Oggy Boytchev – Q&A

Today I’m pleased to welcome Oggy Boytchev. Oggy is the author of Simpson and I and his debut novel, The Unbeliever was published by Quartet Books on 9 April 2018.

Oggy kindly answered a few of my questions.

1. Tell us a little about The Unbeliever.

The Unbeliever is a story based on a real-life Cold War spy. Spanning four decades of political violence and paranoia, it depicts the rise and fall of an ambitious communist diplomat who sells secrets to the CIA. But he gets mixed up in a power play beyond his control, which ends up in his execution. It is a story of love, loyalty and betrayal, and the hard choices between idealism, murder in the name of revolution, money and the thrills of espionage.

2. What inspired the story?

The book was born out of a childhood memory. When I was very young – many years ago behind the Iron Curtain in Bulgaria – I heard a voice on the radio, a voice of a man who pleaded guilty of espionage. I later found out that by the time his voice was broadcast as part of the communist propaganda, he had already been executed. This was when my obsession with spy novels began. When I started researching the story a few years ago, I discovered that the only documents left were the notes of his trial. Although based on real events, I had to invent certain story lines and characters in order to make sense of the patchy documentary evidence.

3. You have also written “Simpson & I”, based on your work. Is there anything about the publishing process for either book that has surprised you? Is the process different for fiction and non-fiction?

It surprised me that non-fiction, especially a memoir with a famous person in it, was much easier to sell to a publisher. I thought that it was the other way around, that novels were easier to publish. “Simpson & I” is an account of my work with John Simpson in war zones and trouble spots around the world. I was his producer at the BBC. I found the editorial process very similar, with emphasis on accuracy and good structure designed to keep the reader’s attention.

4. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you? How long does the process take you from first line to completed novel?

I am a plan, plan writer. I like to know where I start and where I should end. But sometimes I find that I haven’t planned well enough. The novel sometimes takes its own course and I have to re-draw the plan. It took me about eight months to write The Unbeliever, after a few solid months of research.

5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?

I break the writing by short walks with my dog. I tend not to meet people while I’m writing. When I’m not writing I tend to read. I read indiscriminately – from Lee Child and John le Care to Elias Canetti and Anthony Burgess. Relax? What’s that? I always want to have a new project on the go. I find looking into new projects very relaxing.

6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?

 “A Thousand and One Nights” – story telling at its best. It has stood the test of time.

7. I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you have done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?

 “Why do you write?” Well, I wish I had the answer. The nearest I have to an answer is that since a very early age – before I even learned to write – I wanted to tell stories.

About the book

December, 1963. It’s a decade since the death of Stalin and the world is on the brink of a nuclear war. In Sofia’s Great Ceremonial Hall of the People an unassuming Communist and UN diplomat turned Cold War spy stands on trial for treason and espionage. He is accused of betraying the Bulgarian people by selling secrets to the CIA. With his fate in the balance, facing death by firing squad, he has been offered a way out: make a full confession and his life will be spared. But has he been tricked? And how strong is the case against him?

The Unbeliever is a panorama of Cold War paranoia and intrigue spanning four decades, told through the life of one extraordinary – and real – spy. A story of love, loyalty, ambition and betrayal, it is a gripping and highly original debut novel by a journalist who was born behind the Iron Curtain.

About the author

Oggy Boytchev escaped from behind the Iron Curtain in 1986. Soon after, he joined the BBC in London where he spent the next twenty-five years covering international conflicts. Latterly he became John Simpson’s producer and accompanied him on dangerous undercover assignments around the world. His memoir Simpson & I (Quartet, 2014) chronicles this time. The Unbeliever is his first novel. He lives in Belsize Park, London.

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