Monday, 30 June 2014

Apples and oranges

Graham Greene divided his work into 'entertainments' and 'novels'. Some people find this an unsatisfactory split. All fiction, they say, should entertain. Suggesting that some have a higher purpose and are 'novels' and not mere 'entertainment' is presumptious and unhelpful.

I think the separation can be useful. If we sit down to read a book by John Grisham, we have different expectations from if we are tackling John Updike. It helps to know what we might have coming. At the end of a long day, more people will want to turn to Wilbur Smith than Salman Rushdie. The problem comes when the same author writes two different kinds of books. Some use a pseudonym to separate the two sides of their output but, as J.K. Rowling has discovered, that doesn't always work.

I must declare a personal interest. Accent are now publishing a new edition of The White Rajah to follow Burke in the Land of Silver and I wish I had some way to warn people not to expect the second book to be anything like the first. [Since I wrote this, there have been two more books about James Burke and two more in the John Williamson series that started with The White Rajah, but these comments are, if anything, even more valid now than then.] The White Rajah was the first book I wrote. Like all first novels, it has its flaws but, like, I suspect, many first novels, it was trying very hard to be a serious book. It's based on the life of James Brooke, the first White Rajah of Sarawak and the model for Conrad's Lord Jim. Like Conrad's protagonist, Brooke was a flawed hero. I've tried to use him and his personal relationships to say something about British colonial rule. Nowadays, we generally like heroes to be basically good people and we think colonialism was essentially bad. What I try to do in The White Rajah is to suggest that life is a bit more complicated than that. The result is a book that I hope people will find reasonably exciting (there's battles and pirates and evil plots) but which is, I have to admit, hardly a bundle of laughs. I hope it's entertaining but I don't think of it as primarily an entertainment. Graham Greene might not have thought it a particularly good novel, but I think he would accept that a novel is what it set out to be.

I hope that by now you might have read Burke in the Land of Silver, so you can judge for yourself how far it succeeds in its primary intention, which was simply to entertain. James Burke (an unfortunately similar name to the Rajah's) was also a real person, but his adventures are just that: intrigue and derring-do set in exciting places with wicked foes and beautiful women. I hope that the story is not without some more serious content, but my main aim was to send you away entertained.

There is, I hope, room for both kinds of book in the world. Indeed, I fervently hope that there's room for both on your bookshelves (or, more likely, your Kindle). Please buy both, read them and, I hope, enjoy them. Just don't expect them to be the same.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Meet my main character.

This is part of a continuing series called, “Meet My Main Character.” It is the brain child of Debra Brown who is the Administrator of English Historical Fiction Authors, a really worthwhile website for anyone interested in obscure bits of British history. (Debra’s an American, so the whole England/Scotland/Wales bit tends to pass her by.)  The main website, despite the name, doesn’t have so much to do with fiction. This does. 

1) What is the name of your character? Is he fictional or a historic person?

James Burke was a spy for the British during the Napoleonic Wars. He was a real person and the story is based around real events in his life. That said, he was a very good spy, so there’s a lot we don’t know about him. This means that I get the chance to tell a good story without too much fear of being told I’m definitely wrong.

2) When and where is the story set?

It starts in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1792, but the story pivots on the British invasion of Buenos Aires in 1806. It takes in Spain and Brazil as well, though. People in those days travelled around much more than most of us realise.

3) What should we know about him?

James’ father is an impoverished gentleman in Ireland, living off the rents of tenant farmers. Although this gives him the status of ‘gentleman’, there is no money to enable him to live the lifestyle that James wants. James is desperate to get away from Ireland and make a success of himself in Society. He decides his best bet is to join the army but, to his horror, he finds himself caught in intelligence work. He’s a snob and a social climber and hates being a spy, but he’s good at the work. He’s also never slow to take advantage of any opportunities to make money or influential friends that may come his way in his adventures.

4) What is the main conflict? What messes up his life?

He realises that there are more important things than personal advancement and he risks a lot for a cause he has come to believe in. More immediately, people keep threatening to kill him.

5) What is the personal goal of the character?
He starts out by wanting to make a lot of money and move in the highest levels of Society. On a day-to-day level, he cares about completing his mission for Britain and surviving in the conflicts between England, Spain, France, and South American rebels. Later, he gets caught up in the politics of South American independence and realises that there is more to life than his personal advancement. Unsurprisingly, there’s a girl involved.

6) Is there a title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

It’s called His Majesty’s Confidential Agent. There’s more about it HERE. There’s a sequel on the way, provisionally called Burke in Egypt. Yes, he gets around!

7) When can we expect the book to be published?
It was published by Accent Press at the beginning of May. Burke in Egypt should be published later this year.

Thanks for visiting the post. The next ‘Meet My Main Character’ post will be by Jane Pollard  in two days’ time (on Wednesday).

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The story behind the story

I keep blogging elsewhere instead of here, so my own blog is looking quite thin at the moment. Sorry!  Just to keep you going, here's an introduction to His Majesty's Confidential Agent that I wrote for fellow Accent writer, Jenny Kane. It appeared on her blog ( just before the book came out at the beginning of May.

My agent, back in the days when I had an agent, told me that historical novels were clearly my thing and that I should sit down and produce something new in that genre. This turned out to be easier said than done.
I was chatting to a friend that I knew from time spent in Argentina and she pointed out that there were lots of interesting characters from the early days of that country. I have loved my visits to Argentina and the idea of setting a novel there really appealed. So I started a fairly unsystematic search for interesting characters from 19th century Buenos Aires. And I came across James Burke.
I could only find one article about him that was written in English (and my Spanish is certainly not up to reading academic historical journals). It turned out that somebody had stolen the British Library’s copy but they were able to dig out another in their reserve collection up in Yorkshire. When I finally managed to get my hands on it, James Burke turned out to be the ideal character for historical fiction. He was a real person and a real spy. His nefarious work meant that there aren’t an awful lot of details about his life but we do have good reason to think that he was in Buenos Aires while the British were planning to invade South America during the Napoleonic Wars. He was also (a massive bonus for the novelist) something of a ladies’ man. In the novel his conquests include a princess, a queen, and the mistress of a ruler I’m not going to mention here, because it would be a spoiler. The incredible thing is that these affairs all quite probably happened.
HMCA- Tom Williams
Once I started writing, I really enjoyed His Majesty’s Confidential Agent. The details of Burke’s life may be a bit uncertain, but the context within which his adventures take place is very clear indeed. I have made several trips to Buenos Aires and on some of them I was able to make a point of visiting buildings from the period when the story is set. Burke’s adventures take him out of the town and into the country, so I spent a day on an estancia, where I was able to go out riding with the gauchos – a truly memorable adventure. I even recreated Burke’s crossing the Andes by making the attempt out of season, as he does in the novel and, even though we had to turn back because the depth of snow, it was an unforgettable experience. It’s only around a page of the finished book, but very definitely worth it.
His Majesty’s Confidential Agent allowed me to write about a country I love during a fascinating period of history. And it’s got spies and battles and duels and beautiful women and real queens and princesses and moments of humour and romance in between the plotting and bloodshed. It was fun to write. I hope you find it fun to read.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Cover

So here it is: the new cover for 'The White Rajah'.

The background picture is a contemporary picture of Kuching in Borneo, where the story is set. The sword featured is a kris. I'll be posting more about those soon.

'The White Rajah' is officially republished next month, but it looks like it should be available on Amazon in the next day or two. I'll let you know.