From the first line of his novel, “I Saw a Man,” Owen Sheers lets his readers know they are in for a suspenseful ride.
“The event that changed all of their lives happened on a Saturday afternoon in June, just minutes after Michael Turner - thinking the Nelsons’ house was empty - stepped through their back door,” begins the book, which was published in 2015 by Nan E. Talese/Doubleday.
Sheers, who lives in a village in the Black Mountain region of Wales with his wife and daughter, was the featured author at the Feb. 8 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society.
His book is a combination of suspenseful page-turner and morality play. Sheers skillfully weaves together different story lines, revealing critical information in due time as the reader is drawn into the story. Three main characters all commit morally questionable acts, and it is up to readers to determine for themselves who are the true heroes or villains.
“I’ve always been interested, as a reader and a writer, in books that ask as many if not more questions than they answer,” said Sheers, a novelist, poet, playwright and screen writer, in an interview before his literary society talk.
The action takes place around the world - from an American desert, to homes and natural settings in central London, to a remote outpost in Pakistan. And his three main characters - an immersion journalist, a financier and a drone pilot - are full of contradictions.
One of ideas that Sheers set out to explore, he said, is the “tension between proximity and distance” in the modern world. For example, how such things as surveillance, drone strikes, financial systems and climate change can have wide-ranging effects on people across the globe.
As Sheers put it, “The ability of the developed world to be intimately involved in the lives of others... and equally able to be divorced from the consequences.”
And Sheers is not put off if readers diverge on how they see his characters and their actions - in fact, he likes the idea of readers debating such points over a pint of beer or a cup of coffee. He said he has enjoyed watching as some readers identify with Michael Turner, the journalist character, while others find him morally objectionable.
“I never know what side of the fence people are going to fall on with Michael,” he said.
Sheers has also imbued the book with some personal touches - for example, like Michael, he has studied fencing, and also like his characters, he lived for a time next to Hampstead Heath, an expansive green space in central London.
Sheers said his earliest infatuation, as both a reader and writer, was with poetry, and he later turned to prose and fiction. His first prose book was “The Dust Diaries,” an account of his own travels in Zimbabwe, as he sought to learn about the work of his great-great-uncle, Arthur Cripps, a writer and social activist for African rights.
That book, which was written as a journal, with some entries directly addressed to his uncle, was published in 2004.
Sheers has also written plays, and co-wrote the screenplay for his debut novel, “Resistance,” which was made into an independent film. The book imagines an occupation of Great Britain by Nazi forces during World War II. It was set in a remote Welsh valley and published in 2009.
In writing “I Saw a Man,” Sheers sought to depart from his earlier work by penning a contemporary book “in every sense of the word,” he said.
Sheers said he was pleased with the film adaptation of “Resistance,” and the rights of his new book have also been optioned for the screen. He does not plan to work on the screenplay for “I Saw a Man,” however, preferring to move on to a new writing project.
While he is optimistic about the prospects of a film version of “I Saw a Man” making it to the silver screen, he said, “In terms of the film world, until you’re walking into the cinema to see the film, don’t ever assume anything will happen.”