I was lucky enough to be interviewed by the wonderful Ellis Shuman recently – the author of Valley of the Thracians and The Virtual Kibbutz. He’d stumbled across Rich in Small Things shortly prior its release and was attracted by the poker themes – but I think it was the race that really caught his attention on reading. See what you think when you read his interview – there’s an excerpt below and you can read the full thing here.
Q: Your book centers around a London to Mongolia race called the Ulaanbaatar Cup. Where did you get the inspiration for this idea?
Helen: Well, this is a bit of a long story! In July 2008 I was working on my first novel and developing ideas about my second – predominantly around the ancient Silk Road. I was working on a plot mixing old and modern timelines when, on a corporate sailing regatta, our skipper told me about an adventure he was about to embark on – The Mongol Rally – where he would drive from the UK to Mongolia, taking in some of the countries on the Silk Road. It struck me that this would be a great modern thread to weave into the story.
Fast forward a couple of years to when I was taking a sabbatical from work to write the second novel and was scheduled on a three-week adventure from Uzbekistan, through Kyrgyzstan into China (research for the ancient threads of the story). The trip was cancelled due to a coup. I realized that I didn’t need to research The Mongol Rally anymore – I had the time and wherewithal to participate myself. And during one heart-stopping lunch hour I signed up. Without a teammate or any real plans. One of my oldest and best friends, Victoria, unexpectedly stepped up to the mark – so perfect. We set off from Goodwood to Ulaanbaatar that July. By then, the first half of the book and most of the characters were fully formed and we had the most incredible adventure. I ended up throwing away the idea of including the ancient Silk Road in the book and instead it became Rich in Small Things, a completely different novel from what I had initially envisaged.
Q: When driving an ambulance with another woman, didn’t you fear for your safety as you crossed border after border? Were there no dangerous incidents en route?
Helen: Victoria and I planned our trip extensively (in most respects!). Our choice of vehicle (an ambulance) was made in part because it gave us the security of being able to sleep in it, rather than camping in a flimsy and vulnerable tent. We had the vehicle fitted so that we could lock every door from the inside and we would immobilize it when we went to sleep. Victoria also organized some self-defense classes where we learned that running was the best policy, and also took the advice to wear fake wedding rings and carry whistles.
We also, in the first part of the rally, arranged to be part of a convoy, and thought very carefully about where we stopped and slept every night. One area we didn’t plan much was the route – but we did decide on a very simple route, with a limited amount of border crossings. And actually, the border crossings were probably some of the safest moments given the amount of people and bureaucracy in these areas. We didn’t have any dangerous incidents – after the event, we did feel like we had been very lucky, that we’d been in a sort of bubble, looked after by the angels as we adventured. But it may have been a consequence of our consciousness of the dangers we might face and the precautions that we took.
Q: There is a million pound prize offered to the winners of the Ulaanbaatar Cup. What was the prize offered in The Mongol Rally?
Helen: There are no prizes in The Mongol Rally – it’s entirely a charitable endeavor. Participants pay an entry fee, commit to raising a certain amount for The Adventurists’ chosen charity and then can make additional charitable contributions (such as an ambulance) as they see fit. We took part because we thought it sounded like an amazing adventure – to see parts of the world in a way we’d never considered. Neither of us really knew where Mongolia was when we signed up. What’s funny though, is neither of us ever thought we wouldn’t get to UB – until we were on the journey and things started to go wrong. It’s true the pair of us are eternal optimists and very determined people – but we were never in the rally to prove anything. It just seemed a wonderful opportunity to explore some of the world and meet some like-minded people. There are a lot of rallies out there, and some do offer prizes. Melissa, the main character in Rich in Small Things, wrote a blog post about a few that you can read on my website here.