The realities of secret CIA interrogation processes collide with fiction in The Abduction, Jonathan Holt’s follow-up to his bestselling The Abomination. After the kidnapping of a U.S. Army officer’s teenage daughter in Venice, a series of videos are released by the kidnappers showing their young victim, Mia, enduring the “enhanced interrogation” techniques that U.S. forces still claim are harmless. U.S. Army intelligence analyst Holly Bolland, Venetian police captain Kat Tapo, and Venice Carabinieri Colonel Aldo Piola must rejoin forces after a bitter falling-out to save her before it’s too late. Here, Holt shares with us his own discovery of the torture techniques, and the surprising inspiration behind Mia.
Bookish: The Abduction has twists and turns in every chapter. Do you know how your thrillers will end when you start writing them?
Jonathan Holt: Yes. I spend as long, or longer, plotting and researching as writing. That said, I have totally rewritten the plot for the third book in the trilogy, which I’m writing now. The characters just demanded a different, more personal ending. Though the revelation of the overall conspiracy (aspects of which have been seen in all three books) will be the same.
Bookish: Do you have a schedule or ritual for your writing?
JH: I still have a day job—creative director in a big ad agency—writing for fun, as well as profit. So basically, I write any chance I get, usually on weekends and early in the mornings.
Bookish: What’s the most important aspect about keeping a thriller going?
JH: Probably pace—keeping the revelations coming. No one wants to read a slow thriller. But for me, pace isn’t only about plot. Becoming attached to the characters—understanding what they want; what stands in their way; what their relationships are; their flaws and strengths and destinies; what they’ll lose if they aren’t successful—is just as important. I deliberately set out to write a trilogy in which the characters are just as important as the conspiracies.
Bookish: A driving force in this novel is your depiction of what “enhanced interrogation” actually is. How did you first learn about these techniques and what their effects on the human body and mind really were?
JH: My knowledge of the CIA’s interrogation program comes courtesy of the so-called “torture memos,” released by [Barack] Obama in 2009, after a series of Freedom of Information actions by the American Civil Liberties Union and others. Although parts of the memos had been leaked before, for the first time the whole extent of the program was laid out in chilling detail. Ironically, it was precisely because the CIA were aware how close to the wind they were sailing with regards to the constitutional ban on inflicting “severe pain or suffering” that they had their lawyers document and micromanage every tiny detail of their interrogations. [Details] from the temperature of the water used in water dowsing (not less than 41 degrees, and “potable”) to the amount of jewelry that can be worn when striking a captive’s face or groin (please remove your wedding ring prior to torturing someone).
What’s scary is precisely the contrast between the clinical, legal language of the memos and the violence being described. “Stress positions,” we’re told, “are usually self-limiting… in that temporary muscle fatigue leads to the [detainee] being unable to maintain the position.” In other words, it hurts so much the prisoner collapses. That discrepancy—between the language of authority and the action of brutality—is a kind of institutional doublethink, which is meat and drink to a writer of conspiracy thrillers.
Bookish: You show an innocent American teenage girl suffering from enhanced interrogation. How do you think the nation would react to see these practices exercised upon a young white girl?
JH: Well, in the book the whole world is both horrified and fascinated. To explain the context, the girl is the daughter of a U.S. major stationed in Italy. She’s kidnapped by a group demanding an end to U.S. bases in Italian soil; to make a political point, they announce that they’ll do to their captive all the things the CIA do their detainees, which the CIA claim “aren’t torture.” In a further twist, they’ll do them live on the Internet, streamed via an anonymising website. Traffic to the site more than quadruples overnight. It seems to me, in a situation like that, no one has the moral high ground—not the U.S., not the kidnappers, and certainly not the public who flock to watch.
Bookish: Another key point in the novel is that Venetians absolutely don’t want U.S. bases in their country anymore. Can you foresee us (in real life) maintaining a comfortable military presence there?
JH: The U.S. is stepping up its military presence in Italy quite dramatically, for the simple reason that, unlike, say, Germany, Italy gives access to the whole of northern Africa and the Middle East. Take the new AGS surveillance program, which will be worth more than $2 billion to U.S. defense contractors. From Sigonella in Sicily, Global Hawk drones will be able to fly all the way down to Somalia and Kenya, or east as far as Pakistan.
The expansion of the U.S. military in Italy has certainly caused some problems with the locals. In Vicenza, for example, over 150,000 people protested against the building of a new base at Dal Molin a few years ago. I don’t think that opposition will ever go away, but I suspect the U.S. will increasingly do more to try to mitigate it, with better local outreach and more “hearts and minds” initiatives. In the meantime, there’s conflict—and conflict makes for good material.
Bookish: The kidnapped girl seems helpless, but she figures out things about her captors that give her strength, and a chance. This emotional aspect is a crucial driving force behind the action. Were you inspired by other strong female characters in the genre?
JH: It was important to me that I didn’t write my kidnap victim, Mia, purely as a victim. I really loathe those thrillers where women are locked up and have horrible, often sexual, things done to them by twisted, misogynistic captors. Perhaps surprisingly, given that my book is a conspiracy thriller, I was actually thinking of the characters in Harry Potter as I wrote the scenes of Mia and her kidnappers. The Harry Potter protagonists are young; they have horrible and painful things done to them (Cruciatus Curse, anyone?); but they’re fearless and resourceful and will always figure out a way to turn the tables.
Jonathan Holt studied English literature at Oxford and is now the creative director of an advertising agency. He lives in London.