We’re doing fifty up a rain-slicked hill road in the Slovenian countryside. I came here to interview Renato Bratkovič, but the cheeky beggar has pulled me into his gold heist. The sun is out now, and it beats hard. The bus we use has no air conditioning and a hot breeze blows through the open windows. We slip and slide and ram the cop cars who chase us.
“This is an old-fashioned kind of robbery, don’t you think?” I say.
His other men scowl at me. If I’m not here to help then why don’t I jump out the window and down the cliff?
“I mean, internet crime is the safe way nowadays.”
Renato pulls a pipe and sticks it in his mouth. Out the side of his mouth he says, “How do you think I bought the bus?”
The driver rams a cop car which managed to get by our side and turns it dysfunctional.
He lights the pipe and puffs. “This is the way to do a real robbery, Beech. If we get away I’ll feel we’ve earned it.”
One of his men whispers in his ear. I’m sure I heard something about killing me. Renato smiles, grabs the man by his collar, and throws him out the open door. The man’s squeal is cut short by the rock he lands on.
The other men eye each other and keep their mouths shut, but they sharpen their dagger eyes on me.
“You’re part of the gang now, Beech, so I will not tolerate treachery.”
I nod and concentrate on the three remaining cop cars and the helicopter above. The front car rams us from behind and another attempts to get by our side. The driver cuts him off, but they’re relentless.
“We don’t have guns?” I turn my palms up in shock.
Renato, blows smoke my way. “Guns are for pussies. I want to sleep at night.”
He jolts from his seat and grabs a brick from the stash. Charges down the aisle and kicks open the emergency exit. The cop driving the closest car narrows his eyes, but they expand to hard boiled eggs as Renato throws the brick at the windscreen. It cracks and the driver loses his sense of direction and flips. The car behind smashes into him and his siren whirs to a sad wail. The third dodges and keeps up.
I grab a brick and shrug off the gang’s protests. I throw and hit the last cop car just as our driver howls at the sacrilege and loses sight of the next bend. He slams his brake, but too late. We break the road barrier and hang over an incline steep enough to wrap our stomachs over our hearts.
We see-saw in silence. The helicopter’s buzz persists above. They’ve got us. The helicopter positions above and a line drops. Every move we make shifts the bus. The pile of gold slips and a couple of bars head to the driver’s end to increase the tilt.
“Just give me your answers now,” I say. “Before we all die.”
He taps the tobacco from his pipe and slides it into the arm of his t-shirt. “We have time.”
“Boss, they’re sending men down.”
The helicopter blades push the bus’ back end onto terra firma and the men above shoot a grappling hook to the front and lift. Two armoured cops slide down the zipline and fire. Hit two of our men. The driver gets it next. I expect my innards to get the ventilation treatment any moment, but I slide out with Renato as the cops swing through the open window. Renato climbs the zipline and I follow.
I wish I’d hit the gym more often because I’m knackered by the time I’m halfway up. But I make it. The cops on the bus stare in shock from below, nervous to fire in case they bring down the helicopter.
We get inside and I knock the gun from the pilot’s hand. Renato threatens him with a cocked eyebrow.
“Join your boys down there, or else.”
The pilot hurries down the line as Renato takes control. We release the grappling hook, which is enough to jerk the bus forwards and down the cliff. We head for his hideout in Llubljana and I ask. “You don’t have a gun. What was the ‘or else’?”
Renato cackles and dives us to the city. “I’d have offered him the gold bar in my pants. Now, what about those questions?”
Renato Bratkovič is a creative dynamo. He writes, he makes films, he hosts literary festivals in the Slovenian mountains, and is a creative advertising director. His fiction is dark and bitey, but the man himself is a fantastic collaborator. His Alibi International Crime Festival brings together a number of writers and asks them to create something on the spot which they read to an audience at the end. Read Sonia Kilvington’s piece about it, here.
A friend of mine doesn’t read fiction, paraphrasing Frank Skinner about it all being made-up and he has no time for any of that. What words do you have for such a philistine?
Renato Bratkovič (RB): What do you mean you have no time?! You have time to breathe, eat and drink, and no time to read? That’s weird … You’re weird!
What must a protagonist have to make you read on?
RB: A protagonist of any book or film must have an interesting mission, a conflict to resolve, enemies to defeat (or be defeated by), and some dark stain on their past …
Do you need a likeable protagonist?
RB: Actually, it’s a likeable writer I need, his/her craft is more important to me than a character I can like or relate to. I need words to drag me into the narrative, words to project a film in my mind. If writing is good, then the character can sit on the toilet seat and wipe his/her ass with a hand and still be interesting.
Name a great antagonist, in a novel or movie, and what they do for you.
RB: Well, Begbie from Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and Porno is the first antagonist that comes to my mind. He’s meaty, gritty and scary, but he’s very charismatic (both in the book and in the movie) – I’d be happy to have a beer with him before he smashes the empty glass into my face.
What makes you throw a book out the window?
RB: Oh, boy, that’s a hard one. No, I’d throw myself out of the window before I’d throw the book … Especially if we are talking the eBooks – I’d miss my iPad!
Do you grit your teeth all the way to the end of a dodgy novel?
RB: I tend to read several books at once, so sometimes I leave a book for a couple of days, weeks or even months, but I always get back and finish what I started.
What gets you writing? A great novel? Something you saw on the street or on TV? Something else?
RB: Books, films and TV are inspiring, but I’m mostly inspired by life – that doesn’t mean that I have a really interesting life (I’m an ad man, so …), but it’s always something that’s happened to me or to someone I know, or it’s just something someone said … That’s how I get the stuff I use but I twist it around, of course.
What did you learn about writing from the last book you wrote?
RB: I’m a bilingual writer, I write in Slovene (it’s my mother tongue, of course I do) and in English (a bridge to global readers). My last book was a short story collection in English. What I’ve learned is I only do half as much as I would if I wrote in one language only.
What’s your next book, in 30 words or less?
RB: My next book is going to be the third collection of dark transgressive stories, titled Dark Matters (You Can’t Make This Shit Up). It’ll be in Slovene.
Where can readers connect with you?
RB: I blog at Radikalnews.com, RenatoBratkovic.net and Alibi-Fest.com, but anyone can connect with me on Facebook. I also have an Amazon author page (www.amazon.com/author/renato_bratkovic), and I’m the_big_bratkovski on Instagram. But most preferable way to connect is joining me at the bar and buying me a beer or six.
Thanks, Renato. If you’re a stout man, I’ll share a case.
You can buy City of Forts for a special pre-order price HERE. It is also available in paperback.