Engineer Paul Hardisty, a veteran of working in developing nations, has set his first thriller in Yemen. It’s a novel which raises plenty of questions about real-life, he tells Craig Sisterson.
Paul Hardisty has spent his entire globetrotting career writing down facts - in engineering reports, scientific articles, textbooks - but it wasn't until he imagined a story that he extracted the greatest truths from his experiences.
"The irony, of course," says Hardisty, "is that in fiction, you can take a made-up story, strip away the bullshit, and tell the truth."
The story, infused with a deeper truth, is The Abrupt Physics Of Dying, a literary thriller that announced Hardisty as a novelist, and recently earned the director of CSIRO, Australia's national science body, a long-listing for the prestigious John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger in Britain. In his writing, Hardisty strips away the dilution of authenticity, the fraying around the edges of truth that, he says, we all do a little bit of each day.
"As individuals, or members of organisations, we temper what we say and write, modify it to protect ourselves and others, to avoid conflict, to promote a particular agenda. Speaking the truth makes us vulnerable."
In The Abrupt Physics Of Dying, the man doing the tempering is Claymore Straker, a veteran of African conflict who is working as a hired-gun engineering consultant for oil companies operating in developing nations. Modifying facts, mollifying locals.
"Clay has spent a long time not telling the truth," notes Hardisty. "In the reports he writes for his clients, he uses facts and data to create a fiction designed to achieve a specific outcome. In his case, it's showing that the oil company's operations in Yemen are benign, when of course he knows they are not."
By the time Hardisty's novel starts, Clay is "pretty screwed up ... the truth is corroding him from the inside out". He reaches a crossroads, a crisis of conscience, after his local driver and friend Abdulkader is kidnapped by a notorious Yemeni terrorist. The ransom demand is both simple and complex: Clay must uncover why children in the nearby village are getting sick.
Looking to save the life of a man who has previously saved his, Clay aligns himself with enigmatic investigative journalist Rania. He's compelled to confront harsh truths about himself - the soldier he was and the man he has become - and a potent array of forces whose alliances and collisions have a profound effect on his and others' lives.
Hardisty brings Yemen to vivid life in the book, powered by exquisite prose. It raises plenty of questions about the intersection of politics, resources, human rights and multinational businesses. He touches on the frailty of the free market, when corporations become so large and powerful they can influence governments, and their hunger for profits avoids paying the real cost for any damage caused by the creation of those profits.
Hardisty's Canadian upbringing shines through as he demurs praise, politely, with a smile. "It's heartening that readers have uncovered those layers and themes. For me though, it has to be the story first. Giving the reader a compelling, fast, turbulent ride from start to finish. But beneath the 'thriller' surface I've tried to create some layers exploring social issues. Once you've reached the end, hopefully some of the deeper stuff comes through, ideally as an afterthought or just a feeling. I know from writing non-fiction books and papers that discussing the deeper issues directly turns a lot of people off. Pick up a work of fiction, you want to be entertained."
For Hardisty, penning a thriller centred on deeper truths beneath the surface - of a character, a country, an industry - helped him uncover some truths about himself. He'd always wanted to be a writer, but back in his 20s felt he needed more life experience.
So he went out and got it. Roughnecking on Texas oil rigs, exploring for gold in the Arctic, befriending PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) rebels while mapping Turkey, rehabbing wells in Africa, surviving a bomb blast - not the stock-standard resume for a university professor living in Perth. But they were all experiences Hardisty accumulated while building an engineering consulting business with four friends over a period of two decades. The business eventually grew to a company of 1000 people, and sold for eight figures.
He scribbled in notebooks throughout. "For me, writing is a visceral exercise," says Hardisty. "I need to get into the place I'm writing about, feel the dirt on my skin, the sweat in my eyes."
He says that Yemen, where he worked "on a variety of projects, on and off, over about 15 years", took hold of him. "I had to write about it. Some of what I saw there made me cry. It's a brutal, beautiful place. The people are as tough as they come, hospitable, fiercely independent."
Hardisty is saddened the country is once again descending into war. But he remains hopeful.
"My view is that all the major issues we face - hunger, poverty, disease, conflict, loss of biodiversity, pollution - can be solved pretty quickly once we decide we want to. The technology and know-how and policy instruments we need exist. There is more than enough money to accomplish these things. The problem is that at the moment too many powerful people don't want to solve these problems. They like things the way they are."
But once enough of us decide what we want to change, Hardisty believes, we'll succeed. "We just need to commit, then act."
The Abrupt Physics of Dying (Orenda Books, $29.99) is out now.