Monday, April 27, 2009

Winging it with John Baker

I love my job. I love writing my own words. I love critiquing other people’s writing and seeing what works and what doesn’t. And I also love reading. I’m sometimes asked if having to read critically and analyse manuscripts as a job ruins my ability to read for pleasure. I reply that the reverse can be true. Because some books are so extraordinary that an awareness of the author’s skill can only add to the pleasure of reading their words.

Another great aspect of this writing life of mine is that I occasionally get to use my blog to host an author I really respect and admire. So today is a good day for me, as I’m delighted to be joined by John Baker on his virtual tour to launch his new book, Winged With Death.

You know what I said above about some books being extraordinary? Winged With Death is a prime example. With a narrative that weaves between Uruguay in the 70s, the present day and the narrator’s childhood, it takes real craft to hold the clarity of the timeline, maintain the disparate threads, mesh them together seamlessly and ensure the reader is always enthralled but never confused. And of course, threaded throughout the book is the dance. Always the dance.


But there’s still more: violence, disappearance, uncertainty, death, betrayal, the concept of time itself … These are wide sweeping and complex themes, but John handles them all with impressive insight, sensitivity and consummate skill.


Let me come clean here. The scenes set in the brutal dictatorship in Uruguay literally took my breath away. The resonances with my personal experiences as recorded in the Revo Blog were so acute they caused me physical pain.


He’s got it so right, you see. If I hadn’t written my posts before reading Winged With Death, I might question that I was unintentionally plagiarising the book. Similarly, if John had read the posts before writing his book, I could well have suspected he had borrowed from me.


But I didn’t. And he didn’t. He’s quite simply a very good writer. To find out just how good he is, read on and hear how he came to create those utterly credible scenes and convey the related emotions without ever setting foot in Uruguay or living through such knife-edge times.


WELCOME, JOHN. COME ON IN AND PUT YOUR FEET UP. COMFY? THEN LET’S BEGIN …


YOU'RE BEST KNOWN FOR YOUR SERIES OF NOVELS FEATURING SAM TURNER.

WHAT'S IT LIKE TO WRITE ABOUT COMPLETELY DIFFERENT CHARACTERS AND SETTINGS?


In a way Winged with Death is a result of writing several serial novels. I wrote the Sam Turner novels; and then the Stone Lewis novels initially because that's what my publishers wanted from me. (They still do, which is one of the main reasons I've moved to a new publisher).

I don't think that there's anything wrong with writing serial characters, although it does become limiting after a while. The Stone Lewis novels emerged because of Sam Turner's limitations. I wanted to write more overt political novels and Sam was too laid back and too damn old to change his ways.


But as a writer it is important to me to learn all of the aspects of my trade, not just to expand characterization, but to explore the limitations of plot, to experiment with different tenses and voices, and to generally push the medium as far as I need to take it, etc. etc.


What's it like to write about completely different characters and settings? In a word, it's liberating. It's also frightening, as any writing is frightening until it begins to fly.


A writer has to remain flexible; once he or she becomes stuck it is the end of the road. And that stuckness or not stuckness is a subtle thing. Some writers (I'm thinking of Chandler, but there must be others) manage to continue writing serial characters and not get stuck. Those writers use the character and keep a part of themselves, deep inside, completely free. They delight in the poetry or psychological complexities of what they are doing, while seeming to be writing about the same old gumshoe. Hammett is another example. As a creative artist he almost always managed to wrestle a free space and time for himself.


My way (and I'm not comparing myself to the greats) was to leave the series characters behind and strike out again, as though with a first novel, with nothing to help me but some stout shoes and a toothbrush. And that was a whizz. I loved it. I want to do it again (and again).


YES, THIS HAS BEEN MY EXPERIENCE TOO. OLD FRIENDS ARE FAMILIAR,

DEPENDABLE AND COMFORTING - WE KNOW THEM SO WELL. BUT DISCOVERING NEW CHARACTERS AND GETTING TO KNOW THEM IS A REAL THRILL AND OPENS UP ALL SORTS OF OPPORTUNITIES.


WHAT MADE YOU CHOOSE URUGUAY AS THE SETTING FOR WINGED WITH DEATH? I’D BE INTERESTED TO KNOW WHETHER YOU DREW ON PERSONAL EXPERIENCES AND IF NOT, HOW YOU DID YOUR RESEARCH.


Uruguay came to me in a dream. Not Uruguay really, but the city of Montevideo. I woke one morning and I'd been wandering around in a strange city, one that I'd never visited and knew very little about. I knew where it was, and the dream had been in colour, so I knew somehow, magically, what it felt like.


First I brought some photographs of the city up on the internet, then began reading about its history. I knew there was a tango connection, and that it was there, in Montevideo and Buenos Aires that the dance had been developed towards the end of the 19th century. I'd been looking at using the possibility of dance as a metaphor, and suddenly I had a place that fitted. By this time the scent of the place was in my nostrils. It belonged to me.


In the UK nobody knows anything about Montevideo. I spoke with the Uruguayan Embassy in London, trying to locate a street map of the city, but nobody could help me. The only way around these blocks was to virtually meet people who lived there. I'm not a great traveler. I don't fly; and I didn't want whatever Montevideo happens to be now, I wanted my own vision of it during the seventies.


I looked up people who lived in Montevideo and who were registered on sites like The Lonely Planet, made contact and asked for help. Soon I had my street map, and, it seemed, anything else that I needed. People who had never heard of me listened and bought me local maps and pamphlets and sent these things half-way across the earth.


Through a book site I met a wonderful contact in Buenos Aires, an English professor, an ex-student of Borges who had family connections to Montevideo and who taught me about local customs, the drinking of mate tea, the best tango orchestras, the climate and wild life etc, and who then went on to check my manuscript for further inaccuracies.


A lot of people were involved in the writing of Winged with Death.


THIS IS AMAZING, JOHN. WHAT A GREAT INSIGHT INTO YOUR WRITING PROCESS. AND OF COURSE YOUR NARRATOR HAS A SIMILAR DREAM OF MONTEVIDEO.


TALK ABOUT A STORY DEMANDING TO BE WRITTEN ... I'M SO IMPRESSED BY THE WAY YOU CAPTURE THE ESSENCE OF THE PLACE AND TIME AND ALSO THE EX-PAT EXPERIENCE – BELONGING EVERYWHERE AND NOWHERE. THE DESCRIPTIONS AND THE ATMOSPHERE OF FEAR YOU CREATE HAVE SO MANY RESONANCES FOR ME. AND YOU'VE DONE IT ALL WITHOUT EVER HAVING BEEN TO URUGUAY.


SO - WERE THE STRANDS OF PLACE, TIME AND TANGO ALWAYS MESHED TOGETHER FOR YOU RIGHT FROM THE START? IT SOUNDS LIKE THE DANCE THEME AS A METAPHOR PRECEDED AND THE DREAM GAVE YOU THE STAGE ON WHICH TO SET IT. AT WHAT POINT DID YOU REALISE THIS?


It's a difficult question, Debi, because I can't honestly remember exactly how the novel developed. The dance as a metaphor has been with me for many years, only I've never found a way of developing it before. Similarly with time; it's a puzzle and a concept that I've mulled over for as long as I can remember. But I suspect these themes were not meshed together in any conscious way at the beginning of writing the novel. They came together during the process of writing.


Perhaps the first time I realised this was a preconscious realization? Reminds me of this, from Flannery O'Conner writing about her short-story, Good Country People.


"When I started writing that story, I didn't know there was going to be a PhD with a wooden leg in it. I merely found myself one morning writing a description of two women I knew something about, and before I realised it, I had equipped one of them with a daughter with a wooden leg. I brought in the Bible salesman, but I had no idea what I was going to do with him. I didn't know he was going to steal that wooden leg until ten or twelve lines before he did it, but when I found out that this was what was going to happen, I realised it was inevitable.”


And this, of course, is what most writers know, or come to know at some point in their writing career; that the creative process represents, more than anything else, an act of faith. The first draft of a novel – perhaps of any creative work, is to discover what it is going to be about – and it requires a special talent. The ability to accept and live with something that is wholly imperfect – until you can make it better.


JOHN, YOU’RE SUCH A TALENTED WRITER, BUT WE ALL KNOW THAT IN THESE TIMES TALENT WON’T NECESSARILY BE ENOUGH TO GUARANTEE A BOOK IS PUBLISHED. HOW HARD HAS IT BEEN FOR YOU TO CARRY ON SECURING NEW DEALS?


It has never been an easy thing. I was lucky to get my first novel published. It was sifted out of the slush-pile in a backroom of the old Gollantz offices by my first editor, Mike Petty. In those days there was still a glimmer of the traditional publisher about. They didn't expect a first novel to be a resounding commercial success, still believed that you had to nurture a writer along, have patience, wait for a breakthrough to take place after a few years. If the breakthrough didn't happen it was not regarded as the end of the world, there were many writers regarded as mid-list authors, they didn't make big bucks but they covered expenses and brought in some profits if you paid attention to their backlist.


That's all long-gone now, of course. Publishers are run by men in suits who have to justify every penny they spend. If an author doesn't show an almost immediate good profit he or she will be unlikely to secure a new deal.


They come up, sometimes, with weird formulas. I have been asked more than once by an editor to write a novel close to or exactly like (put your own favourite and commercially successful author in this space) - which, of course, is fine if you're a hack but in creative terms is an impossibility. A good writer spends years developing an individual voice and at the end of the day, that is all he or she has.


Am I answering your question? It has been difficult to secure new publishing deals, and in the present climate it is certainly not getting easier.


SO TRUE, JOHN. I NEVER THOUGH I’D MORPH INTO A PERSON WHO SIGHS A LOT AND MURMURS ‘THOSE WERE THE DAYS …’ AT REGULAR INTERVALS.


BUT I FOR ONE AM DELIGHTED THAT YOUR BOOKS CONTINUE TO BE 'OUT THERE' AND WISH YOU ALL THE SUCCESS YOU DESERVE. THANKS SO MUCH FOR BEING HERE TODAY AND SHARING YOUR THOUGHTS WITH US.


John Baker's blog is here.

Read reviews for Winged with Death here.

Details of the virtual tour with dates and links can be found here.

17 comments:

John Baker said...

Thanks for this, Debi, especially the review. It was so good that you enjoyed the book, and that it had the possibility of chiming with your own experiences in Grenada. It hadn't occurred to me that that might be the case when I was thinking of people who might host the tour, but of course . . .
I wanted to elaborate a little on the concept of time. Because it seems to me that one of things that make it so complex is that it has so many directions. It is always, for us, both a linear and a circular experience simultaneously. We all see and even experience the line from birth to death, experience that linear inevitability in our own lives and in the lives of our friends and relatives.
But at the same time we witness a constant array of circularity. The sun rises and sets every day, the seasons always come around again, we consume and excrete, we laugh and cry and know we'll do it again.
So it's not that we live with linearity of circularity, but with the two of them (and more) together; as we live with the past and the future all wrapped up in the present moment.
A writer like Flannery O'Conner, for example, who I quoted above, hardly left the house during her short life, but this did not stop her discovering and engaging with the wonderful complexities of our experience.

Debi said...

I too am fascinated by the concept of time, John. One of the (many) things you do so well is the exploration of how it works and how we experience its passage in our own lives.

Debi said...

Oh - and I should also say that I remember hearing about a tribe who had a completely different concept of time. (Sorry - details of who they are escape me ...) Anyway, they live entirely in the present. They have no oral history at all as the past simply doesn't exist for them and the concept of the future is unthinkable and alien.

Mindbending but fascinating, eh?

John Baker said...

I believe the modern sense of time only begins to develop when people move beyond agrarian communities.
But your remarks also made me think about something else.
The concept of inexclusion, a term was coined by Sanjoy Roy to describe the sense of being inside and outside at the same time, with particular reference to non-whites who have been subjected to the mapping of a white cultural identity.
A similar experience is described by second and third generation British Asians, who feel inexcluded by both the British and their parents or grandparents country of origin.
But it also works the other way around, as was discovered by those white Britons who returned to the mother country after spending their working lives in the colonies. I think it must have been your reference to the ex-pat experience that brought this back to me.
It seems to me that inexclusion is, in its widest sense, one of the salient and important experiences of our time. There is no way we can go back home. Apart from the one in our memory or in our fancy, there is no home to return to.

Debi said...

So true, John. And as we journey through life, the changes that result from our experiences add new layers.

Someone once asked me what the attraction was for me about being in Grenada. I said that I'd always felt like an outsider - not quite belonging in either the British or the Jewish communities. In Grenada, my outsider status was in-your-face and obvious, so in some ways the discomfort was comfortable - if that makes sense.

For me, the hardest part of my experience was coming back 'home' and trying to fit in. It's taken me a very long time to feel ok with my status of unbelonging.

Anonymous said...

hi debi, concept of time,being in a homeless state of time involves living one day at a time..plenty of time to look back..no time to look forward and plan..tribal or what..xx homelesschicken

John Baker said...

There is a way of seeing that feeling of unbelonging as something akin to essential for a writer of fiction.
Many novelists and poets have spoken about being compelled to write. About the process of writing beyond their will to control.
When I hear that I often think of someone who does not really have a secure place in the world, and perhaps someone who is driven to create an alternative world or alternative worlds in which he or she might have a place in which to live.

John Baker said...

OK, bedtime now, but thanks for hosting me on the tour, Debi. It was a real pleasure to be here.

Debi said...

Pleasure's been all mine, John. Thanks for being such an interesting guest.

Minx said...

Great 'interview' Debi. I finished the book a couple of days after hosting John, and have recommended it to many others. Well done, Mr Baker - hope it gets the success it deserves!

John Baker said...

Thanks, Minx. It's good to hear that you read right through to the end. I always think a book must have something going for it if that happens.
Thanks for the good wishes and the recommendations.

Beleaguered Squirrel said...

This was a really entertaining and interesting interview, and I now want to read the book.

The publisher looks very interesting, and I'm now racking my brains trying to remember where I've seen Nail Astley's End of my Tether, published by the same people.

Inexclusion is an interesting concept. I feel it myself, purely as a result of being brought up in a community my parents didn't fit into, and therefore neither did I. I've always felt like an outsider, but I think that's a terribly common experience for a lot of people, and I often wonder whether there are in fact more outsiders than there are in. That feeling of being excluded from the in-crowd, for instance... in fact most people feel this way, even the ones who appear to be right there in the thick of it.

Debi said...

Hi and welcome, Secret Squirrel. You're spot on re the inexclusion concept, I think. Few people recognise themselves as part of the inner group. It's more a matter of how people perceive their status ie whether or not it's problematic to feel that sense of unbelonging.

You weren't by any chance a red squirrel and have found a way to blend in by the judicious use of a bottle of fur dye ...?

Rachel Fox said...

I agree with you, Debi, about the Uruguay parts of the book (I was on the blog tour a while back). The scenes that are set there really are very strong (and easily my favourite sections...despite some of the cruelty they contain). It's very impressive to do that from a distance too...shows ambition, talent, imagination and labours-done (should all writers show these...perhaps but I'm not sure all do...I'm not sure I do!). I think John deserves to do really well with this book.

Debi said...

Hi and welcome, Rachel.

He's a clever boy, our John, isn't he? Those scenes in Uruguay are so strong - yet he created them entirely from within his own head. Seriously impressive writing.

john baker said...

Hey, look at this; everyone's being seriously kind to me.
I just need to get in with the in-crowd now.

Debi said...

You're in, John. In fact, you personify it ...