An Interview by Ian Hocking
John Baker is a UK-based author. He’s been blogging since 2002, which makes him a chap with uncommon staying power. He has published nine novels, the latest of these being Winged with Death (Flambard), a story set in modern-day York and Montevideo of the early 1970s.
This is what Val McDermid has to say about John’s books:
His characters endear themselves to us, and we care what happens to them. The writing is always quirky, never flashy, and . . . he leaves us wanting more of an engaging crew who feel like friends by the end of the book.
John is doing a blog tour to promote his latest book, and I’m happy to host him on the proviso he submit to an interview.
Can you tell us a little about the background to your book?
Background. I’d written and published six novels in the Sam Turner series, based in York. Tough guy PI, good on character and dialogue but a little hackneyed on plot. I was writing about Turner in real time and he was getting old. I know there are things you can do about that to keep a series character in circulation. But I wanted to do something new with the writing, and I’m also getting older and less and less reluctant to play games and run literary tricks.
I wrote a couple of novels with Stone Lewis at the centre – these were based in Hull, a little more down at heel – and Stone was considerably younger than Sam Turner and he wasn’t a PI. I was hopeful for him. The boy could’ve done good.
But again there was a soft-centre to the novels; something quite unfashionable, it seems.
In a review of one of those novels, Ann Cleeves mentioned that I was writing about kindness. And she was right, there weren’t – and still aren’t – many people doing that.
It was clear also (after 8 books) that I wasn’t going to be the next big thing in the crime-fiction arena. This revelation (for me) coincided with a tightening up in the publishing world, the beginning of that process by which the mid-list writers would be weeded out and replaced by proven best-sellers and a proliferation of first-time novelists who were thought, for one reason or another, to be promotable.
Winged with Death was born into this environment. I consciously decided to write a narrative which would respond to my strengths as a writer, to ignore any genre conventions or considerations, and to write only for myself. My immediate requirement was to experiment with a first-person narrative, something I had never attempted before in novel form.
Once I found the narrator’s voice I could begin the process of wedding together the thematic contents. These, initially, consisted of time – I wanted to write a novel about time – of dance and of revolution. With these ideas I felt I could begin to write. A dream gave me Montevideo – a place which had recently experienced revolution, or at least a revolutionary situation, and which, coincidentally was based on the River Plate, the birth-place of the tango.
You mention an increasing desire to run literary tricks1. Which tricks did you employ in the new novel? Were some more successful than others?
Freudian slip there, maybe. What I meant to say was that I am more reluctant to play literary tricks. My aim was a clean rather than a tricksy narrative. I wanted the narrator to tell it how he sees it, both from a distance (Montevideo) and close at hand (York); bearing in mind that both memory and everyday experience, in different ways, are veiled for us.
It isn’t a trick, but Eliot is always there to remind us that all time is eternally present. And his concept of historical sense is, of necessity, present in some form in all creative writing. That being the case my novel references several long-dead writers, including figures like Scott-Fitzgerald and Faulkner, writers who have wormed their way into the crevices of my consciousness. I’m not going to name them all, or point out where they are referenced in the novel, and neither are the included references some kind of quiz. But the reader is supposed to glimpse them, often through, again, some kind of veil. They are more like grounding elements within the text. Markers, if you like, which point to where we may have been and the steps by which we have arrived at wherever it is we are now.
And something else, which also is not a trick, but something that all writers must constantly be reminded of, or that they must remind themselves about. And that is to trust the reader. Not to give the reader too much, either too much information, or too much description, or too much emotion. What the reader is waiting for from a text, is the stillness, the silence within it. What the text has to provide is just enough information, just enough clues for the reader to engage his/her own imagination. And no more than that.
So the narrative must include space, holes, gaps into which the reader can diappear. If that’s a trick, then I’m guilty.
You mention Scott-Fitzgerald and Faulkner. Is there an author who you could point to as the single greatest influence on the way you write?
I suppose Scott-Fitzgerald and Faulkner were both important. But I read widely from an early age and was impressed by many writers from all over the world. I devoured Zola and Maupassant as a teenager, and all those wicked (but Droll) priests and monks in Balzac. I loved the Russians too; Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov (still read those short stories now) and Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Mayakovsky and Yevtushenko. I discovered Isaac Bashevis Singer at a young age and read just about everything he published in his life.
Later came Knutt Hamsun, (who actually taught all of us to write) and Ibsen, and Strindberg.
Mark Twain carried over from my childhood into adulthood, and I think he’s the only one I couldn’t leave behind (maybe Robert Louis Stevenson as well?), and Huckleberry Finn is still, I believe, one of the most important novels I’ve read.
Later still there was Tennessee Williams, Erskine Caldwell, and there is still Carson McCullers, Joseph Roth, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Edward Fitzgerald’s translations of Omar Khyaam.
Along the way I brushed up against, fell in and out of love with, DH Lawrence, Dickens, Coetzee, Swift, le Carre, Orwell, Carol Shields, Larkin, Jean Rhys, Hardy, Willa Cather, Andrew Marvell, Beckett and Forster and Gragham Greene.
These and dozens of others, no doubt, left their imprints on my soul. But you only asked for one. It would have to be Hemingway, I’m afraid.
Afraid because I don’t read him these days. Not at all. I tried something a couple of years ago and couldn’t get on with it at all. Far too macho. All those terrible assumptions. We really wouldn’t have got on.
But during the formative time, for me, when I was learning the tricks of the trade it was Hemingway who told it as it was. It was as if he was talking directly at me. I could do no other but gobble up his style, his economy, his adventuresness with the language; how he could make it fit whatever it was he was trying to express. Deceptive, I know, and knew then, because behind the easy-going feel of his narratives I could hear an ocean of hard work – and, finally, he was an inspiration, able to reach out and make me sit in front of a an empty page and sweat.
Best of luck to John with his book. If you prefer to read with your ears, you can listen to John talk to Sarah Waters of the Yorkshire Post about Winged with Death, too. And check out John’s website.