Finding inspiration in a fever dream, Jonathan Payne wrote his debut novel, Citizen Orlov. But beyond its surreal inspiration, the novel’s subject matter is rooted in Payne’s own experiences. Before moving to Washington, DC, Payne worked in national security for the British government and that, particularly his overseas assignments, laid the groundwork for Citizen Orlov.
Payne holds a Master of Arts degree in Novel Writing from Middlesex University and his short fiction, “Two Yous” and “Surrounded” to name a few, has been published in magazines such as Turnpike, Twist in Time, and Fiction Kitchen Berlin.
Drawing on a deep love of the spy thriller genre, Payne uses Citizen Orlov to humorously explore how a regular person might face the larger-than-life genre and all its tropes. And the result is a spy thriller with a sensible, unprepared fishmonger as a protagonist and “a streak of absurd humor on top”.
In our interview, Payne discusses navigating the spy thriller genre, the intentions behind his short stories, and the importance, regardless of genre or form, of developing a distinctive voice.
AW: Could you tell us about your debut novel, Citizen Orlov?
JP: Well, the first thing to say about Citizen Orlov is that it’s set nowhere. It’s a fictional country somewhere in Central Europe which I invented as a mishmash between about half a dozen different countries. I worked for the British government for many years. I don’t do that anymore. When I did, I once took a trip that started in Austria and went to Slovakia and then to the Czech Republic and Poland. A lot of the feel of those places, what they look like, the snow-capped mountains, and the kinds of things that people eat, all of that was in my head as I was writing it, but it’s set nowhere. I never tell you the name of the country, and I never tell you the name of the capital city where it happens either. Those things are unexpressed and will remain so. Nobody has first names, that’s the other thing I should say about this novel. You never learn anybody’s first name because in this society everybody calls everybody Citizen unless they have a particular title, like a doctor or a prince or something like that. Citizen Orlov is basically a fishmonger. He’s a real working-class guy, a regular guy who stumbles by mistake into the Ministry of Security and becomes a spy by accident. And that’s the core premise of the book.
AW: This is your debut novel, but you have a lot of experience with writing novels and writing in general. What was the writing process like for this particular novel?
JP: Yeah, I’ve been doing this for quite a while. I have four previous full-length novel manuscripts that remain very much unpublished. So, my debut novel will be my fifth full-length manuscript because it takes quite a long time to get it right. The writing process was interesting because it started as a dream, which sounds like a cliche but it’s really true. Right back at the beginning of 2020, when the pandemic was starting to hit, I caught a pretty bad fever. It was so early in the pandemic that I don’t know for sure if I had COVID because we couldn’t get a test. It was over the weekend of my birthday, which is not great, and I was really not very well. I spent this long weekend, several days, just basically half-asleep, trying to sleep off this fever, and I was having really strange, vivid dreams, like you sometimes do in a feverish state. One of them was so vivid that I got up next morning and literally wrote it down and that became the beginning of the novel. The core of the dream was that I was back in the days when I was working for the government and my boss called me up and said, we’re gonna send you on this assignment. You’re going to go to this place, but I can’t tell you where it is. And I’m thinking, how do I get there if I don’t know where I’m going? But in a dream, you know, it just happens. I said, what am I going to do when I get there? And he said, somebody’s going to meet you. They’re going to tell you what to do. And so I traveled to this place and somebody starts shooting at me like they’re trying to kill me. And I’m thinking, what did I get myself into here? So that was the dream. And those things all happen in Citizen Orlov in the first few chapters of the book, and it takes off from there. I originally wrote it as a 26,000-word novella and took it to my writers’ critique group. They said, you should keep going and make it a novel. So, I carried on and I expanded it from the novella into a novel for the rest of that year. The whole thing was probably about a year of a process just on the writing.
AW: You describe the main character, Orlov, as an antihero in that he’s the antithesis of the suave, invincible spy thriller hero. How did you develop this character and what were some elements of the character that were important to you to include?
JP: Yeah, I did say anti-hero. Actually, I don’t know whether that’s the right word because an antihero, typically, is a bad guy. The nice thing about Orlov is he’s not a bad guy. He’s a really good guy, but he’s completely inadequate for the task. He’s not got the skills that you need. He’s just a regular guy. I think the fun of the book is he’s a very ordinary guy who’s dropped into a situation he doesn’t understand, and he has no idea what the hell’s going on. All these government people are doing mysterious Machiavellian things, and he doesn’t know what any of it means. So I think the fun for the reader is that you get to follow him as he tries to work out what on earth is going on. The key thing for me in terms of his character is that he’s a regular, down-to-earth, working-class guy that readers can root for and relate to. But I think the key thing for that to work is he has to have a really good moral compass. He has make sensible decisions that the reader would say, yeah, that’s what I would do in that circumstance. I don’t think I would do X just because somebody told me. I think I would try and find out a bit more, or I think I’d be careful, or I think I would say no to that because it sounds crazy. He has to be a straight shooter. Almost everybody else in this book is some kind of weird Machiavellian person. He’s the only one who’s not. So, there’s a purity to him that I hope readers will enjoy.
AW: Yeah, I feel like putting a character like that, when he’s such a straightforward person, into the spy thriller changes how the reader looks at the spy thriller itself, which is kind of interesting.
JP: Yeah. I don’t know about you, but I’m a massive fan of spy stuff. I read a lot of thrillers, particularly espionage, and I love it. I read all of the Fleming Bond novels end to end in order a couple years ago, which is great fun. You should try it. I think the one thing that I often find limiting in the genre—if you think about Bond, of course, if you think about George Smiley and the Le Carré novels, then there’s the Jack Ryans and so on—these guys are always superheroes. They’re larger than life. I really like Gregg Hurwitz’s Orphan X character as well, but all of these guys are much cooler than me. I’m just a regular reader. I can’t do most of that stuff. I’m just a regular guy and so the fun of reading those books is how much cooler and more capable the hero is. I wanted to write a book in which the hero was like me, was no more capable than me. Just a regular guy. What would that guy do if he was dropped into that circumstance? And that’s the fun of it.
AW: I agree. With some stories there’s a level of like invincibility to the protagonist in that you know they’re going to come out of this alive. It kind of departs from reality.
JP: No, I agree that there’s a lot of fun in the coolness. And I think if I had to choose my favorite thriller, I would probably choose The Day of The Jackal by Frederick Forsyth, which is just beautifully written, you know, a real classic. But that guy is incredible. He’s almost not human. He’s so cool. And the problem, like you said, is that particularly for a series, like a Bond, Le Carré, or a Hurwitz, it kind of takes away from the tension a little bit, perhaps, because you know that your guy’s coming out okay because he’s a superhero. I think it’s almost more fun, to me, to drop in an ordinary person and not to know what’s going to come out of it.
AW: Yeah. There’s so much more suspense because you know this is just an ordinary person going into these extraordinary circumstances.
JP: Yeah, and you can still have fun, I hope. I have other characters in there who are very capable, experienced in espionage. I included a lot of tropes that spy readers will enjoy, but they’re done by other characters, not by the main character, in my case. In fact, the key antagonist is actually based on a real historical character. She’s called Agent Zelle and she’s based on a real person who was around in the beginning of the last century called Margaretha Zelle, better known as Mata Hari, who was an exotic dancer. She was executed just before the end of the First World War, in 1917. She was executed by a French firing squad because the French thought she was a German spy and the Germans thought she was a French spy. Now historians say she probably wasn’t either thing. She was basically what you might call, euphemistically, an escort, and she just hung around with wealthy men from both sides. Everybody thought that she was a double agent and perhaps she wasn’t an agent at all but was executed by mistake. It was kind of tragic. So, in my alternative history she escapes from France and turns up in this fictional country and starts doing essentially counterterrorism for the government. So that’s what I mean by spy tropes; even if she wasn’t in real life, I made her an experienced spy and had her do all these cool espionage things. But Orlov has no idea what’s going on, and that’s the fun of it.
AW: Yeah, I was actually gonna bring that up because there are elements of alternate history in Citizen Orlov, and often with alternate history stories they focus on larger-than-life historical figures, but you focus on people like Zelle and changing the fate of, I can’t think of her name.
JP: Mata Hari. That name is mentioned only a couple of times in the book. Essentially, what she does in the book is very close to what Mata Hari used to do: she goes to nightclubs and does exotic dancing. The way I introduced it into the book is as a cover job. When she’s going on assignment to a place, she’ll pretend to be this Mata Hari dancing character, and she’ll go and do an evening of exotic dancing in an underground bar or something. That’s her cover story for being there, but she’s really doing something for the Ministry of Security. So, I was using it because it’s not just a trope in fiction, but it’s a real thing in espionage that people often will have a cover. Agents will often have a cover job.
AW: Why did you choose to alter the fate of and fictionalize this smaller historical figure?
JP: Yeah, everything else is totally fictional. She’s the only character that’s actually based on a historical character. The reason was the real-life execution. I’ve always been fascinated with her because I think it’s a tragic story. The fun of it was imagining what happens if she hadn’t been executed by the French in 1917. What happens if she had lived and gone on to really do the kind of things that she was executed for? And so, I thought it was almost an homage, if you like, to Mata Hari as a historical person. I wanted to bring her back to life and let her go and do the kind of stuff that she probably didn’t do in real life but nevertheless was executed for doing.
AW: She’s kind of similar to Citizen Orlov in that she was an ordinary person kind of caught up in these events.
JP: I think she’s not really an ordinary person anymore because by the time you get to my story—which is set somewhere around 1930 or in the late ‘20s—she has by that point become a real spy and she’s got a lot of spycraft. You see that in the way she behaves.
AW: You brought this up already, but in your past you worked in national security for the British government. How did those experiences affect the novel, and were there any elements that you drew directly from those experiences?
JP: Certainly. One of them is the one I already mentioned, the trip through Slovakia, Czech Republic, and Poland. That was very influential in terms of the setting and how people talk to each other and what they eat and other cultural things. The other one was the last thing that I did in government service. The last job I had actually was in Kabul, Afghanistan. So I worked out of the British Embassy in Afghanistan. Obviously it’s not really anything like Central Europe, but there were an awful lot of experiences I had there about the security situation and having to be worried about the security and making sure that we kept everybody safe. And so some of that experience comes out in the novel as well, in terms of the way that the government behaves, the way that the army behaves, the way that the police behave, the way that people are always on their guard about their own security and safety.
AW: As far as genre goes, Citizen Orlov is described as an absurdist take on the spy thriller but also a genre-defying work. How would you describe Citzen Orlov’s relationship to genre?
JP: That’s a great question. Yeah, I noticed the publisher had called it genre-defying. I get what they’re saying. I think of it as a thriller with an absurd streak to it. Really, I think that’s the answer because, like I said, I wanted to write a thriller. I love thrillers, particularly spy thrillers, and I wanted to write one. I’ve always had a problem writing straight thrillers. I mentioned four other manuscripts that are unpublished. Three of those were what you might call mainstream, serious thrillers, but they were terrible failures. And so I think the magic ingredient for me that made it click with the readers was adding this streak of absurd or dark humor on top of the spy thriller.
AW: You also write short stories, and I was reading those and I was noticing that they have more of a psychological kind of bent to them. So that kind of ties into that.
JP: Yeah. Which ones did you read?
AW: I read “This Is The Room Where We Tell Stories About The Future”.
JP: Oh yeah, that was my attempt at being literary.
AW: Yeah, I thought it was really great. I really enjoyed it, like genuinely.
JP: And that’s obviously not a thriller.
AW: I also read “Two Yous”.
JP: Yeah, that’s one of my favorites.
AW: It felt like a Shirley Jackson story. I really enjoyed it.
JP: Yeah, I know what you mean. What I had in mind when I was writing that was kind of a Twilight Zone feel. It was a competition where I think the limit was 1,000 words. That’s only three pages or three and a half maybe. So I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to do a thriller, but in less than 1,000 words, that you could imagine was the core of an episode of The Twilight Zone.
AW: Yeah. I also liked “Surrounded”.
JP: That was pretty much my first ever published short story. That one’s a little psychological, right? I’m really interested to know what you think that story is about.
AW: I don’t know. I thought that maybe he had some insecurities about himself and his age. It seemed like he was alone in this house and then to be surrounded by himself… I’m kind of reaching here. I don’t know.
JP: Yeah, to me, it was a story about mental health. But what that means could be different to different people.
AW: Yeah, I especially enjoyed “Surrounded”.
JP: You’ve probably seen the short story stuff I’ve published is a mixture. I think a lot of it has thriller elements to it and Twilight Zone kind of stuff going on. Some of it’s just straight, more literary storytelling, so I’ve done a bit of both.
AW: What do you think are the essential elements of a short story?
JP: My answer to that is the same as my answer to what are the essential elements of a novel. For me, the top thing is always voice. The voice has to be convincing and strong and, you know, different and engaging; if that’s not true I just give up. I pick up novels all the time, read the first page, and if the voice doesn’t grip me I just put them down again. So, for me, with a short story you might only have two or three pages, so you really have to grip people immediately. My personal preference is always a really interesting voice. In short stories, I don’t really care about genre. I don’t care about plot all that much. I just want to listen to a really well-written, convincing voice.
AW: I think that’s a good answer because short stories can be about such completely different things. Sometimes they’ll have a strong plot and sometimes not at all, but they still work. They just have a really good voice, I think.
JP: Yeah, I know one writer in my group who writes fantastic, really short, really gripping fiction in which nothing happens.
AW: Yeah, exactly.
JP: It doesn’t matter because the voice is so strong that I would read it all day. So I think one of the things I see in novice writers a lot is that when they write short stories they try to give it a complete plot with a beginning and a middle and an end. I’m not sure that you need to do that. I think that’s probably overkill.
AW: Sometimes it’s good that it doesn’t have a plot. It gives the reader so much more space to kind of fill it out for themselves, which is fun.
JP: Yeah, exactly. Our conversation about “Surrounded” is an example of that. I really like the kind of short story where you have fun reading it, but then at the end you say, what the hell is that about? And then you can have a debate with your friends about what does that mean? And I think that’s a lot of the fun of the short story. I think the rules are obviously quite different from a novel where a novel’s got to do a lot more work. I just don’t think the short story needs to do all that work.
AW: Which is so much fun because then you can just throw out these wild ideas. That’s what I really love about short stories. So my last question, actually second to last question, is, do you have any advice for new writers?
JP: I feel a little bit presumptuous, given this is my debut. I think there’s two things I would say. One is—it’s another voice point, but I’m not gonna apologize for that because I do think this is key—make the voice of your work distinctive. Make it stand out. Make your voice different from everybody else’s. Find a voice that is yours and not anybody else’s. That’s the first one, and the second one is, keep going. I know it’s cliche, but you have to do a hell of a lot of writing before anybody will publish anything that you’ve written, and so you have to write. I think you have to write and pitch and send out and cajole ten times more than you think you’re gonna have to do before somebody publishes something. So I think novice writers can get the magnitude of it wrong. They don’t understand that they have to send out 10 or 20 times more stuff than they think they’re gonna have to send. So I think those are the two—voice is key and keep going.
AW: My last question is, what authors are you currently reading, or do you have any favorite authors at the moment?
JP: Yeah, I do have one favorite, one that I discovered not that long ago, and that’s a guy called Daniel Silva. Have you come across Daniel Silva? He is a fantastic contemporary writer of serious espionage, and he has a character called Gabriel Allon who’s an Israeli spy. He works for the Israeli secret service and his cover job is art restoration. He restores old paintings, but that’s not just a cover job, it’s a real job. He becomes one of the world’s best restorers of old paintings, but on the side he’s essentially an agent for the Israeli government. He’s a great character. I don’t know how many there are, maybe eighteen or twenty Gabriel Allon books? So that’s my current favorite read.