Interview – Michelle Medhat, author of The Connected series
Self-Publisher’s Showcase: Today we are joined by Michelle Medhat, author of Connected: The Call and the newly-released sequel Connected: The Shift. Welcome to our Showcase Lounge, Michelle.
Michelle Medhat: Thank you Paul for inviting me, I’m happy to be here.
SPS: For any of our readers that haven’t come across your work previously, can you take a moment to tell us all a little about yourself?
MM: I’ve written two books as part of the Connected series: The Call and The Shift. The Call is a fast paced spy thriller, and The Shift is a spy sci-fi thriller. They are blatantly genre-busting, and their content is certainly shocking. I’ve pushed the boundaries as far as they can go, and shattered the frame in which thrillers are written in. I’ve really gone down the ‘what if…’ route, and taken it to the max. It’s a very exhilarating ride, but not for the faint hearted.
I’ve been writing the Connected: The Call and Connected: The Shift for a while now – actually over ten years. And that’s not down to me being a slow writer. It’s just the fact that I’ve set up businesses overseas, established an educational charity, changing the lives of over half a million people and created a professional institution to drive innovation in the UK. I have been in the thick of SciTech for over a quarter of century, and I’m lucky enough to have an inside knowledge of what is possible in field of bleeding-edge technology.
In addition to writing my books, I’ve written many short stories, some of which have been published as part of an anthology, as well as writing for publications, magazines and journals.
SPS: What are your perfect writing conditions, and how often do you write?
MM: I wish I had the opportunity to have perfect writing conditions, but as I am a busy women, always travelling, writing takes place on trains, planes and tubes. My ideal conditions would be on a terrace, overlooking a beautiful lake (think of Lake Garda in Italy) with the sun beaming down, with a glass of chilled wine, a pen and a notepad.
I hardly ever type words direct in to a computer, almost all that I write (much to the annoyance of my family) starts in my faithful notebook. There is something fundamentally creative about using a pen and paper to weave the words of a story. I have to feel that connection otherwise the magic just doesn’t happen. That was why I wrote Connected: The Call and The Shift in long hand first, and then amended and extended the novels on my PC.
SPS: Can you put your finger on the moment where you decided that at you wanted to publish your work?
MM: I knew from the second I started writing Connected that it had to be published. A number of leading literary agents have been interested, and then pulled back, as they realised they couldn’t pigeon hole me easily due to the cross-genre nature of my novels.
SPS: Why do you think it is that you have decided to write the Connected books, and do you see yourself ever writing in other genres?
MM: The why is a very good question! I still wonder about it myself. It wasn’t something that I thought long about, it just happened. It was at the end of the second Gulf War, and Sky News were broadcasting from Iraq on various events that were taking place. I was watching the television as Saddam Hussain’s statue fell, and I suddenly felt that there was an opportunity for great hope, that maybe the country might be rebuilt. But as I looked at people on the streets, there was still so much fear. That emotional dichotomy seemed to trigger something in me, and I found myself just writing, and what evolved over the six weeks that followed was Connected: The Call and The Shift.
I had always intended for Connected to be released as one book, but somehow, the story grew in size, and when it exceeded 640 pages, I knew I would have to split it into part one The Call and part two The Shift. The power of the story is in Connected: The Call and The Shift being read together. Now that The Shift is out, the combined Connected story can be really felt and appreciated for its uniqueness, originality and mind blowing audacity.
I have written short stories in other genres such as romance, horror, crime and humour, together with poems and plays. Maybe in the future I will write a novel in one of these genres.
But I still have to finish Connected series first, book three is there in the making.
SPS: So, to start, can you tell us about your debut novel Connected: The Call?
MM: Connected: The Call is a fast-paced, advanced tech spy thriller. Comparisons have been drawn with Cussler, Fleming and even Jilly Cooper. In a way, The Call has ‘set the stage’ for what will follow.
Connected: The Call however, is not your average spy thriller. It is a very unusual book. Its heart is that of an addictive thriller, but its soul is dallying with something more surreal. This is a mix I’ve heard keeps readers hooked. With every turn of the page, a new dimension is revealed, as the readers goes further into a world where traditional powers are failing and a new brand of enemy has the edge.
The Call has two central characters, Sam Noor and his wife Ellie Noor. Sam is a spy and Ellie initially knows nothing about his real life, having been too obsessed with her business. But Ellie is not without secrets too.
In the Call, the world is under the thumb of brilliant and a startlingly handsome Dr Salim Al Douri and his super terrorist collective organization Al Nadir. Backed by phenomenal wealth, advanced technologies and followers numbering over 70 million, Al Nadir appear unstoppable. Al Douri is the architect of Al Nadir, and he runs the organization like a massive multinational corporation, taking out or taking over the competition, streamlining and spreading the risk, to maximize return. The world’s governments including US and UK are without direction, battles stretch across the world, taking in many troops, but no one can overcome Al Nadir – governments around the world are impotent.
Four years earlier, Sam had hatched a plan to get his colleague Matthew Kinley, a British Ambassador and top spook to infiltrate Al Nadir. It is a closed ‘eyes only’ mission, with just two others who know the truth. Those others are MI6 Chief Justin Maide and the British Prime Minister Richard Ashton. But the mission has consequences, resulting in information so terrifying could bring the UK government to its knees. Just the fact that Sam has that knowledge makes him target, and those around him, including Ellie.
Stealing the nanobomb from Al Nadir, tracking down the assassins who kill Kinley, and interrogating Al Nadir operatives (including Salim’s cousin Rasheed) are amongst the tasks Sam Noor has to undertake. However, the hardest job Sam faces is manoeuvring around the political in-games and the sudden lack of trust the government displays towards him, and what that means for his life and Ellie’s.
The Call is very much a ‘Sam Noor’ book. It gives a blistering ‘under the bullet’ insight into his life as an MI6 counter-terrorism field operative, the high tech missions he goes on, and it shows quite frankly Sam’s an all-round badass agent! The Call takes the readers into Sam’s mind, and shows the lengths he will go to in order to get to the truth.
Amongst the terror of Al Nadir, an amazing quantum weapon drops into the hands of the US President, who immediately plans to use it to annihilate Al Nadir completely, and restore the balance of power back to the US. But in the world of Connected, nothing is straightforward, and nothing is what it seems.
SPS: How did you set about creating the story, did you plan the whole story out in advance, or did you let the story take you as you wrote?
MM: I wrote Connected in 6 weeks flat long hand. The story took me over completely, and I still to this day have no idea where it really came from, only that it’s a story needing to be told. Between the pressures of work and family, Connected took another 10 years to finish. The very first draft was massive, near on 900 pages. But I realised I was revealing too much, too soon so I edited a lot of content out. I still have the background discussions and the in-fighting between Quentin Ludlow, Justin Maide and Dr Davison (which makes for interesting reading) and I may put this out on Justin’s character blog, by way of backstory, now The Shift is out there.
When I wrote Connected, I was always intrigued by the idea of having a high tech spy thriller woven into a bigger sci-fi plot about ancient forces overseeing what we do, and there being a need for a kind of balance in our world, or else really bad things would happen. I then explored the notion that these forces were political in their nature, and thus their interactions would create tensions on Earth – the things we refer to as fate or coincidence (the fairness or unfairness of life) – and change the lives of everyone. From the outset, I fully intended for this story to be deep and far reaching.
Connected is of course, more than just a super-charged spy sci-fi thriller, it is also a heart-rending love story with a poignant message about life, and I would question anyone if they read it without those tears welling up!
Really, Connected: The Call and Connected: The Shift should be read back to back as one book. Only then will readers see the subtle interconnections between the two stories. All the loose ends are tied, no matter how small, everything comes together. Remember – everything’s connected.
SPS: Tell us about Sam and Ellie.
MM: Sam and Ellie Noor are a married couple very much in love. Ellie is a business woman with a hectic life, and she buys in, one hundred percent into the lie Sam has crafted for her, of him being a Foreign Office diplomat responsible for promoting British Science and Technology Innovations overseas. In reality, Dr Sam Noor is a top MI6 counter-terrorism operative who has been heading up and handling some of the country’s most dangerous operations for over ten years.
Due to the critical nature of his job, and the constant pressure to get ‘results’, Sam uses any means to get the job done. He is arrogant and shows a casual flippancy and disregard for the rules. Undeniably, Sam Noor is a gorgeous, charismatic maverick, but a brilliant one at that. He has not only the brawn but an exceptional brain, with a focus on nanotechnology and advanced sciences. Sam is also a highly trained killing machine, who doesn’t think twice about exercising extreme brutality to get answers. Amongst all of this, Sam Noor is a loving husband who adores his wife Ellie, and despite the fact that he has kept his job secret from her, he will do anything in his power to protect her. He knows that when he met her back in 1989, the most wonderful thing had happened – he had fallen in love at first sight – something he never believed possible.
Sam hated lying to Ellie, but his innate ability to be an absolutely consummate liar, with no tells at all, together with his process for compartmentalizing his feelings so he couldn’t be read, enabled him to hold down the lie for so long. What makes Sam Noor a very powerful and somewhat frightening individual is not just the fact he can read anyone instinctively, nor the fact that his mind is as big as his muscle; it because he thinks he’s doing it all for the ‘greater good’ –until he learns the truth.
Ellie Noor is Sam’s stunningly beautiful and sharply intelligent wife. She loves him with devotion. But she is also driven to succeed and her business becomes her focus, and Sam takes second place for a while. This is when he decides to accept the invitation to join MI6. Ellie doesn’t look too hard into her husband’s life, believing the lie and accepting it.
But there is more to Ellie than first can be seen. On the surface, she is a normal woman who has been hurled into a Sam’s terrifying world, but it is clear she is a conundrum. Hearing disembodied voices and experiencing strange illusions does not make for normal woman. Of course such manifestations could be put down to her mental state which in parts throughout both The Call and The Shift, is questionable. But Ellie is someone who, as MI6 referenced as ‘coming back to life two hours after being dead’, which dispels the theory of ‘it’s all in her mind’. Indeed, MI6 Chief Sir Justin Maide appears to fear her more than ‘anyone he has ever faced’, and this fear is the reason for his insane actions towards her.
Not to give away spoilers, but by the time The Shift gets really underway, Ellie has had a ‘hell of a time’, but she fulfils the role she was designed to take.
SPS: You have a lot of futuristic tech’ involved. How much research was involved, and do you have a favourite creation?
MM: I think my favourite has to be the nano-bomb. That is such a cool piece of tech, and really frightening proposition. It is grounded in actual science, everything is probable, and I that’s what makes it so frightening.
The quantum compound is an incredible weapon. The attraction of the quantum compound is in its size. A devastating power that is no bigger than a large bar of chocolate. These two weapons have one common denominator – their small size, and their smallness presents great opportunities to shift perceptions and shatter assumptions on what a weapon should look like.
I live in a world of sci-tech innovations. I am also deeply fascinated by what advanced technologies can do. Over the years, I collected loads of clippings and articles identifying new technologies and scientific applications. I also read research papers, and discussed the development of Connected’s technologies with scientists, to get an authentic feel for these technologies, and that is why they are really believable, because in reality, they are highly probable. But let’s hope they stay on the pages of Connected…
SPS: How did you come up with the fabulous idea of how the Collective grow their terrorist organisation?
MM: Al Nadir is headed up by a genius, Salim Al Douri. He’s ex-CIA, he’s been everywhere; he knows how things work. He sees the world, but not as countries defined by borders and politics, but as his canvas of opportunity to paint his picture of his new world. He knows that to paint that picture of connected terrorism, he needs to bring all the elements together. In fact, it isn’t Salim’s brain child but Sabena Sanatoni (Salim’s 2nd in command) to leverage the slum population of the world to increase the human capital of Al Nadir. But Salim puts the idea into action. He’s the one who innovates and makes it happen.
As a writer, I wanted to use a mechanism to make the terrorist Collective massive in a short period of time. I imagined what I would do if I was Salim, if I was an evil, mega-rich maniac with the connections and wherewithal to take over the world. Where would I go to get my recruits? I would need to go where people had no choice, where they were desperate, and dispossessed, and where no one would be looking or having any interest in. All these descriptions shouted one word: slums. No matter what their culture of creed, religion, or background – in the slums, poverty unites. In The Call, Al Nadir catalogued every slum, went in and negotiated with the slum lord overseeing their slum domain, and basically bought the people. Al Nadir then took the people and planted them in their hidden city camps around the world.
It’s an uncomfortable thought, but these people Al Nadir took are the forgotten ones. They’re off any social radar and not considered a threat to the rest of the world. All are commanded and controlled by slum lords, and those living in these conditions will do anything to survive. I imagined, if someone was powerful enough to use their desperation to their own ends, someone like Salim. Again, like the nanobomb, this has a frightening touch of ‘what if…’and it touches on a future reality that would be too terrible to contemplate if someone really did the same as Al Nadir.
SPS: Was it always the plan to leave it with plenty of questions left unanswered?
MM: Yes, it was. I think some readers have been frustrated by a lack of conclusion. But The Call still has plenty of closure for the plotlines contained. For instance, Sam does track down Kinley’s killers and delivers his typical retribution, and Sam does identify that there was more to Ellie’s attack by Al Nadir than meets the eye. However, it is only in The Shift that the big reveal is made
SPS: So, what can we expect from Connected: The Shift and what are your hopes on release day?
MM: At the end of Connected: The Call, question marks loomed over a number of people: Ellie – for what isn’t she telling, Sam – for what retribution he would take and Salim Al Douri – for what he would do next. The Shift picks up almost immediately from where The Call left off. However, be prepared, this is a book that doesn’t hold back. Lives will be betrayed, revenge will be delivered and actions from all sides will be taken to excess. The Shift blends an intoxicating mix of fast-paced, shocking spy thriller with intelligent and poignant sci-fi that reflects the world around us.
There are scenes in The Shift that are difficult to read without a sharp intake of breath. By the time the reader reaches these points, they would have invested much in Sam and Ellie and really care about them, and to read of their experiences will be hard to take. Salim HATES Sam so much, not just for what he did to his cousin but for all the missions that have caused Salim to fail. His revenge will be genuinely shocking, but what happens after is mind blowing!
The underlying theme – the quest for power – permeates throughout The Shift, and nearly all the players, good and bad, are tainted by this desire. Only one remains ‘white of heart’.
In The Call, Ellie Noor asked “what’s too far gone”. In The Shift she gets her answer. And in a way, it looks to answer the bigger question “Have we all gone too far?” The world in The Shift is a mirrored reality of our own. Traits of instant want, immediate gratification and insatiable greed, so prevalent now are pulled to the very precipice of what could be. But The Shift is also about keeping a belief in faith, hope and love. No matter how dark things seem, there will always be a turning point: a rebalancing of dark to light.
Already things have happened to Ellie that she can’t explain. The roller coaster ride that started in The Call continues at breakneck speed. Over the remaining seventy-two hours, told in real time simultaneously across the world, Sam and Ellie find themselves in truly terrifying situations, difficult to comprehend. They have to use all their abilities to overcome accursed forces that threaten their lives and the world around them.
So far, in Connected: The Call, there has been a constant element of ‘nothing is what it seems’. The Shift will keep up this continuity, shifting reality at a rapid pace.
The Shift is very much an ‘Ellie Noor’ book. Her interrogation by MI6 is seen through Sam’s eyes, but in turn the reader quickly realizes that Ellie is an extraordinary woman. The confused and tired woman at the end of The Call comes into her own and proves she is every bit a match for Sam in her abilities.
Amongst all the thrilling action and shocking adventure that is The Shift, a further message comes over and that is ‘everything is connected’ and nothing just ‘happens’. We all have free will, but it is a controlled free will, and there are forces beyond our understanding that are overseeing and intervening where necessary. The story line of The Shift is very deep and skirts around the meaning of life, and what it means to be good or evil. In fact, it addresses the nature of good and evil, and explains the need for the two. Those that have read the two books say that combined, they are epic in their breadth of storyline.
My hopes for the release is that all the thousand who have read The Call continue their journey with The Shift.
SPS: Can we expect some serious revenge from Sam?
MM: Oh yes, he is going to take his revenge. It’s very brutal and disturbing due to the fact of who it is, and their position. It does show that Sam is prepared to break all the rules for the one he loves, and he does so with absolute impunity.
SPS: How easy was it to pace the novel; was it the plan to have it build and build until the breathtaking finale?
MM: It wasn’t easy as Connected in its entirety is a very complex novel. I think everyone knows that the pace will ratchet up in The Shift, however I actually begin a lot slower than I did in The Call. That is for a reason. I want readers to savour the love that Sam and Ellie have. The bond that exists between each of them. I also wanted to build up the tension and suspense. The reader knows that big things are going to happen, but there’s no point revealing everything immediately. By the time the reader’s hitting the middle of the book, so many things are happening at break-neck speed, the pace goes through the roof.
SPS: Are there any new characters we should be on the lookout for?
MM: Yes there are. In fact there is whole new location called Kudamun, populated by ancient bureaucrats (yes that’s what I said). Two characters from this place are central to the plot of The Shift: Aby-od and Aswa-da. Aby-od is Leader of Kudamun and Aswa-da is his opposing Leader. Aby-od is a by-the-book bureaucrat, who has compassion and believes in sanctity of their antediluvian laws. Aswa-da is more open in his beliefs, and is intent on delivering his dark vision for Kudamun. A vision that has dire consequences for life itself.
The place of Kudamun and the vocabulary of that the Kudamaz use is grounded in the original Sumerian language and culture from seven thousand years ago. Again, I undertook a lot of research into how the Sumerians lived, and I have always been intrigued into their existence as the first civilization on Earth. They were so advanced, and knew so much, I question how this was the case, so long ago, and did they have any intervention? My Kudamaz creation has been inspired by the Sumerians, but it could be the situation, that in reality, the Sumerians were inspired by someone like the Kudamaz?
SPS: Are there any fancy new tech’ creations that you have come up with for the latest installment?
MM: There are some amazing creations that use light and harmonics on the Kudamaz side, but they are definitely placed in sci-fi origins. I don’t think these technologies will be emerging anytime soon. My favourite Earth bound technology is Sabena’s Stealth Runner which melds F18 with aerospace ‘acquired’ technology to produce a plane that goes at a ground speed of six thousand miles an hour, and is completely invisible. Using the same concept as the Stealth Suits from The Call, the plane is coated with photo-chromic vibrating nano cells that reflect the immediate surroundings and displace the eye’s visual perception field concealing the craft completely from sight.
SPS: Have you wrapped everything up nicely, or is there potential for more books involving Sam and Ellie? Can you even say if they successfully make it through Connected:The Shift?
MM: All the plotlines come together and yes it is all wrapped up very nicely. However, I do have a third book. Two things happen at the end of The Shift, one obvious, the other not so much, and these give rise to a third instalment. On the fate of Sam and Ellie, I’m not saying any more, all I can say is read the book!
SPS: Can you take a moment to tell us how you came up with the cover for Connected: The Shift?
MM: I knew what kind of effect I was looking for, but it took a while to develop the idea. The transformation element works well, but I wanted to have the eye back again. It’s a bit weird as the eye is in portrait whereas the face is in profile. It makes the image look like an ancient Egyptian drawing (like the Pharaohs used to draw). The eye is bright and clear enough to suggest it is looking through the darkness at you (overseeing your movements). I wanted it to be unnerving but welcoming at the same time. The effect definitely works. The unusual arrow at the top is to suggest something is out synch, or several degrees off balance, a balance that has shifted
SPS: How have you found reader reaction so far to your work?
MM: I have been pleased by the reaction to my work. Connected: The Call has been very well received, with a number of reviews citing the realism that my work contains. Authenticity is important, especially in the political discussions and interactions. From the interplay in the White House and Whitehall, the technological inventions, and the terrorist collective of Al Nadir, I have always ensured that authenticity and realistic engagements play a key role. Another key point that has been made by many readers is the originality and uniqueness of the story.
SPS: It’s probably a good time to ask what we can expect next from the pen of Michelle Medhat?
MM: It will be Connected (book three). I have already written down the plotlines, but it will take some time. Between times of course, I’m updating my blog with character posts from Ellie Noor, Sam Noor, Sabena Sanantoni, Salim Al Douri, Justin Maide and others. My new website featuring both books, will also feature my writer’s blog, in which I’ll add my thoughts on these books and other snippets of inspiration.
SPS: Was the Self-Published/Indie-Published route always your preferred route for your work?
MM: It wasn’t initially the intended route, but as I started Connected many years ago when self-publishing wasn’t around, I had different ideas. Now with self-publishing being relatively straightforward, it opens up a world of possibilities. The writer is at the centre of the process, and it is much more dynamic. It also removes the boundaries that traditional publishing puts up between the author and reader, giving more of a connection between the two, and making the engagement creative.
SPS: Has the experience so far been all that you thought it would be?
MM: Absolutely, it’s been fantastic!
SPS: If you could give one piece of advice for someone looking to get into writing, what would it be?
MM: If you have a story in your head, write it down – don’t lose it. It doesn’t matter if it’s not finished. Just get what you can in written form. Once the story is in front of you, think about the plot line. Is that the best start for it, where could it go to, and how will it end. The hardest part of writing is getting started. Writers are never happy with the first sentence, but the more you search for that golden line, the longer the process will be. You have to be practical, and start filling up that blank page. After this everything else will flow.
SPS: Thank you for joining us today Michelle, and all the best for the future.
MM: Thank you, Paul
SPS: For more information on Michelle and her Connected books, please do visit her Author page here.