An Interview with John Baker

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by Kathleen














This interview is part of John Baker’s Virtual Tour for his wonderful new novel, “Winged With Death.” To get a better feel for the tour, check out his blog.

John Baker’s previous books include “Shooting in the Dark,” “The Meanest Flood,” and “The Chinese Girl.” His first novels were a popular six book-series starring Sam Turner as detective. “Winged With Death,” he has said, is a departure for him. While the novel involves countless crimes, it’s not a traditional crime novel but a riveting story combining Uruguay in the 1970s and York, England in the approximate present.



John, how did you research this book and how did it fit into the process of writing the novel?

The research with regard to Montevideo took a long time. I read every book I could find on the subject. Academic works, political works, biographies, histories. All in all I suppose it took me the best part of a year. And at the end of it I was still unsatisfied. I then began to make contacts in Montevideo and people who had lived through that time and were now widespread, many of them no longer living in Uruguay at all.

It is quite difficult to assess how the research about a time and a place fits into the process of writing a novel. But, for example, it is impossible to write character convincingly without hearing time and place behind the voice of that character. Take the Yorkshire moors away from Heathcliffe and you end up with a different man.

I was committed to Montevideo a long time before I knew who would people “Winged with Death, ” but the characters who eventually form the core of the story would never have been born without my own particular knowledge of the city during that period of time.

You’ve mentioned it’s your first novel written in the first person. Did you and Ramon form a bond that’s different from when you write in the third person?

The main difference between first and third person narration is that the former method dictates that everything must be filtered through the perception of the narrator. In third person point-of-view the writer has more freedom, and is not even tied to a single narrator. I’m not sure about the ‘bond’; because for much of the time I felt I could be quite objective about Ramon. I never suspected he was me. On the other hand, of course, he could never be completely free of me.

I am reminded of Nabokov’s: “My characters are galley slaves. And, simultaneously, Flaubert's reply when he was asked who was his model for Emma Bovary: “Emma, c’est moi.” (Emma, that’s me.)

Perhaps the writer is not best qualified to answer this question?

Ramon’s story came to me piecemeal. It was fed to me one word at a time as I wrote the novel. In the very beginning I was concerned only to achieve an authentic voice, a beguiling voice. I was interested in discovering where he came from and what was his destiny, but I never let that get ahead of the writing. I was aware of his influences and I was aware of the changes that his life had brought to him. I liked him and he always had the ability to invoke compassion in me.
In a recent review he is compared to Camus’ “Meursault in L’Étranger,” someone who drifts, almost free of personal will. And while I can see this in his character now, it has only come clear to me with distance. At the time of writing, when my involvement with him was close, I saw his passion and his will up close.

Perhaps he is a paradox like the rest of us?



I found the descriptions of the tango so sensual and yet as Candide says, almost a kind of “esoteric religion.” Do you tango? Is it a real-life passion of yours or did you imagine it as specific to Ramon?

I have always danced. I always think it is a pity that we all dance as children, and then as adulthood gobbles us up many of us decide to stop dancing altogether. I can’t help it; when I hear music I begin immediately to move differently.

I’ve danced tango for about ten years. I’m not a great dancer; what I do is called social dance. It’s about connecting with a partner and moving together. It’s exciting, exhilarating when it works.

The religious thing is what religious people do with it, or with anything. By religious people I mean those who can’t believe in god and instead latch onto some social programme or a dance or a sport or start collecting stamps with a vengeance. You know who I mean.

For a long time I have wanted to use dance as a metaphor, but the possibility only arose in this book. I suppose the setting made it possible; once I had Montevideo as a subject the tango could take to the floor.

The balance between ideas and plot, or action, in the book is exquisite. It impressed me especially because many novels I read that attempt to show a character’s intellectual life offer a choppy or lopsided story. Why do you think others have so much trouble integrating the two?

You don’t ask an easy question, Kathleen. My first reaction is to state that I am interested in ideas. All of my novels have been about ideas.

I wasn’t aware that others have trouble integrating plot and idea. But if they do I can only imagine that it is because of a basic misunderstanding of the idea of tension in a novel. Or perhaps a disregard for tension altogether?

Tension comes about when the reader identifies with the position of a character in jeopardy. But in a novel it is quite important to fuse ideas with an element of tension.

I can’t find the reference to this story, but if some aspect of it is wrong, I hope one of your readers puts me right. Graham Greene was asked by a writing student if he could write a scene on a train where two men discuss the Christianity of Kierkegaard.

Greene said yes, it was possible to write about anything, but the key was in finding the way to do it. In this case the discussion of ideas would work fine as long as there was a bomb planted under the seat of the railway carriage.


Other than the all-time greats, which writers do you enjoy, especially contemporary writers whose “greatness” is yet to be determined?

I read critically these days. I enjoy the all-time greats best and would always go for these over a contemporary writer. Sorry, but that's how it is. However I do read contemporary writers.

These are the last dozen novels I read:

Borderliners by Peter Høeg
Runaway by Alice Munro
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
A Lost Lady by Willa Cather
Dancing for the Hangman by Martin Edwards
The Mortgaged Heart by Carson McCullers
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro
The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell
My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Crow Lake by Mary Lawson

Thanks for your time, John, and good luck with the tour.

6 comments:

Dan Leo said...

Definitely sounds intriguing! Just the concept of translating the reality of dance into words...mind-boggling.

john baker said...

Dan, your comment brought this to mind, from Federico Garcia Lorca:
"The duende works on the body of the dancer like the wind works on sand. With magical force, it converts a young girl into a lunar paralytic; or fills with adolescent blushes a ragged old man begging handouts in the wineshops; or suddenly discovers the smell of nocturnal ports in a head of hair, and moment for moment, works on the arms with an expressiveness which is the mother of the dance of all ages."

Dan Leo said...

Ah, and this is why we have poets! What a beautiful sentence from Garcia Lorca. Makes me want not only to check out your novel but to go back and re-read all of Borges (or at least to revisit "Last Tango in Paris")...

John Baker said...

Choices, eh, Dan? Borges sounds like the best bet, but if you ever get around to my book it would be good to hear your reactions.

Sun Singer said...

Your comment about your understanding of Montevideo being a prerequisite to creating the characters gets into a concept I wish more writers would consider. There's such a difference between books where the characters and place are only randomly connected and those in which the characters truly belong where the author has found them. Nice interview with hard questions and deep answers.

Malcolm

john baker said...

Thanks for that, Malcolm. Place is so much a part of character.
Place in a geographical sense is not important in music or in poetry. In a poem a sense of setting or atmosphere can be created out of verbal texture, but when we turn to the first page of a novel we have one over-riding question: ‘Where am I?’ We need to identify the setting of the action because the setting, the place in which the action is set is always a point of discovery.
In our day to day lives our immediate environment is the place in which we shall discover other people. And those other people will mirror us and in a very real sense help us to discover ourselves. But the town or city or area in which we live is also inextricably a part of our being. The land itself, the kind of weather it attracts, its climate and the fruits that are cultivated there are not accidentals. Not in a rational sense but in a subjective sense the land knows that you are there and it is only human arrogance that allows us to consider that we occupy the land, but at the same time fail to see that the land also occupies us.