Man of the world

Thriller author Riall Nolan in the Sonoran Desert

An interview with thriller writer Riall Nolan

Alongside a stellar career as an anthropologist, Professor Riall Nolan has maintained a passion for writing fiction. His novels are perfectly crafted action stories that transport us to exotic corners of the globe, quenching readers’ inner thirst for adventure and satisfying their hunger to right the world’s wrongs. We found out a little more about the man behind the pages.

TBF: As a hero, Max Donovan has some classic traits. He lives dangerously, believes in justice, and gets the girl. You’ve led an adventurous life yourself… and must have got into sticky situations.

RN: A few. But I’ve been fairly lucky, on the whole. The war in Sri Lanka wasn’t much fun, and there were a few incidents in Africa, but most of the sticky stuff was entirely of my own making, usually involving getting lost or falling off things. As Max himself is fond of saying, how do you know where the limits are unless you go too far?

TBF: And did you get the girl?

RN: I did indeed. On my very first day as a DPhil student at the University of Sussex, I met Christine. She’d grown up in Malawi, so we got married there, and then I brought her back to Senegal to live with the Bassaris for a while. That seems to have bonded us, because we’ve been together for fifty-two years.

Riall and Christine in Bassari Country, 1972

TBF: Apart from human encounters, your books often feature animal predators. What’s the closest thing to shutting a crocodile’s mouth with a belt you’ve had to do?

RN: I have stayed as far away from crocodiles as possible. They’re basically dinosaurs, and not to be reasoned with. I have never been a hunter, and so my strategy has always been to run away from dangerous animals if I can. I have run away from lions on two occasions, an experience I don’t plan on repeating.

TBF: Your books have vivid descriptions of the many exotic places you’ve visited… do you write or think about them on location during your travels, or rely on your memory and write about them later?

RN: A bit of both. I go back to Africa quite often, so the images and situations are quite vivid for me. I get to Southeast Asia less often, but wherever I go, I keep my eyes and ears open. I used to keep good journals, but these days, it’s just a small notebook and my camera. If I forget something, there’s always the internet. The internet is good for things, not so much for people, so what winds up in my notebooks is usually the human stuff.

TBF: What drives your sense of adventure? The adrenalin, the sense of danger or curiosity about what you’ll find?

RN: I’ve always been interested in what lay over the hill. I still am. I’m intensely curious about other people and other places. They go together, of course. So although it’s fun to meet strangers while you’re at home, nothing beats going there and spending time. As Yogi Berra said, you can observe a lot just by watching. I’m not really drawn to danger, but I am drawn to the unusual, which I’ve learned is sometimes danger-adjacent.

Crossing the Gambia River, 1971

TBF: Did you get into anthropology because of a worldview? Has this view changed?

RN: My experience with the Peace Corps, and meeting a couple of French anthropologists during that time, was what did it. That, and learning to speak other languages. It opened up entire vistas to me. I wanted to do development work, and anthropology seemed like an ideal way to begin learning about other ways of life. The discipline turned out to be much more than that, of course, and in the end, learning to think like an anthropologist has pretty much determined who I am these days. Once you learn to see things that way, going back is hard.

TBF: What does the day-to-day experience of an anthropologist on site entail? Is participant observation just hanging out?

RN: Every field situation is different, and requires a different approach. Yes, a lot of it is just spending enough time somewhere to begin to understand what some of the salient issues are. And once your questions make sense to people, you start getting into all sorts of fascinating things. Along the way, as one of my colleagues put it, the exotic becomes the everyday. But day-to-day progress is hard, frustrating, sometimes boring.

TBF: You mentioned previously that you joined the Peace Corps in your youth. Can you explain to readers who might not be familiar with it, a little more about this?

RN: Peace Corps is probably the single most effective program the US government ever dreamed up for getting people out of the country. Other nations have similar programs, of course, which take (mostly) young folks and stick them overseas, largely on their own, with stuff to do.

You’re pretty much on your own, you’re living at the same level as everyone around you, and you’re needing to operate more or less entirely in that other culture to get anything done, including your laundry. Furthermore, you’re usually doing all of this in another language. It’s entirely immersive, hard at times, but it changes you forever. The people I got to know in Africa nearly sixty years ago are still my friends.

Riall’s Bassari family

TBF: Your first book, the standalone thriller Murder Mountain shows some knowledge of climbing. Tell us more about your experience of it, and what draws you to the hills.

RN: I’m very interested in people, but I’m also interested in terrain. Especially – perhaps paradoxically – terrain that is largely devoid of people. I started hiking and climbing in high school, continued through university, and even overseas, I did my best to get on top of whatever was around me. 


I did some rock climbing at university, but mostly it’s been high-altitude hiking in remote places, with occasional rock pitches thrown in. I often go with my best friend, but lately, I’ve not been out so much. A couple of years ago I made a rookie mistake in judgment and fell down a glacier, which started me wondering whether nature wasn’t sending me a message.

TBF: What do you have planned next for your readers? Is Max Donovan making a return?

RN: Donovan is coming back, no fear. I have just finished the draft of his next adventure, which takes place in Tunisia. It has an interesting cast of characters (including one or two from previous books) and some unusual settings. If you liked the previous books, I think you’ll like this one. After that, we’ll see.

To date we have published four books by Riall. The standalone adventure Murder Mountain, about a seemingly impossible mission in the peaks of Papua New Guinea, and three Max Donovan titles, One Beats the Bush, With Tooth and Nail, and The Serpent’s Lair. All are available on Kindle and in paperback from Amazon. For more details, head to his author page on our website.

The Book Folks

Written by The Book Folks

We are a team of professionals who are committed to publishing the best contemporary fiction. We are dedicated to getting our books into the hands of readers, high in the bestseller charts, and promoting authors.