The Cut Out – a retrospective

The Cut Out was written for NaNoWriMo in 2012 and published in 2015. It features both a coronavirus epidemic and a military conflict on the Russian/Ukrainian border. Now feels like a suitable time to reflect on the book, and consider the parts I’m still proud of, and the things I’d do differently today.

If you haven’t read it, here’s a synopsis that’s light on spoilers: The Cut Out is about a normal Kamauan kid named Fero Dremovic who bears an eerie resemblance to Troy Maschinov, a young spy from the hostile neighbouring nation of Besmar. At the beginning of the novel, Fero gets mistaken for Troy at a protest in Kamau, and is arrested. When the authorities realise they’ve caught the wrong kid, they decide to use him. Their plan is to send Fero across the border into Besmar, disguised as Troy, so he can find and rescue Dessa Cormanenko, a Kamauan agent who’s trapped behind enemy lines (or is she? Twists ensue.)

The Cut Out was, if not a change of pace, then at least a change of strategy for me. I’d been reading Scarecrow and the Army of Thieves by Matthew Reilly, and trying to work out what made it so much fun – more fun than any of the books I’d written up to that point. My conclusion was that Scarecrow had a clear mission to accomplish, whereas my characters usually only had a mystery to solve. The Cut Out was me trying something new: give the hero an impossible mission, some cool gadgets, some allies he couldn’t necessarily trust, then throw him into the deep end and see what happens. That formula worked so well I still use it today.

Because of Russia and the coronavirus, The Cut Out sounds more prophetic than it was. (If you make enough predictions, eventually some will come true, and I’ve written a lot of books.) It’s set on the Russia/Ukraine border, but it’s not set in those countries – it’s set in two fictitious nations squished between them, something I would never have done if I’d guessed that that border would someday be contested again. And while the book pre-dates COVID, it was written well after after SARS or MERS (two other variants of coronavirus which came perilously close to unleashing the havoc we’re seeing now. Kind of makes you wonder why we were so unprepared).

I’d write The Cut Out differently if I wrote it again. (Which I won’t – I believe in leaving published art alone.) In one of the book’s many twists, the coronavirus turns out to be a bioweapon unleashed by Besmar on Kamau. I wouldn’t write a story like that today, because it sounds so much like Qanon conspiracy-nut nonsense. Even worse, the Kamauan government offers a “cure” which turns out to be deadlier than the disease, deliberately killing vectors to halt the spread of the virus. If the book were published today, I’d be cancelled immediately (and/or interviewed on Joe Rogan’s podcast).

Another thing I’d change in retrospect is more subtle. The Cut Out and its sequel, The Fail Safe, have a “the truth will set you free” message. The two tyrannical governments in the story are desperate to hide certain things, and once those things are exposed, the governments are weakened. One twist even involves a compromising photo. Imagine that – a leader taken down by a photo! How quaint. I’ve come to realise that in the real world, the truth is easily ignored, manipulated, or drowned out by a sea of noise. In The Fail Safe, social media plays a role in the downfall of a dictator. These days, I think social media props up more dictators than it cuts down.

One other small thing. Near the beginning of The Cut Out, a schoolteacher explicitly lays out the message of the book, about children paying for their parents’ mistakes, and the young getting locked into endless warfare by the old. I still think those are important messages to explore, but I also think the teacher expresses them in too simplistic a fashion, because sometimes the young do have a responsibility to right the wrongs of their ancestors. I didn’t appreciate that when I wrote the book, or at least, not to the degree that I do now.

Still. While you’re not supposed to have favourites, The Cut Out is one of the books I’m most proud of (though sales-wise, it was overshadowed by 300 Minutes of Danger, which came out in the same year). Whenever TV producers come knocking, I always pitch The Cut Out to them, because I think it would make a great series. It’s not just the action scenes (all my books have those); it’s the mic-drop twists, the complex characters (especially Dessa Cormanenko, who still lives and breathes in my head) and the world-building. Kamau and Besmar feel very real, at least to me, in a way I haven’t been able to replicate on the same scale since. No wonder The Cut Out and The Fail Safe were shortlisted in the Aurealis, CBCA and ACT Book of the Year awards. And while seven years is a long time in the YA publishing world, both books are still in print! That has to count for something.

You can order The Cut Out from your local bookstore or online.