Here is, finally, the interview with Tim Willocks. I say, one more time, thank you to Nathalie Beunat from Syros for letting me meet Mr Willocks in Lyon. The three or four first questions are the transcription of the record that doesn’t bug… The rest of the interview has been made by e-mail, I say a huge « thank you! » to Tim Willocks for his time and his great answers. It’s been an honour!
Why did you write « The Religion » after your novels « Bad city blues », « Bloodstained kings » and « Green River rising » ? What gave you the need to explore the historical novel ?
Why and how did you choose this episode of the history of Malta ? What in particular attracted you more than another event of the sixteenth century ?
Partly because I wanted to write a european novel rather than an american novel. And the siege of Malta which I was aware was particularly interesting because it represents a collision, a meeting between many different nationalities and religions. The knights of Malta were especially interesting because they’re kind of the first union of all different european people in a strange sense, because they came from all europe, from England, from Poland, from France to Germany. That was very interesting to me. The setting of the siege also gave me the opportunity to write about war and to indulge my love of writing about extreme violence.
Partly the violence and also the 16th century is a very turbulent and fascinating era. In some ways it was very free, maybe it sounds strange, it was a very free era in social and intellectual terms. The structures of the state were very poorly developped at that point. We see a great explosion of thoughts and creativity, in science, in arts, in music. In some sense, the knights of Malta, even them, they were kind of an anachronism, they were still fighting a religious war that everyone else had abandonned. They were still fighting a crusade war. So the 16th century is very interesting in every sense, politically and philosophically. It’s a very rich world, there’s a lot of inteweave of people and cultural influences. That was also a great interest to me. I grew up in a time when one of the purposes of litterature and film, music even was to explore extremes. I was always an admirer of director Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, Pasolini.
Your writing is very visual, cinematographic.
Yes. Visual portraits of the world of course preceded the invention of the camera. The great 19th century novelists, especially the french novelists, Hugo, Dumas, Balzac are tremendously visual novelists. You see Balzac’s Paris as a visual world as well as an emotionnal and social world. I think the novel was there before the cinema was. So the two traditions in my sense are in my writing.
How did you make your research to write « The Religion » ? How much time did you spend in research before writing ?
Hum… Several years ! I can’t tell exactly… It wasn’t before the internet, but it was before the internet was as good as it is now. There were very few libraries on line at that time, it was telephone connexion. So I did most of the research for The Religion in the old fashioned way, I went to the libraries, I went to the museums, I went to Malta, and Istanbul. There’s a library, St John in London. Sicily, I spent some time in Sicily. And I listened to a lot of music, I looked a lot of paintings, because in some ways, the documentary researches, the written researches is easier to find. The greater challenge is trying to capture the feeling and the atmosphere of that world. I found the best way to do that was through paintings and music.
Do you feel more things in that way ?
Yeah. I think you get more of the emotionnal an psychic essence of the time. Because a lot of history is relatively dry in a sense. You get information but it’s hard to get the feel, the heart of the time. Artists put unconsciously the feeling of the time into their work. So, the architecture and the paintings, and the music gave me a sensation of that time, the essence. There’s kind a magic in that world.
What do you mean exactly by writing a european novel ? How would you define it ?
Beyond the setting, a European novel approaches characters, themes, politics, emotions with a a greater tolerance for ambiguity and human realism, at least in my view. The European outlook is less strongly tethered to simple ideas of good and evil. I think this is rooted in the moral and political ambiguities – often terrifying – of our shared history.
You said writing and reading were the same thing from the point of view of creativity and imagination. Can you tell us more about it ?
Both the writer and the reader have to construct an imaginary world by the power of their own vision. The writer gives the clues – black marks on white paper – and the reader turns the ink into landscapes, faces, sounds, blood and thunder. The novel doesn’t come fully into existence on the page – only in the reader’s mind. It’s a bit like a composer’s music – it doesn’t fully exist until it is played. The reader is the orchestra. It’s a partnership. And every reader reads – creates – a different, unique book that they alone have read. I love that.
The Religion was published in french in 2009, I read it immediately, and I have to tell you I still remember some scene, some passage right now, (not just the battles, which are really amazing, but also the scenes between Tannhauser and Amparo or the Comtess, or the descriptions of Malta, or the episode about the dogs…) What is your secret to write so vivid descriptions ?
I always try to put myself into the very flesh of the characters. This is more important than being inside their minds, or rather, this is the best way to get inside their minds. I want to create an experience, not an entertainment. I want to be immersed in the world of the characters, so I follow their sensory experience as much as possible. Each person or character perceives the world in a slightly – or even radically – different way ; different aspects of reality are more important to them than others, each character (as in life) has their own unique order of sensory priorities. They feel the world. In that sense, they are not ‘Cartesians’ ; but then, I don’t think anyone really is.
You said Amparo came from nowhere ?
In all my preparations for The Religion I had no idea that this character would exist. When I began to describe Carla’s character, I realized that a woman of her class would not travel on such an epic journey without a companion, perhaps a maid or servant. At that point, I couldn’t give her just a ‘servant’ – the companion had to be special, their relationship had to be special, something that was much deeper, so Amparo became the most important person in Carla’s life. She also became, for me, the secret heart and soul of the whole novel, because her vision of life and the world transcends all the madness that is going on around her. So, from having no role at all, she became the character that I probably love the most.
Did you know right at the beginning that the adventures of Mattias Tannhauser would be a trilogy, or did it happen when you were writing ? If you knew it since the beginning, did you plan the whole life of Tannhauser ? Iwanted to know more about him from the very first pages, when we met him in the Faragas Mountains, as he’s going to his father’s forge, how did you do that ?
I didn’t intend a trilogy at the start, only after I had finished the book, when I felt that Tannhauser (and in particular his relationship with Carla) was too compelling a figure to abandon. He had too many other possibilities to explore, too many challenges to face. I realized that his deeper story was that of a man on an unconscious search for a family – the family he loses when he is a boy. At the same time, he is – or has learned to be – a lone wolf of sorts, and this gives his life a certain tension. That search and that tension continue into the next book, The Twelve Children of Paris. I don’t yet know what will happen in the third novel.
I really love the original cover, did you choose it ?
I came up with the basic idea – the sword with the red and white roses – and the artist at Jonathan Cape was excited by it.
You are a psychiatrist, a black belt in Shotokan karate, how did you end up writing crime novels ?
I wrote pulp fictions as a boy, between the ages of 10 and 15, long before I was a psychiatrist or a black belt, so making novels was a return to what I most loved doing.
Who are the authors who have been a big influence on you ?
As a boy, which is probably where it counts most: Sven Hassel, Richard Stark, Alastair Maclean, Alexandre Dumas, Charles Dickens. As an adult : Albert Camus, John Steinbeck, James Ellroy, and most of all Shakespeare.
Can you tell us more about how much Shakespeare influenced your writing ?
Shakespeare is the one and only writer whose balls are so large they make my own feel small. He goes all the way, time after time. Right to the end of the line. Total darkness, total loss, total tragedy, total death. He did not spare his characters in any way, and he took them on the longest journeys of any other writer.
For instance, Macbeth begins as the noblest knight of the kingdom – he’s Galahad. By the end of the play, he’s Pol Pot. King Lear starts as the most powerful man in the world; at the end, he is an insane beggar in rags, with everyone he ever loved dead. Titus Andronicus begins as Rome’s greatest general, and ends with 20 of 21 sons dead, kills his own daughter (“DIE!”), and serves a mother her two sons cooked in a pie. Othello is the perfect man…until he strangles his wife in insane jealousy. Hamlet starts as a confused, immature, semi-crazed adolescent, and ends a wise man – who at that very moment is killed. Not even Romeo and Juliet – two sweet teenagers – get out alive. Etc, etc.
He also created the original all-time-great killing-machine motherfuckers: Macbeth, Titus, Coriolanus. And these are just his tragedies. I am not even going to mention his comedies and histories.
I also love the incredible boldness of his plots. He wasn’t afraid of anything, no matter how absurd. Richard III is a preposterous story in a dozen different ways, but he didn’t give a fuck: and it works brilliantly. He wasn’t shackled by modern notions of motivation and plausibility; he was only interested in truth, action, the human soul, especially at its darkest. And his audience had the stomach for those truths, whereas we seem like sheep trembling inside a fence built of comforting lies.
Unfortunately, I have never seen a Shakespeare production on stage that even began to grasp his true power and genius. His work has been hi-jacked by the upper classes, who bend him to their own ends. They do not dare see what he really wrote, because there is no place in his world for people like them – except in the weaker, more contemptible roles. I hate those fuckers for what they have done to Shakespeare’s work.
So, I try to go as far as Shakespeare, but at certain points, I lack the balls, because I fear I will lose what little audience I have – and because my US publishers are already scared of what I write.
Do you feel close to some writers, contemporary or not ?
More than any novelists, I feel close to the film makers Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick. They have a huge effect on my attitudes to telling stories.
Is there some writers you advise us to read ?
What matters is that you find writers or artists you love. It’s the love that counts, not the content of the work. So I advise you to fall in love and let your lovers be your guide.
Or is there any people you would like to talk about (in medecine or in other domains) ?
I recommend listening to the speeches of Malcolm X.
How and why did you write this novel « Doglands » ?
Doglands was inspired by my own dog, Feargal, who is an incredible survivor and knows how to live life. During a period of ‘writer’s block’, I wrote it to free myself, to get my mojo working. It flowed very freely, like a dream, and I finished it in exactly 42 days. It required very little editing. I just followed the hero down ‘the wild and rambling road’ (la voie sauvage and hasardeuse) and he took me all the way.
The Boss just read « Doglands », he says : it’s not only a wonderful story but it’s also a fucking charge against us poor stupid humans, us fucking idiots. I don’t believe in humanity anymore, do you ?
We are certainly our own worst enemy, more than ever. The bewilderment of the dogs in the story at our folly reflects my own. This world should be a garden of Eden, but we are turning it into Hell. The central question I would like the book to evoke is this : Our global masters treat us like whipped dogs ; they despise us, rob us, exploit us and humiliate us. Yet we keep going back to lick their hand. Why ? When are we going to start using our teeth ? Or have our teeth been broken forever ?
I finished « Doglands » too, it’s really great, it’s funny : you were stuck writing the sequel of « The Religion », you needed to free yourself in a way, and you wrote a novel about freedom. The subject of the novel matches the effect on you, on your work, what do you think about that ?
Writing Doglands helped to free my from the voices of the ‘masters’ in my head – that is, the American editors who consistently urge me to castrate my own work in order to reach a bigger audience. I realized that I would rather not write at all than take a razor to my own balls. I would love a large audience, like any artist, but not at that price. It wasn’t a conscious effort, but it’s true that this dilemma is also directly reflected in Doglands.
I heard you have some ideas for a sequel, is it true ? Are we going to know more about the knowledge of the dogs, or about Sloann ?
Yes, Furgul is going to encounter Sloann, who I think of as a cross between Tony Montana and Grendel, with perhaps a touch of Chairman Mao thrown in. And he will learn more of the dark – and even apocalyptic – secrets of the Dog Lore.
Can you tell us about « The Twelve children of Paris », why did you choose this episode of the history of France ? And why this title ?
Twelve Children takes place during 36 hours covering the prelude and first day of the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew. It’s a portrait of the kind of human hell that we continue to create to this day – mass murder, the unleashing of repressed rage, the use of that rage by the power elites for their own narrow political gain. It was strange while writing it to find the Libyan ‘war’ reflecting many of the same issues. The massacre in Paris was particular, but its significance is universal and, it seems, eternal.
I had the title long before I had a story – it was pure instinct. On many occasions I cursed it, because I did not know who the 12 were, and it’s a lot of characters to create and weave together. ‘Why not six children ?’ I would ask myself. ‘Why not change the title ?’ But I stayed true to the title, almost superstitiously – there was some magic in it – and in the end it paid of in what I think is a spectacular and heart-rending fashion.
Can we hope for an english publication this year, or next year ?
In the UK it should be out next Spring.
PS : I listened to your interview for Cercle Polar, you said you read Foucault, « Surveiller et punir », if by chance you read in french, I recommend you to read « La zone du dehors », from Alain Damasio. It’s an amazing novel which is inspired by Foucault and Jeremy Bentham, among others. It’s a dystopia set in 2084, in an extremely monitoring society, a totalitarian state, and a group of people who put up resistance called La Volte.
Sounds fantastic. Thanks for the tip.
Questions from The Boss :
In France do you think psychiatry is way behind ? What do you think about bipolar disorder ?
I don’t have enough knowledge to make any comment about French psychiatry. I would certainly ask ‘Behind who ?’ US psychiatry is going from bad to worse, I can certainly say that. And in every nation, we commit a miserable share of our vast resources to dealing with mental illness. I do know that in France, as elsewhere, that a large proportion of the prison population suffer from genuine and severe mental illnesses, and should not be there. But there are always a lot more votes in ‘law and order’ than in taking care of the afflicted.
Bipolar disorder is rather a vast and complex subject to deal with in this context. I will just make one suggestion for a different way of looking at the ‘polarity’ in question, and that is to see these ‘opposites’ not as lying at either extreme of a straight line, but as points on a circle that are so far away from each other that they come to lie almost next to each other. In other words, to use a geographical analogy, if you head East from the Pont Notre Dame and keep going until you reach the Pont Au Change, you have traveled a very long way – all around the world – but if you head West, the two bridges are only a few hundred metres apart. The truth is that much as we might like to persuade ourselves otherwise, our ideas of what is going on inside our heads is extremely primitive. Most psychiatry is like banging on the hood of the car with a stick when the engine has failed, in the hope that it twill start again.
Do you think you will come back into crime novel ? With Cicero Grimes maybe ?
I can’t make any promises and I can’t think that far ahead. But Grimes and Jefferson are still out there somewhere, and I would love know what they are doing.
Last question : France, either you love her, or you leave her, said our president. Do you love France ?
It reminds me of Merle Haggard’s song « Fightin’ side of me » :
« If you don’t love it, leave it:
Let this song I’m singin’ be a warnin’.
If you’re runnin’ down my country, man,
You’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.«
Maybe Nicolas Sarkozy is a country music fan.
I do love France. A lot of countries say they are the most beautiful country in the world, but France has objective reasons to say so.