Dividing his time between England and Portugal, near the Spanish border, Robert Wilson recently spent a week in the UK. His highlights included “a great lunch in Moro, which is my favourite London restaurant” and his first visit to Highgate Cemetery, with his wife. In the busy week that The Ignorance of Blood was published in the UK, Robert Wilson also, very kindly, took some time out to answer a few questions for this blog.
I wondered how he felt now that he had delivered the final in the Falcón quartet and if he missed the character and writing about him. But perhaps it was more a sense of relief that was evident in his reply. “Strangely enough I felt as if I’d delivered him to a better place in the world than where he’d been at the beginning of The Blind Man of Seville, so whilst I was sad to be leaving him to get on with his own life without my interference, I felt satisfied that he could manage it better.”
In terms of the origins of the Falcón quartet, I asked why he had chosen Seville as the setting and why a policeman? “The Seville setting inspired me not just because it’s one of the most vibrant cities in Spain, whose traditions of Holy Week and the Feria de Abril make it one of the most extraordinary places in the world, but also because it has a very beautiful old town filled with apparently happy people enjoying the ultimate lotus life. How could this be? It was that very powerful image that attracted me in the first place. I knew it couldn’t be entirely true and it isn’t. Seville suffers the same problems as many other cities: drugs, racial problems, social deprivation, but it has found a way to make us believe that they don’t exist. Being an English graduate I immediately recognised that old Shakespearian theme of ‘appearance and reality’, which I also believe to be one of the fundamental themes of crime fiction: you can appear to be a reasonable person but in reality you’re a killer. So I had the perfect setting to examine that endlessly intriguing theme. But I also needed a protagonist who would define that quest, too.”
Then, the strand of psychology was added to the pot to help the author achieve his goal, along with an appreciation of middle-age. “Homicide detectives tend to be middle-aged men and the one thing that can safely be said about middle-aged men is that they do not change. This is why they’re so successful in crime fiction, whose readers love to be guided by the same protagonist through different experiences. I decided I wanted a hero who would radically change and the only way I could do that was through psychological trauma, which could only be initiated by something that would shock him to the core. Policemen are amongst the only people in peacetime to come into contact with these horrors, therefore Javier Falcón had to be a cop living in the ‘appearance and reality’ theme park on a quest for professional and personal truth.”
Each novel has its own story, but also, across the quartet is another broader, epic story: the journey of Javier Falcón. In an interview given at the time of publication of The Blind Man of Seville, Wilson suggested that Falcón might move on to Barcelona for a couple of novels. This did not happen, so, did the author have a complete idea of the whole from the start, or did the broader story evolve during the writing?
“Four books seemed to be the right number to thoroughly examine a character and city in this way: the first to introduce and dismantle him, the second to rebuild and rehabilitate him, the third to show his new resolve and deepen him, the fourth to show the extent to which he has changed, his new durability and the potential it’s given him for the future. I certainly didn’t plan everything out beforehand. I had a direction but that was about it. It wasn’t so different to planning a big trip like going to Africa: I knew where I was headed, I did a certain amount of planning but once on the road anything could happen. Some things changed very early on. My first vision of Consuelo was as a very conservative businessman’s wife but once I put her in a room with Javier Falcón she showed me a completely different side of herself and it was a terrifically exciting one. The irony wasn’t lost on me that, as the author I, too, had to be prepared to change. I don’t know where the Barcelona idea came from because I always intended to write four in Seville and I only toyed with the idea of moving him to Barcelona afterwards. It would take time and a lot of research for me to speak Catalan (the everyday language of Barcelona), grasp some of the culture and learn how things worked in that very different city.”
Authors may have favourite characters and they are also capable of growing to hate a series protagonist they have created, such as Christie and her Poirot. Thus, in such a rich landscape of characters, I wondered if Wilson had any favourites. Oh yes, and quite a few as it transpired, as well as for some quite interesting reasons.
“Dismantling Falcón and then rebuilding him was one of the most fascinating writing experiences of my career. Conceiving the Francisco Falcón diaries (and thereby inventing that character) was the most sustained creative period (it took every day of three months) of my writing life. Developing Esteban Calderón and then bringing him down was one of the most destructive creative experiences. Realising the character that Consuelo wanted to be was particularly revealing to me about the whole writing process. Developing the friendship between Yacoub and Falcón was very satisfying and revealing about both characters. I also enjoyed a lot of the minor characters on the way. I was very taken with Alicia Aguado, the blind psychologist. I was fond of the little nun, Cristina Ferrera. I was ultimately moved by Marisa Moreno’s plight. I was chilled by Maddy Krugman.”
When Wilson writes of violence or the discovery of a scene of violence his writing has a raw quality that allows a reader to appreciate the full horror. A very vivid memory that still lasts for me is that of the opening of The Blind Man of Seville. We are carefully told some element of detail of the torture of a man, through narrative and dialogue; we can feel the ties that bind him to the chair and feel his pain, both physically and emotionally. We feel his anticipation and fear. We feel the determination of his torturer. Then we change point of view and see the results of that scene through Falcón’s eyes as he walks into the scene of the crime to start his investigation. And then the full horror strikes: the victim’s eyelids have been removed to force him to watch something on a TV screen. The violence is never gratuitous, but the full horror is felt. We feel for the victim and those he has left behind. What experiences could have led to an author being able to achieve such reality and emotional response in the reader?
“I have personal experience of violence, extreme pain, horrific injury, fear and threat…but not all at once, which means I haven’t yet been murdered. I played contact sports to a very high level, I was a passenger in a bad car accident, I have been held at gunpoint and I have been in situations which could have gone one way or another and been lucky. All this experience enables me to write about violence with some access to the truth of the experience. I also believe that if you read crime novels you should be made to feel at least some of the real horror of the victim. I am repelled by the thought of someone being thrilled by reading about violence; they should be jolted into the real experience even if it means they have to momentarily leave their comfort zone. I rarely write about the actual physical violence. In The Ignorance of Blood, for instance, I show the aftermath of some extreme violence and the impact it has on the two people who discover it. I then show how it was for the victim, but without going into any kind of gruesome detail. The effect for the reader is to imagine the violence that has taken place and the effect of its horror is so much greater when it comes alive in the reader’s mind rather than being meticulously recounted by me.”
The Ignorance of Blood opens with an horrific car crash. Did the author’s own experience of a car crash have a bearing on the writing of the fictional crash?
“Thankfully this car crash was nothing like the one that I was involved in, which was a head on collision with a concrete lamp post in London. The fictional car crash was inspired by one whose aftermath I drove past on the way into Florence on an Italian motorway. A large Mercedes car was stopped in the fast lane with several lengths of aluminium tubing sticking out of its smashed windscreen. On the other side of the central reservation was a truck, which had partially shed its load of aluminium tubing. The horror of the scene stayed with me and my imagination didn’t have to work very hard to do the rest.”
When asked about what we might expect next, Robert Wilson had this to say, “I am very early on in my thinking about my next book. I had thought about writing about China but I’ve detected huge reader resistance on this subject matter at all levels. So after six months of research I’ve moved that to the back burner and started thinking about London as a possible base for an international thriller with a British protagonist. It’s been a long time since I’ve written and thought in pure English with no cultural Spanish interference and I want to get back to that.”
In these days of recession here in the UK, we’ve had Peter Mandelson doing an updated “On yer bike” Tebbitt, letting us know we are lucky to have EU passports and to seek work where we can get it. So what might entice us to Portugal, if we had the option to move there? What are the some of the highlights of Portugal for Robert Wilson, as viewed through its people, culture, weather and food?
“I live in a rural part of Portugal where the people are very accepting of foreigners. I love their sense of humour and the way that families support their members through thick and thin. I’m also a fan of ‘fado’, the Portuguese blues singing, an acquired taste which then never leaves you. And I‘m a great advocator of Portuguese cuisine, especially bacalhão, salt cod, and the great dish of my region, carne de porco á Alentejana, which is pork stewed with clams and fresh coriander. Sounds weird but it’s terrific. I love the fact that the sun (almost) endlessly shines and we get very few of those low cloud, iron coloured days that are so depressing in Northern Europe.”
And what does Falcón’s creator miss most about the UK? “I miss the extraordinary talent that the British have for sociability. Brits make great friends and get together for a great time and I know no culture in the world quite like it. I do miss using English and hearing it used. It is the world’s most inventive language because so many people have access to it and adapt it for their own needs and English seems able to keep expanding and welcoming all-comers with their myriad idiosyncrasies. I miss those very defined seasons that we have in Britain and the fact that one seems to be able to go through all four in a single day. Nowhere else in Europe do you get quite such a variety of food (and wine) as in Britain. Think of any country in the world and its cuisine is represented. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve lost sight of our own cooking but we seem to be so much richer for it.”
To return to the true values of humankind, you can find it all in the fourth Falcón, The Ignorance of Blood. In addition to being a superb thriller, it’s about the power of love, the richness of family and the sense of morality. Falcón’s journey is a hard and gritty one. His character is tested and he knows it. We can learn much from this fictional man, thanks to Wilson.
Robert Wilson is appearing at the Edinburgh Festival later this year. His PR at HarperCollins hopes, as I do, that he will get into the line-up for the Cheltenham Festival when the programme is finalised. It’s around the time the paperback is published, so it’s timely, and I will let you know if and when I hear anything further.
My thanks to Robert Wilson for his generosity and to Amy Neilson at HarperCollins for arranging this interview. You can find out more about the author here. (Above photo, by Simon Weinstock taken from from the author's site.)