If you’ve ever watched the films of Nicholas Roeg, Ken Russell or Ridley Scott, or enjoyed any music videos featuring The Cure, Celine Dion, Spandau Ballet or George Michael, you’ve likely enjoyed the work of C. J. Ashbrook.
That’s because Ashbrook has done just about everything you can behind the camera as a cinematographer over the course of a long and storied career working in film. He also directed some of the most evocative and influential rock videos ever made—including the iconic “Sweet Dreams” by The Eurythmics—iconic epics in miniature which are the stuff of legend.
Now, with the release of his first novel, A Darker Gold, Ashbrook has turned his eye towards the literary world. If that self published thriller is any indication, he’s about to scale the dizzying heights of Best Seller lists worldwide.
How would you describe A Darker Gold to those who are unfamiliar with it?
A Darker Gold is a different kind of thriller, not dissimilar to The Da Vinci Code, except that it’s not about religion; it’s about mankind. In simplistic terms—because the novel is also very much about human emotions—it’s about a bizarre act of terrorism that puts the origins of civilization into question. The story follows a guilt-ridden intelligence agent who resigns from the CIA and becomes a courier of illicit art to conceal an unforgivable crime, then finds himself in a race against time to recover an artifact that’s so old, it’s more myth than real, and can’t possibly exist — yet it could destroy civilization.
As you’ve indicated, the story mixes a wide variety of elements together—ideas as diverse as clandestine couriers, mythical civilizations and the unforeseen dangers inherent to modern technologies—into a seamless whole. Which begs the question, where did it come from, anyway?
Actually, it started off as an analysis of human emotions; how far we’re prepared to go for someone we love, but I’ve also always been fascinated by ancient Egypt. Its culture was so extraordinary, so strangely sophisticated — but also incredibly sudden. Where did it come from? It seemed to spring from nowhere. We don’t know how it started, and even now, we don’t know who built the Great Pyramids. Or why, actually. Because whatever Egyptologists would have us believe, the pharaohs did not build the pyramids at Giza; they used them, although no pharaoh was ever found there. To this day it’s a mystery.
But when it was proven without a shadow of doubt that the Sphinx is over ten thousand years old, there was no question in my mind: an advanced civilization must have existed long before the pharaohs. The mathematical equations alone are mind-numbing. Whoever built the Giza pyramids had knowledge of pi, which is extraordinary, because these days we use pi to test super-computers. But what really intrigues me is that Egyptian hieroglyphs—which we’re still struggling to understand—are actually quite primitive. It’s almost as if the people who carved them were desperate to record what little they could remember.
How long did it take to develop from that initial conception into a fully-formed tale? And how much did it change over the course of that development process or even while you were actually writing it, for that matter?
About two years, initially, but then much longer as I got deeper into the story. The conception itself didn’t change much—well, not hugely—but the characters and plot twists did. Mac was always a strong character; a kind of dangerous George Clooney, but his 26-year-old daughter wasn’t really working. I wanted her to be normal; a kind of girl-next-door, but she couldn’t possibly have coped with what would happen to her.
Then one night I was watching a film. I was so blown away by the lead actress I got more of her films. She was incredible; not just a great actress, but a wonderful human being. I ended using her to shape the character of Mac’s daughter. She became such a powerful character, I had to work hard on Mac. Which is great; we all need to fight for what we are.
Okay, you’ve piqued my interest. Which actress caught your attention, and what, specifically, about her and her work fired your imagination?
Hmm, the actress's name is tricky. She extremely beautiful, very well known, and currently in the news, and whilst she's also a wonderful human being and would probably say yes, I also have plans for her — which she doesn't yet know about. I am now making moves towards traditional publishing. If I succeed, there's a good chance A Darker Gold will be made into a film, so releasing her name at this exact moment in time would be unwise strategy.
But....I'm happy to talk about her attributes, if I can do it without giving the game away. [But I must warn you] this is going to keep you awake at night!
Apart from her physical attributes and her ability to take on roles that would intimidate many actresses of her age, she is highly intelligent, rarely wants a stunt-double—because given a little training, she can do just about anything—and backs her directors to the hilt. Plus, of course—as you probably guessed—I like her.
Yep, you’re right. I will be losing some sleep mulling that mystery over! Getting back to A Darker Gold, I was wondering if your approach to creating the novel is a good description of your general creative process, or was this all new territory for you?
It was certainly new territory, but in a way, also not. After years behind the camera, I wanted a deeper involvement in storytelling, but I also wanted to write in a cinematic way, treating chapters like scenes, visualizing the way my characters behaved, the way they reacted to different situations, even the sound of their voices. In fact I first wrote A Darker Gold as a screenplay, but then changed my mind when I realized its full import. I also wanted to direct my characters in fine detail, so I wrote it as a full-length novel.
Still, if you already had the screenplay finished, why rewrite A Darker Gold as a novel? I ask, because it does strike me as perfect fodder for a blockbuster movie, or even miniseries, and given your background, as you’ve noted, that would seem the natural way to present it.
Actually, that’s a very interesting question. There’s a huge difference between a good screenplay and a great screenplay, and it’s no mean feat to achieve. But in my opinion, you need a full-length novel as a rich source of material to create a good screenplay. Which is why I wrote A Darker Gold the way I did. Adaptations from even the most seemingly cinematic novels can be extremely difficult. The dramatic arc of a film is often very different to the arc of a novel. I believe it took Anthony Minghella three years to complete the screenplay for The English Patient. But what a wonderful book and what a beautiful film; both different from one another, yet utterly in the same spirit.
And why self-publish it first? Does self-publishing offer you certain opportunities that working with more traditional, established publishing houses don’t at that point?
It wasn’t an easy decision. Self-publishing offers a better royalty percentage, but marketing is very time-consuming. A number of literary agents were interested in A Darker Gold and it probably would have been more productive to concentrate on my next book, but the publishing world is rapidly changing. It’s now almost commonplace to self-publish; the whole publishing process is changing. In fact, more and more publishers are being guided by e-book sales to find new writers.
So, can we expect to see more books from you in the future? And what about Mac and company—is there a sequel to Darker Gold in our future?
Yes, absolutely. In fact I’m in the final stages of another novel right now, a Mafia-related thriller interwoven with a very unusual—and slightly shocking—love story.
Is there a sequel to A Darker Gold? Yes, I think there is. I don’t want to turn Jessie into Indiana Jones, but I can see her heading in that direction.
Can you tell us a little bit about the new book at this point, or is it still too early to talk about it?
My new novel does have a working title. In fact, considering the nature of the story, it is almost certainly the final title. It's called Inheritance and is a very unusual love story/thriller about two unlikely people who become ensnared in a multi-billion dollar weapons deal. It's being orchestrated by the boss of a crime syndicate who the CIA is trying to crush...but cannot. To me, Inheritance is actually a more gripping and emotional novel than ADG.
I'm not sure about the release date because if a traditional publisher takes on A Darker Gold, they will probably do it on the understanding that I have another ready-to-publish novel sitting in the wings, which of course, I do. But it also wouldn't surprise me—the same thought occurred to you—if they asked me to write a sequel to A Darker Gold. If that happens, and I'm confident that I could write a sequel in about six months, I'm not sure which they will want to publish as the first follow-up.
Now, given all of that, does this mean that essentially you’ve said farewell to making films?
It depends. Certainly not as a cameraman. I would love to be involved in the film adaptation of my own novels, or even direct the films if I can find a producer brave enough to take the risk, but it’s unlikely that I’ll return to filmmaking for any other reason. I’ve fallen in love with writing. To me it’s the ultimate in creative expression.
Well, what do you get from writing that making films and videos don’t provide?
A whole new dimension, I guess; creating extraordinary stories in any setting I want, dreaming up characters and bringing them to life, making them real and unforgettable. I’ve made so many films and music videos, lit so many sets and shot film in such a variety of ways, yet it’s hard to remember all of them. In contrast, I remember every paragraph, every descriptive scene and every line of dialogue in A Darker Gold. This is a slight exaggeration, but I swear I’d recognize Mac’s voice on the telephone and I could pick Jessie out in a crowd at a hundred yards.
What do you hope that readers get from A Darker Gold? Is this book all about delivering thrills and sheer entertainment, or might there be something else in there for those who want to look for it?
A mixture of both, really. To a large degree, all novels are a form of entertainment, but A Darker Gold poses a very intriguing question: when did civilization begin? Because nobody really knows. It’s like there’s a huge blank spot in our history. They’ve found stone calendars and temples that date back 12,000 years, but we don’t really know who those people were, except that they were clearly very knowledgeable about astronomy. Yet thousands of years later we thought the earth was flat. How did that happen?
Let’s say there’s a reader out there who’s on the fence about picking up the book, or who doesn’t typically turn to reading for their entertainment. What would you say to help convince them to give A Darker Gold a try?
I’d suggest they go to my website, click on the book and read the first two chapters. Or better still, buy it; it’s cheaper than going to the pub and lasts a whole lot longer than a glass or two of beer.
Anything else to add before I let you get back to work?