Tuesday, March 19, 2013

From Travel Writing to Torment Making

Earlier today, Kirkus Reviews posted the first portion of my recent interview with British crime and thriller novelist Robert Wilson, whose Capital Punishment--the opening installment in a new series--will be officially released in the United States next week. (It has been on sale in the UK since January.) You can enjoy that piece here.

Asking questions of Wilson, via e-mail, was a tremendous privilege for me. Although I have somehow never gotten around to reading his earliest three novels, all of which featured West African “fixer” Bruce Medway, I have relished Wilson’s subsequent eight books, beginning my explorations with A Small Death in Lisbon (1999). That was a propulsive, haunting tale that offered parallel stories: one set during World War II and focusing on a German industrialist who’s sent to Lisbon, Portugal, by the Nazi SS to corner the market on wolfram, a mineral used in the manufacturing of munitions; and a second narrative thread that follows the modern murder of a not-so-innocent teenage girl, investigated by Inspector José “Zé” Coelho, whose delving into the deceased’s past sparks resistance from his supervisors at the same time as it reveals a family’s longstanding heritage of secrets.

Wilson followed Small Death with an espionage novel titled The Company of Strangers (2001), and then produced The Blind Man of Seville, which brought readers into the company of Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón, the originally troubled commander of the homicide division at Seville, Spain’s police department. I added Blind Man to January Magazine’s “Best Books of 2003” selection and went on to read its three sequels, concluding with The Ignorance of Blood (2009). Last year, those four novels were adapted as a short-run UK television series, appropriately titled Falcón.

Now, in Capital Punishment, the author debuts his third series protagonist, a British ex-homicide cop-turned-“freelance kidnap consultant” named Charles Boxer. This book finds Boxer and his quondam inamorata, London police detective Mercy Danquah, hunting for Alyshia D’Cruz, the fetching 25-year-old daughter of a crooked but influential Indian businessman, who has vanished in London after a night out on the town. What’s most worrisome about this “snatch” is that Alyshia’s mysterious abductors don’t seem all that interested in monetary gain; instead, their goal appears to be psychological intimidation, with perhaps a hint of revenge on the side. Just when Boxer thinks he might finally be getting a good sense of the kidnappers, Alyshia suddenly falls into the clutches of two other, less-experienced captors, who become targets not just for Boxer and assorted law-enforcement types, but also for foreign criminals with much more dangerous agendas than kidnapping.

Boxer is a tightly wound and captivating loner, a man whose professional ethics can be fluid (for instance, he compromises his goals here by engaging in an affair with Alyshia’s mother, and he isn’t above the occasional clandestine killing of “bad people”), and whose relationships with Danquah and the headstrong teenage daughter they share promise to undermine whatever semblance of a settled life he may think he’s achieved. This is a character well equipped to carry a series. Capital Punishment’s sequel is due out in 2014.

(Left) Robert Wilson, photographed by Gabriel Pecot

Wilson and his wife of 27 years, Jane, moved to Portugal in 1989. Two years later, they purchased “a ruined farmhouse” in the south-central part of the country and went about restoring it. Nowadays, Wilson--who will celebrate his 56th birthday this coming Saturday, March 23--splits his year between Portugal and England. He generously carved a good few hours out of his work schedule to answer my questions about how he became a writer, his literary influences, his various characters, his thoughts on Spain and Portugal, and the future of his Boxer series. I could only use a small segment of that conversation in Kirkus; the larger part is presented below.

J. Kingston Pierce: Is it true that the first time you thought about becoming a writer was during your teenage years? Was there something in particular that led to you interest?

Robert Wilson: We were asked to compose a poem for a double English class--to write it in the first half and then read it out in the second. I was known as a sportsman, not a writer. So when I volunteered to be the first to read out my piece, which was a love poem, a coming-of-age poem, there was a lot of jeering from my classmates until I started reading. The silence was immediate and profound and continued for a minute after I’d finished, until the English teacher said: “That was really very good.” It was the quality of that silence that made me want to become a writer. It just took another 20 years to work out what to write.

JKP: After graduating from Oxford University, you took jobs with a shipping company and an advertising agency; later, you worked for somebody who built public works in Ghana, West Africa. How many other positions did you take before you realized that a career writing fiction was really the right fit for you? And why did it take so long for you to make that decision?

RW: Yes, I took a degree in English language and literature at Oxford. I got my first job through a friend at another college, who was studying Modern Greek and was working in Athens. His name is Paul Johnston and he also became a crime writer, and he also did a stint in shipping. Bizarre parallel lives. I ran an archeological tour company on the island of Crete for a year, during which time my father died, which had a big impact on my life. Before I left for Greece we’d just had our first proper adult conversation in which he told me what he’d done in the war. He was a bomber pilot flying missions from North Africa over Italy and the oil fields in Romania. He’d joined when he was 18, trained in the USA, instructed for a year, and then flew for three years at a time when the survival rate for bomber pilots was very poor. He was visibly distressed when talking about it, something that I’d never associated with him. He was always the great raconteur, the life and soul of a party. It shook me to see him struggling to relate his experiences and it drew me closer to him. So when he died before I could get back to even speak to him on his deathbed, it left me bereft. This is probably why one of the common themes in my books is “absent fathers.”

I decided to stay in the UK to be closer to my mother after my father’s death. So I took the first job I could find in London with a shipbroker. I knew nothing about shipping, but I learnt about it all through working in the legal and demurrage department before graduating to become a broker. After three years they wanted me to open a U.S. office in Houston, in Texas, but I had already tired of the work by then and decided to go cycling around Spain and Portugal instead--and that was the start of a lifelong love affair not just with Iberia but with my wife, Jane. I returned from there to work in an advertising agency where my sister was employed. They wanted to start a video production company and knew nothing about it, so I started that for them and wrote a sales training video for some ex-IBM execs who had moved into that world. I remember sitting with the actors at the read-through and one of them said: “Hey, this is different. This dialogue is actually good and there are jokes.” The video business didn’t last, as bigger players moved in and I became the managing director of the agency.

By this time I was married to Jane and we’d decided to go on a big trip to Africa for a year. So I ran away again and drove a VW van through the Sahara, around West Africa, and then across the mud holes of Zaire to Kenya. We came back from that trip and worked to pay off our debts and then realized that we needed to get out of London, which was when we moved to Portugal.

We lived just outside Lisbon for a year, and I wrote travel stories and started a couple of novels before going to Ghana to set up a sheanut-exporting business. Sheanut grows wild in the northern part of those West African states. Its butter is used as a substitute for cocoa butter in the making of chocolate. I did a couple of six-month contracts in the following years, one in Accra, Ghana, and the second in Cotonou, Benin, but I was traveling all over West Africa and learning a lot about how those countries worked.

In between those two jobs, I went on holiday with some old friends, one of whom was married to a screenwriter, who was writing some crime novels at the time. He read my travel stories and thought they would make great crime scenarios, and that was when I started writing my first two Bruce Medway novels.

JKP: So you gave up plans to become a travel journalist?

RW: I had always assumed, after my travel experiences, that I would be a travel writer. However, no sooner had I decided that than the travel-writing genre collapsed. After an era, which had seen great writers such as Wilfred Thesiger, Eric Newby, and Redmond O’Hanlon, suddenly nobody was interested in travel writing and it died until it was revived in different form by Bill Bryson a decade later. I was lucky to meet my screenwriting friend who pointed me in the direction of crime by recommending the classics like Raymond Chandler and the more contemporary James Lee Burke and Elmore Leonard. Those writers were a revelation to me. I had been brought up on Agatha Christie, Alistair MacLean, and Hammond Innes and had given up on them when I was about 11. So to read writers that appealed to my adult sensibilities was very exciting. I had the scenarios and the characters and, after my African experiences, I had the perfect platform to develop a unique noir style, which I called Afrique Noir.

JKP: Your first four novels featured Bruce Medway, a “fixer” and investigator in West Africa. For people who haven’t read them (yet), how would you characterize those books? And why was Medway an ideal protagonist for those stories?

RW: Those African novels are written in the noir style, first-person singular, with the world seen through the eyes of Bruce Medway, an Englishman who’s crossed the desert on a travel adventure and ended up in West Africa trying to find a way to make a living. In the Sahara he was rescued at one point by a Berliner, called Heike, who has become his girlfriend. She has found employment in an aid agency, an NGO [non-governmental organization], while Bruce is toughing it out with the lowlifes who are only ever an elbow away in any bar you’d care to enter. The “hero,” Bruce, has a dangerous fascination with oddballs and hoodlums and finds it easy and even, at times, enjoyable to get into trouble. He gets corrective treatment from Heike, but also a Beninois detective called Bagado, who is a man of unimpeachable moral probity. Bruce Medway, as well as being morally ambiguous, was also a great vehicle for humor and the books are powerfully descriptive of West Africa, which in some ways is not so far from 1940s California. They are most successful with people who’ve lived in Africa and, interestingly, American readers who have a deep understanding and affinity for noir.

JKP: Indeed, the Medway yarns are quite Chandleresque, making clear your affinity for the creator of Philip Marlowe.

RW: The books were definitely inspired by my reading of Chandler and Leonard, the two greatest exponents of classic and a more contemporary noir. Both of them are phenomenal writers, who have inspired many crime writers before me. I could never find a way of developing a believable noir voice in an English setting, possibly something to do with place names (Acacia Avenue in Canterbury?), so the African scenario was crucial and it allowed me to develop my own voice whilst paying homage to Chandler and Leonard.

JKP: My first experience with your writing came in 1999 with the publication of A Small Death in Lisbon, about the demise of a young girl in modern Portugal and Nazi machinations in the same country during World War II. That book went on to win the Crime Writers’ Association’s Gold Dagger Award. What motivated your move from the Medway series to this first standalone?

RW: I’d always assumed that people would be as fascinated by foreign travel as I was, and if they weren’t they would be spellbound by reading the experience of others through a well-written crime novel. That was not the case with my UK audience, who found the African setting and voice of the books too alien.

By then I’d been living in Portugal for about 10 years and the English have always had an affinity with the Portuguese. We have the longest-standing treaty in history (dating to 1386), and the English have always had a yearning for the sun-soaked beaches of the southern region of the Algarve. It seemed more likely that they would respond to something set in Portugal than they would to the African scenario--and especially the grittier side of Africa I’d been writing about. It was interesting to see Alexander McCall Smith some years later winning readers with his gentler books about life in Botswana.

JKP: Did you think, going into it, that Small Death might be your “break-out book”?

RW: No. It was an enormous amount of work. My publisher had given me a delivery date in the contract, but later admitted that if I didn’t finish it by September 1998 it would not get published until the year 2000. I had a year to research and write the book, which was a massive undertaking and it wiped me out. The last thing I was thinking through all this was whether it was going to be a “break-out” book. I just wanted to get the damn thing finished. When it came out, nobody thought it was going to be a break-out book either. HarperCollins were stunned when it won the Gold Dagger. The managing director of the time said: “Who is this guy?” There were no books available when I won the Dagger because everybody had assumed that Val McDermid’s book, A Place of Execution, was going to win. What it did do was break me into the U.S. market and launch me into my European markets, where the book has always been successful.

JKP: Am I correct that part of the inspiration for Small Death was a small guidebook you put together about south-central Portugal’s Alentejo region in the mid-1990s?

RW: Doing the guidebook gave me an insight into the historical background and an idea of what the local people had endured under the [António] Salazar regime. But what inspired me to have a look at this era was all the journalism being written about Nazi gold at the time. I knew some of that gold had ended up in Brazil, having come through Spain and Portugal, and I was sniffing around that end of things when my wife came across some research about Portugal’s gold reserves, which had gone up seven fold during World War II by selling wolfram. We had no idea what wolfram was. Some more reading told us that it was a mineral used as an alloy for hardening steel to make tank armor and armor-piercing shells. When the Nazis had invaded Russia they’d cut themselves off from the world’s largest supplier of wolfram--China. The next biggest supplier closer to home was Portugal. When I read that I knew I had the hook for my story.

JKP: Don’t you still reside part of each year in the Alentejo? Put your travel-writing hat back on for just a moment and tell me what makes that area so special.

RW: Yes, we still do half and half between England and the Alentejo. I’ve always loved writing in our farmhouse up in the hills in the rolling countryside a couple of hours east of Lisbon. The initial attraction was to the tranquility and the space. Traditionally it is a farming community where the old Roman latifundios, consisting of farms with vast tracts of land, supplied Rome with wheat at the height of their empire. Now it has become primarily sheep, beef cattle, and pig country, although the Dutch have brought dairy cattle to the area in the last 20 years. What drew me to the area was how much it reminded me of Africa. The heat and the gently rolling terrain with pasture dotted with cork oaks made it reminiscent of parts of the African savannah with its thorn trees. There is also something biblical about it at times, with clusters of whitewashed villages at the foot of hill forts surrounded by the verde gris of endless olive groves. The people are very accepting of foreigners, too, and it has the best cuisine in Portugal, with excellent slow-cooked lamb, superb marinated pork dishes, and a long tradition in chorizos and cured ham. There’s nothing much to do except walk, drink some of the most outstanding red wine in southern Europe, eat well and, of course, write.

JKP: You’ve now penned a couple of standalones--A Small Death in Lisbon and The Company of Strangers (2001). But you seem much more comfortable writing crime/thriller series. Is that the case?

RW: The standalones were standalones because they didn’t lend themselves to further development very easily. It would have been difficult to find as big a story for Zé Coelho to follow A Small Death in Lisbon, and there was nowhere else to go at the end of The Company of Strangers. The series books were conceived as series. Not that I knew every story before I put pen to paper, but rather I had the psychological arc of the main character mapped out in my mind. Having done four police procedurals set in Seville with Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón, I needed a new challenge and Charles Boxer, kidnap consultant and finder of missing people, offered me a new way of investigating the psychological make up of a more dangerous character. I like the series novels because you can go deeper into character, not just of your protagonist, but also the supporting cast as well.

JKP: 2003 brought the publication of The Blind Man of Seville, introducing Inspector Jefe Javier Falcón. What were you hoping to accomplish as a storyteller with that novel?

RW: The main aim was to write a psychological thriller with psychology in it, where the reader was as concerned about the inner state of the character as he was by the story. I wanted to write a crime novel that didn’t just deliver an investigation and a solution but also demonstrated how dependent our inner workings are on relationships and especially familial relationships. I knew from the beginning where Javier Falcón was and where he was going to. I had always been frustrated by series characters who never seemed to change and I determined that Javier would be a different man by the end of Book Four. There are good reasons why series detectives don’t change and that is because senior policemen tend to be middle-aged men who are not inclined to change. That was why I gave Javier this monumental psychological catastrophe to deal with in The Blind Man of Seville. It would be the only way in which a middle-aged man would be forced to develop. In looking at Javier in depth I also intended to show how important it is, not just as an individual, but also as a nation, to face your past, remembering the terrible civil war that Spain suffered in the 1930s. The rewards are great but the failure to [change] results in perpetual denial and an inability to progress.

JKP: Do you have a particular fondness for Seville, or for Spain, in general? Is that why you set your four Falcón novels in and around there, rather than in Portugal?

RW: I loved Spain from the moment I arrived on a bicycle in 1984. The first time I sat down in a restaurant and started chatting with a waiter I knew this was a great place. Once you start looking at the incredible creativity of the Spanish over the ages you just can’t help but admire them. I think all aspiring writers, or even artists, should go to Barcelona and take a walk around the works of [Antoni] Gaudí and then reassess their talent in that light. Spain is an amazing country and the Spanish are continuing a long line in explosive creativity.

The reason I chose Seville was because of its most obvious qualities. It is one of the most beautiful cities in Spain and the world. It is recognized as such by everyone. It has a very powerful image. Tourists flock to Seville not just because of its entrancing beauty, but also because of its people, who seem to have cracked the problem of the human condition. They love life. They love nothing better than to get out into the street, drink some beers, eat some tapas, dance, sing and clap hands, and it’s not just every now and then but all the time. This became the most powerful possible setting for examining that wonderful Shakespearean theme and the bedrock of crime fiction: appearance and reality. Anybody who has spent any time there will know that just below the surface of Seville it’s no different to anywhere else. They have the same social problems with domestic violence, drugs, and the related crime. There’s homelessness, joblessness, racial unease just as you’d expect in any big city. The perfect image belies a more uncomfortable reality. The reason I live in Portugal is that I like the Portuguese character. I feel very comfortable with them. They are more contemplative, less frenetic. The Spanish think the Portuguese are depressed. I call them melancholic but with a particular eye for the beauty that life has to offer.

JKP: In what recognizable ways must a work of fiction set in Spain differ from one set in Portugal?

RW: I’ve mentioned their character differences ... and these were demonstrated in their history, too. Despite similarities in their histories--both [countries] suffered lengthy occupation by the Moors between 711 and 1492, and even shared monarchs at various times--the Lusitanians, who look out towards the Atlantic, and the Iberians, who look both ways, to the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, couldn’t be more different. They even had dictators at more or less the same time in the 20th century and it was in this dimension that their essential character showed its difference. The way in which these two dictators gained power was an indicator.

(Right) Portugal’s António Salazar in Time, July 22, 1946

[Francisco] Franco, an army officer, used force and the extreme violence of the Army of Africa to bring the country under his control. There was a brutal civil war (1936-39), with which Americans are very familiar because of Ernest Hemingway’s work. The divisions of that civil war are still alive today. Every time a ruling prime minister tries bringing about some kind of reconciliation, normally by the uncovering of a mass grave on the outskirts of a village, he is met with powerful resistance and it never happens.

Salazar, an economics professor at Coimbra University, was given [the opportunity to run] Portugal, which in 1928 was in a terrible economic state ... Gradually over time he consolidated power and built an apparatus around him to maintain total control. He had an accident in 1968, which incapacitated him, and in 1974 disgruntled elements of the army, the Young Captains, who were unhappy fighting the colonial wars in Africa, staged a coup. There was resistance from the State, the secret police, and senior army officers, but through negotiation a bloody outcome was avoided. I think this is the crucial difference: the Spanish have a tendency towards aggression, while the Portuguese have an instinct for tolerance and compromise.

JKP: Acting the role of book critic for a moment, I have to say that I thought the first couple of Falcón novels were the most enthralling--in large part because they found your protagonist at his most troubled. Did you see any risk in allowing him firmer control over his life as the series progressed? Or did you, as his creator, need to set his life back on a steadier course before you could let loose of him as a character?

RW: Possibly this is the mistake I make as a writer, which is that I only ever consider the project when I’m writing my books and rarely the book market. As I said earlier, the one thing that was in place before I started the Falcón novels was the psychological development of the character. Falcón’s reward for facing the difficult truth about his family and past is firmer control over himself. I’ve always referred to him privately as “the hero of the inner life,” In the first two books he has discovered this deep humanity in himself, but there is still one dimension missing from The Hidden Assassins [2006], and that is his capacity to love again. Having taken responsibility for his involvement in the death of his mother, he finds there are obstacles he has to overcome in his love life. A Spanish film producer asked me what was the most important element of The Ignorance of Blood, the final book, and I told him that it was how Consuelo [Jiménez] and Javier find the way to reveal themselves to each other so that they can fall in love. He was surprised. He hadn’t expected that from a crime writer. He was possibly expecting an extraordinary plot twist and, yes, I did develop a tense situation in which Javier and Consuelo were able to do that, but it was provoked by integrity to the characters.

JKP: Your protagonists seem prone to angst, loneliness, and a sense of pointlessness. Have you found those characteristics among many law-enforcement types? And are they characteristics that you share?

RW: None of the law-enforcement types I have met have ever exhibited any of these characteristics. The real Inspector Jefe de Homocidios de Sevilla was a very grounded man with firm ideas about his approach to crime. After our first meeting in his office we always subsequently met in bars over beers. He was a family man, career-minded, and definitely not operating in any way at a dramatic level. I couldn’t have written a word about him. The only chink he showed me in any of those meetings was that I realized he was a man who always had to be right. But then you need that sort of self-confidence to lead a serious investigation. I would also disagree with you about pointlessness. Javier is only in danger of being overwhelmed by this in The Blind Man of Seville, and that is as a consequence of his failure to face up to his family horrors. Once he’s confronted them and come to terms with them and given himself the possibility of forming meaningful relationships, then the sense of pointlessness recedes.

Interestingly enough, I used to be a far happier person before I started writing. This incessant dwelling on my characters’ difficulties has left me prone to suffering angst and of course the nature of being a writer is to be lonely. It is something that can only be done alone. You have no recourse to colleagues. Nobody can offer you advice or help. All the problems you create are of your own making and only you can solve them. If you’re looking to be a happy, integrated member of society, then maybe writing is not the job to go for. So, in short, the fact that characters suffer from angst, loneliness, and a sense of pointlessness is more a reflection of the writer’s difficulties than the nature of law enforcement, which in my experience attracts a very different type of individual.

JKP: Others have made comparisons between your Inspector Zé Coelho, from A Small Death in Lisbon, and Javier Falcón: both men long for their lost wives, they both discover that past relationships are quite different than they’d seemed, etc. Were you conscious of such similarities at the time of your writing?

RW: I disagree. They are very different characters. For a start, they are both products of their countries’ very different histories. It’s true that they both go through similar journeys of peeling back the layers in order to discover that, but then that is the nature of storytelling. Zé Coelho finds it difficult, as many widowers do, to move on from the loss of his wife. His story is about him emerging from that acute state of loneliness. Javier Falcón has divorced Ines because he is psychologically paralyzed and unable to love her. He only thinks he longs for her, but the truth is later revealed to him. His loneliness stems from his inability to face up to his past and a terrible sense of responsibility he feels for his part in the deaths of his mother and stepmother. Even on a superficial level they are different. Zé Coelho loves his food and drink and is even partial to the occasional spliff. He also has a daughter, which adds a different dimension to his behavior. Javier Falcón only eats when he has to, has never been a drinker, and is shocked at himself when he resorts to alcohol to suppress his psychological angst. He never takes drugs. They are only similar in that they are unafraid to examine that which lies beneath the surface, but that is the nature of being a homicide detective.

JKP: Just as with the Medway books, you wrote four Falcón novels. Why did you stop there? And what did the Falcón books teach you, either about writing or yourself?

RW: I stopped there because I had achieved what I set out to do, to develop the complete psychological arc of a complex character who goes through a process of profound change. I had nothing more to add to him. I learnt a great deal about character development, about psychological motivations and probably a bit too much about the police procedural and Spanish justice system. I taught myself the history of Spain and realized that what I’d known about the country and its people up to that moment was just a snapshot in time. To really understand a people and a nation you have to look at their history, what they have suffered. I also realized that I was revealing the process of a writer, how we set about understanding character. In playing out the historical background and Falcón’s analysis at the hands of his blind psychologist, I was showing the inner workings of the writer’s trade. This is how to set about building character. And I suppose it was understanding that which led me to my next challenge: How could I set about revealing character
through pure story with little or no recourse to history or psychology?

(Right) Falcón TV Trailer, 2012

JKP: I have to ask about Sky Atlantic’s Falcón TV series of last year: Were you pleased with the results? Had you been at all consulted on how you thought your books should be translated for the small screen?

RW: I was happy to a certain extent. I thought the films looked great. Seville was ravishing and the feel of the movies was very different, unlike any cop show I’d ever seen, which was right. The performances were generally very good. I had been concerned that Hayley Atwell was too young to play Consuelo, but she really did a fantastic job on the part. My main difficulties came with the screenwriting. The first problem being that there wasn’t enough time. The stories were so compressed in order to fit into the 90 minutes available per book that it was difficult for viewers to understand what was happening and made it difficult to get really involved with the characters. Many people couldn’t understand why Falcón was so tormented; he was in Seville, for God’s sake, go and have a beer and a tapa and cheer up. I disliked the shorthand for Falcón’s psychological problems, which was represented in the television series by his drug-taking. That was too much of a cliché. I was vehemently against him being made into a murderer, too. That was a total desecration of the character. I was consulted on the screenplay but only up to the point when Sky took over. [Production company Mammoth Screen] were very good. They did everything in their power to maintain the integrity of the books, but it just wasn’t possible with the time and budgetary constraints, and with the demands from the major financier. Such is life in the film business ... a compromise, which rarely works out.

JKP: And were you satisfied with Marton Csokas in the title role?

RW: I thought Marton certainly looked the part. He was not my idea of Falcón, but he persuaded me that he was. I thought he pulled off that rather difficult trick of being appealing whilst tortured by his inner life. There were times when he didn’t quite convince me that he was a homicide cop leading an investigation, sometimes the drama in his back story got the better of him and he didn’t stamp his authority on a situation, but on the whole I think he did a very good job.

JKP: Are there any plans to bring Falcon to America?

RW: My agent tells me there has still been no U.S. sale, so it will not be aired across the pond for the moment. I say ‘for the moment,’ because Marton is currently co-starring in a U.S. drama [DirectTV’s Rogue, set to premiere in April], which, if it’s a success, might make Falcón saleable in the U.S. market. I think the only DVD on Amazon UK is PAL format, so no good for you NTSC guys.

JKP: As you see it, how is the character of Charles Boxer, in Capital Punishment, similar to your previous series protagonists?

RW: There is a similarity with Bruce Medway in that Boxer has an interest and attraction to the dark side. He has, however, gone several strides further than Bruce in embracing it. He also has an association with an African detective who is firmly in the camp of the good, but in Boxer’s case Mercy [Danquah], his ex-partner, is not close enough to be able to influence his behavior. He’s similar to Falcón in that his particular psychological flaw has developed as a result of an absent father. In Boxer’s case, it was because his father was wanted by the police for questioning in relation to the murder of his mother’s business partner. Unlike Falcón, whose father died leaving the horror behind, Boxer’s father had vanished leaving a terrible hole in the life of his, then, 7-year-old son.

JKP: All of your series leads are flawed in their own ways. Is Boxer more flawed than most, do you think?

RW: Boxer is more flawed in that he has taken some definite steps towards the dark side, but there are some complex issues around his reasons for being more decisive in engaging with it. He’s not a fool, nor is he mad. He knows what he is doing and he believes he has powerful motivations. Boxer and his father had been very close, whereas the relationship with his mother is distant. After his father absconded, Boxer was sent away to boarding school from which he’d escaped twice in two attempts to track down his father. The first time he got to Spain, the second time to West Africa. He never did find his father, but he returned from Ghana with Mercy, who he’d helped to run away from her disciplinarian father, and she has become an important figure in his life. They have a daughter together, Amy, but no longer live with each other. The teenage Amy has become a big problem and this has meant that Boxer has left his salaried job, as a kidnap consultant with one of the biggest private security companies in London, and gone freelance. This move has had a psychological effect on him as he is no longer in the company of like-minded colleagues who can provide a support mechanism. The result is that Boxer’s dark side has gained a foothold in his psyche, but he mitigates his behavior firstly by only “dealing with” bad guys, and secondly by using the money he earns from the “after-sales service” he now provides to finance a missing persons charity called LOST. The reader might think that Boxer understands his motivations, but as the series develops, questions arise in the readers’ mind. So he’s every bit as complex as Javier Falcón, but his psychological arc is very different.

JKP: Boxer, like Javier Falcón, has a father whose absence from his life is palpable and motivating. What is it with you and missing/betraying fathers?

RW: A father is as important to his son in a powerful but quite different way as a mother is to her daughter. A good father can give valuable direction to a son in terms of how he “sees” people and in the kind of moral code he develops in order to deal with the world. My own father, for instance, was very firm about prejudice. He impressed upon me at a young age that I had no right to judge people, that it didn’t matter what people looked like, what politics they believed in, or where they came from, they should be treated as equal. It gave me a very strong platform from which to operate.

As I said earlier, I had that first adult conversation with him and then he was gone, and it left me feeling particularly bereft, as if a great chunk had been taken out of my rudder. In order to cope with it I went into a state of denial, I tried not to exaggerate his importance to me. But over the years his importance has crept up on me, and I think about him more and more and admire him greatly. He was an air force officer and a sportsman and he knew nothing about the world I went into. He had never been to university and he was not particularly a reader. I told him I wanted to be a writer and I knew it worried him, but he never told me to forget it. He just told me to read the business pages of the newspaper, which I still do. I was giving a talk at Evora University in Portugal a few years back, and I’d prepared something about the experiences that made me into a writer and I started talking about the loss of my father and caught myself off guard. Even 30 years after the event, I found myself broadsided by the emotion and had to breathe it back down.

This is where I believe writing comes from. It doesn’t emanate from research or writing classes or a fascination with people and things. It emanates from an inner conflict, a great struggle to come to terms with the incomprehensible.

JKP: You take some care in naming your protagonists. You once said, for instance, that you chose the name Falcón “because the intention of the books was to be all about ‘seeing.’” Why did you give your man in Capital Punishment the name Boxer?

RW: I’ve always liked the name for a start. It’s both noble and pugnacious. The reason I called him Boxer is very simple: he is engaged in that most tremendous of struggles ... with himself.

JKP: Capital Punishment is a wild ride, to be sure, and I have no intention of giving away your story’s ending. But I will say that you leave the door open to further exploration of Boxer’s troubled parental relationship with Amy. Is that a large part of what the sequel to Capital Punishment will be about?

RW: Yes.

JKP: And do you have a title for this sequel?

RW: The title of the next book is the last line of Capital Punishment.

JKP: How many sequels to Capital Punishment can you see yourself writing? Is this going to be another case of “four and out”?

RW: It could be, but it is by no means certain.

JKP: After penning three series, can you see yourself going back to writing standalones? Have you had any specific ideas for such books?

RW: I had an idea for a China book set both in the modern day and the 1930s. I did a lot of work on it, but my agent advised me not to write about China just yet, as the interest in the scenario was still extremely limited. I didn’t believe him. I thought the 21st century was all about China. I conducted research and found that he was right. I suspect people are afraid of China. The Chinese are an unknown quantity and yet very powerful. There’s a tendency to put your head in the sand under those circumstances. That was one of the reasons why there was such a delay in the Boxer [novel] coming to market. The China book cost me a year’s work.

JKP: There’s been an explosion of crime fiction over the last three decades. What do think have been the favorable as well as the negative results of that?

RW: The Americans and the British had the market to themselves for the 20th century, and perhaps a bit of complacency leaked in because the Scandinavians got their foot in the door and levered it wide open, and so far this century has been theirs. Henning Mankell started it and Stieg Larsson has taken their dominance to new heights (he single-handedly created a million crime readers in Spain with his Millenium Trilogy). They’ve combined this with a complete cornering of the UK TV market with some excellent series coming out of Denmark such as The Killing, The Bridge, and the outstanding Borgen, which has made British TV product look pedestrian and mediocre.

I recently went to Denmark and was taken to a crime-writing festival in an old prison in Horsens. That opened my eyes. I was one of three non-Nordic writers (Karin Slaughter and Simon Beckett were the other two), and the interest was without doubt focused on the local writers, of which there were hundreds. All the queues to have their books signed were for those Scandinavian authors. I was astonished. This can only be a good thing. There are those who write this off as a fad but, having seen what I saw in Horsens, this is a fad that’s going to run and run. What’s [the Scandinavians’] secret? I think they went back to basics and concentrated on good storytelling and strong character development in believable scenarios. It’s quite possible that the Brits and the Americans lost their way by concentrating on the serial-killer thriller, which gradually, over a couple of decades, slipped into the realms of the ludicrous.

One of the difficulties in the English-speaking market is the publishers’ accountants’ concentration on the bottom line: why don’t we just market the successful writers and drop the ones that don’t sell? This means that the talent pool dries up and the publisher ends up following the market rather than leading it.

JKP: Finally, if you could have written any one or two books that don't already appear under your name, which would they be?

RW: The Friends of Eddie Coyle. The Long Goodbye.

READ MORE:London: Great Location to Set a Thriller,” by Robert Wilson (The Daily Telegraph).


Ayo Onatade said...

Brilliant interview. I started reading his books with the Bruce Medway series. Having lived in Nigeria for 10 years I can only say that they are spot on with the sense of place, and characterisation. They are really good books and well worth reading if you can get your hands on them. Whilst I know that it is not likely to happen, I truly wish he ad written more of them.

Richard L. Pangburn said...

A great interview for many reasons. I thought the opening of Robert Wilson's INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS one of the best in all crime fiction.

I've also read and enjoyed A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON but some of his others sit around here unopened. The interview above has motivated me to move them to the prime to-be-read shelf.

Again, thanks for posting this.

Sean Farris said...

Thanks for visiting my blog. I enjoyed reading your Bucket List and also about your weekend in the Eastern Townships. I recently discovered that my great great grandfather was born in Saint Cesaire, a little town just east of Montreal. So this area of Canada is now on my bucket list!

kishke said...

Thank for an interesting interview. I'm a fan of all Wilson's books, but especially from A Small Death in Lisbon onward.

I have a comment on this quote:

What’s [the Scandinavians’] secret? I think they went back to basics and concentrated on good storytelling and strong character development in believable scenarios

I can only say that this in no way describes Steig Larsson, whose storytelling and writing skills are abysmal, and whose scenarios are not believable at all. The one thing Larsson had going for him was an outstanding, luminous character in Lisbeth Salander. That's what sold his books.