Matt answers questions – his and yours – about the book, and… anything else. Send questions to mattpotteremail [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk.
Q: Who are the mystery crewmen featured in Outlaws Inc.?
A: The real men who formed the basis for the portrayals of the main crewmen in the book are now dead. They, and all the crewmen with whom I made the clandestine journeys that informed the book, have in any case had to be so composited, disguised and scrambled that they are unrecognizable. This was partly necessary to avoid legal repercussions, and partly to avoid getting the men who (I can only assume) survive, or their contacts, clients and business networks, into trouble. To be clear: none of the crews’ names are the names they use or used in real life; their appearances have been mixed and matched, and key biographical data, as well as data about their aircraft, their points of departure and destinations, their payloads and timings, has been changed in order to render them and their business securely unidentifiable. The aviation industry – not to mention the military and espionage community – has a great many sleuths, professional and amateur, who collect data of this kind. Those readers will note that there are certain flight plans, career moves and so on that do not match their information. In some ways, it seems appropriate that, in the end, I have been forced to employ the same ‘fuzziness’ and smokescreening tactics that some of those in the grey-market and smuggling business employ. This also means that, if you think you recognize a certain transport outfit, journey, crewman or plane from the description given in my narrative, you are mistaken: they have been switched.
Q: The men in this book are mostly from the former Soviet Union. Are you trying to paint a negative picture of business in these countries?
A: Far from it. I’m a lifelong russophile, and I hope I’ve treated everyone in the book fairly and with respect. The men and women I met, flew with, spoke to, followed and investigated have all been honest and open with me, and if the experience of researching and writing Outlaws Inc has taught me anything, it’s that caricatures, public enemies and villains belong in the realms of fairy-tale. Family men working hard with what they’ve got… that’s reality.
Of course, some of the men in this book have done very bad things. Things I like to think I wouldn’t do. They fly, charter or order up planes, but that’s where the certainties end. Some traffick guns, some illicit substances, some both. Some bust heads, or smuggle people, or drop dangerous payloads on remote lands. Some bust sanctions. Many flit between daylight and the darkest corners of the global underworld.
As it happens, the main characters in the book are also Russians, Ukrainians, Serbs, Belorussians, because they were the ones in the eye of this particular hurricane – the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. But they could be, and equally often are, American, British, German, Italian, Scandinavian, Moroccan, South African, Chinese, Dutch, French, you, me.
Q: Are film and televisual rights to Outlaws Inc. available?
A: As I write, yes. We are considering two offers for AV option deals, and in the process of discussing four more. While nothing would thrill me more than seeing Outlaws Inc. turned into the film or TV series reviewers generally seem to feel it should be, we are keen to partner with the right people – and to make the right deal for Outlaws Inc. In the meantime, we welcome expressions of interest, and further offers. Please contact matt [at] mattpotterbooks [dot] com or my agent humfrey [at] hunterprofiles [dot] com.
Q: Did you have a soundtrack or playlist to help you while writing the book?
A: Yes. I sat down and wrote the book in quite a short, concentrated period, and I’d sometimes find that lucky accidents cropped up – the perfect song for the events I was describing would sometimes play as I wrote. (For some reason, Swiss geniuses Beautiful Leopard‘s menacing instrumental ‘Gibraltar’ always plays in my head when I think about the crash of one arms-smuggling flight on its way from Serbia to Libya). Other songs nail the subject matter really well. (Steve Earle’s ‘Copperhead Road’ is a Deep South take on men like those Russians I flew with – it’s amazing how much the Russian crews resemble their US blue-collar counterparts. Scott Walker’s ’30 Century Man’, ‘The Old Man’s Back Again’, ‘The Electrician’ and ‘Night Flights’ could just as well be the theme tunes for some of the shadier businessmen, oligarchs and generals who sustain the business; The Black Crowes’ ‘Black Moon Creeping’ hits the action around the hangars of East Africa after midnight on the head.) Then there’s the third group. Because the events that informed the book are stretched over decades, and in a variety of strange and exotic locations, some songs take on a special significance from the circumstances ‘on the road’ in which I heard them. Like the time I was drinking illicit hooch in a back garden in Kabul with a Canadian photographer. We had to talk real low. They had a net stretched over the whole back garden like a tent because local Taliban sympathisers didn’t take kindly to rumours of a speakeasy and kept trying to lob grenades over the garden wall. Someone put on Ben Harper’s ‘God Fearing Man’ verrrrry softly though a busted set of radio speakers, so as not to arouse suspicion in the neighbourhood. And when I hear it now, I still get a little nervous.
Q: Some of the flights sound awful. In one scene in the book, you get shot at over Chechnya in a dangerously overloaded 25-year-old Soviet air force plane held together by Scotch tape and flown by a pilot who hasn’t slept for 48 hours. Were you afraid?
A: Only during the points where I was conscious or semi-conscious. Screaming helps, I find, and it’s too loud for anyone to hear you anyway. Everyone’s doing it.
Q: When did you stumble upon the story for Outlaws Inc.?
A: It was a hot summer afternoon in 1977 – though you couldn’t tell in the darkness of the auditorium. It was the seventh birthday party of a primary school friend, and his parents had taken us swimming, then to the only cinema in our commuter-belt dormitory town near London. The screen went black, the spotlight faded, and the flickering film-certificate notice appeared onscreen.
That afternoon, as I settled in with some friends and my first ever popcorn to watch the medium-budget pot-boiler everyone was talking about that summer called Star Wars, I was pretty much fair game. And of course, while the hero bored me and the villain made me laugh, the chap I found quite fascinating – much to my parents’ bafflement – was the pilot, amoral loner, clapped-out spacecraft operator and cosmic odd-job man, Han Solo.
He was hardly a complex character – the surname sort of spelled out for you everything you needed to know. But he was, or seemed to be – and this is important to seven-year-old boys, I think – an enigmatic, cynical mercenary, and the owner of a huge, rusting cargo spaceship co-piloted by a werewolf, in which he picked up paying passengers of whatever stripe. No allegiances, no questions, and let’s see the colour of your money.
There was something oddly compelling about someone whose job – effectively a postal courier or taxi-driver, just on a larger scale – should by rights have made him a minor character, a sidekick or plot device. It didn’t. It made him tense. Dark. Mysterious. Oddly threatening. Funny. And in the end, it helped him save the day. All of which, together, mad him Extremely Cool. The world thought so too, of course: for the next few years you couldn’t move for enigmatic soldiers of fortune or murky rebels-with-no-particular-cause. From Indiana Jones to The A-Team, the rootless, quasi-illicit adventurer was very definitely in. I sat in the darkened cinema, and my eyes were wide open.
The trope stuck with me. In 1992, in Moscow and St.Petersburg, I witnessed the collapse of civil society, the takeover by the mafia and the first signs that some ex-military men were going private. Then, while struggling in one dead-end dayjob, I ended up liaising with some of the guys who’d come out on top – the men with hardware to sell. I became a journalist, a great way to spend time thinking about places with names like the Balkans, the former Soviet Union and Afghanistan, and what the men I’d see landing at makeshift runways in bandit-ridden hill regions, always at dusk, with a briefcase full of bills and that Han Solo look in their eyes, were doing. By the time I hit Belgrade in the last mad-dog days of the Milosevic regime, the world’s biggest smuggling network had really found its feet. It was flying arms, cash and contraband to anyone who could pay, from dictators to spooks. I kept hearing about the ‘delivery men’. So when I finally got a chance to fly with these crews, I took it. And that’s your answer.
Is Outlaws available in audio format?
Hi Katrina – and thanks for the question. As of this moment, ‘Outlaws Inc.’ is not available as an audiobook, and I’m not aware they have one planned either – though I’m sure my publishers in the States, the UK/Aus/NZ and elsewhere would be open to emails asking for one! (Pan MacMillan’s details are on the contact page). In the meantime, I’m on it too. Cheers, M
After finding the outlaw book in a hotel book exchange in Spain you became a big inspiration to me. I would very much like to follow you in your line of work, would you be willing to offer me any advice? I am a 18 Year old student currently studying a BTEC L3 in IT and I have already obtained a BTEC L2 in Uniformed Public Services, are these worth anything?
First of all, many thanks for the feedback on the book – it’s really good to know you enjoyed it. (One of the things about being a writer is that you don’t necessarily hear about it when it happens.)
I’m more than happy to offer some guidance – though what I’d recommend is different depending whether you’re thinking of journalism/writing generally, or the investigative stuff. But deep breath, and here are just a few things that might be worth a ponder.
Either way I guess, it’s a funny profession. The first thing I’d say is, it’s not the sort that you necessarily get into through qualifications. That’s not to say they aren’t important – they are – but I know just as many journalists and writers who studied law, medicine, IT etc., as journalism itself. (I don’t have a journalism degree – though many inhouse journo gigs go to those who do nowadays.)
Your writing is your calling card. It’s like being a musician: nobody will ask to see the certificate, they’ll ask you to play. And if what they see/hear is good, they’ll often have time for you. Which doesn’t mean you have to be the finished article right off the bat; just that there’s no substitute for doing it loads, even under your own steam, on a blog, wherever, until you feel your fingertips humming with it.
You’re 18, so there’s still bags of time to get experience. LOADS of time. (Though if I remember, it all felt very urgent at the time!) And time – along with determination – is what will do it. Here’s the boring bit: I worked on building sites, in telesales jobs, the lot, for ages – and was all the time restless and pushing to get journalism work. I didn’t have a single connection, so I guess I wasted a lot of time going about things in the wrong way… but I couldn’t have written Outlaws Inc without having done all of that first. For years. Those jobs – then lowly ones on magazines nobody’s ever heard of (and I remember being pretty glad they hadn’t) got me (eventually) into a position where I could freelance for magazines, newspapers, radio, sites, TV etc., and start investigating stories I was into.
That meant… well, going under my own steam to the kinds of places nobody else seemed to give a damn about at the time. That’s always where the interesting stuff is really happening. The blank spots. You’ll get more great stories, leads and connections in a week in obscure spots – even in Europe or under your nose – than you will in a year anywhere else. Look at what’s happening there, and plug it into the bigger picture.
In terms of actually writing a book, I’d probably have written ‘Outlaws Inc’ sooner if I’d been clued up as to what you have to do. With non-fiction writing, it means proposing the book in a convincing way to an agent: sample of how the first chapter might go; explanation (1 page tops) of what the book will be about, and why it matters; who the likely readership might be and why it’s different to what’s out there, current and commercially viable. But like I say, plenty of time for that. Find your field. It doesn’t have to be “Write about what you know” – or we’d all be writing about sofas and TV. But write about – find out about, get under the skin of – what you WANT to know better.
And absolute number one thing? Make sure that when you’re writing to people – to ask questions of sources, send ideas to agents, whatever – remember that your writing represents the kind of writing they’ll think they’re going to get from you. Even on social media or in things like this: if you’re a journo, a reporter, a writer, whatever, then how you express yourself in day to day written communication is going to mean the difference between yes and no.
Well, that’s my initial splurge, and I’d be happy to be more exact when I know where your head is at in terms of the sort of writing/reporting/adventuring you’re interested in doing. I’ll sign off for now, but do feel free to ask for further guidance, now or down the line. Journalism can use more people who want to do it because they feel inspired, and not because it’s a safe career. And thanks again for the kind words on the book. They made this hack’s day.
I am about two-thirds of the way through Outlaws Inc (just getting to the Bout arrest) and have loved every page of it. I am a bit of a bandit-aviator junkie, but more so from the 1970s and early 80s before the Russians (etc) cornered the market. I think I became hooked after hearing my uncle’s stories of his times in Rhodesia and also a friend’s loadmaster experiences also in Rhodesia and later on Libya. Though the pace of life and life style in the ’70s seems quite relaxed compared to those you mention in your book. Did you come across any ‘pre the collapse of communism’ hired hands pilots/crew during the writing of the book? I have written a couple of articles over the years for aircraft magazines about rogue operators but as I am no journo the quality is not too great, but I love carrying out the research and am amazed how inter connected so many of the airlines and crews are. Keep up the good work!