Winged With Death: John Baker is Here Today!

baker44Raise 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.


14 thoughts on “Winged With Death: John Baker is Here Today!

  1. Hi Lily, Thanks for the review. It was good to hear you enjoyed Winged with Death. I had to laugh at that word (second paragraph, word 10); reminds me how I often remind my students to edit their work closely, especially typos, just in case they want to leave one in.
    I’m going to make some bread now. But I’ll be back later.

  2. Oh John! That is funny, even if it is really embarrassing. (For those who are curious, I’d called it a book that’s not a “conventional mysery”!) Obviously, I should not post after 11:00 p.m.

    Bread! That sounds so lovely.

  3. We’ll see about the bread. I have this sourdough starter which I’ve been nursing along for some years and which usually gives me good rye bread; I inherited it initially from an old friend, Terry the Shoe, who had also had it for a long time.
    There are starters around, so I’m reliably informed, which go back generations. That’s a comforting thought, isn’t it?
    (Note to self: Are we procrastinating here, John? Do I detect a slight reticence to talk about the book?)
    {Answer to self: No, I can talk about the book, just looking for someone to give me a push.}

  4. Okay, here’s a push: After writing 8 mysteries, you’ve written something that’s not in that form, something that could be described as “literary fiction” — a category which is of interest probably mostly to libraries, agents and publishers. I don’t know how it works in the UK, but my impression is that, at least for American writers, it’s difficult to move from one form to another — did you find this to be true?

    • Very difficult. My publisher and agent were both against the idea, so I ended up changing both of them (there was no other way forward).
      But as a writer it was important to me to be able to flex some of the muscles that the genre stuff hadn’t been using.
      The corporate environment doesn’t like change, so, especially for first-time novelists, it may be important to be sure that what you are presenting is something you really want to carry on with.

      • I can really identify with this. I confess, I have not read your book, but now buying your book will be the first thing I do when I wake up. My agent sent my book out. I break a lot of the genre rules, so we’ll see what happens. I give it a swift little kick in the a** here and there. I love what you said, ” to flex some of the muscles that the genre stuff hadn’t been using.” You have encouraged me, and I can’t wait to read your book.

  5. Thanks Lily and John for an excellent interview. I’m a fan of John’s Sam Turner mysteries, and I’m looking forward to reading this new book. John, if you’re taking questions here in the comments section, I’ve got one. I know that in addition to the Sam Turner series, you’ve got another series on the go, but “Winged with Death” sounds to me like a stand-alone. I’m wondering if the process was different for you in writing a stand-alone novel than in writing novels that are part of series. (Then again, maybe when writing the first in a series, one doesn’t yet know that one is writing a series?) If you have any reflections on that question, I’m most curious to hear them.

    • Hi Kate. I didn’t know I was writing a series with my first novel. In fact I wasn’t. As far as I was concerned at the time I’d finally written a novel that seemed to be complete and with which I was more or less satisfied.
      When the novel was accepted my editor pointed out that it should be regarded as the first novel in a series, and I was green enough and grateful enough to accept that at face value.
      Another outing for the same characters followed, and then another, and another, though I did always make sure that the novels stood alone, i.e. you didn’t have to have read one before you could read the others, and they didn’t follow any kind of sequence.
      With Winged with Death I have broken away from that completely. There will be no sequel.
      My next project will be a novel set in the middle of the nineteenth century and will have no connection to any of my previous novels, or to any that might follow it.
      I suppose the main difference is that there is a sense of completion in Winged with Death, which is never there in a series novel. Each novel in a series is a kind of step, whereas, from a writer’s point-of-view, a stand-alone novel can have the characters, themes and metaphors which pertain to that text alone, and these elements of the novel don’t have to bent or shaped in any way to fit the narrative.

  6. I’m interested to know how the publishing industry has changed (or not!) over the course of 8 novels – which is some feat by the way and deserves recognition in itself. And I’m wondering whether John’s relation to writing has altered over the course of those books, too. If it’s deepened or changed or whether, like parenting, there are always good bits and bad bits but neither stay the same?

    And Winged with Death sounds very intriguing – I’d read it for the tango alone!

    • Litlove, this is another difficult question because the industry has changed, no doubt about it, but at the same time I have also changed, so it’s not easy to see exactly in what ways we have grown apart.
      I believe when I published my first novel there was still a vestige of tradition left in the publishing industry. The men in suits had not quite taken over and editorial decisions still tended to be made by editors rather than account exectutives.
      That is no longer the case now. Publishers are interested in best-sellers and very little else. The idea of the mid-list author has completely disappeared. Whereas in the old days most publishers would go along with the idea that a young writer needed to be ‘brought-on’, and that he or she needed to build a backlist and eventually would come up with something special, but now that idea is not even paid lip-service. (I didn’t think I’d ever hear myself talking about the good old days.)
      Now a new writer will be given a two book deal, and if sales are excellent, perhaps another two-book deal, but the publisher will be looking for a fast return on their money, and will not pursue someone who has had only average sales.
      So much for publishing.
      For me, the writing itself has grown to be much more important than it was originally. I’m not overtly interested in massive sales, but I am massively interested in producing texts which work on all levels.
      Perhaps story in itself, the ongoing narrative is the least of my considerations. Or I take it as read that the story I have to tell is going to be told to the best of my ability. I don’t mind if it resolves itself or not. But the characters must be characters with which my readers can identify, not necessarily positively, but they must be recogniseably human. The thematic concerns of the narrative must be something that I find timeless, because I don’t know how long the novel is going to take to complete, and I may have to live with it for several years.
      And my metaphors, particularly the central metaphor (Dance in Winged with Death) must be something that fits exactly, and is specific, and is true.
      There are still some publishers around who will take the kind of novel I want to write. Obviously, Flambard have just published my novel. But my own path has diverted considerably from the path of main-stream publishing, so much so that until something changes I cannot see us doing much business together.

  7. Lily, Thanks for hosting this leg of the tour. I’ll come back frequently in case others want to contribute. But you should know it was a good experience for me to be here, and others who looked in on the conversation but didn’t comment have visited my own blog and there are, well, ripples still happening that may not be apparent here.
    Tomorrow, Friday, the host will be Donigan Merritt, a novelist currently based in Buenos Aires, and who was in Montevideo just a week ago. I don’t know what his tango is like, but at least he knows the terrain. Could be interesting.
    Thanks again for your hospitality.

    • John, it’s been lovely having you. I think this question of how to write what one likes and sitll reach people is so important. Thank you for giving us your insight.

      And thank you too Kate and Litlove for your questions and welcome David Swinson! I spent a lot of time reading your blog yesterday and find myself thinking today about some of the people you describe — the man in orange and coach, in particular. I look forward to reading your first book, so please do let me know when it comes out.

  8. David,
    I missed your comment, getting myself tangled up in the threaded comments, etc.
    But thanks for your remarks. If I have managed to inspire you any way, then I’m happy to have done it.
    I’d be interested to see your book when it’s published, so do please let me know.

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