings for his missing father. He doesn't know whether, he loves or hates him . Although he works for the British intelligence service, Richard is not a James Bond character. He is much more of a geek and not terribly likeable. His journey through the novel from this position to someone capable of violence needs to be credible and one which will not put the readers off.
How did you manage to keep the book action-packed throughout?
I've cut out as much exposition as possible where info dumps slow down the pace of the novel. Also I've added plenty of cliff hangers which make the reader want to read on.
Your story flips around between different time frames – why did you take this approach?
I think that giving the reader two stories to follow, where they are wondering how they will merge at the end adds to their entertainment. It also provides a break where a cliff hanger is not resolved until the chapter after next . That encourages the reader to read on and help add to the pace of the novel.
What, do you think it is about conspiracy theories that make them so fascinating?
I think people find conspiracy theories fascinating because they are often built on plausible facts which reinforce populist distrust of authority and belief that those in power will stop at nothing to manipulate opinion and cover up their mistakes. In The Last Messenger, the conspiracy is religious. The books included in the bible were chosen by the Roman church in Nicene in the fourth century. Why was The Gospel of Barnabas excluded? The so called Gnostic Gospels were supressed because they offered a powerful alternative to Christian tradition.
The Last Messenger is Book 1 from a series. Did you plan from the start to make this into a series? Can it be read as a standalone?
Originally, when the book was conceived , I thought of only one book but I was encouraged by the success of the Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy and the way that he carried the story for three books while making each book a stand alone. I have tried to follow that model in my series. My novel can be read as a stand alone but there are some open questions which will lead you into book 2.
Do you have any interesting writing habits? Favourite writing spot, best time of the day for you to write?
No I don’t. I think the importance of writing everyday is something that I've yet to master . The importance of routine in writing does not come easily to me.
What are you working on right now?
Book two in the series which is called The Barnabas Legacy. I have also started on a psychological thriller which is a complete departure from what I am doing now.
Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?
I would be very happy to discuss the themes in The Last Messenger in more detail either through contact via my website or by email at [email protected] I am also happy to provide advice to authors who want to self publish their own work . At the moment, I've written only one novel but I would be pleased to let interested readers see a taster of book 2 - The Barnabas Legacy. All they need to do is to sign up for my newsletter which is easily done via my website. See below.