★ Winged with Death: An Interview with John Baker

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 tricksPay atten­tion, Hocking.. 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 talk about Winged with Death, too. And check out John’s web­site.

Author: Ian Hocking

Writer and psychologist.

3 thoughts on “★ Winged with Death: An Interview with John Baker”

  1. I believe that Mark Twain is the greatest writ­ter of our time. He told stor­ies that enter­tained but also had great mean­ing and were in a style that chil­dren or adults could enjoy.

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