An Interview with ROGER NORMAN
author of ALBION'S DREAM, TREETIME and RED DIE
What's the first
book you remember reading?
The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton.
It's a lovely title and still a pretty good story, after half-a-century.
Did you enjoy
school? What is your most vivid memory of your school years?
After the initial shock, I really liked my
prep school years: the best friends of my life, a sense that the sun was always
shining or about to and it didn’t matter much if it weren't. My years at a public school I didn't enjoy, but I wouldn't want to blame
the school for that. Like most places, it was what you made of it.
What were the first
pieces of writing that you produced? e.g. short stories, school magazine etc.
Poems, from the age of 20 to 30. Lots of them
at one period. A tape survives somewhere, read in a solemn, sonorous voice, as
if something important were at stake. Was it? It seemed so at the time.
Did you always want
to be an author? If not, what did you originally want to be and when and why
did you change your mind?
Pretty much always. No serious rivals.
Who were your role
models? Which writers have influenced you the most? Who do you most admire and
Among living writers, the American Cormac
McCarthy, especially Blood Meridian. Among the dead, too many to list,
but here are some: John Cowper Powys, Mervyn Peake, JRR Tolkien, Dylan Thomas.
Most of the great Victorians - Eliot, Hardy, Dickens, Stevenson, Kipling.
Melville for Moby Dick and Dostoevsky for everything. Pre-nineteenth
century: Swift for the unique, magnificent Gulliver's Travels and the
wisdom of the King of Brobdingnag, and William Blake for the short lyrics and
the grand incomprehensible visions. Will Shakespeare because in every one of
those endless lists and contests … who was the greatest this, the greatest that
… he's the one name who is always there, which makes you think that you
haven't quite dinged the Bottom yet.
What's the greatest
influence on your writing?
All of the above plus Henry Miller, William
Faulkner, Carlos Castaneda… whoops! How did he creep in there? Everything was
looking nice and predictable, Leavis's Great Tradition plus a handful of Big
Americans and now up pops one of the prophets of drugs n' mysticism. But he's
got to be there. Journey to Ixtlan, Tales of Power, The Second Ring
of Power: superb storytelling, two or three utterly memorable characters,
marvellous goings-on. I can't think of a better writer of dialogue, and some of
the action scenes are also terrific. The drugs are irrelevant after the
first couple of books, and the last couple of books are also irrelevant. Among
Sci-Fi writers, I like the veteran Jack Vance, inventive, spare, intriguing.
Among children's books: The Wind in the Willows, The Hobbit, The
Earthsea Trilogy and Edward Lear's Nonsense, a powerful and enduring
Where do you write?
At my own desk in the very early mornings,
with nothing on the desk but the notebook and the fountain pen. Even the bottle
of black ink should not intrude on to the desk itself. Nor the shorter OED,
Roget, Oxford Quotations or Cobham Brewer, but these are allowed to be
adjacent, obviously. The following books are normally within reach, for
purposes of exemplary moral support: John Cowper Powys' autobiography, the
complete poems of William Blake, the Tao te Ching … well, one could go on, but
one won't. The view from the window is mostly walls, not very picturesque
but it reminds me that I'm better off (apparently) than Bartleby the Scrivener
in Melville's great tale.
Name your favourite
literary hero and villain.
'Hero' strikes a gong from the past. I find
myself choosing between Sir Alan Quartermain, Sir Richard Hannay, Sherlock
Holmes, Hercule Poirot, 007 and Philip Marlowe. Poirot's the first out, I'm
afraid, on account of the way he blows his nose. Hannay and Quartermain were
just what was needed in their time - manly, decisive, generous, brave etc - but
their time went, around the age of thirteen. Sherlock Holmes is admirable,
essential in fact, but he is not likeable. He is a dry, egotistical sort,
irritatingly right about everything. You do not like him and you are not
supposed to. The creation of this vain, unlovable know-all, with his pipe and
violin and his habit of 'springing up' from his chair to consult a large tome
was Conan Doyle's great achievement. Not the stories, most of which, at the
third or fourth reading, are dull or incredible, but the man. His rooms,
his landlady, his long smokes and sullen depressions and the way in which he
opens the door (springing up from his chair), his turns of speech. 'And that,
if I'm not mistaken, Hastings, is his foot upon the stair …'
Bond played by Connery is still almost in the
running, but Philip Marlowe wins it by a head. Tough but tender, wonderfully
observant, and capable of describing an entire mansion its grounds and its
occupants (not forgetting the make of car in the garage and the character of
the chauffeur) in three lines.
There's one other 'hero' who needs a mention,
the British Consul in Mexico City in Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano.
There is a scene in which His Majesty's Representative remembers that he has a
half-bottle of Tequila (or was it something even more fiery than that?) hidden
away in the gardens of the consulate. His journey among the flowers and bees to
rescue that little bottle from oblivion is on a par with the great grail quests
of Sir Galahad and Sir Pellinore and Sir Steven Spielberg.
Villain? Long John Silver for charming
roguery, treachery and deceit. Daniel Quilp (The Old Curiosity Shop) for
an ugly, acrobatic vileness, the all-time prizewinner for dense, furious,
anti-social tobacco smoking … He carries that weak novel (weak for Dickens I
mean) all by himself, he is the charge, the powder, the trigger, the fireworks,
when he is absent you zoom through the pages waiting for his return. Among
modern novels, the bloated Doctor in Blood Meridian is unspeakably
ghastly and powerful, like some awful messenger of Death bearing a message of
utter cynicism and despair.
What is your
philosophy for life?
It's something like Jacob's ladder, I believe.
I'm reaching for the bottom rung, or perhaps slowly approaching it from far
Name your top five
OK. I agree to this but not in any particular
order and including only novels.
Moby Dick, The Brothers Karamazov, The Return
of the Native, Owen Glendower, Gormenghast. I'm truly sorry that there's no room
for Tolkien, but Lord of the Rings is not, strictly, 'a book' and The Hobbit
… well, I'm sorry but there it is.
I also wish to add a second list, an
alternative list, a 'B' list: Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry; A
High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes; The Horse’s Mouth by
Joyce Carey; The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell; The Bridge at San
Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder; The Birds Fall Down by Rebecca West.
The C-list has Treasure Island, something
by Jack Vance, The Manchurian Candidate, anything by Patrick
O'Brien, Dexter’s Inspector Morse, and a couple of
Agatha Christies for when you're ill.
The D-list contains work by Henry Williamson
and Richard Jefferies and short stories by Rudyard Kipling, Katherine Mansfield
and AE Coppard. In the D-list is some of the finest writing of all.
Name your top five
Bach sometimes, Van Morrison at others, Dylan
and The Grateful Dead for a whole decade, Cathedral choirs, Annie Lennox, Irish
folksingers, some of the old sixties and seventies rockers.
What jobs did you
have before you started writing and since?
I've really only had one job all along, which
is to try and make sense of the universe, and I've made a pretty poor fist of
it so far, but I'm still trying. About money-getting, I've found that teaching
has a lot to be said for it. You're never bored and you never have to ask
yourself: 'Why am I doing this?' The answer is there in front of you. If you
stop talking, or performing, or reacting, they'll all go to sleep or go away.
But generally they've got to stay, so you've got to too.
If your house were
burning down, what would you save?
Once the people were out of it, and the cat,
it'd be the two handwritten volumes of Green King, around 400 closely
written pages and the only version of this unusual, intriguing, macabre tale.
How do you write
each novel, i.e. do you block out the narrative first, take each page at a
time, create the central character, build a cast of characters?
I probably need to have around half-a-dozen
characters alive in my mind, complete with physical characteristics. If I'm
hazy at the beginning about what someone looks like or how they talk or react,
I'll probably go on being hazy and keep chopping and changing that person until
suddenly he or she is right. So it's best to do that at the start. Once the
main characters are there, the story will come. I have some ideas about it, and
a few locations probably, but if the characters come to life, there'll be a story
there for sure. Thomas Hardy is reputed to have come out of a Dorchester shop
looking rather pale one day and asked why answered that he'd just seen Tess.
That hasn't happened to me, but I'd like it if it did. Would I rather meet Tess
than one of my own characters? Of course, but I wouldn't recognise her, you
experiences do you feel have informed your writing? Do you have a connection
with or fondness for particular characters or locations?
North Dorset's always been the background to
it all, the River Stour, Hambledon Hill, Manston and Hammoon, Cutt Mill,
Marnhull, Sturminster. I don't mean that these have to be present in the books,
but something belonging to them must be there at some point, at some essential
point - a feeling for the land as it was and in some measure will always be.
Out of all my walks, there have been two or three that have stayed in the mind,
representing part of some longer journey perhaps. Walking from Sturminster to
Salisbury with my brother Pete. Walking from Sherborne to Cerne Abbas and back
the day that the idea for Red Die was born. Walking from the New Forest to
Stonehenge, with William Cobbett in my pocket. I was passed by a long goods
train with YEOMAN, YEOMAN, YEOMAN written in bold letters on the side of the
trucks and I thought, these are the only yeomen I'll meet today, and that's how
there came to be an Edward Yeoman in Albion's Dream, a Jack Yeoman in Red
Die and a Louis Yeoman in Green King.
I wrote one novel which has nothing of Dorset,
nothing of the landscape, the hedges, the lanes, the farms, the sheepdogs, and
it seemed meagre to me somehow. Green King was due to travel to
Africa and the Peloponnese when it first set out, but in the event it never
made it further than from Sherborne to Bulbarrow.
What is a typical
I write from four a.m. to around eight and
anything after that's a bonus.
What do you do when
you are not writing? How do you relax? What are your hobbies?
I've always got a garden going somewhere,
often a large one. I grow things. Vegetables and fruit. I watch a lot of
films, English, American, Australian, Italian, Turkish, Iranian, Chinese -
pretty much anything except French.
Where do you live?
In Eskişehir, in mid-Anatolia. This is a
medium-sized provincial town known for its large sugar factory, its second
division football team and some impressive new law courts. The city is very far
from the sea; it bakes in summer and freezes in winter. I think you'll agree
that these are sufficient inducements for any wanderer to settle for a while or
What single thing
might people be surprised to learn about you?
That I'm settled in Eskişehir.
Have you started
your next book? Can you tell us a little bit about it?
And finished it, with the exception of the
last chapter (see above, Green King.) It's set in 1877. I have the
feeling it may change quite a bit during the typing and editing, but the main
characters won't. Louis Yeoman, Isadora Magdalensky, Austin Kelynack, Sergeant
Timmins, Francoise, Cuff, the excellent John Biffen and the extraordinary Robin
Rovert - they'll still be there. Corvo will be there, too, although I feel that
there must be deeper levels to the Milton gamekeeper, and as for Rugg's boy, I
don’t know whether to hunt 'im and hang 'im or just let him fall in a deep pond
somewhere and lose the thre'penny bits in his pocket. Inspector Bright's
already lost his job, and Dr. Hulme is clearly going to lose his, so that's
alright. But Rugg's boy definitely needs more than another clip on the ear, and
nothing is too bad for Corvo, really. The knives must besharpened for Corvo.
Roger Norman on: