In the first of a series of conversations, author William Ryan talks to author Jason Webster.
WILLIAM RYAN is the Irish author of THE HOLY THIEF, THE BLOODY MEADOW and THE TWELFTH DEPARTMENT (to be published in May 2013), novels set in 1930s Moscow and featuring Captain Alexei Korolev. William’s novels have been translated into fourteen languages and shortlisted for The Theakstons’ Crime Novel of the Year, The CWA Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards, New Blood Dagger and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award. He lives in London with his wife and son.
JASON WEBSTER was born in California and was brought up in England and Germany. After living in Italy and Egypt, he moved to Spain in 1993, where he wrote a number of highly acclaimed travel books including DUENDE: A JOURNEY IN SEARCH OF FLAMENCO and SACRED SIERRA: A YEAR ON A SPANISH MOUNTAIN. His first crime novel, OR THE BULL KILLS YOU, was long listed for the CWA Specsavers Crime Thriller Awards, New Blood Dagger and was followed by the equally acclaimed DEATH IN VALENCIA. The third in the series, THE ANARCHIST DETECTIVE, will be published in 2013. Jason lives near Valencia with his wife, the flamenco dancer Salud, and their two sons.
WR: Your first novel, OR THE BULL KILLS YOU, came out last year and introduced an appreciative readership to Max Cámara, a non-conformist Spanish detective with a penchant for food, women and marijuana - in no particular order. Your second novel, A DEATH IN VALENCIA, finds Max investigating the death of a famous Paella chef as his world, literally, crumbles around him. Can you tell me a bit about how you developed Max as your protagonist - did he come fully-fledged or did he change as you wrote him?
JW: It's funny that you call him 'Max', as that's what I usually do when I'm thinking or talking about him, as though he were a real person (of course he is...). It's a little strange, then, when I come to write about him to refer to him with the more formal 'Cámara', as though putting him at a certain distance.
In answer to your question, he came more-or-less as a fully-fledged character. I deliberately made the decision not to be too cerebral or rational about who my main character was going to be. I allowed myself to sit back, as it were, and let him reveal himself. And that's how he emerged. Physically I saw someone resembling the actor Javier Bardem, with a powerful presence about him but with a sensibility and certain fragility as well.
And then the drinking, the food, the dope smoking... These are all pretty normal attributes in a Spanish context. I remember my UK publishers at Chatto & Windus balking at the idea of him smoking home-grown marijuana at first, until I explained to them that a high ranking contact of mine in the Spanish legal system did exactly the same…
Certain aspects of Max reveal themselves to me as I'm writing, however. It's not all clear-cut. I remember a comment by Michael Dibdin saying something similar about his character Zen, that throughout the books he was exploring the personality of his main detective. I feel the same - as when you discover greater complexities about a friend the more time you spend with them. Max is out there, somewhere, and I allow him to show me which way the series should be going, and to reveal something more about himself as we progress.
WR: You mention Michael Dibdin whose Aurelio Zen series is, of course, set in Italy and who you've been compared to more than once. Were the Zen novels an influence?
JW: Yes, I think Dibdin was/is an influence. I remember reading his books and feeling that he had really nailed Italy. I'd lived there myself for a few years, and it felt as though he were taking me back, as though I were walking the streets alongside Zen. So perhaps that was the moment when the seed of an idea was planted - that good, thoughtful crime novels could be set in a contemporary Mediterranean country.
The thing with the influence of other writers, though, is that it tends to work on some subconscious level. You don't think, Oh right, I'm going to do this bit like so-and-so, unless it's a deliberate pastiche.
And then there's the whole question of how much you should draw from other books when it comes to your own writing. I've always been impressed by a comment by Keith Johnstone in his book Impro: 'Writing comes from life, not from other writing.’ He realised this when reading drama scripts sent to the Royal Court Theatre during the 60s. Most of them went into the bin and were never staged, because, he thought, they were pseudo-Pinter, pseudo-Beckett and so on. Only the writers with original voices got their plays done, and they were the ones who drew their inspiration from the world around them more than from what they had on their bookshelves.
And so it is with novels or any other kind of writing. What you read obviously has some bearing on what you write. But at the same time it needs to be kept at a distance, never influencing too much. Or at least that's my experience.
Does that chime with your own writing? Have there been obvious influences for the Alexei Korolev novels?
WR: I've certainly read a lot of fiction and non-fiction set in the period I write about and most of it was very useful. But as I was born in 1965 and the Korolev novels are set in 1930s Russia, I probably didn't have much choice. Even understanding how the Soviet Union worked was a challenge given the closest contact I'd had with communism was riding a bicycle the length of Vietnam - an experience which probably wasn't that useful when it came to describing a Moscow winter, or understanding Stalinism for that matter.
The good thing about reading a lot, and doing a great deal of research as well, is that individual influences and sources tend to disappear into the crowd – if that makes sense. So while I'm probably a bit of a magpie, particularly when it comes to period details and dialogue, it all gets blended into the fictional world I construct for my readers in the Korolev novels. And that fictional world is, I hope, something that feels real to a reader and gives them a unique insight into what life was like during Stalin’s Great Terror.
But you live in Spain and you've written widely about Spanish culture and history – about the legacy of the Spanish Civil War, flamenco and Spain’s Moorish history. It’s probably why the Camara novels feel so authentic and why there’s such a sense of Spain’s past running through them, even if you seldom address it directly. With four non-fiction books about Spain - were the Cámara novels the logical next step?
JW: In hindsight the Cámara novels were a logical step, you're right. I find Spain to be an endlessly fascinating country, one which I've lived in now for most of my adult life. And there is so much to explore and get to know about it that I think you'd have more than a lifetime's work if you wanted to. So writing about flamenco, the Spanish Civil War, the Moorish legacy etc. was all part of a process of discovery for me. This then continued into the crime novels in many ways, particularly with the first in the series - OR THE BULL KILLS YOU - which takes a look at bullfighting. Also, by that point I'd been living in Valencia for about ten years, but had never written about it, and so I wanted to say something about my adopted home town. It has been largely ignored by other writers on Spain and was even dubbed 'the world capital of anti-tourism' at one stage because it was so uninviting to foreign visitors. That has changed, and it's now very colourful and pretty. But the recent face-lift its undergone has come at a heavy price. Local politicians are notoriously corrupt, and now, with all the recession and economic crisis, Valencia has become a by-word internationally for all that has gone wrong with the country.
And with everything that's happening in Spain at the moment - there is a palpable sense as I write these words that the place is falling apart - I do tend to see things in their historical context - the 'long view' as it were. History weighs heavily here: the same tensions, the same narratives seem to be played over and over again, whether it's the Left-Right divide that was so apparent in the Civil War, or the various regional identities pulling away from Madrid and trying to create independent mini-states, as Catalonia is now trying to do. This kind of thing has been going on in Spain for well over a thousand years. Even the Moors suffered the same kinds of internal problems.
As for addressing these things directly - they're in the background for the first two books in the series. The third one, however, which will be coming out next year - THE ANARCHIST DETECTIVE - deals with the past in a much more head-on way.
WR: It seems to me that that being an outsider helps you a great deal when describing Valencia - your descriptions of the place and its people feel very real but, at the same time, you have an objectivity, which makes them seem fresh as well. I'm curious that your next novel THE ANARCHIST DETECTIVE deals with Spain's past "head-on" because it seemed to me that the first two novels, even though very modern, have plots that stem from Spain’s history - the bull-fighting and its traditions and values in OR THE BULL KILLS YOU, of course, but also the Catholic church and Spain's very recent fascist past in DEATH IN VALENCIA. I suspect you're going to tell me that you don't work out themes for your novels in advance and I don't either, as it happens, although many writers do. But I wonder if, looking back now, you're aware of a direction that the Camara series is heading in and of a general theme or themes - and how deliberate they were.
JW: I certainly did have a theme in mind when I wrote OR THE BULL KILLS YOU - it was bullfighting (obviously). After I'd finished, and my mind was turning to what came next, I fell into the trap of thinking that all I needed to do was come up with some other big Spanish theme (say the Pilgrimage to Santiago) and then base a novel around it. In fact I even drew up some ideas for a Cámara novel around that very subject. But it felt wrong, very forced. So I left it for a while. Then my editor gently and wisely said, Why don't you let your characters tell you what comes next? So I did, I listened to Max, essentially, and where he wanted to go. And that was how A DEATH IN VALENCIA came about, or certainly much of it. The whole subject of abortion (which is a very live issue in Spain at the moment, by the way) comes directly from what happens to him at the end of the first novel. So I hope I learnt my lesson - don't put the 'theme' first. In the end your characters are what drive things - that's the human truth that holds up the narratives.
That said, I did put in some information about paella in A DEATH IN VALENCIA, because it's so fundamental to understanding the culture of the city. But perhaps in some ways that was the character of Valencia itself telling me what it wanted included in the second book.
I'm very interested to hear that you don't work out your themes in advance. I'm sure it's the right way to go about things - 'listening' rather than dictating - but the temptation must surely have been there, given the time and place that you're writing about - Stalin's Russia in the 1930s?
WR: Certainly there are themes but I don't think I consciously thought about them - I suppose the setting and the fact that THE HOLY THIEF was a crime novel meant it was inevitable I'd end up writing about the nature of justice and truth in a society that considered them subservient to the State's political needs - and the ways an ordinary person might have to compartmentalise their life and compromise their beliefs in order to survive. It's an interesting thing about series though - I think the themes probably recur through the novels because the settings and characters remain the same, more or less, but I think it's also true that successful series focus on different sub-themes in each novel, as you've done incidentally. I don't know how you feel about bull-fighting, probably the way Camara feels I suspect, but I found the history and tradition around it that you describe absolutely fascinating, and how modern pressures were undermining what hadn't changed much in centuries. In fact, I wonder if it isn’t a theme that runs through both novels.
And then I think it's interesting what you do with buildings and the role they seem to have in the books - the police station, for example, that was meant to be an art gallery and seems ill-designed for either purpose, the old parts of the city that are threatened by shiny new developments, the apartment block Camara lives in that's falling down around his ears, even the final chase scene in DEATH IN VALENCIA takes place across disintegrating roof tiles. It seems as if the old and the new are crumbling around Camara and I was wondering whether it was something you'd planned or if it just came about in the writing.
JW: That's a really interesting observation. I hadn't noticed it myself - certainly not about the disintegrating roof tiles. But now you mention it, yes, I think buildings probably are important. Certainly, when I was writing about Max's flat falling down, it was meant as a metaphor for his internal world crumbling as well - the structures that hold his identity in place. In many ways there is an arc stretching over the first three books in the series concerning Max's quest to discover who he really is. So A DEATH IN VALENCIA revolves around him losing a superficial, conflictive identity he's built up for himself so that he can find something more substantial and real in the following novel.
Similarly for the police HQ in what was meant to be an art gallery - firstly it wouldn't be beyond the realms of possibility here. But also I wanted to create a sense of dislocation, of a country that on the one hand admires institutions like the police, yet on the other feels uneasy with them. You only have to see recent footage of riot police attacking demonstrators to understand how fraught the relationship between the authorities and the people can be. Also art and culture are incredibly politicised here - to an extent that I could never have imagined before. So the police taking over a museum... there's another metaphor in there somewhere.
It comes back to your point about a clash between history and the present. Something similar is happening to Spain as a whole right now - it's effectively going through a kind of identity crisis. For a long time after the Franco dictatorship that question was taken care of - a sense of identity came simply through a rejection of what had come before. But Franco has been dead for almost 40 years now, and rejecting what he represented isn't enough anymore. So what is Spain? Where is it going?
Max is asking himself very similar questions, and it's largely to do with a failure to digest events in his past. Too many people in Spain refuse to contemplate what happened in the Civil War, while others only want to reopen old wounds for political gain. Few, it seems, are talking about being honest about the past in order to learn from it and get over it. So, sadly, I think this country will soon be repeating its history. Perhaps not a fully blown civil conflict, but conflict of some sort. I think that's a possibility.
WR: You must have started writing OR THE BULL KILLS YOU in 2009 , if not before, and if we look back at that time period in Spain, it's been pretty traumatic and it sounds as if you think it's likely to become even more traumatic still. How do you think that's going to influence your writing?
JW: What’s been happening and what will happen in Spain will certainly feed into the future Max Cámara books – it’s inevitable. There was always a sense that things in Valencia at least were about to change – there was a stench of corruption about the place that gave the impression that sooner or later it was all going to blow up. But I don’t think I could have seen quite how bad things were going to get. Or that they would fall apart on a national level so dramatically.
Things are moving so fast, however, that there’s a danger that if I were to write something about the situation today, by the time the book finally came out it might feel out of date. So I think you have to be a little predictive if possible, imagining how things are going to develop. For example, when I wrote about abortion being a hot issue here in A DEATH IN VALENCIA it was actually off the news agenda. By the time the book came out, however, it was back again, with a new right-wing health minister proposing a restriction of the practise.
So I think the question now is no longer ‘What’s going on in Spain?’, but ‘What will happen?’ The fault lines in society here are so great and so deep that some of the possible answers are really quite chilling.
WR: You've mentioned THE ANARCHIST DETECTIVE, the third in the series, is already finished. How are its predictions holding up so far and, more importantly, when will we see it in our local bookshops?
JW: The book holds up well, I think. I've just finished reading the proofs and there was nothing there that felt out-of-date. But there's little specifically about the current situation in it - Max is busy dealing with old wounds from the past, and the killing of his great-grandfather in the Franco period. All that is still relevant - perhaps more so now given the present political and social tensions.
I'm assuming the book will be coming out in the UK in June of next year, then hopefully in the US the following September.
One thing I wanted to ask you - I've always had great respect for historical novelists. Not just because of their command of the physical details of their period, but also the way in which they get inside the mindset of that time as well - something I think you pull off incredibly well. How do you research this more invisible side of the history? Has your understanding of the period grown with each book? Does THE TWELFTH DEPARTMENT differ in this respect to the previous books at all?
WR: Certainly my understanding of the period has grown with each book – probably because with each book I add another layer of research to what I started out with. But the invisible side - the atmosphere, the way people interact and how everything connects to create a believable world – that’s where the creative side of historical fiction comes in. You can’t write believably about a period unless you’ve done the grunt work but, at the same time, as long as you know what you’re talking about, most readers doesn’t necessarily want to have too much explained to them as it gets in the way of the story. But, if you’ve done the right kind of research into how people interacted during your period then at a certain point the characters start to become real of their own accord. That’s probably not a very good explanation – but I really do believe that if you have a good fictional character, there’s only one way they can think, talk and behave. In other words they begin to live, at least on the page.
As for THE TWELFTH DEPARTMENT, it deals with the murder of two scientists and Korolev soon finds out they were both at the forefront of Soviet experimentation into mind control and brain-washing. It’s a little different from the others in terms of plot and probably has a more depth to it, largely because Korolev’s son Yuri becomes involved in the investigation and, as is the way with these things, ends up in great danger. I’ve enjoyed reading it while I’ve been writing it and I hope readers will enjoy it as well.
Anyway, it’s been a pleasure talking to you – and keep the Cámara novels coming. They’re cracking reads.