Raise your hand please, if John Baker is on your blogroll. Yikes. The rush of hands created a huge draft of wind and nearly knocked me over. Most of us have been reading John’s blog for as long as we’ve been reading book blogs. For those who don’t know him yet (the few of you who were also knocked over by the show of hands), John’s written eight highly regarded mysteries and he’s been blogging about books and book-ish subjects since, well, before most of even knew blogs existed.
John’s newest book, Winged With Death, isn’t a conventional mystery. It moves between Uruguay in 1972 and England in the present. There’s a really elegant narrative at work here — the story’s first strand is the tale of the narrator’s arrival in Montevideo when he was eighteen, at a time when Uruguay was in political turmoil. The boy takes on a new name — Ramon — and finds himself absorbed in becoming a Milonguero – a tango master. The second strand occurs in the present where, from the perspective of his life in York, and in the face of a crisis precipitated by the disappearance of his teenage niece, Ramon sees how the past, both personal and political, reappears in the present. The book’s a departure for John in terms of the story he sets out to tell, but like all his books, it’s finely written and so smart about how we live and love. I liked it very much, and was so pleased when he said he’d actually have time to come over here.
While we had our virtual visit, John and I had a virtual conversation. I wish you were all here, drinking tea and eating cookies. But this post really is the next best thing. Come to think of it, it might actually BE the best thing. After all, to get here you don’t have to pack your liquid goods into ziplock bags or take your shoes off to go through security, or suffer any of the indignities of air travel. You just have to turn on your computer, and then you get to hear John on the book, the tour, and how on earth he managed to parent children who still read his interviews. So… here it is:
When I’ve done author interviews in the past, readers have been very interested in the intersection of personal history and fiction. Can you talk about how you transformed life into fiction in Winged With Death?
That’s difficult. Winged with Death is fiction, I’m quite clear about that. But there, of course, aspects of my own life and my own experiences tucked in here and there quite consciously, and equally, there will be aspects of my life experience which are in there without my knowledge.
I never consciously write into a fiction a picture of someone I know, or have known in real life, and the characters in my novels, as in most novels, are made up out of bits and pieces of a multitude of real characters, fictional characters from books and movies, and, I often suspect, from shadow parts of my own personality which I have suppressed in my personal life for one reason or another.
The central character in Winged with Death is Ramon, and he, like myself, is an Englishman. He has spent part of his life out of the country, in South America, and I have spent part of my life out of the country, but in my case the stay abroad was in Europe.
Perhaps the main similarity is that we are both tango dancers. But he is a teacher and a master of the dance, whereas I am merely a social dancer, often with two left feet.
I don’t have the fraught emotional relationships that Ramon has, though my emotional relationships have not always been entirely stable.
Something else. Ramon is involved in writing his own autobiography, something I would never consider attempting.
Perhaps there are more similarities between the two of us that I am still unconscious of. I honestly don’t know. I’m concerned that my fictions resemble real life enough to convince me and my readers that they are dealing with real human beings like themselves, involved in a variety of relationships. But beyond that I am mainly concerned with ideas and with language.
Winged with Death takes on important political issues. It is also hugely entertaining. Writing a book that is not didactic, but still delivers a powerful message about and against a repressive regime is no easy feat. How did you manage that?
The book took a long time to write. For most of that time it wasn’t working the way I intended it to. Fiction only works when it is specific, when it depicts the struggles of individuals in a truthful way. Getting hold of that truth and pinning it down in a novel is never easy. But I suppose when one chooses a real location and a real span of social or political history, there is always the tendency that the individual’s story will be overtaken by the momentous events involved.
The job of the writer, then, is to keep plugging away, a little like someone mining for gold, until the thing starts to shine from the inside out.
Two of the most important characters in the book are teenagers, about whom you write with sensitivity and authority. Many of the people who read this blog are parents of teens. Could you talk about your experiences as a parent and as a teenager — any advice?
Questions are supposed to get easier, you know, not more difficult. I have had five children. They are all now well past their teens – (thank you, Jesus) – and have left home and formed relationships with others and for the most part live far enough away that visits have to be planned in advance. I remind myself that that was the object of the enterprize – their independence.
I have no advice.
There were good moments and there were others; all in all I think things improved dramatically once the teenage years were left behind, or perhaps it was the mere act of moving away from the parental home.
With hindsight it seems to me sometimes that each of my children arrived with an agenda, and there was little that I did that made any changes to that. They were, each of them, aimed right from the start to the places in life they now occupy. The role of myself and my partner was only to feed them and keep them safe so they could arrive more or less intact.
And my relationship with them now? Sshhhh. Most of them will be reading this.
You’ve been on tour for quite some time with Winged With Death. How was your trip? Any surprises or common experiences? (By the way, John’s touring reviews can be found here.)
No real surprises, apart from the fatigue. It was a little like actual touring, relating to new people two or three times a week, answering comments, coming up with original answers, striving to listen – really listen – to the questions. The blogs I toured were a very mixed bunch. Some were popular sites with many commentors and a busy atmosphere. Others more like personal sites, with little happening. But I arranged it like that, as I wanted to elicit a variety of responses from different groups of people. It’s been good. I’d do it again. Better than actual touring – you get to sleep in your own bed.
I’ve been reading your blog since 2006, when I first noticed that things called blogs existed. Could you talk about how you came to blogging, and how your blogging has evolved? Longevity in blogging interests me very much, because I’d like to keep writing for a long time — how do you keep it up?
Committment. I started blogging in 2002, quite near to the beginning. I’d always kept a journal, and there was never anything in it that was too personal to talk about. I used the computer every day anyway and it struck me that I could do both things together. I designed my own blogging software to start with and modified it to suit for the next three years. Eventually I moved over to the open source software by WordPress and for much of the time I blogged every single day. Now I only blog when I’ve got something to say; it doesn’t have to be much, anything I’ve learned or heard that strikes my own interest seems to me to be worth passing on. I’m especially interested in words and writing and reading so I blog about those things. Then I get involved in wider cultural issues, film, theatre, exhibitions, etc. Sometimes politics, but not often.
I suppose I keep it up because I don’t see a divide between blogging and the other writing I do. It’s all writing. Sometimes it’s a novel, or a short story, and sometimes it’s blogging. When I get up in the morning the only single thing I’m absolutely sure about is that I’m going to write.