By Barbara Scott Emmett
After reading and reviewing several of his novels, I caught up with him to ask a few questions on writing, reading and publishing.
BSE: If you were trying to describe your writing to someone who hasn’t read anything by you before, what would you say?
JW: I think I’d call my recent work off-beat murder mysteries with a humorous tone. I’ve tried to play games with the central mystery of the whodunit. While in every case there is a conventional murder, the central mystery is something else.
In SCHERZO the mystery is “Who is the detective?” In RECHERCHE, there are two narratives, that of the Narrator, which is superficially conventional, and that of Harry Haze which is fantastical. We are trained to expect the murder to occur in the conventional narrative, but it in this case is unclear if this story discloses a murder or not; while Harry’s tale ends in a horrific murder, but contained in a narrative that is incredible.
In THE STRANGE DEATH OF A ROMANTIC, there is a solution without a murder, because everyone agrees that the “victim”, Shelley was not murdered, but the book tells you who killed him. In THE ARGENTINIAN VIRGIN, there is a purely psychological murder i.e. the victim is destroyed but the body continues to walk around. And finally, in TANGO IN MADEIRA, the victim, Robinson, in one sense doesn’t exist at all, in that he is a symbol for Everyman.
BSE: One of my favourite characters of yours is Harry Haze. I like the way he changes shape and tells outlandish stories that may or may not be true. Where did he come from?
JW: I’m conscious that we do not know the Truth. We only know more-or-less accurate stories about the Truth. This is so for murder mysteries, physics and our own memories. I wrote RECHERCHE in order to emphasise the importance of story-telling in our grasp of the world. But I also wanted to have some fun. Harry’s absurd stories told in a variety of voices underline the artificiality of the narrative, and yet they are in some sense “true” and in particular the reader should believe that the final murder really occurred even though the details are buried in Harry’s fantasies.
BSE: I particularly enjoy the way you play with names and meanings to add extra layers that readers may not even pick up on eg Alessandro Molin in Scherzo, and La Maison des Moines, the Monks' House, Munchhausen as the home of Haze, the teller of tall stories. Do you do this mainly for your own amusement?
JW: You are astute to spot these little sweeties in the bran tub. If you know anything of Yiddish, you will pick up more of the same in Harry Haze’s account of Hotzenplotz, Ohio and the river Meshugennah. I do put them in for my own amusement, but also as a compliment to the reader who can pick them up. They’re not important but they allow you to enjoy the book in a slightly different way.
BSE: You write in a variety of different genres and voices – often within the same book – and do it successfully. Do you think this comes from a gift for mimicry or a desire to be many different people? Are you yourself a shapeshifter, in terms of personality?
JW: I write in different genres largely because I failed to achieve great success in any of them (boo hoo). The talent from mimicry is simply a gift and comes along with a good ear for foreign languages and a love of words, and also the desire to make it clear that I am telling stories (which is contrary to the trend for “transparent” writing in modern fiction). No, I don’t desire to be many different people. I’m generally calm, unambitious, funny to be around, and I love dancing and the arts. My wife and I are still madly in love after 45 years. I think I’m rather a ridiculous person but I’m very comfortable with that.
BSE: Regarding different genres – you seem to be able to subvert any genre you tackle. Is this a definite decision you make or does it just come naturally?
JW: I wouldn’t say that subverting the genre is a definite decision; or, if so, it’s a very inconvenient one from the standpoint of my career as a writer. The subversion – which I admit – comes from the need to occupy my mind during the writing and puzzle stuff out for myself. Also I want to provoke a reaction from the reader. I suppose I do it partly out of mischief.
BSE: You have written under three different names: your own, as Richard Hugo (The Hitler Diaries etc), and as Alexander Mollin (Lara’s Child); Mollin presumably is dead* but are there likely to be any more books from Hugo?
JW: No, I have no plans to write any further books by Richard Hugo. The ones I did write were bound up with the Cold War and might be considered sub-Le Carré. I’m too detached from contemporary life to write a plausible thriller in a modern setting. I suppose I could write an historical one, but nothing comes to mind.
BSE: At the risk of sounding revoltingly sycophantic, I think you are great writer yet you are not as well known as you should be. Why do you think this is?
JW: I think the answer is that I’m too bloody odd. At all events I don’t blame the publishing industry for my place in the scheme of things; I was treated very kindly and given a fair crack of the whip.
As to the “great writer” comment, I would disagree: I think I’m as mediocre at writing as at most things, but I’m comfortable with that because for most of us – limited and stupid as we are – mediocrity is an achievement, and happiness has come from facing that reality squarely. If I had been more successful, I fancy I should have become a complete dickhead.
So far as the books are concerned, in certain technical respects they are old-fashioned; some of them are strange; and I suspect they fall in an unfortunate gap between being immediately engaging and literary, being neither wholly one thing nor t’other. The joy is that every now and again I find a reader on the same wavelength. If you enjoy my books, you may be odd too. There’s no cure.
BSE: I am happy to be odd if it’s a condition of enjoying your books. You’ve been published by traditional publishers and nominated for the Booker Prize and now some of your books are with a small independent publisher, Marble City; what do you think of the state of publishing generally, eg: the rise of independent and self-publishers and the conservatism of the big 6?
JW: Conventional publishing is very difficult for mid-list and new writers. The end of the Net Book Agreement and the movement of face to face retailing from bookshops to supermarkets and online has given increasing dominance to a few big name writers. In truth, the demands of leisure readers worldwide could probably be met by a couple of hundred best sellers per year, and the rest are just by-products of an historically inefficient production and marketing system.
Conversely, print-to-order and e-publishing have removed the traditional gatekeepers (publishers and bookshops) that also used to protect the midlist writer. In consequence, below the level of the best sellers, all voices, including those of mid-list writers and new writers of talent, are drowned in a cacophony of white noise.
BSE: That certainly seems to be true but I hope it has not put you off writing. What are you working on now?
JW: A few years ago I wrote THE ENGLISH LADY MURDERERS’ SOCIETY. Everyone who has read it, and especially women, has loved it. That said, it was hell to get it published and I had to settle for a small publisher who has made nothing of it. I found the experience demoralising and decided I had better things to do, not least dancing with my missus. However since Marble City picked up my work I have slowly become motivated to give writing another go, though without investing too much emotional capital in the outcome. Presently I am working on a sequel to that last book, provisionally titled THE DEMENTED LADY DETECTIVES CLUB.
BSE: One of my favourite lines from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam is ‘I often wonder what the vintners buy, One half so precious as the goods they sell’... which leads me to ask: Who do you read for pleasure?
JW: I read a lot of American crime fiction, often in French translation (to keep my hand in). I am an admirer of Stephen King, whom I consider a fine stylist and a writer of humanity. I also consider Elmore Leonard to be a fine writer.
Many of my favourites I would describe as “whole life” novels, in which the reader sees the principal character developing over time. Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers falls in this category, and my creation of Harry Haze reflects this interest in a bizarre way.
Astonishingly I have actually read the whole of Proust’s classic (in English admittedly) and enjoyed it, though the thought of re-reading it induces feelings of panic.
BSE: Well, I’ve only got part way into Proust but it’s still on my TBR list – though with so many other great books around I wonder if I’ll ever get back to it.
Many thanks to Jim for providing some excellent answers to my questions – and for providing me with reading matter for a while longer.
* Alexander Mollin was killed off in Scherzo as Allessandro Molin.
Jim Williams first hit the news when his early novels had the uncanny knack of coming true. The Hitler Diaries was published nine months before the celebrated forgery came out in 1983. Farewell to Russia dealt with a nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union months before the Chernobyl disaster. Lara's Child, his sequel to Doctor Zhivago, provoked an international literary scandal and led to his being a guest speaker at the Cheltenham Festival. Scherzo, a witty and elegant mystery set in eighteenth century Venice, was nominated for the Booker Prize. All of his fiction has been published internationally. The Sadness of Angels is his twelfth novel and his first in the science fiction fantasy genre.
Amazon Books http://www.amazon.com/Jim-Williams/e/B0034PZO5E/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1
Marble City Publishing http://marblecitypublishing.com/