Here is finally the interview of Tim Willocks for his new book, the magistral new adventure of Mattias Tannhauser : « The Twelve Children of Paris ».
Once again, I say a huge thank you to Tim Willocks for taking the time to answer my questions, and I hope the book will get the success it deserves.
Gramercy Tim Willocks !
« Where there are no men, be a man »
When you wrote « The Religion », you said you wanted to write a european novel, how would you consider « The twelve children of Paris » ? You said it’s an extreme book, what does it mean for you?
Some years ago my Italian editor made the comment that Green River was ‘a fundamentally European novel’ despite being set in Texas. I am a european so I suppose that is not surprising. I think the complexities and tragedies of European history have made us less prone to see human life in black and white terms, morally and politically. Perhaps we sense that living together is always going to be a vast and potentially dangerous experiement, but we aren’t going to lessen the danger by indulging simple-minded notions of good and evil, right and wrong. 12 children is very much about that confusion and ambiguity. How does the individual define his or her morality within the forces of the group ? What do you do when extreme circumstances impel you to commit terrible deeds? Or should you not commit them? The novel takes place during a spasm of extreme hatred, violence and collective madness, and the characters all navigate that madness in their own unique ways. The book doesn’t give clear answers, beacause I think such answers are an illusion and a part of the problem, but I hope it creates a visceral experience of trying to find them. or judgements. It’s an experience of extreme events and extreme emotions – about our power, to right, to decide who we might be at such moments.
Can we come back to the birth of Mattias ? How did you find him, where does he comme from ?A year ago, when we met in Lyon, you said did’nt know what will happen to him in the third book, is it still the case ? Please tell me it’s still gonna be a trilogy, Mattias is too fucking great to retire…
Mattias is in many ways ‘the man from nowhere’. His origins are pan-european and his life has reinforced that; he isn’t defined by nationality or creed. He is constantly rediscovering and redefining himself as the stories progress. When I started to write The Religion I thought he would die at the end, but he wouldn’t. « 12 Children » challenges his character more deeply. He is both hero and villain, devil and angel, life and death. Does he act or is he acted on? In what sense does he control his destiny? Does he control his destiny at all, or is he just floating chaff on Fortuna’s river, the prisoner of much larger karmic laws, a speck of slag in the cosmic crucible? In the final spasm of mysterious and – knowingly – unjustified violence does he lose himself or find himself? Is it – can it ever – be right to employ such savagery in the name of love? And if so, at what price? And if so, why would one – how could one – expect to restrain that savagery within whatever limits of taste or morality one might try – to impose? These questions seem worth asking in our present world.
So, I never know where he is going. He’s a kind of rogue existentialist. For that reason I still don’t know what will happen in the third novel, but I do intend to write it. I’m planning to write a different kind of novel before then. The Tannhauser books take everything I’ve got – each one is a monumental, daunting journey to take, they’re all-consuming, and I don’t have a great deal of control over the writing process (I wish I did). « 12 Children » was the journey of a lifetime. So I am going to take a ‘rest’ with something less monumental, very likely a kind of dark ‘Western’ set in 19th Century Australia.
Did you make the research for « The twelve children of Paris » like you did for « The Religion » ? Museums, libraries, trips to Paris… How you re-create the Paris from 1572 is really impressive, did you spend as much time researching before writing ?
I did a huge amount of research for « 12 children » and as usual the heartbreaking thing is that almost none of it seemed to end up in the novel. After the first draft I cut out tens of thousands of words of detail, because that’s all they were – fascinating details to me but not to the characters. Even now, if we have a stressful day in Paris, we don’t dwell on the monuments, the history, the amazing stories behind it all – we’re focused on ourselves, our goals, our problems. We walk past the Conciergerie wihout even seeing it. I wanted to create that sense of living reality. But I hope that the research gave an authenticity to the characters.
Because, on one level, the story is fundamentally about the geography of Paris – Paris as the labyrinth – the geography became the most important research to me. I don’t mean the map, I mean the ground, the distances. The very great majority of what stood in 1572 is long gone ; for instance, a few subterranean stones are all that remain of the Louvre in 1572; it’s nearly all ‘new’. The appearance of the Seine, which also plays a central role, physical and mythological, has changed radically. But I wanted a strong sense of movement, so I walked the whole novel many times while I was writing it. I wrote a good deal of the novel in Paris. It’s still arguably the greatest city to write in.
How did you write this book ? You told me that some chapters came from nowhere, you just let them flow from your brain, does it happen often when you write ? How did you work to find the rythme, the pace this storytelling that covers 36 hours, juggling with all the characters, all the places around Paris ? Did you have some kind of plan ?
I’ve learned that all my plans are rapidly undermined by the impulses of the characters, so I don’t place too much importance on a plan. I let the river of action take me wherever it will. The plan, such as it was, was basically the title. I had the title before anything else, before any story at all. The spine is very simple – a man looking for his wife in the middle of anarchy and chaos.
The title forced me to find the twelve children, which is an enormous number, especially as I wanted them all to have a unique presence. I didn’t want the kind of ‘Dirty Dozen’ situation where only about six of them leave any real impression. So I started more or less throwing children in the paths of Tannhauser and Carla without any idea of who they would turn out to be or what they would do. In every case they became more extraordinary than I could have imagined. Nor did I know who would survive. As each situation arrived, I followed their reality – their reaction to what had happened – and that created the next situation, in a huge interconnected web, all of them constantly in their own motion. And there are a dozen more important characters beyond the children themselves. It was a miracle that it turned out to have any coherence.
The anarchy of the streets, of the event, was mirrored in the construction of the novel itself. Each time I tried to impose a structure, I became paralysed, I stopped writing, for ages, so I just had to plunge forward into chaos to find out what would happen, just like the characters themeselves. I wanted this be an experiential novel – you can’t stay outside it, you have to be in it. You are compelled to share this experience with the characters. You aren’t observing, you are there. There is no distance. This is what chaos and anarchy feels like. I wanted to convey that confusion – of being stranded in anarchy.
I don’t want to spoil to much about the story or the characters, but I must talk about Grymonde, Pascale and Estelle…. Three of my favourite characters, they are really amazing, what can you tell about them, what do they represent, and where do they come from? By the way, the first scene when we discover Estelle through Carla’s eyes is great, I felt like watching « Rear window »…
At certain moments in the writing I feared that Grymonde was going to take over the book. He escaped all the boundaries I had imagined for him – essentially « the bad guy » – and became more and more complex and marvelous. I think he came to represent Paris in all its contradictions, magnificent yet grotesque, cruel yet tormented by love, and full of wild ideas and political passions.
The reason the book became about twice as big as I had planned was that many of the « supporting » characters insisted on having their say and taking their space. At moments I wanted to write a whole novel about Estelle or Pascale. All I had of Estelle to begin with was the image that you refer too, of a girl communing with rats – which came from a real-life girl that a friend of mine saw in Naples. Her history just kept growing. In the end the whole story turns around her actions on several occasions. It’s why the book became such a real experience – all these characters acting independently, following their own track, but changing each other’s lives in a strange combination of intention and pure chance.
The same with Pascale – so dark, so wounded, so brilliant. I had no idea or intention that she would want to kill until she opened her mouth and said so, and that became possibly the most disturbing scene in the novel. Half the book is written from the point of view of the various female characters. The story becomes a kind of confrontation between the Male and Female principles of existence – these females who try to survive by being true to each other, and to some higher notion of human goodness, while trapped in a Hell on Earth that they did not make. In that respect the biggest surprise for me was Alice, a figure who was just a plot necessity up to the point I met her. I thought she’d sit in the background but she just emerged from the ether and blew my mind. I still have no idea where her thoughts came from. She became one of the spiritual centres of the whole book. The other symbolic centre, in the end for all of them, is the baby – a tiny nucleus of absolute innocence and purity who travels through extreme human darkness towards life.
I’m reading again « The Religion » right now, and there’s one thing that strikes me, it’s the mangificent names of your characters. Amparo, Mattias Tannhauser, Bors of Carlisle, Sabato Svi, Ludovico Ludovici, Burak…. And in « The twelve children » : Grymonde, Pope Paul, Clémentine (« call it the most beautiful »…), Juste, Hugon…. How do find them, do you find the character first, and then the name ?
Names are very important and I take a lot of trouble to find the right feeling, but in the end it comes down to pure instinct. Sometimes I begin with one name for a character, and it just doesn’t feel right, so I have to change it, sometimes more than once. I think ‘Pascale’ was the third name she had before I felt that it represented her. Clémentine was a big Irish horse I used to ride myself and who once threw me off. Grymonde was always Grymonde. I can’t remember where that name came from – I think I invented it from the sound, the feeling of a dark world. Pope Paul was instantaneous. Juste was the name of a youth I met in Paris, for just ten minutes, while writing the book, but he had such nobility and spirit, a strong innocence, and somehow the name seemed perfect for the character in the book, who shares those qualities. So they come from many sources, and sometimes the name comes first, sometimes the character.
When you write you say you try to enter the very own flesh of the characters, to see and to feel the world the way they see it, the way they feel it. After a book about such a violent moment of the History of France, how do you « clean » yourself from all the blood, from all the madness, how do you « free » yourself from the savagery ?
In truth I was very sorry to leave the world of the book and its characters behind. Though there is a huge amount of death in the book, the characters are so full of life – they love life in so many different ways – that I never found it depressing. To the contrary I found it inspiring. Amid the madness, they are perfectly sane, because they live only for what is of true value – friendship, loyalty, food, love, magic.
At one point, as they embark on the last, desperate, gamble of their journey through absolute horror, Tannhauser says to Grégoire : « Let us see what metal we have made.’ What he means is that together they have made a kind of human and spiritual gold, which is the love they share, and which transcends all the death around them. This is where love discovers – or not – its greatest courage and beauty. It is because of the intensity of the horror around them that the survival of love has such value and such beauty, that in a moral wasteland of absolute darkness, hatred and blood, those fires of love burn all the brighter.
That dialectic is at the centre of the book. It is full of paradox, contradiction and ambiguity – but that is life. It’s beautiful. It’s amazing. It’s extraordinary. It’s about love in action, in being, in actuality, not merely in feeling. These people truly love each other because they stake their lives on their love. They would rather love than live, if that be the choice. By instinct, they prove that love is stronger than hatred. All the main characters form and evolve many different love relationships with each other, and these encompass many different shades of the notion of ‘love’. And at the centre is the love between Tannhauser and Carla – which is indeed a puzzle, a mystery, a paradox, not least to both of them. That Paris is the Labyrinth is pretty clear; ‘the golden thread so fine’ that guides them through it is ultimately love.
Mysticism and spirituality are strongly present in the two books (Amparo, Petrus Grubenius, Alice…), is it a part of your re-creation of that century, or did you want your characters to be confronted to it ? Did you want the mysticism and faith be a part of their evolution ?
The possiblity of mysticism – the reality of mystical experience – is part of what it is to be human. It’s perceptual possibility built into our being. It’s a kind of sense, like hearing or seeing. It’s there whether or not we choose to exercise it, a choice which is culturally conditioned. The rationalist attempt to dismiss spirituality in whatever form via ‘rational’ argument seems to me irrational ; it is certainly unintelligent. We are capable of mystic perception. Such perceptions inhabit a different realm to the rational, but then so does Art. Even the hard core senses – sight, hearing – are enormously malleable in terms of what is perceived and what is not. A person who has grown up in a wilderness will hear a hundred meaningful sounds, see a hundred meaningful things, to which a city dweller is deaf and blind. Any farmer knows that. The modern atheist movment – Dawkins et al – is a deliberate attempt to limit perception, to deny that sense, but we are organically capable of transcendent experience; it’s just a fact. So it was inevitable that mystic or spiritual concerns form a part of the characters.
The key mystical image system that runs all the way through is Alchemical, and not least because Paris has always been – and still is to this day – the greatest centre of Alchemy. And the purpose of Alchemy is spiritual transformation.
The book is woven through with Hermetic symbolism, which I don’t expect anyone to notice but which I hope enriches the texture. The story (through the characters) moves through all the twelve steps of Basilius Valentinus (also called ‘The Twelve Gates’ of George Ripley). These alchemical gates – sublimation, fermentation, exaltation, multiplication, projection etc – are all embodied symbolically in the dramatic action. e.g. Exaltation takes place in Notre Dame – the « alchemical ship » – when Tannhauser performs the baptism of blood; Multiplication – the augmentation of the elixir – is when they climb on the wagon and set off ‘to find out what metal we have made’; Projection is the final transmutation of base metal into gold, of the lesser into the higher, which is the ‘funeral’ and the picnic in the forest.
So, ultimately, the group itself is a representation of the Philosopher’s Stone. Tannhauser, though he isn’t fully aware of it, becomes the true alchemist that he has always wanted to be. (A journey that begins in the forge at the start of The Religion)
The other mystical aspect is that the whole story is also a journey through the Tarot, which again is from a lower to higher state of consciousness. Every trump is represented by a different character. Some are obvious – or stated outright by the characters. Grymond realizes that he is the Hanged Man, for instance. Alice is the High Priestess. Some are more subtle, with little clues that associate each character with their trump. Grégoire is the Hermit (with his lamp), Typhaine is the Moon (the crayfish), Le Tellier the Emperor, the Mice are the Sun, Amparo is the Fool. And so on. Tannhauser is Death and Paris is the Devil. The tarot actually dictated to some real degree the direction in which the plot turned. It was the Judgement card, for instance, that made me realize that Carla had to go to Notre Dame – i.e. her revelation was my revelation. Up to that point I didn’t know – I thought she would remain at that house. The cards were an active and living force in the writing. It was quite strange.
It’s not only a great novel plain and simple, it’s also a beautiful declaration of love to Paris. Your love and your knowledge of the city is blatant, do you think, as one of the characters, « it’ the greatest city in the world », now and in 1572 ?
I will certainly say that there is none greater and none is closer to my heart. Like all great things – people, paintings, albums, films, places – beyond a certain level they are beyond being subjected to notions of ‘better’. It must be said, though, that there is absolutely nowhere like Paris, in so many different senses. It overwhelmed my imagination before I ever went there (in 1978), when my head was full of Sartre and Melville movies, and it has never disappointed me. More than any city it remains a bastion of the cultural and intellectual values that are most important to me. Sometimes I fear it is the last bastion, as cultural collapse (among other collapses) in the English-speaking world seems catastrophic. But the future is always surprising. Nowhere has proved that more than Paris, and I am sure it will prove it again.
Can we talk about the refusal of your american publisher, or did you move on ?
It’s probably not a fruitful subject to talk about, though I greatly appreciated – as did they – your admiration for Cape and Sonatine. It’s also being translated into German, Dutch, Russian and Polish, so far.
I heard « Doglands » is gonna be a trilogy, is it true ? I’m curious, I know, did you start writing the second book ?… What you said about Sloann last year, that you saw him as some sort of Grendel / Tony Montana / Mao makes me a bit impatient to meet him…
The future of ‘Doglines’ the sequel to Doglands is uncertain at the moment, while I work through some other projects. I’m impatient to meet Sloann myself. I’m not yet sure how apocalytpic I dare to be with Doglines. I’d like to bring about the end of the world, or rather most of the human race, but I don’t know if anyone would print it.
Finally, what would you tell the french readers to make them read « The Religion » (for those who have’nt yet read it) and « The twelve children of Paris » when it’s published in french?
I’m afraid I’m a very bad salesman. What I hope my books give to readers is an extremely intense experience, a deep immersion in other worlds, other people, whose emotions they can share and recognize and recreate through the power of their own imaginations. If you walk through the fire and the darkness with The Twelve Children of Paris, I think it’s hard to forget them. I know I never will.