Author Q&A:
KT Medina

Debut thriller writer tells Kevin Gopal about Cambodia, mines clearance and strong female protagonists

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KT Medina
White Crocodile
(Faber, £12.99 paperback, ebook £7.99)

The White Crocodile is a mythical beast that symbolises death in Cambodia. So too do the white four-wheel vehicles of international development organisations in this poverty-stricken country still covered in landmines. Tess Hardy is the mines expert treading her way through a mystery that brings up her own past in this impressive debut thriller.

TA officer, land-based weapons expert, business lecturer and consultant – had you always wanted to be a novelist during that career or was it a more recent ambition?
As a girl, I was a very outdoorsy tomboy and always wanted to be a soldier, which is probably why I ended up spending five years in the Army reserve and working for Jane’s Information Group, the publisher of defence intelligence information. However, I have also always loved to read and write, and much of my childhood was spent immersed in stories. Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series was one of my favourites and, in common with many other tomboys, I wanted to be George. I am still an avid crime and thriller reader, which is why I choose to write in that genre. I started to write seriously because I had the idea for White Crocodile – an idea that I loved – and I wanted to get it down on paper.

The heightened intensity of mines clearance and the lives of those who clear them seems like a gift for a novelist. Were you conscious of that when you were working in Cambodia?
I went to Cambodia whilst at Jane’s to determine what information mine clearers needed to help them clear mines more safely in the field. It was an intense and emotional visit: working with mine clearers and meeting Khmers – both adults and children – who had lost limbs to anti-personnel mines, and others who lived with the risk that they or a family member could step on a mine at any time. I didn’t think about anything apart from the human tragedy and the incredible job clearance charities were doing in trying to reduce the threat. It was only afterwards, back in the UK with space to think, that I realised how fantastic a setting the landmine fields of Cambodia were for a dark and disturbing thriller.

“I am against giving aid to countries that have, for example, their own space programme.”

There’s a Graham Greene-like sense of moral queasiness in White Crocodile, even about the charity’s workers. Are you cynical about international aid?
I am definitely not cynical about the need to help nations that are less fortunate than our own – one trip off the tourist trail in a country like Cambodia teaches you how necessary international aid is. But I am against giving aid to countries that have, for example, their own space programme. I’m not sure that Western governments spend taxpayers’ money in the best possible way internationally, and I think that much is wasted on the wrong kind of intervention. I don’t doubt that some also finds its way into Swiss bank accounts. There are many vulnerable people living below the poverty line in our own country who need help so we, as a nation, need to spend our money wisely.

Democracy is not a plug and play solution.

There’s a passing reference in the book to the frustration of securing parts of Afghanistan only to lose them back to the Taliban. Are you also suspicious of western intervention?
I think that it is very hard for one country to dictate to another how they should be governed, particularly when the other’s history, culture, mix of ethnicities and circumstances are so different from our own. Democracy is not a plug and play solution. Afghanistan is nicknamed the “Graveyard of Empires” for a good reason: throughout history, many countries have tried and failed to stamp their own political solution on to Afghanistan.

White Crocodile jacket_rgbA strand of White Crocodile takes place in North West England. Where did the Manchester connection come from?
The Manchester connection is very personal to me. My grandparents lived in Farnworth, near Bolton, and that was where my father was born and raised. My grandfather, a miner, died in a pit accident when my father was five, and my grandmother struggled to support her son alone. My father had the benefit of a grammar school education and won a scholarship to study physics at Manchester University. For him the scholarship was a ticket out of poverty, so I have a huge affection for both Lancashire and for Manchester. My first job on leaving university was at Pilkington in St Helens, and I spent many evenings in the pubs and clubs of Liverpool and Manchester – even more reason to love both cities. My father died eight years ago and I wanted to include him in White Crocodile. Keep an eye out for Derek Taylor and his staffie!

What plans do you have for your next book? Could Tess return?
I have written the first draft of my next book, which also features a strong female protagonist – but that’s all I can say for now. I loved living with Tess for the time I was writing White Crocodile, but she has been through so much emotional trauma that I think a sequel would be an anti-climax. Never say never though.

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KT Medina

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