‘I was sad because I had no shoes, until I met the man who had no feet.’

Kevin Doherty called time on a successful and lucrative career in marketing to make good on his lifelong dream of writing.  Doherty's well-loved historical thrillers range from gripping espionage in Cold War Russia to daring heroism in Nazi-occupied France. 

His fourth book, The Leonardo Gulag, is a startlingly original tale of art and survival in a notorious Soviet prison camp. We spoke to Kevin Doherty about choosing his genre, slow-burning ideas, and the power of fictional woes to escape real ones. 

Kevin, what did you do before you got into writing?

I earned a living! A sensible living! My background is in marketing and at the time I decided to take the plunge I was Marketing Director of Coca-Cola UK, which was one of the best marketing jobs in the world really but there was this itch inside me which had been there for, honestly, a good many years.

So you decided to chuck it all in to become an author…

I agonised over the decision for a long time, talked it over – and over! – with Roz, my wife, and we thought ‘What are we going to do here? I have this wonderful job but there is this unfulfilled dream,’ and we decided to take the plunge. I was very, very fortunate, incredibly lucky, because I really would have felt very daft if it had all come to nothing. But I did end up with a published book to show for my efforts at the end of a year and a half.

How did you break the news to your colleagues at Coca-Cola?

I walked in and said to my boss, ‘I need to have a conversation with you, a very serious conversation,’ and he was very understanding. I think really in his heart he knew where I was coming from but it was a very difficult thing for him to take on board. He wanted to know if I was unhappy with some aspect of my role, if I would maybe be interested in transferring to the US, could he do anything to make me reconsider? All these kinds of things.

Pretty supportive all in all!

When I was maybe about six months into the period I heard from a friend who’d been in contact with a man who was the chairman of a company that I’d been a director of and he was asking, ‘What’s going on with Kevin?’ ‘Well,’ my friend said, ‘he’s gone off to write his novel,’ and the guy said, ‘Doesn’t he have three sons and a mortgage to support?’ and my friend said, ‘Yes … hmmm.’ And that bemusement would have solidified into something more negative if I hadn’t managed to pull it off.

You’d decided to write a novel; how did you settle on writing historical political thrillers?

A shrewd question, and the answer is a marketing man’s answer. I sat down with a blank sheet of paper and said, ‘OK, what are the various categories into which novels can be assembled? Could I be interested in writing a horror story? Could it be a thriller? What kind of thriller? Or could it be a romance? Is that something I could handle?’ I went through all the categories I could think of, then looked at how I thought these various categories were performing. I didn’t have any statistics to go by but mooching around bookshops and talking to people or watching what was on display, what was being promoted – that all helped.

A very analytical pre-writing process then…

Alongside that it wasn’t too difficult to say, ‘Don’t kid yourself, you’re never going to be able to write a romance novel, that’s not the kind of person you are.’ The candidates really were horror and some type of thriller. ‘So does that mean a crime thriller?’ I wondered. ‘Someone gets murdered and it’s about catching the perpetrator? No, I don’t want to do that.’ I realised that what I was really excited about was political thrillers…

And then you homed in on the Soviet Union?

I took the next step, which was, ‘Do I think I could put myself into the shoes of someone completely alien in terms of their society and culture, in other words someone in the Soviet Union – someone powerful and corrupt?’ That was when the fun really started because I knew that I wanted to do exactly that. It was going to be bloody difficult but that was what I wanted to target. The result was Patriots.

Your new book, The Leonardo Gulag, is, as the title suggests, about a Soviet work camp and the artwork of Leonardo da Vinci. Where on earth did the ideas come from for this?

The very original first seed was when Roz and our three sons and I were in a traffic jam in France. I’d picked up some leaflets about places to explore around the city of Amboise. One of them was a Leonardo da Vinci museum and we sat in our traffic jam and looked at our map, and realised we could come out of this traffic jam and not be very far away from this museum. So off we went. The place, Château du Clos Lucé, was where Leonardo spent his last years. At some point it became a museum, housing replicas of some of Leonardo’s inventions. I wandered around looking at all of this – Leonardo has always fascinated me, I have always been interested in art – and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could pull together some kind of story that involved Leonardo’s work?’ That was really where it all came from.

And the Soviet Union dimension?

The whole Soviet dimension didn’t enter into the scheme of things until many years later because I never got anywhere with the Leonardo idea; well, I made the occasional attempt but never really got my head around it properly. I abandoned it and put it in a bottom drawer somewhere. Then other things happened, including the two novels that followed Patriots. It was Roz who said, ‘I think you should go back to Leonardo and have another crack at that,’ and I said, ‘OK – let’s give it a go!’ So if Roz hadn’t said that, who knows – maybe I would never have attempted it again!

How long are we talking about, between visiting the Leonardo museum and publishing The Leonardo Gulag?

A very long while. We are talking in excess of 20 years. A long time.

Yikes! It was percolating away in the background. I think many people imagine novels to be written all in one go, but some really do filter through over years in the subconscious, don’t they?

Yes! And what always intrigued me was that, going back to what I said about that day when I sat down and thought, ‘OK, I’m going to write a novel, now what type of novel is it going to be?’ – that was a brutally rational process, that was the marketing man at work: clinical. Compare that with the fact that this thing was just sitting there – literally as well as figuratively – in a bottom drawer, going nowhere … and then one day, ‘Boom!’

I heard you used Google Maps to view satellite images of some of the book’s settings, to get a sense of the geography of these remote and isolated work camps in the Arctic Circle?

Well, that’s when things came into play like the ice river which the prisoners are driven along to get to the work camp. If you look at the satellite view of the whole Vorkuta region you will see the rivers; black ribbons running along the landscape. Those are the rivers that freeze up once you get into autumn and really don’t unfreeze until about two months in the summer.

Very cool. Anything else you found?

I was well into the writing of the book when I discovered this heartbreaking cemetery, which you can actually find on Google Maps. There are a couple of photographs which show a rough area of land, I wouldn’t even call it a field because it’s all humped and ridged and so on, with these tragic handmade wooden crosses with the extra crossbar of the Russian Orthodox faith, and with handwritten inscriptions – just names and dates. That is really heart-rending to come upon.

It sounds like researching for The Leonardo Gulag must have been bleak and heavy. Was it ever just a bit too depressing?

Let me try and answer it this way. When I’m writing, I’m writing for me first and foremost and then I take a step back and say, ‘Is this going to be of interest to anyone else?’ The readers I try to keep in my mind are not only those who are perfectly happy but also those who may have a sadness in their life, a need – maybe they’re in a dead-end job and have to commute to and from London or some other city every day and they hate it, and they take refuge in a paperback during their train journey; or maybe they’re suffering an illness of some description or have some other sadness or loss, and they take refuge from that in reading. If an author can give people a story that provides the refuge they’re looking for, I think that’s worthwhile doing. Now you could do that by writing something that’s really funny and makes them laugh, but I can’t do that, it’s not my kind of writing. Or you can bring them into a situation which is tense, maybe tragic, frightening perhaps, whatever, and that becomes a refuge that they can go to.

Of course, fiction at its best is escapism.

It sounds weird: escaping into a worse situation than they themselves are in. But I remember my late father-in-law used to have a saying: ‘I was sad because I had no shoes, until I met the man who had no feet.’

That sums it up perfectly!

All this stuff about gulags and how people were treated. It’s all depressing stuff, but should we forget about it? No, I don’t think so. Can it be put to good use so that we can still relate to it today? Yes, absolutely. And besides, perhaps we owe that to the people who had to suffer in that cruel regime. So it didn’t depress me in the way you might expect.

Finally, can you tell us some of your literary favourites and inspirations?

Well, it’s going to be all the obvious ones, isn’t it, and quite rightly too: Frederick Forsyth, Robert Harris, John le Carré, Sebastian Faulks, Robert Moss, Martin Cruz Smith. And many more, from the past as well as today…

And any not-so-obvious literary loves?

Yes – Guy de Maupassant, a 19th-century French author writing about French society of his day. He writes about the middle classes, the bourgeoisie, but he also writes about French countryfolk – often self-sustaining smallholders or ordinary working people, people who are just getting by. In Maupassant’s stories they can be very resilient characters, and very shrewd, sometimes even wily, because they’re used to surviving. There are no flies on them, if I can use that expression. I first read Maupassant when I was a teenager, and I realised that these folk were very like the people I was growing up among. Their language and culture may have been different, and the century in which they lived, but other than that I could see the resonance of them in my Irish compatriots.

Thanks very much to Kevin for talking to us, and the ongoing pleasure of being his literary agents. The Leonardo Gulag is out now on Oceanview Publishing. Interview edited for clarity.