Interview With Author Jonathan Payne
Updated: May 17
I spent the last month rewatching Psych on TV, because I love comedy and crime solving. It put me in the perfect mood to discuss Citizen Orlov with author Jonathan Payne. This absurdist thriller put a new spin on the spy thriller genre.
What is Citizen Orlov about?
CITIZEN ORLOV is set in an unnamed, mountainous European country at the end of the first world war. It follows the exploits of Orlov, an unassuming fishmonger, who innocently answers a telephone call meant for a secret agent and consequently becomes embroiled in a covert plot to assassinate the king, orchestrated by the alluring Agent Zelle, a spy and belly dancer who's based on the real-life Margaretha Zelle, better known as Mata Hari.
Your novel is described as “an absurdist take on the spy thriller.” What made you decide to go with a satirical approach instead of a traditional spy thriller?
The honest answer is that I've tried writing serious thrillers and they've never really worked. Judging by the reactions of my writing group and beta readers, it's only when I put a deadpan absurdist spin on things that my work really resonates with readers. I think this is because I read a lot of classics like Kafka, Graham Greene, and GK Chesterton, as well as contemporary thrillers.
You previously worked on national security issues for the British government. How did that experience influence your writing?
In a couple of specific ways. Firstly, I once took an official trip through Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland, which has influenced a lot of the sights, sounds and smells of my fictional kingdom. Secondly, the kernel of CITIZEN ORLOV is based on a dream I had about being sent to a strange foreign land on assignment. That dream was a twisted, exaggerated version of a real meeting in which my boss asked if I was prepared to serve in Afghanistan (which I did).
What is your writing process?
I wrote four unpublished manuscripts before this. CITIZEN ORLOV began as a novella, but the reaction from my writing group was that I should expand it into a novel. I wish I could say that I write a thousand words a day, but that's not my process. I spend a lot of time on pre-writing, musing, planning and so on. Once it's time to get a first draft down, I go into an intense period of writing every day, but ideally I keep that down to only two or three months.
What was the path for publishing Citizen Orlov?
Initially, I pitched it to agents, but heard nothing back from most of them. I got a few rote rejections, but nothing by way of feedback. After a few months of that, I switched to plan B, i.e. small presses. I got an offer almost immediately and signed with CamCat Books. CamCat's submission process is much more onerous than most, but I loved it because it felt like there was a chance that someone would read my actual work and not just my cover letter.
What's a piece of advice you’d give to aspiring authors?
First, don't describe yourself as aspiring. You don't need anybody's permission to be a writer. You're either committed to the lifelong pursuit of writing fiction or you're not. Second, make your work stand out from the crowd. I think that's the most important lesson I've learned: be different. For me, that was about finding a distinctive voice. For others, it might be a compelling character or a thrilling plot. Whatever it means to you, find what makes you different.
Where can people order Citizen Orlov?
In the US, it's widely available, including at Barnes & Noble and Bookshop. In the UK, it's available at Waterstones.
Where’s the best place to follow you?
On Twitter @jon7payne and at my website: www.jonathanpayne.org.