Monday, June 22, 2009

Crime Writer Robert Wilson on Seville's Beauty, Africa's Power, and London's Vast Unknown

Robert Wilson is the author of four crime noir novels set in South Africa featuring Bruce Medway; two thrillers set in Portugal during the second world war; and a series of four crime novels set in Seville featuring the detective Javier Falcón. He was kind enough to answer these questions after I read and liked his books.

Your novel THE IGNORANCE OF BLOOD is the fourth and last in the Javier Falcón series. Is it difficult to say goodbye to a character that you’ve gotten to know so intimately?

As you now know from The Blind Man of Seville Javier was not in a good mental state when I first met him. He was divorced, struggling with his father’s death, tending towards the introspective and not getting on well with his homicide squad. He also had this terrible sense of being on the edge of a great abyss, something in his mind that he knew but did not know, a feeling that a monstrous revelation was about to surface and break him as a human being. By the time he finishes his four book journey I believe that he is in a much better place. He has been dismantled, put back together, re-equipped and revived. So I leave him with no sadness on my part, but with a feeling of a job well done. It had always been important to me, in a reversal of the normal series character, that my protagonist would change. And he does, for the better.

Your biography reveals that you are an extremely well-traveled man, and as a result, you say that “I realised that there were other ways of thinking and doing things that were just as valid as my own.” Does this objectivity affect the way that you create characters?

That realization was just one of many steps on the road through adulthood towards growing up (I’ll get there, but only in the end). On that occasion, in Africa, it was revealed to me that the Western way of doing things wasn’t necessarily the right or the best way and I would have to change in order to survive. Changing, even at the age of 30, which I was then, is hard. In terms of my ability to create characters I couldn’t say that there was any one particular incident that led me to start looking at people beyond the surface of what they want to present. It was probably an accumulation of life (and death) experiences that contributed to the unsettling of my equilibrium. I have a tendency, possibly unnerving, of trying to get past the looks, humour, status, vanity, aggression/defence and general deception to the real person beneath. Given that humans understand the nature of deception from an early age this can be quite a task, but it’s what fascinates me in both life and my work. I’m very conscious, even in the most apparently innocuous piece of dialogue, of how the real person is operating underneath the character’s skin.

At one point you traveled around America on a Greyhound bus. Did you like America? What was your most memorable moment?

Greyhound bus stations tend to be in the less savoury areas of cities’ downtown so I could be forgiven for having a somewhat jaded view of America as a result, but I didn’t and I don’t. I was blown away by the sheer energy of New York. This was the late seventies and it seemed even more driven, aggressive and dangerous than it is now. I went up the WTC and looked out over the roaring metropolis to the lung of Central Park and could not help but be impressed. It was fascinating after a twenty-four year gap to go back in 2001, six weeks after 9/11, to find that terrible gap in the landscape and New Yorkers changed: their ambitious ruthlessness pried open to reveal the heart beating within.

I’m always interested in the naming of a detective, and yours, Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón, has the name of a bird of prey. In your latest novel you describe Falcón and his friend as “alive as hunting hawks.” Is a predator an apt metaphor for a homicide detective?
I chose the name because the intention of the books was to be all about ‘seeing’. That is: discovering the capacity to distinguish between the appearance and reality of both people and situations. The initial irony is that, of course, Falcón, and many of the other characters do not see things at all clearly. By the time he reaches the last book Falcón is as perceptive as he’ll ever be, and his friend, Yacoub, given his situation as a spy, perhaps even more so. A homicide detective is always trying to see the reality of things beyond the endless deception that is put before him. In Spanish the word for ‘falcon’ is in fact ‘halcón’, so the one audience that might miss the significance of this metaphor is the Spanish themselves.

Falcón solves homicides in Seville, Spain. What made you set your mysteries here?

Seville is recognized in both Spain and the wider world as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. It also has a population who are, even by Spanish standards, uniquely friendly, inviting, passionate, animated and exuberant. When you first go there you could be forgiven for thinking that the Sevillanos had cracked the problem of being human. They live in a wonderful city, eat magnificent food and drink wonderful wine, have great music and dance and seem to be very happy. Only once you scratch the surface do you see that it is no different to any other city, that they have the same problems of social inequality, drugs, crime, racism etc. This struck me as the perfect place to examine what I consider to be the underlying theme of all crime fiction: appearance and reality.

According to one of the characters from organized crime intelligence, Spaniards are “the biggest users of prostitutes and cocaine of any country in Europe.” Why is that? Did this research surprise you, or was it one of the reasons that you made Spain your setting?

The Spanish are great believers in partying. They love night life. It’s not unusual to find ordinary Spanish families starting to eat their dinner with their children at midnight. Young people then go on to clubs and dance the night away and quite often go straight to work from the club the next day. This is, obviously, exhausting and they use drugs, most notably cocaine, to keep them going. Researchers have now found that almost all banknotes have traces of cocaine on them and that even the air in Madrid and Barcelona contains cocaine, amphetamines and other opiates. Inevitably sex becomes part of the mix and has enormous appeal to what has always been, although less obviously now, a macho society.

You have some strikingly existential scenes in your fiction. Falcón struggles with feelings of emptiness and loneliness, and at one point feels “an overwhelming sense of loss and pointlessness.” Another character, on a ship in the dark, giggles at “the hidden absurdity in everyday life." Do you think these feelings are part of the reality of working homicide (or working in some form of law enforcement)? Or are they feelings that every human being must face at some point?

Because homicide detectives and spies are dealing with life and death situations on a regular basis I think there is a tendency to be reflective in this particular way. However, I don’t think it’s exclusive to these professions and most humans are certainly introspective when it comes to thinking about serious illness and death. They have a way of putting one’s everyday life into perspective. And who hasn’t had that feeling of emptiness and pointlessness after a huge and engrossing project has been finished? I know I get it after every book goes off to my publishers.

When you and your wife fell in love, your biography says, the two of you also fell in love with Africa. What was it about this continent that attracted you both?

Once you’ve been to Africa and spent time there you never get it out of your system. There’s a part of you that always remains there. Perhaps it’s because Africa was where we all came from in the beginning, the original Garden of Eden, that the land exerts such an extraordinary power over you.

And the people, especially the ordinary folk trying to live their lives, are truly inspiring. They are so tough and yet they handle the ordeal of life with such equanimity and humour one feels embarrassed by one’s comparatively pampered lifestyle.

You are passionate about American Literature. Do you have a favorite American writer?

In terms of crime writing I admire Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard. On the literary side of things one of my all time favorite books, as it is of many other readers, is The Great Gatsby.

You have written four noir crime novels set in West Africa (with detective Bruce Medway); two thrillers set in WWII Portugal; and now the Falcón novels, set in present-day Spain. Would you have become a successful writer, do you think, if you had not traveled so extensively?

I would have just written different books and success is not in my hands.

Your website shows a beautiful picture of your study in Alentejo, near Lisbon. You write that “In 1992 we moved in and taught ourselves how to live on very, very little.” All of your choices, it seems, involved sacrificing one thing (like a regular job or paycheck) for another: travel, an amazing view, a career you love. Do you think that the best things come out of sacrifice?
There was never any question of sacrifice. All we did was to concentrate on how we wanted to live and the best way to achieve it.

When you write a series, do you know in book one some of the things that will happen in books three or four, or do you allow yourself to be surprised along the way?

I never know the detail, all I know is the general shape of things and the way my main character is going to develop. Surprise is an important factor in this sort of writing and if I’m surprised by what happens (and I frequently am) then it’s pretty sure that the reader is going to be spun around, too.

In your first Falcon book, THE BLIND MAN OF SEVILLE, Falcon discovers a gruesome crime: a man has been tied to a chair and forced to watch something on his television. His eyelids have been cut off so that he cannot avoid the images. These are shocking, unforgettable details. How do your fictional crimes occur to you? Do you base them on things you read in your research, or are they simply the products of your fertile imagination?

The image of the eyelids being removed to force someone to see came to me in a sudden horrible flash while I was finishing my spy novel/love story The Company of Strangers. It struck me as a potent opening image for a book about ‘sight’ and its failures in human nature. I am quite often accused of despicable violence, but if you reread the opening scenes of The Blind Man of Seville you will find nothing in the slightest bit graphic on the page. The reader has no idea what is happening or what is about to happen to the man tied to a chair, who is engaged in a titanic struggle not to watch something on a TV screen. We make the same discovery as Falcón when, later, he finds the body with what appears to be petals on his shirt front. It is profoundly shocking and the reader’s own imagination does all the work, not my writing. I merely plant the seeds and, of course, the real horror, which is: what could possibly have been on the TV screen? What could be so terrible?

How many languages can you speak?

None fluently. I went to a French school when I was six years old and was fluent then. I used it in Africa because a lot of countries are francaphone. Now I understand almost everything but I’m a little rusty in speaking it. My German was pretty good when I went on a student exchange to Hamburg at the age of sixteen. I spoke presentable beginner’s Greek when I worked on Crete for a year. I taught myself Spanish when I cycled around Spain in 1984 and I learnt Portuguese when I renovated my house, here, in Portugal in 1992. So, bits of five , but I wouldn’t want to bank on getting into university on the strength of any of them.

You have lived in many countries. Do you have therefore have many national loyalties, or do you feel primarily a citizen of one place?

I feel completely English and I’m proud to speak and write in that language because I believe it is one of the most expressive, lively and growing languages, accommodating all sorts of nationalities’ contributions. However, because I haven’t been drinking in so much popular culture from England in the last twenty years, I can sometimes feel like a tourist in my own country.

What are you writing now?

There you are. I’m working on a novel based in London. I lived in London for ten years between 1981 – 1991. It’s a great city but Londoners have a way of only knowing a certain part of their city: where they live, where they work, where they meet their friends. It’s interesting to go to London and discover the vast unknown.

I ask this often, but I have to ask it of you, because you’ve been so many amazing places: what’s the most beautiful place in the world?

Too difficult to answer. Would it be the lakes of Band-i-Amir and the vast stone Buddhas of Bamyian in Afghanistan? Or perhaps my first and only sight of the Himalayas in Nepal after the monsoon clouds lifted? Or possibly the magnificent emptiness of the Sahara desert? Or was it the highlands of Kenya? The rolling hills and cork oaks of the Alentejo in Portugal? Or, actually, was it outside my back door in the Cotswolds in England all the time?

What a beautiful answer.

You survived a near-death experience after a car crash when you were a young man. Did this alter the way you viewed the world? The way you viewed yourself?

Up until that moment, aged nineteen, I had been the invincible adolescent. I was a good rugby player and had already played first class games at a professional level, I had just earned some money and was about to embark on a trip to Australia and in the fall I was going to take a place reading English at Oxford University. The world seemed to be at my feet until the driver of that car hit a concrete lamp post and I, the passenger, ended up in hospital for three months with my hip dislocated, pelvis smashed and a couple of hundred sutures in my face. I saw some terrible things on that public ward: a man being told he had a tumour on his upper arm and they were going to have to amputate, seeing him go down to the theatre and coming back without it. We had some great laughs, too. I went through a crash course on growing up: schoolboy to adult in three months. I learnt that I wasn’t invincible, that there are bad times and you have to find a way of getting through them intact and that people are extraordinary in lots of different ways.

Robert Wilson's website is located here.


Frank Loose said...

What a fabulous interview. Great questions that show research and thinking, and terrific answers. It takes two. Thanks to both of you.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Frank! It was easy to come up with the questions because Robert is so interesting and his books are so good.

But I appreciate the compliment!

Pat Browning said...


Just catching up with your fine blog.

Robert Wilson is such a gifted writer, so I really soaked up this interview. His novel A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON is one of my all-time favorites.

Pat Browning

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Pat! I hope Robert will see your comments. And I'll have to check out that book, which I haven't read.

Lisbon Accommodations said...

Nice post!

Thanks for sharing.

Julia Buckley said...

You're welcome. :)