At Falcata Time’s we love to give a new author a shot so when the blurb for Robert Wilton’s debut landed we felt that this title was something special that should be moved to the top of our To Be Read List.
Here, Robert chats to us about writing, about historical espionage and how “worryingly attractive” Tom Roscarrock has become…
Falcata Times: Writing is said to be something that people are afflicted with rather than gifted and that it's something you have to do rather than want. What is your opinion of this statement and how true is it to you?
Robert Wilton: I don't know if I'm gifted; I know that I want to write. So: seems true enough. It's hard to articulate exactly why I need to write, and none of the possible reasons seem very attractive - vanity, frustration, obsession... - but those are all grim furnaces of impulsion down in the boiler room, not a shining gift up on the bridge.
FT: When did you realise that you wanted to be a writer?
RW: Thirty years ago, when I was about eight. My English teacher, Mr Walker, was an extraordinary inspiration - I also blame him for my loving acting, sketching and doing crosswords - and he used to write short stories, with great atmosphere and good twists. I've been writing since then (and I've never got away from the idea that good stories need good twists).
FT: It is often said that if you can write a short story you can write anything. How true do you think this is and what have you written that either proves or disproves this POV?
RW: Really interesting point. I wrote an historical murder thriller novel just after leaving college, and it wasn't published, and I turned to short stories then: they were a way to be writing while I was waiting for an idea that would justify a novel and, frankly, after one unpublished novel you tend to think twice before committing to another six months' of potentially fruitless writing; and getting halfway through a short story to find out that it's just not going to work is a lot less painful that doing so fifty thousand words into a novel. Looking back, the few dozen short stories that I wrote - and not just the ones that got published - were my training ground for my writing today. I tried out different styles and voices and structures; short stories are a playground, a chance to dress up, a chance to be ridiculous, a chance to go crazy, when no-one's looking. Because competition guidelines usually restrict length, short stories are a great discipline, too: you think about words more, you think more about doing as much as possible with individual sentences and images, and you find ways to jump right into the heart of a scene.
FT: If someone were to enter a bookshop, how would you persuade them to try your novel over someone else's and how would you define it?
RW: Open bribery. Wheedling. Possibly violence. 'The Emperor's Gold' is an historical espionage thriller set in 1805, the first of a new series drawing on recently-discovered archive material from the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey. I think you'd like it, dear bookshop-visitor, because you look like someone who wants an engaging, intense mystery and doesn't want to leave your brain at the till. And I suspect that, like me, you rather enjoy the quirks of history.
FT: How would you "sell" your book in 20 words or less?
RW: History and mystery; action and intrigue; a dead man pulled from a shipwreck and entrusted with the Empire.
FT: Who is a must have on your bookshelf and whose latest release will find you on the bookshops doorstep waiting for it to open?
RW: I collect Graham Greene, Len Deighton and George Macdonald Fraser. Today, I think that Salman Rushdie plays with language and ideas in a way that make you proud he's writing in English, and I think that Hilary Mantel is an extraordinary re-creator of history: reading her was a real kick in the backside for me, for how the past can live.
FT: When you sit down and write do you know how the story will end or do you just let the pen take you? ie Do you develop character profiles and outlines for your novels before writing them or do you let your ideas develop as you write?
RW: I usually have a very strong idea about the end, but not a clue about what on earth happens in the middle. I try to define characters with a particular function for the narrative, and then they invariably run off on their own somewhere: constantly frustrating, but they sometimes help me onto a path I wasn't aware of.
FT: What do you do to relax and what have you read recently?
RW: I watch old films, eat too much, row a pilot gig when I'm back in Cornwall, translate a bit of poetry, probably have another snack.
FT: What is your guiltiest pleasure that few know about?
RW: Cheddar cheese; cigars; 'It's a Wonderful Life'.
FT: Lots of writers tend to have pets. What do you have and what are their key traits (and do they appear in your novel in certain character attributes?)
RW: No pets now - I can barely take care of myself responsibly. But I grew up with dogs (Labradors, not the pointless little rodent things), and I guess that just occasionally I like to see in a character the same kind of loyalty and certainty that you see in a dog.
FT: Which character within your latest book was the most fun to write and why?
RW: James Fannion is an Irish poet-rebel trying to incite mayhem and get Napoleon's support for a rising: murderous, calculating, philandering, and amoral. Writing him was a constant flowing treat - he was usually stabbing or shagging someone, and he was a welcome break from plot development or that more intense descriptive stuff you have to put in sometimes.
FT: How similar to your principal protagonist are you?
RW: Tom Roscarrock is rugged, ruthless, mysterious, and utterly competent. So - not all that much, to be honest. Which is irritating, because people (including my partner) find him worryingly attractive. But I do love the sea, like him, so maybe there's hope for me.
FT: What hobbies do you have and how do they influence your work?
RW: Films probably contribute to a focus on the visual, dynamic sense of what's happening in a scene. Translating poetry forces you to think extremely carefully about individual words. Walking in the British countryside and looking at its sea perhaps gives an idea of something more fundamental and eternal going on behind what the humans are up to, but normally it's just a tempting distraction from getting on with the writing.
FT: Where do you get your ideas from?
RW: By going hunting for them rather than waiting. Single best piece of writing advice I ever read was P.G.Wodehouse on the secret to being an author: 'you keep your bum on a chair'.
FT: Do you ever encounter writers block and if so how do you overcome it?
RW: Definitely. Sometimes it helps to ask direct questions about or of a character: where's Tom now? what's he thinking? or OK, Tom, what are you trying to achieve at the moment? Writing down the answer prompts ideas, or sometimes even becomes a new bit of text.
FT: Certain authors are renowned for writing at what many would call uncivilised times. When do you write and how do the others in your household feel about it?
RW: Working hours if possible - I need proper sleep. I live with another writer, so I think we're usually understanding; she knows I'm best avoided when writing, because it can make me pretty grumpy.
FT: Sometimes pieces of music seem to influence certain scenes within novels, do you have a soundtrack for your tale or is it a case of writing in silence with perhaps the odd musical break in-between scenes?
RW: Normally I write in silence, but sometimes I'll put some classical music on (can't have words because I'll just start singing along): Rachmaninov or Ennio Morricone for emotion, drama and description; Mozart or Bach for thinking and action; the Beach Boys for 'I've had enough writing for the day and I don't care who knows it'
FT: What misconceptions, if any, did you have about the writing and publishing field when you were first getting started?
RW: Inspiration is a lot less tripping through the daffodils waiting for the muse, and a lot more bloody getting on with it. I hate the process of touting myself around, and was exceptionally lucky to find Corvus so quickly.
FT: If music be the food of love, what do you think writing is and please explain your answer?
RW: Writing is the gym work-out of love: you're testing, stretching and building up your ideas of it.
FT: What can you tell us about the next novel?
RW: It's what I supposed be doing right now rather than making up stuff about how writing is the gym session of love. It's set in the period of the British civil war, with two men battling each other for their respective causes: the royalist is an old warrior fighting to save his old world, a man who is said to embody misrule, mayhem and blood; against him is a young man fighting for the stability of his new world, and becoming increasingly intrigued and alarmed by the strange organisation called the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey. A lot of fighting, a lot of intrigue, and a lot of people finding themselves cut loose in a world in chaos: I'm really enjoying writing it, except that I'm eight hundred words behind where I should be today.
FT: What are the last five internet sites that you've visited?
RW: imdb. Wikipedia. The British Library catalogue. The Ideas Partnership. The Onion.
FT: Did you ever take any writing classes or specific instructions to learn the craft? If so please let us know which ones.
RW: No classes or books; but I've found myself getting more analytical when I read other books that I enjoy: even in a supposedly trashy book there's often something to learn - about how an author has achieved pace, image, character, or excitement.
FT: How did you get past the initial barriers of criticism and rejection?
RW: I told myself that, since publishing success is substantially driven by fickle market forces and a great pile of luck, I'd be foolish to judge myself by whether I was getting published or not; I tried to be pleased just that I was writing, and to make sure that I at least was enjoying what I wrote.
FT: In your opinion, what are the best and worst aspects of writing for a living?
RW: It's writing, which I enjoy; it is not a living.