Author Harry Old has tried all her life to rebel from the hum-drum realities of normalcy, but in doing so she inadvertently became addicted to an extravagant, fantasy-like lifestyle characterised by excessive spending.It was only during the first national Covid lockdown that she was able to break away from bad habits and find a new, healthier obsession to satisfy her needs: writing.
Gritty new romantic crime thriller Operation Bluebird hits the shelves today, telling the compelling story of a naïve rookie undercover cop, Carrie Hart, who becomes addicted to the wealth and excess of the gangster lifestyle while infiltrating a notorious criminal family.
While purely a work of fiction, its writer — independent contemporary author Harry Old — knows only too well what it is like to have an addictive personality, and both the positives and negative effects that this can have on someone’s life.
The talented 28-year-old freely admits that she has struggled with an addiction to shopping and impulsivity for many years, supported by a lucrative career as a financial auditor.
Like her novel’s protagonist, Old says that has been living a devil-may-care “double life” of sorts, “working contracts and having fun”.
But this isn’t the usual night out splash, or much-needed retail therapy at the shopping centre the next day.
Old has cultivated the epitome of an extravagant, jet-setting lifestyle, thinking nothing of buying the priciest food and drink on the menu while eating out at each new destination’s hottest restaurants, or spending thousands on top hotels and spa days.
And when she’s out on the town, be it in the UK, Europe, America or her favourite destination — South Korea — the drinks are always on her.
“In the sense of addiction, I see myself as a combination of the undercover cop, Carrie, and one of the criminals whom she enters into a tragic relationship with, Taehwan,” she says.
“I always wanted to be doing the coolest stuff and doing it large. I didn’t hold back and my actions could be considered outrageous at times.”
There’s no disputing that her spending habits would certainly raise a few eyebrows if audited in the same way as she checks the finances of the multi-national firms she counts as regular clients.
For instance, she once paid £2,000 just for a two-minute chat with one member of her favourite Korean pop band, K-pop group, B.A.P.
On another occasion, she flew to Los Angeles, California, to see B.A.P. in concert and on the way back to Britain decided, on a whim, to see them a few days later in Atlanta, Georgia, hopping back on a plane to the USA as soon as she had landed in London.
The Covid crisis, and resulting national lockdowns, however, significantly curtailed her spending sprees, and made international travel an impossibility.
It has, she says with some relief, allowed her time to re-evaluate her party animal lifestyle and to consider how she became addicted to extravagance in the first place.
The eldest of three sisters, Old says she has lived with a sense of insecurity since childhood. She remembers her upbringing as being nurturing and loving, but also strict, with her parents not allowing her to “wear make-up or fancy clothes” in her early teens.
She said: “I felt isolated and wasn’t allowed to be a cool teenager, not that I would have had the first idea how to be one if permitted!
“I think that this has driven my excesses. I’ve wanted to kick back and be larger than life, trying to compensate for my insecurities and feelings of being an outsider.
“When on a night out, I wanted to be the centre of attention and to give people a distinct impression of me as I would otherwise be scared of what their opinion would be.”
Old also believes that her addictive personality is deeply connected with bipolar disorder, which she has lived with for much of her adult life but which was only formally diagnosed in 2017.
“My bipolar has definitely had a part to play, leading to manic spending and drinking phases and then depressions filled with regret,” she adds.
It is, arguably, these experiences that have enabled Old to turn an admittedly hugely-entertaining, tension-packed crime novel into a deeper analysis of addiction and its corrosive impact on the minds of central characters Carrie and Taehwan.
She says that she shares the same fear as Carrie of being “trapped” in a prosaic existence and recognises that she has, in her own way, been acting out a fantasy rebel lifestyle just like her heroine.
This rebellious streak resulted in Old rejecting the university path that her parents had hoped for, though she was able to carve out a highly-profitable freelance career in the financial sector thanks to a school leavers’ apprenticeship scheme with prestigious global accounting firm Deloitte LLP.
As she approaches her 30s, the author and qualified accountant is seeing her friends begin to settle down and start families, but she says that this safe type of existence isn’t for her.
Instead, she is now determined to funnel all her creative energy into another type of addiction: writing.
Operation Bluebird is Old’s third novel, following the impressive 2015 debut Not Yet Dead, Nearly, set during the First World War, and 2019’s period fantasy Pigeons (2019).
As with her recent process of self-reflection, her latest novel was also brought about through the Covid lockdowns, as she explains.
Old said: “Operation Bluebird was never supposed to be a book. Me and my siblings like to make up characters and play role-play games (a bit like Dungeons & Dragons but without any of the dice rolls and planned storylines), and at the beginning of 2019 we were playing one about three detectives, including an early version of Carrie.
“I played Carrie in this game and as part of that I made up a backstory for my character, which is when I decided that Carrie had gone undercover a few years before.
“I pretty much knew all the details within a couple of months but it was just a daydream, not a book idea, and it accidentally started becoming a mirror of my life.
“Doing my contract work, I seemed to be living two lives: sensible work life and the crazy spending life. Carrie, meanwhile, was working as a detective collecting information to feed back to the police about the criminal Park family while also loving a crazy, glamorous lifestyle as a dancer in the Parks’ casino.
“Both my crazy life and Carrie’s were amazing in different ways, but looking back now I can see that they were both inevitably doomed to end.
“In the months leading up to the first lockdown in March 2020, I had become overconfident in myself and had made some very bad decisions in my personal life that led to a breakdown.
“Covid then happened and it unceremoniously put a stop to all the flights and expensive shopping. This left me depressed at first, but then I decided to cheer myself up by finding clips of celebrities I’d selected as ‘actors’ for the Operation Bluebird characters and smushing them together to make a movie, and immediately felt better.
“I finished my ‘movie’, only meant for my entertainment, and found that I didn’t want to stop there. This world I had built was too absorbing to put aside so I started writing random scenes of the story.
“I wasn’t even sure at this point if I wanted it to become a novel, but I became lost in it, and I soon had more than enough to turn it into a book, and one that I am very proud of.”
From speaking with Old you get the real sense that she has, thanks to her latest novel and the unexpected strictures of the Covid crisis, now been able to turn an important corner in her life.
Going forward, she plans to continue writing and releasing novels, with the long-term aim of filing away her day-job and becoming a full-time novelist.
She added: “I’ll never be content with the normal 9 to 5 existence, which I know in my heart just isn’t for me.
“I’d rather be crazy happy and crazy sad than flat-lining. I’m now owning my bipolar thanks to medication and can see that being addicted to writing is far better than being obsessed with leading a false, extravagant lifestyle.
“The freedom that comes with being an author, and the ability to create fictitious worlds that can then bring joy to others, is the best high you could ask for.”
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR HARRY OLD
Author Harry Old speaks to us about her literary inspirations, motto for a happy life, and whom she’d cast in a film adaptation of Operation Bluebird, among other things.
Q. Your new novel deals with money laundering. How has your own financial training informed how you approached this subplot?
A. Yes, finally finding a use for all those money laundering e-learnings was very fun! Real-life bad guys are hard to come by. Thoughts of catching Soju Park have rejuvenated my job motivation tenfold!
Q. What is your motto for a happy life?
A. “It’s better to regret doing it than not doing it.” To explain, 99.9 per cent of mistakes can be laughed at later but a “what if…” haunts you for life.
Q. Which authors inspire you the most, and why?
A. My favourite book is The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I love how he really portrays the mood, not just through dialogue but through the entire narrative. If I could get my themes across half as well, I would be very happy.
Q. If you were stranded on a desert island, what one thing would you bring with you?
A. Red wine. Might as well go in style…
Q. If your film was adapted for the big screen, which actors would you cast for the main characters, and why?
A. Ignoring trivialities like age and being alive… Carrie — Jennifer Lawrence; Taehwan — Jung Daehyun; David — Paul Walker; Soju — Lee Gikwang (seriously, watch the “Don’t Close Your Eyes” music video); Han — Bang Yongguk; Yoonho — Jung Yunho; Margot — Nicole Kidman. They all just fit.
Q. What was your soundtrack when writing the book?
A. Lana Del Rey’s “Gods and Monsters” just is Operation Bluebird as she was a huge inspiration. Another Del Rey song, “Off to the Races”, was in my mind the first time Carrie stepped onto the staircase to a gala, while her track “13 Beaches” played in my head as Carrie leaves the warehouse, and “Dark Paradise” embodies the post-Bluebird years.
The K-pop band GFriend’s album Time For Us was also there from the beginning, with songs “You Are Not Alone” and “A Starry Sky” in my mind as Carrie and Taehwan get closer; post-Bluebird, the songs “Sunrise” and “Memoria” for a wiser, damaged Carrie, and “It’s You” as a great pole-dancing track, given she poses as a dancer to infiltrate the crime family’s casino.
Q. If you hosted a dinner party where you could invite one fictional or historical figure, whom would you invite, and why?
To be incredibly predictable, Taehwan from Operation Bluebird is absolutely coming to dinner and getting protected from the world (and I’m re-mortgaging my house to get the best possible food and cooking lessons from Gordon Ramsay). To be less predictable, I want to find out if Lafayette was actually as funky as he is in Hamilton.
Q. What is the best compliment that you have ever received, and why do you like it so much?
A. A colleague of mine said, “Auditors have spent a long time building up a reputation of being boring and you’re singlehandedly ruining it”. It’s fun to shock people and live outside the box, even (or especially) when they think you’re a bit of an idiot for it. It’s an identity.
Q. What would you say has been your proudest achievement outside of writing?
A. Having lost 18kg, I decided on a whim to hike to Everest Base Camp! 100% recommend — it’s an amazing experience.
Q. What can readers expect next from you?
A. I’d quite like to know what to expect from myself! Whatever it is, it’s likely to appear out of nowhere, be completely different from everything else I’ve written, and will probably involve alcohol and fake names.