Published by Clink Street on May 2, 2017
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In politics and big business, truth is a matter of opinion.
Straddling the storyworlds of Panama, Washington and London, The Expansion follows British-born geomatic engineer Max Burns, whose revolutionary water-saving system wins him the esteemed position of head engineer for one of the 21st century’s most politically contested megaprojects: the expansion of the Panama Canal.
For Max it is a dream come true: not only is he able to work closely with construction giant and old high-school friend Godfredo Roco in one of the most beautiful tropical environments, but it’s the kind of job Max has been working toward his entire career.
Yet in the arena of global trade and diplomacy, stakes are high, and when a senior official of the Panama Canal Administration is found dead, Max finds himself in the frame for sabotage and murder, and at the centre of a web of political intrigue and betrayal that reaches far beyond the idyllic shores of Central America. The only person Max can trust is his new-found love, Karis Deen, a scientist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. Except Karis herself holds a secret that could not only destroy Max, but could change the entire balance of world power.
The Magic of Collaboration
The Expansion is the first in a series of political thrillers written by a collaborative writing team: Christoph Martin Zollinger and Libby O’Loghlin. Here, Christoph and Libby talk about the collaborative writing process.
Christoph Martin Zollinger
I came up with the idea for The Expansion book while I was in the air, on a flight from Panama to Switzerland, and I knew it was going to need to be a collaborative effort from the beginning, because the scope of the story is huge! It starts in the UK, moves to Switzerland, then to Panama and the US (Washington, D.C.), and amongst all that we have a cast of very colorful characters who carry the story through all the politics and clandestine twists and turns behind the ‘seemingly’ straightforward project: the expansion of the Panama Canal!
One of the best aspects of working as a writing team is that Libby’s and my skills and strengths are very complementary, but we have also had very different life experiences—we’ve both lived and worked in different countries—so we were able to bring a lot of points of view to the process and to the characters.
In 2015, we travelled together to Panama to visit some of the locations that would play a part in the story. That was great, because we then both had impressions of Panama that we could draw on when we were creating scenes. It meant we could also discuss the geography easily. So if, for example, a character had to drive from A to B, we both knew what that looked like and how they’d get there.
We also visited the site of the canal expansion itself, which is breathtakingly huge! And we were able to talk to a range of people in Panama, including the Director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and even some ex-street gang members, who had lived through very violent times on the streets of Panama City, and who now run tours of the Old Town.
For the next book, we have been doing a lot of reading about Russia and the Cold War, and I’m planning a trip to the Arctic … perhaps that will give you an idea of the scope of the next story!
Before The Expansion project I hadn’t ever written a collaborative novel before and, from a writing perspective, I found working with Christoph to be a great way to ‘level up’ my writing skills, and to get better at moving consistently forwards. We expect to be working together for some years, so it’s great to have a strong working dynamic as a basis for that.
Apart from being a lot of fun, collaboration is a great process for learning to be able to critically assess the relevance and usefulness of your own ideas—without getting too attached to them. You get really good at ‘killing your darlings’, as the saying goes. Christoph and I always respect each other’s inputs and creative ideas, and we always discuss everything until we’re in agreement about which way it should go, with the bottom line being: Would this character do/say that? And will it move the story forwards?
I’m a big genre reader/watcher (Le Carré, Ludlum, Goldman, etc.), so I love that I’ve had a chance to tackle the political thriller genre. And there’s no denying that having two minds on a story (especially one that has a huge geopolitical scope) opens up whole worlds of ideas and perspectives that I’d never be able to imagine if I were writing on my own. I think that’s really the magic of collaboration.
Read an Excerpt:
This is the moment the protagonist, Max Burns, has secretly longed for, ever since he shared one night of bliss with the beautiful paleontologist Karis Deen, on the night his team won the contract to expand the Panama Canal. Except things don’t go quite as Max had hoped, and we start to see a different side of the usually easy-going Max; that the great prestige that’s associated with his job as the Chief Engineer on the canal expansion project doesn’t make up for the loneliness of the lifestyle.
“Max, I feel like I should apologize to you.”
He shook his head. “No, no, you don’t need to—”
She interrupted him with a short laugh. “Just wait and listen, Dr. Burns!”
“I’m sorry … what do you mean?” He steered the car across the intersection.
“Max, I’m not apologizing about our night together, or about the fact that I haven’t been in touch.” She seemed amused by his confusion. “I’m apologizing because I want to talk about work, and I realize it’s after hours for you.”
“Ah. I see.” Max kept his eyes firmly on the road as the reality sank in: she was more interested in Max-the-engineer than in Max-the-person.
But that had been his experience generally over the past year or so: everyone seemed to want to talk to him because he was the one the media had blithely labelled ‘the expansion’s brainchild’—the expert engineer that everyone called on for comment. He’d almost become the CISCO spokesperson. Wearily, he switched back into work mode.
“So let me guess: you’re back because of the prehistoric feeding grounds. You’re not the boss, but you figure you’re on a first-name basis with the chief engineer, so you want to find out how much we can massage the schedule to allow you to excavate at the site as long as possible. Am I close?” He glanced at her.
Karis nodded. “Good guess. You’re not just a pretty face.”
Suddenly, he felt irritated. It had been a long few weeks where he’d been at loggerheads with Paco over the timeline for the concrete pouring and, frankly, he didn’t think he had it in him to try and decode whether the woman was flirting or not. Mixed messages were tedious at the best of times.
“I’ve negotiated four weeks already,” he said drily, as he came to a stop for a red light. “I can’t give you longer. There are too many stakeholders that can’t be put off at this stage.”
Karis nodded. “I thought you might say that. Oh, well, it was worth a try.”