In the week when his eagerly awaited cyber thriller The Exphoria Code is published, we caught up with author Antony Johnston
Antony, can you tell us in a nutshell what The Exphoria Code is about?
The Exphoria Code is a modern spy thriller, starring MI6 hacker Brigitte Sharp as she navigates the murky world of cyber-espionage. Three years ago Brigitte went on her first field mission, in Syria – but it went badly wrong, and ever since then she’s been deskbound and in therapy. Now, though, her best friend is murdered… and when Bridge investigates, she discovers there’s a mole in a top-secret Anglo-French military project. So she’s forced back into the field, going undercover in France to root out the mole. But the situation quickly escalates, and soon Bridge is on the run, desperate and alone, as a nuclear terrorist plot unfolds around her…
I’ve written spy thrillers before, but nothing quite like this. For The Exphoria Code I wanted to make something both contemporary and serious, and create a character who would belong in this modern world, where espionage is as likely to happen on the “dark web” as in a dark alleyway.
The online world is global, crossing borders – some would say eliminating them – and technology is a double-edged sword of convenience for us, but also opportunity for hostile agents. It seemed logical, almost inevitable, that a modern spy story would have to involve that world.
You describe it as a cyber-thriller. Does a reader need to be very tech-savvy to follow it?
No. First and foremost the book is about Brigitte, and her mission. The technology is there to support that story, not the other way around, and is presented in a way that always explains what’s happening, and why it’s relevant. Nothing is gratuitous or confusing.
I hope The Exphoria Code will appeal to anyone who enjoys an exciting, tense spy thriller, regardless of their level of technical knowledge. But I simply couldn’t imagine writing a modern spy thriller without acknowledging the world around us, with its Google and Facebook and iPhones and selfies. Every day the world becomes more and more connected, more and more reliant on devices and computers. Whether you’re a fan of that or not, the direction is clear.
Is it true to life? Are these hacking skills something that intelligence officers will need to have for the 21st century?
Well, I imagine any actual hackers reading the book will complain I’ve simplified things too much! But in terms of intelligence, these skills are already being used – we’ve seen that in the past couple of years with Russian operations like APT2 ‘Cozy Bear’, and anyone who thinks the Western services aren’t engaged in retaliatory operations along the same lines is kidding themselves.
There’s a paragraph in the book where I list the ‘cyber-warfare’ operations that led to the formation of the SIS Cyber Threat Analytics department, where Bridge works. The CTA is a fictional creation, but all of the hacks I list are real.
However, most of the actual coders carrying out such operations are either working in highly specialised departments, or are third parties hired by agencies rather than being intelligence officers themselves. So there’s an element of fictionality to an all-rounder like Bridge, of course. But at the heart of it, The Exphoria Code is quite believable.
Your background is mainly (and very successfully) in writing graphic novels and videogames. Did you have to learn new skills to tell your story without using images?
I wouldn’t say ‘learn’ per se, because I’ve been writing fiction for as long as I can remember; in fact, my first published book was an illustrated novella, although that was almost twenty years ago.
So the process of writing The Exphoria Code was more about honing those skills, and coming to terms with the differences in story-telling methods between prose, graphic novels, and videogames — all of which exercise very different parts of the writing brain.
Writing without images was both a gift and a burden. It enabled me to get deeper inside characters’ heads than with most graphic novels, and also to let readers build up images of the characters in their own minds, rather than having them be literally drawn and staring out at you from the page.
Not being able to use that visual shorthand, though, means everything in the story is entirely down to how well I can describe it. That’s both daunting and exhausting – but ultimately very satisfying.
You have established a big fanbase with your comics work. Is The Exphoria Code designed to appeal to those fans, or are you aiming to reach a different readership?
Naturally I hope that regular readers of crime and thriller novels will enjoy The Exphoria Code. It’s the most traditional thriller I’ve ever written, and if I can reach a new audience with it, that would be fantastic.
And my core audience in graphic novels is used to me writing a wide variety of genres and story types; I know that what they really want is my voice, and the characters I create, rather than a specific genre or setting. So I hope they’ll enjoy Brigitte Sharp’s adventures, too.
One of your graphic novels was made into a blockbuster movie, Atomic Blonde, starring Charlize Theron. How was the Hollywood experience for you?
It was exciting, and surreal, and overall a great experience – which I know isn’t always the case for authors whose work gets adapted, so I feel very fortunate. But everyone involved in making the movie was driven by a love of The Coldest City, on which it was based, and that really shows through on the screen.
I also got to attend my first film premieres, be interviewed on the red carpet, and make some wonderful new friends… all because one summer I sat down to write a story just for me. I had no idea if anyone else would want to read The Coldest City, but it was a story I felt compelled to tell, and nobody else was going to do it. That’s true of The Exphoria Code, too, so it’ll be interesting to see if it’s as well received.
Writers often complain they are at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to making films. Is it even worse if you’re the adapted writer?
I think we’ve all heard those horror stories, but I was fortunate that the filmmakers of Atomic Blonde were very gracious, and wanted me involved. I was a co-producer, and so gave notes and feedback on the screenplay drafts, casting, the first rough edit of the final movie, and so on.
But I didn’t want to stick my oar in too much. I’ve written adaptations of other works myself, and the last thing you want is to feel like the original author is breathing down your neck. When I met Charlize and David Leitch on set, I simply said that I’d already written the best graphic novel I could; now it was up to them to make the best movie they could. If doing that required changing things from the original book, I was fully on board.
Is there a chance that The Exphoria Code will be made into a film? Who do you see as Brigitte Sharp?
We’ve had some interest in the rights already, yes – both as a feature and as a TV series, in fact. I have no announcement to make at this time, as they say… and as for actors, I won’t comment or speculate. It would be unfair on whoever ends up playing the role.
What’s next for Brigitte? Do you envisage a long series of sequels?
That all depends on whether readers want it. I’m hoping to write a trilogy, at least, and I’m planning the second Brigitte Sharp book as we speak. If there’s enough demand, maybe I’ll extend it even further. That’s a decision for the future.
Finally, what are you doing for Christmas? And what’s your favourite Christmas cracker joke?
Christmas and New Year for me are all about travelling back home to see family and old friends; taking my dogs for long wintry walks; and being able to spend a few guilt-free days catching up on my to-read pile instead of worrying about my own work.
My favourite joke isn’t especially festive, but I can’t resist a lateral pun:
Q: How do you stop moles digging in your garden?
A: Hide the spade.