The excellent John Lawton’s equally excellent backlist is being reissued, starting with the latest Troy, with the six other novels in the series to follow at intervals over about a year. A uniform edition of sorts – and the perfect opportunity for a Crime Time chat….
Barry Forshaw: Your backlist is being reissued. How many novels is that?
John Lawton: They’re starting with the latest Troy, this month, and the six other novels in the series will follow at intervals over about a year. A uniform edition of sorts – great covers, I’m very pleased with what the art department have done.
BF: It seems to me your Troy novels must take a lot of research.
JL: Mostly. There’s been the odd ‘free ride’, and the research I did for the first one, Black Out, had lots of knock-on effects. Although I’ll admit I did get bogged down quite early on.
BF: Bogged down?
JL: I mean that the research was taking over as a thing in itself. I was reading more and more and writing less and less. One day, and I suppose I must have been whingeing, Ben Okri said, "Do you feel you know your subject?" Had to say yes to that and he followed up with, "Then write the book and check the facts afterwards." He was right, the book got finished in one big spurt, and I have tended to work that way ever since. But, new turf always has to be broken, otherwise it would get boring for me and if I’m bored what on earth must the reader feel? The last novel, A Lily of the Field, took me into areas I’d dabbled in without ever getting serious. I knuckled down to some rather heavy reading. But it does rather kick-start the brain.
BF: You mean the history of the wartime concentration camps?
JL: Well, that too. But I was actually referring to the making of the first atom bombs. I sat in a caff in New York’s East Village for a few weeks and worked my way through Richard Rhodes’s history of the bomb and several texts for the layman … I can recall one with a title like E=MC2 and All That Jazz. And I am a layman. My maths is (are?) atrocious … all to do with the way maths and science were taught in English schools in the fifties and sixties. Guaranteed to deter all except the hardy. Those bastards have a lot to answer for.
BF: Your author blurbs tend to the outrageous. List of things you hate. Tories, travel, teachers.
JL: And I mean every damn word of it. But … to the point … Researching Auschwitz meant reading a yard of memoirs. One of the most pile-drivingly depressing experiences of my life. I think I was probably certifiable by the time I had finished writing Lily. I recall remarking to a friend … ‘if I ever say I’m going to set a book in a death camp again … shoot me.’ And here I am writing about Belsen.
BF: Which novel is that?
JL: The one I’m writing now. Hasn’t got a name yet.
BF: After that warning to yourself, what drew you back to the subject?
JL: I think it looms very large in the history of reporting. The coverage the opening of Belsen got, in an era without television, was amazing. The propaganda value – and that’s not a negative word – was incalculable. Just in print … Richard Dimbleby, Alan Moorehead and Patrick Gordon-Walker all filed reports from there. The British got a film crew out asap, but still not soon enough. I am told, reliably told by the Imperial War Museum, that some of the scenes of the liberation had to be re-staged for the cameras. The most famous shot of a bulldozer burying corpses by the hundred … that’s real, although I suspect some people don’t realize that it’s a British Tommy driving it, and that shot, so definitive of Belsen, isn’t of the German regime it’s of the British rescue.
And … this is the new turf I was speaking of, because it leads me where I’ve never really been before … into Germany after the war. There’s a line drawn in history in 1945 between war and peace, that is really quite deceptive … we focus on things like VE Night at Piccadilly Circus … but in Europe people went on dying in the hundreds of thousands. Twenty-five percent of the inmates of Belsen survived the war but not the peace. The Russians hung onto German POWs until 1955. It’s as though combat stopped but war didn’t. Germany in the late forties is close to unimaginable. I’d have said it was a subject scarcely scratched compared to the war itself. But while I’ve been writing this book, about half a dozen studies of that period have been published.
BF: Makes your research easier?
JL: Yeah … but …
JL: Interesting snippet I unearthed the other day. Kelly’s Heroes isn’t wholly fiction.
BF: You mean the Clint Eastwood film?
JL: Yep. An American team of rogues made off with about a cubic metre of German bullion. The difference being, and the film would be dull without it, is that it happened just after the war not during it.
BF: You know what my interests are, so I’ll follow that with a Forshaw question. Do you go to the cinema much?
JL: No. I live miles from the nearest and I don’t drive. Tried it once. Awful experience. My daydream is to have a channel like TCM or American Classic Movies. Alas, when I watch ACM in the States, they’re already up to the 80s. And there’s only so much Sylvester Stallone the human brain can take. And a Burt Reynolds season can prove fatal. Just like Vogon poetry. Real risk of your intestines rising up to strangle your brain.
BF: Favourite actor?
JF: Living or dead?
BF: Let’s stick with the living.
JL: I’ve always like Daniel Craig. Even before he had pecs. He’s probably flogging a dead horse with the Bond films, and Enduring Love should have been left on the cutting room floor, but Our Friends in the North … well, he’s brilliant in that. Utterly ego-less. Plays a man who is repulsive.
BF: And the talented but departed?
JL: Peter Finch.
BF: Anything in particular?
JL: Sunday Bloody Sunday. Circa 1970. Probably his best performance. The closing monologue is electrifying. Far From the Madding Crowd is always watchable. One of the best British films of the Sixties.
BF: And your favourite film?
JL: Ball of Fire. 1941. Howard Hawks directing Barbara Stanwyck.
BF: Let’s have an OK/Hello moment.
JL: You’re kidding? We just had two.
BF: Absolutely not. What are you listening to right now?
JL: Something different every day. But I think I mean every night. I cannot, cannot sleep so I listen to music well into the night. I don’t have neighbours with half a mile thank God. Last night … it was Mendelssohn’s Octet. Chamber Orchestra with a name like Hausmusik. And I think Sunday, The Amazing Eyes of Rita by Anouar Brahem. He’s an oud player. I’ve no idea what an oud is. Answers on a postcard please.
BF: And you’re reading … ?
JL: I’m one of the judges of the John Creasey this year, so since Christmas I’ve had a steady stream of crime fiction by first time writers.
BF: Any gems?
JL: If I answer that Mike Stotter will shoot both of us.
BF: He’s not as ruthless as he looks.
JL: Why risk it?
A Lily of the Field is published in paperback by Grove Press UK on 12 April, £7.99