“The Seed of Corruption” by A.I. Fabler:
an interview with the author, August 2022
NZ author A.I. Fabler dug deep
into Big Pharma and state corruption
15 years before Covid-19
Q: How do you summarise the storyline?
A chance meeting of two strangers in a deserted French hotel in the Mekong Delta starts them on a journey together, fuelled by a developing attraction. He is in search of a forged painting, originating in Vietnam, that came to light at Christies in London, and the original of which he had completed for the rich patron of a wildlife charity based in Geneva. She is in pursuit of an NGO assignment in Vietnam’s Northern Highlands in the hope of finding a story to boost her freelance journalist’s ambitions. While flirting with the idea of a romance, they stumble into a remote world gripped by fear and death as a SARS epidemic breaks out. As the epidemic rapidly spreads, they find themselves embroiled in a high-stakes international conspiracy involving corrupt charities, unscrupulous drug companies, and foreign agencies.
Q: In your Preface you mention that you started out in pursuit of a different story in Vietnam before being led into this one. What was the story you were following initially?
For some years I had been conscious of the inner workings of two very high-profile NGO charities and the power brokers who ran them — often out of sight, and to agendas that were undeclared to their followers. The virtuous aims they espoused gave them free entry across national borders and into the high echelons of government, but their actions and motives were not always transparent. South East Asia was overrun with their agencies and I had a character, with a storyline, that I intended to use in order to explore the corruption that often accompanied their actions, and the absence of ethics and morality that infected their dealings.
Q: NGOs come under scrutiny by your protagonist, and particularly the wildlife and environment group that you name The Paladin Foundation in the story. The book makes a strong case that they should be treated with suspicion, if not contempt. Is that a reflection of your own view, or is it merely a plot device?
A: I had a friend who was closely involved in the early days of Oxfam and was deeply affected by the financial waste and corruption he observed. Hearing the details alerted me to the dangers inherent in the structure of these non-governmental bodies, staffed by a mixture of amateur do-gooders, unworldly idealists and power-hungry bullies, unrestrained by the usual governance standards applying to financial and ethical dealings in the real world. The “virtue” flags they fly enable them to siphon up funds from the public, untaxed, and free from any meaningful accounting on their part. Those same “virtue” flags enable them to swan into any country as of right and busy themselves in the affairs of the local culture with an imperiousness that would put the most patriarchal 19th Century colonist to shame. I had also been privy to the early inner workings of the World Wildlife Fund and its founders.
Q: You also say in the Preface that whole passages are basically written just as they actually happened, and that others were inspired by what you saw and heard along the way. You make the comment that, as far as truth goes, this is as close to it as fiction can get. Can you explain that?
A: I began my journey in Vietnam in 2004 with Anton Faraday’s backstory as an artist, and his involvement with a wildlife organisation, already clear in my mind, as was his reason for going to Vietnam to track down the forger who had plagiarised his work. From the minute he stepped off the plane, his journey and what he encountered became a recitation of my own journey and what I encountered. It was quite uncanny, but almost word for word up to the moment when he stumbles into the Paladin Foundation’s encampment in the Highlands, everything seemed to be driving him and me towards a pre-destined conclusion. That’s why I commented that so much of what I have presented as fiction occurred in reality. I’m still amazed, when I look at my notebooks, at how closely they presaged the emerging plotline, starting with the first conversation between Anton and Caroline in the Mekong Delta hotel.
Q: We meet Anton Faraday, the wildlife painter, in the first chapter and he is not your standard hero by any means. Tell us about him.
He is struggling with his own moral dilemma, being afraid that his success as a painter is down to the high-profile patronage he received from the rich, but secretive, wildlife charity that kick-started his career. His journey into the darkness of his own soul is in contrast to the up-beat, hard-nosed optimism of the young aspiring journalist, Caroline, that he accidentally teams up with. She’s a very modern ‘take-no-shit’ young woman, and he is an introverted anti-hero. When things go badly wrong, his temptation is to quietly retreat; hers is to take on the deadly fight.
Q: Tell us about the nature of that fight.
They stumble into the middle of a rapidly spreading epidemic of Bird flu which (at the risk of giving too much of the story away) may well have originated in an experimental laboratory in Hanoi, if not across the border in China. I, too, stumbled across it in the Northern Highlands and Hanoi, and immediately began researching, as do Faraday and Caroline. In their case they came close to the truth through her microbiologist brother working in the development lab. That put them in extreme danger.
Q: So, for much of the book you were following their actual trail. Were you in danger, too?
No. But I was astounded by the absence of mainstream reporting of the information I gradually accumulated about experimental work being done in China and the West on mammalian transfer of viruses in contravention of international protocols, and the risks involved. Then came news that a drug developed by Gilead Sciences in California, and licensed to Hoffman-La Roche, was being rolled out by the US Government in large quantities to protect against flu viruses — in response to increasingly alarming warnings about the spread of the coronavirus termed “bird flu”. The drug in question was oseltamivir with the trade name of Tamiflu. The drug was synthesised from shikimic acid taken from the star anise seed harvested in the Vietnam Highlands. Though it was shown to have little or no prophylactic effect, and only marginal benefit if taken immediately at the onset of infection (the independent and highly respected Cochrane Collaboration called for it to be boycotted at worst and banned at best), President Bush requested a $1 billion stockpile in addition to a $1.8 billion stockpile proposed for the American Military under Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld was a major stockholder and previous director of Gilead. Up to 60 other nations were persuaded by the widespread scaremongering by mainstream media and public health officials to stockpile the same drug at enormous expense, though it subsequently proved to be of no use in treating the virus and — luckily — the scare was so over-hyped that it wasn’t needed.
Q: What did you take from that research you did?
Big Pharma and Big Government, with the complicity of mainstream media, can easily manufacture fear and false information to create Big Money. It happened 15 years earlier, and it was repeated on a grander scale in 2019. While some of the facts may be known publicly, it is their underreporting that makes them safe from public knowledge and/or easy to dismiss as “conspiracy theory”. Big Pharma and Government elites control the narrative.
Q: Without giving too much of the story away, was Anton Faraday’s struggle to come to terms with the true nature of his artistic patron, The Paladin Foundation, the central conflict around which you intended to build your storyline — or did you always have that explosive finale in your sights?
A: The struggle for self-belief and self-respect pre-occupies all artists, whether they are successful, or lacking acknowledgment and recognition. Painters and writers work alone and suffer more than those who work collaboratively. Faraday’s personality intrigued me because he was an undeniable commercial success, but was determined to see himself as a fraud. The story of his journey through Vietnam is essentially the chronicle of his struggle with this perverse aspect of his personality. The more he discovers about the nature of the arts patron (Paladin) that was responsible for his early success, the more strength it gives to his narrative that he is undeserving. Bearing in mind his rather passive personality, this could easily tip him into a downward spiral. I had to confront him with something so big that it dwarfed his self-pity and forced him to act.
Q: Hence the confrontation with the combined forces that come together in the dramatic finale. But did you have the suspicions in 2004 when you were travelling in Vietnam that allowed you to weave the involvement of the western governments and Big Pharma into the plot, or was that purely creative licence?
A: I had more than suspicions, I had enough mounting evidence to cause me at one stage to reconsider whether I should be writing a creative novel or non-fiction. But mainstream media at the time convinced me that they weren’t interested in speculating on the facts — just as they weren’t during Covid-19 — so I concentrated on making it a drama about the struggles of relatable human beings confronted by forces seemingly beyond their ability to withstand.
Q: In contrast to Faraday, Caroline seems self-assured and driven. What attracted her to him?
A: His lack of ego, perhaps. Her perception of his vulnerability. She is a very modern young woman who is intent on pursuing her goals. His personality allows lots of room for her to express hers. That’s a good basis for a relationship. He may not be an alpha male, but she probably perceives that, in a crisis, she can rely on his stubbornness and firm grip on what’s right and wrong.
Q: Well, as things transpired, she got that one right! I wanted to ask you about Vietnam. Through your writing you convey the smells, tastes and sounds of the country more vividly than the best travel writer, and the culture and customs are written into every scene so we are absolutely transported there. Have you long had a love affair with the country?
A: No, my son and I had planned to go because I was fascinated by how quickly they were welcoming the West after all the horrific things they had suffered at our hands. When he died, I decided to take him on a journey with me and report what I found. My avenue for immersion into a new country is through their food. I’ll loiter around street vendors and markets until I feel at home and have melted in. Travelling alone is best because you are forced to interact with strangers, and I love to just follow whatever direction fate takes me. I read a lot and I write notes. I can have an unexpected conversation with someone, write it down while killing time in a café, and find months later that it fits like a glove into where my story is heading.
Q: Do you plot everything out; do you always know where your story is heading?
A: No. My story drags me along, not the other way around. Every day I leave a sentence unfinished to help me start the following day, but I don’t necessarily know where that sentence will lead. But I edit constantly. I look at what I’ve got, and move it around, or throw it out. I spent a few years getting my head around the basics of writing film scripts, and it’s had a massive influence on how I stitch my novel manuscripts together. My next book started life as a spec film script and a song book. It’s a noir murder/mystery set in seventies New York and the structure of the book is not much different to the film play — just wordier!
Q: Is that also heavily based on reality?
A: It is. It opens with a street mugging on the Upper East Side. I was twice mugged in New York in the late seventies within five blocks of where this happened. Nothing stimulates the imagination like being held up at gun point. One of the muggers was the girl who ended up in my book. I gave her $10, and she gave me the character for a story.
Q: What is the title?
A: “A Song for Leonard”. The Leonard in question is Leonard Cohen — for reasons that are revealed by the end.
Q: The writing in The Seed of Corruption has been likened to Graham Greene, John Le Carré and even Joseph Conrad. Do you take that as a compliment?
I think each of them would have been drawn to this type of story, and the moral conflicts it contains, but they each had very different styles and none of them are styles I deliberately try and emulate. The book is multilayered: a mystery, a love story, a conspiracy, a thriller. Aside from Faraday and Caroline, Vietnam is a central character also. The plot gathers pace in keeping with my change in focus towards the confrontation at the end. But the door is open as to whether good or evil will ultimately triumph.
Q: What’s the main thing you want someone to get from reading this book?
The parallels between 2004 and 2019 are striking, particularly in the way in which open reporting is suppressed in favour of a narrative that supports the often corrupt alliance between corporate and state elites. Fiction can explore the moral and ethical crimes more vividly than journalism allows. The readers who share the conflicts and emotions of the central characters in “The Seed of Corruption” should need little convincing about the rights and wrongs underscoring current events. Hopefully that will strengthen their scepticism and help protect them for the future.
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