Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Tending the Fruits of Fyodor’s Garden

We have now taken the opportunity to interview English author Roger (or “R.N.”) Morris on three separate occasions. The first time, my wife, Daniela, and I invited him to come to Italy and speak about his work at 2008’s Trevi Noir Festival. That wasn’t long after the publication of The Gentle Axe, Morris’ first novel featuring mid-19th-century Russian detective Porfiry Petrovich (a character originally created by Fyodor Dostoevsky for Crime and Punishment). Axe had garnered some excellent reviews, and we wanted to meet its author. As it happened, that was the first time Morris and his wife, Rachel, had visited the Umbria region, and afterward they decided to come back with their children for a summer holiday in 2009. On that second occasion, Daniela, Roger, and I discussed historical crime fiction (and the second Porfiry novel, A Vengeful Longing) before an enthusiastic audience on a roasting-hot August afternoon in Perugia.

The reader should be warned, perhaps, that we have since become friends. We’re scheduled to meet with Morris yet again on July 15 during Bodies in the Bookshop, the annual get-together of enthusiastic readers and dozens of crime writers, organized by bookseller Richard Reynolds at Heffers Bookshop, in Cambridge, England.

Still, as I began reading Morris’ third and newest Porfiry mystery, A Razor Wrapped in Silk, which was released in Britain this spring (and has no U.S. publication date as of this writing), I realized that a great deal remained to be said. It took little prompting to convince the author to answer a few questions about how he operates within Dostoevsky’s fictional world, how he develops his plots, and his literary explorations across class boundaries in the Porfiry tales.

Michael Gregorio: A Razor Wrapped in Silk--that’s a really great title, Roger. Alliterative, and very seductive. Swishy, like a flashing cut-throat razor blade. Where did it come from? Did you write the story, then search for a title, or was the story somehow inspired by the phrase?

R.N. Morris: The title is a phrase in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot. It occurs in a letter written by the complex and troubled Nastasya Fillipovna. The context is quite complicated and I can’t really begin to explain it. Basically, she’s shacked up with this guy Rogozhin, of whom she writes: “I am convinced that hidden in his drawer is a razor, wrapped in silk, like that murderer in Moscow; he too lived in the same house with his mother and had wrapped a razor in silk to cut a throat with.” When I read that I just knew that I had to write a novel called A Razor Wrapped in Silk. I hope the book lives up to the title! Rogozhin does, indeed, fulfill the role she seems to be urging on him, and he becomes her murderer.

MG: Has your “purloining” of it added to, or detracted from, Dostoevsky’s intentions?

RNM: Ha! Good question. Whenever I go back to Dostoevsky, I’m struck by how much more complex, rich, and profound his books are than mine! This is one such case. His psychological depth and insight is breathtaking. But I hope my purloining hasn’t detracted from his intentions. His work still stands, obviously, independent of mine. I’m like a literary flea on a great beast’s back. The great beast continues undeterred. Our intentions are very different. I can say that. Mine are simply to create entertaining mystery stories. That’s hard enough for me!

MG: I find your endless “tweaking” of Dostoevsky fascinating. Whenever I come across a new name in one of your novels, I consult the Web immediately to see if the person mentioned already has a “prior” role or character in the Dostoevsky literature, or whether he or she is a “Morrisonian” invention. I’m thinking particularly about the origin and the names (and your elaboration of the personalities) of secondary characters such as Ratazyayev, Bykov, Bakmutov. I suppose I’m asking how constant and consistent you are in referring everything back to Dostoevsky’s work.

RNM: I take pretty much all my surnames from Dostoevsky. But they are not, generally, meant to be the same characters; the great exception being Porfiry Petrovich himself, of course. Actually, his surname is not given in Crime and Punishment, though I make a guess at it in A Razor Wrapped in Silk. (Petrovich is not his surname--it’s his patronymic.) There is a character in Crime and Punishment who is described as Porfiry’s cousin, so I made a leap, with the encouragement of a Russian émigré writer called Mark Budman, and imagined them being cousins on their fathers’ side. That would mean they’d have the same surname. I shall leave it to readers to go back to Dostoevsky, or read A Razor Wrapped in Silk, to discover which character I’m talking about.

MG: Book by book, I admire the central figure of Porfiry Petrovich more and more. He appeared fleetingly in Crime and Punishment, though I think of him now as your detective. After all, you have allowed him to solve crimes, while Dostoevsky was not so generous. It isn’t simply the fact that Porfiry has filled out as a character from the original Dostoevsky sketch, but he now has a personality and a range of quirks and tastes that he never had before. How did this persona evolve? Is he now the property of Roger Morris, or does he still owe something to his original?

RNM: That’s very flattering, Mike. Of course he owes a lot to his original. He’s certainly not my property! The fact is that I couldn’t attempt to write my own books by constantly referring back to some template of a character that I had consciously extrapolated from the original novel. I think I did start writing the first book with such a template in mind. I’d homed in on a couple of passages in Crime and Punishment which I felt were particularly suggestive and I used them as the foundations for a character construction. But I had to let him come alive in my imagination, which meant, necessarily, that he would depart from the original in some way. And the more he came to life, the less able I was to control what he turned into. I can’t say exactly how he evolved, he just did.

MG: How difficult for you as a writer is this grafting-on to characters which have already been outlined? It seems to me a bit like the cut-outs used by busy artists during the Renaissance, such as the Perugino workshop, for instance; the basic form or “stereotype” was laid down by an apprentice, while the “character” was created within that bare outline by the great artist himself, who painted in the features, faces and expressions, employing colors and nuances which differed every time.

RNM: I like that analogy, although it doesn’t quite work. In this case, Dostoevsky is the master and I am the apprentice. I found it difficult to begin with, very stressful, because I felt this great weight of responsibility. It was as if Dostoevsky was looking constantly over my shoulder, or, if not him, the army of purists who have taken it upon themselves to police and protect his literary heritage. But then I had to tell myself that I was not engaged in some kind of academic exercise. I was trying to write crime novels. I had to do what was necessary to make them work, on their own terms, and to the best of my ability. The more I was able to relax, the easier it was and--I think--the better the result.

MG: As a consequence of this re-working, does plotting come about within the limits of given characters like Porfiry or [Pavel Pavlovich] Virginsky, his assistant? Or have they expanded and developed because of the stories in which you have chosen to involve them?

RNM: My God, you do ask good questions! But good questions are difficult to answer. I think that there are almost two stories running concurrently in a murder-mystery novel. One is the story of the particular investigation, and how the mystery unfolds, which largely concerns a set of characters external to the central characters of the detective and his associates. This first story is the story of the victim and the murderer--or victims, if he is a prolific killer. The second story is that of the investigators, and is really the story of how the crimes they are looking into impact on them. I think what’s interesting is when you have thematic overlaps between the two stories--it’s essential, really. Of course, the detective cannot but be affected by what he uncovers.

So to answer your question, I would say the answer is probably the latter.

MG: Looking back on the first three Porfiry novels, and looking forward to the fourth, which you have now consigned to [publisher] Faber and Faber, how satisfied are you with what you have achieved? In A Razor Wrapped in Silk, for example, you move effortlessly between the high and low “worlds” of St. Petersburg, between notables who mix socially with the Tsar and the court, those who serve in the army, and those who work in treadmill factories and grinding poverty. Can we expect to see other Russian “worlds” in the next Porfiry investigation?

RNM: Thank you for that “effortlessly”! I think there’s something about the writer’s temperament--this writer’s temperament, at least--that makes us focus more on our reasons for dissatisfaction. But when I think back to the first meeting I had with my editor, I feel that I have come a very long way. Actually, at that meeting, he wasn’t yet my editor. It was kind of an interview, I think. Faber and Faber were sounding me out. One thing they wanted to clarify was whether I would be interested in writing a series. At that point, I had just one completed manuscript. As it happened, I’d gone into the meeting with outlines prepared for three more books. My editor seemed very happy with this, of course. The following day I think it was, an offer came through for the first two books, with the promise of the other two to follow in the future. Then it struck me what a monumental task lay ahead of me. It was impossible, at that moment, for me to imagine getting to the other side of that writing mountain. But now I find myself in the strange position of having written all the books that I originally set out to write. I do feel a tremendous sense of satisfaction in that.

As for the other part of your question, about the next Porfiry book [The Cleansing Flames], it is set against the milieu of pre-revolutionary politics. It’s about the intellectuals of the period, radical journalists, and revolutionary cells. It’s a slightly different kind of story to the other three. I think the setting is even more sharply focused. Virginsky comes a little more center-stage, and he is tested to the extreme. Also the ideological differences between Virginsky and Porfiry that have been touched upon in previous books come to a head and their relationship comes under strain. I won’t say any more than that, except I hope it’s an exciting read!

MG: Finally, it would be selling short A Razor Wrapped in Silk if we didn’t mention its outstanding literary quality. I love the way that you use language, Roger, especially the way that you manipulate it. The dark, delicious vein of humor underlying, for example, the deadly serious interrogation of the suave and evasive moneylender, [Ivan Iakovich] Bakmutov, is a lesson in composition. Daniela reckons it’s because you are a Classicist, while I believe that you have a taste for words, and enjoy the playfulness of argument. What’s your take on it? How hard do you have to work on dialogue to get it just right?

RNM: I think studying any foreign language does give you more acute consciousness of how language in general works, so Daniela may be onto something there. I sometimes wonder why I didn’t study English, like most other writers do. Some streak of perversity, I suppose. But I think having looked into the way Latin prose is put together, and Latin poetry too, it does give you a real sense of the flexibility and potential of your own language. (I was never very good at Greek!) My ideal in writing is to write in a way that is both precise and unexpected. That’s what I aim for. The unexpectedness does open the door to a certain playfulness, and possibly that comes through most in the dialogue. I try to have the characters say things that surprise the reader--sometimes they even surprise me, and possibly themselves! I enjoy writing dialogue, so I don’t really think of it as hard work. Sometimes it comes a little too easily, and then you have to be on the alert. Cutting back so that you prevent it becoming flabby is crucial.

Which may be as good a place as any to end this interview.

READ MORE:R.N. Morris on Switching from Thrillers to Arias” (Bookdagger); “CSI: St. Petersburg--The Historical Mysteries of R.N. Morris,” by J. Sydney Jones (Scene of the Crime).

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