James Boschert, the author of the Talon Series (Assassins Of Alamut, Knight Assassin, Assassination In Al Qahirah, and Greek Fire) is joining us today for an interview. We will have this interview focus on he as a person, and then I will be reviewing his Talon Series, and finally we will have a closing interview focused on the books and his writing to end the blog post series.
Welcome James Boschert to Seize The Moment today for our first interview. How are you?
Hello Nassem, I am well. Good to talk to you. I appreciate the time you are taking for this interview.
I love foreign policy and affairs, and you have lived all over the world, which fascinates me. I hope to follow a path in foreign affairs to reach the Presidency, and so I am eager to learn more about you and your life. Let’s jump right in!
You were born in Malaya when it was a British colony. I understand that while you were there, in the early 1950’s, the Chinese Communist Insurgency was fighting the British in an early example of guerrilla warfare. You also narrowly escaped an ambush after your school was burnt down by the CCO, being saved by Gurkhas. When you look back on this time, do you try to forget its horrors, or do you embrace it as a learning experience?
I recall that the jungle was somewhat menacing because the Chinese were there and we did hear a lot of bad stories so there was a kind of wariness wherever you went between the British and the rest of the people.Odd as it may seem I don’t remember being frightened too much although on one or two occasions it was exciting! During the ambush I was tossed into a crude dirt ditch on the bank side if the road and was there on my hands and knees in two inches of dirty water watching everything with wide open eyes. The Gurkhas were very busy blazing away into the jungle on both sides of the road but the man who interested me most was the Bren gunner who was just ten feet up from me. So I paddled up to him and before anyone could stop me I was standing just behind him peering over his shoulder as he crouched in the same ditch and fired bursts into the jungle below. He was a typical Gurkha, fighting was in his nature so he glanced back at me and began to laugh and called over to his mates. Then the others noticed and laughed too. My mother was having fits further down but she had a pistol out and I am really sure she was not new to this kind of thing, she had been in France during the war and got tangled up with the resistance.The main impression I came away with from that encounter was the sheer excitement, the smell of sweat, the shouting and the sound of the gunfire and the lazy curve of the red tracer from the Bren gun as it went into the jungle below. It was all over within a few minutes after that and we were escorted home.
I know that you feel British, but was it difficult living thousands of miles from London? I know that for much of the time you were there it was British-controlled, but was there really a major English population among the people?
No the British population was not large. It consisted mainly of Rubber estate managers who were bumped off quite regularly by the CCO with most of the rest being professionals such as lawyers, doctors and people like my father who worked for the government in agriculture. There were of course a lot of soldiers about. There is no doubt that the British enjoyed a privileged status in the colony of Malaya but unlike Africa this country had a King (Agong) and a Sultan in nominal charge of each of the states. Hence the British were very careful to work with these people so that at least the illusion was maintained that the Malays were in charge. I barely knew the UK so this was home. I played with Chinese, Malay and Indian children who lived around our own home which was a large bungalow. These were the more wealthy people it is true but the Ama ( the maid servant who looked after the children) the Kaboon ( the gardener) and the cook were Malay, Tamil and Chinese respectively. We colonial brats were always respectful to them or…we got punished by our parents.
You joined the British Army at age 15, as still a very young man. Was this in accordance with rules, or did you sign up earlier than you were supposed to? Also, did your experiences discussed in question 1 influence your application to the British Army?
When my father was sent home from Malaya because it declared Merdeka (Independence in 1958) he bought a sheep farm in Wales. I put up with the silly, wet and wooly animals for as long as I could but I was ruined. I didn’t like the cold wet gray country . I was spoiled by the sun and color of Malaya you see. Despite the dangers there it was home. I thought the Army might be a good place to start and yes it was legal then. The British Army understood full well the advantage of training boys. While they know every trick in the books as to how to get out of fatigues duties they become very good soldiers.
As a soldier, you first were posted in your birthplace of the now nation of Malaysia. We in the West often do not here about that region of the world, other than currently because of Missing Flight 370, which took off from Kuala Lumpur. Did you encounter many of Malaysia’s diverse cultures while stationed there, and were these different than other soldiers who did not grow up there?
Bit of an irony that wasn’t it? Straight back to the country where I had grown up. Yes because I spoke Malay and felt perfectly comfortable there. The soldiering was new and Borneo was shall we say interesting as we lived rough for months on end the we would come back to Penang which was like a paradise. In 1964 the country was just about finished with the CCO( Chinese Communists) although we did go into the jungle to look for them on occasion in the north east remote areas of jungle where tigers lived. Malaya was a fairly sleepy country with the Malays in charge , the middle class and professionals were mainly Chinese with a sprinkling of Indians. It was an uneasy relationship that on occasion went very badly for the Chinese when the Malays decided that they wanted to put them in their place. There were a mix at the bottom of Chinese coolies and Tamils who did all the hard labor, building and roads. Malays are Muslem of the Sunni kind but it was a fairly benign form of Islam and very tolerant of other faiths in the country but that has begun to change unfortunately.
The economy depended almost entirely on the Tin mining and rubber plantations but also the industrious Chinese who ran most of the businesses and were quite determined to send their children to other countries like Britain and America for education. Lawyers and doctors. The Sultans played polo and the Agong or king ruled for five years after which one of the other sultans assumed the role. Oil had not been discovered as yet.
You then served in Oman, which wasn’t part of the British Empire but was heavily influenced by it. How did this experience differ from your previous one in Malaysia?
Oman was really my first experience of the Middle East and it was quite a change from the jungle war in Borneo and we had to get used to a different way of fighting. The British were there because Yemen was experimenting with Communism and our old friends the Chinese communists were there making a nuisance of themselves. So this was all about a very small force of Brits (Who were officially not there ) lending a hand training and help to an Omani force that was really tribesmen who were fighting for the Sultan. It got hairy at times because the tribes were on both sides of the border. One could not always be sure. One of our missions was called “Heart and Minds” where we would go into a village and help with medical issues and with wells. The country was firmly back in the 16th century and the young sultan wanted it to change. The Communists would come in at night and intimidate the villagers. In the end the Omani had enough trained men and the Iranians came along to help. It was there that I learned that goats are the best spies a village has. The Chinese and Russians packed up, went home and left Oman alone. It was a success from that point of view.
I understand that you then spent time in the Middle East, in countries including Lebanon, Israel, and Iran. Do you think that society in the West has misconceptions when it comes to this region, especially Iran? Were there any times where you experienced “culture shock”?
I think that if I had not grown up in Malaya I might have suffered from culture shock but in the main I was pretty adaptable. One of the reasons I was kept out there might have been because I liked it on the main. I hated going back to the UK so I stayed. There used to be a huge variety of cultures in that whole region. Lebanon I remember with fondness. It is a beautiful country and everyone got along despite their religious differences. Israel was fascinating because the people there were Kibbutzim and this was their home. These people in the main had no quarrel with the Arab people but were equally determined to keep what they had. I think it was here that I began to appreciate how many shades of gray there are in the region known as the Middle East but that extends to Iran and Afghanistan too. Nothing is simply black or white and it is naive to think so but sadly many people in the west do just that and as a result confuse things causing real damage in the process. I became quite fascinated with the history of the entire region, The Arab culture, Persian, Byzantine and all in between and believe that if you know the middle ages i.e. 11th-12th century history it gives one an insight into the place today. Not an awful lot has changed in some ways.
Your passion for the hashshashins (assassins) came during your time in the Middle East,visiting the old castles in the Alborz mountains. How did you first find out about the assassins, and what about them peaked the interest you obviously have for them?Have you been back at any recent time?
That is a good question. I found a book called the Castles of the Assassins by Freyda Stark and realized that I was very close to the very mountains where they were located. The Alborz you mentioned. I was with a tank battalion in a town called Ghazvin which is about 150 miles north west of Teheran. I obtained a good map and set out on my time off to find them. The hospitality of the villages which I had to walk through because the jeep couldn’t always get there was wonderful. I visited all of them. Semiral, Alamut, and spend the night on top of the rock of Alamut. During the night which was warm and starlit I woke up to hear a terrible wailing and rattling from up the valley. My hair must have stood on end. The noise came rushing down the steep valley and swept over me then rattled and wailed off down the valley. I didn’t sleep another wink and the next day the Rais of the village asked me rather pointedly if I had slept well. I told him about the wind and he gave me a half smile and said “Ah the ghosts of Mayan Diz came to visit you.” I subsequently discovered that the Mongols had slaughtered a great number of Hashashini or Ismaili in a location called Mayum Diz not too far off after they invaded Iran. No I have not been back since sadly but I think sometimes it is not always the best thing to do.
When the Iranian Revolution of 1978 (mainly known in the US for the Iranian Hostage Crisis) really picked up steam, you escaped from Iran. What did that entail, and did you find it unfortunate to have to leave, especially as the country was being taken over by radicals?
I had been in Shiraz when the riots began and then the revolution started in earnest. I was told by a man whom I admire to this day and will never forget, General Esphandiary, the garrison commander of Shiraz, that the revolution was going to happen and that I should get things sorted in Teheran and then leave the country. He told me that it would be a bloody one and was no place for me. I heard much later that he had been shot. Then it became a scramble for a lot of Europeans to leave but I got to Teheran after the last planes had left and that meant an overland treck for me. As a British soldier I would not have had a good time of it and in fact several of my colleagues were imprisoned. I got out across the Turkish border just south of Tabriz. That too was interesting.
After all of this, you became an engineer. What sector of engineering did you specialize in, and what caused you to take that path?
I had few options open to me when I got back to the UK. I could have gone to Rhodesia or Angola, they were looking for ex soldiers like me. Then a tiny ad caught my attention and I went to a college where I signed up and from there it was a total change of life and one that I never regretted. Few of my friends came back from places like Angola. I became a mechanical engineer but here in America that can become an adventure in of itself. I eventually became a program manager and worked on some very cool projects over here. It was a good move.
What do you consider the greatest place you have lived? Do you still travel often? Any that have inspired future book ideas?
I would still be living in Iran had there not been a revolution I really didn’t want to go back to the cold and the wet. I was moved about the whole region from Lebanon to Afghanistan and related to it entirely. I could have passed as an Irani or Pashtoon and spoke Farsi so it was where I wanted to be. No I don’t travel very much any more. I like Arizona, in some ways it resembles that region…arid, mountainous. It is America for me now without question.
We will be discussing Mr. Boschert’s writing in our next interview, after reviews of the Talon Series come. Thank you Mr. Boschert for answering these questions so informatively and with such fervor. I look forward to our next interview!
I want to thank you Nassem for your thoughtful questions. I have enjoyed this interview a great deal.
James Boschert~ Author Of Talon Series
James Boschert grew up in the then colony of Malaya between the ages of four and eleven. The Chinese communists were active in the jungles at the time threatening the entire country with a cruel insurgency. His school was burned down and the family survived the ambush of a food convoy, saved by a patrol of Gurkha soldiers. He joined the British army as a boy soldier and later served in remote places like Borneo, Oman and other countries of the Middle East, eventually spending several years in Iran. While there he explored the castles of the infamous sect known as the Ismaili or Hashashini. It sometimes took a few days hard walking or driving to find these remote deserted fortresses high in the mountains of the Alborz in northern Iran. They eventually became the subject matter for his first book “The Assassins of Alamut” Escaping from the turmoil of Iran during the revolution he went to college and now lives in the USA.
He has developed a fascination for medieval history in general but in particular the history of the Middle East, Andalusia, Egypt and all the way to India. His books are historical novels about the medieval history of the same region but seen from both perspectives, that of the Crusaders and the Muslim world. “I believe that in order to put some depth to the Crusades one needs to look at what was going on all around them at the same time. I find the world at that time incredibly rich in every aspect.”
“The four legs of civilization as we have recorded it, Andalusia, Europe, Byzantium and the old empires of Persia and the Islamic world of Syria and Egypt make a rich backdrop for any novel.”
The politics and under currents of the Middle East continue to hold my attention as they are always in flux and are never still.”