Welcome to Clubhouse Chat page. Those of you who not aware the location of the Clubhouse is shrouded in mystery. The only way to visit it is via membership or an invite to the tearoom. Every few days, I’ll be sharing a conversation with all sort of writers and authors at different levels of their writing careers. Over tea and cakes, or maybe a glass of something stronger, I shall be chatting with my guest about their work in progress, or latest book release.
Today I’m welcoming international author Robert Wilson to the clubhouse tearoom. Welcome, Robert.
Thank you for the invite, Paula. I enjoyed the ride in, and strangely enough all the cloak and dagger stuff created a great opening idea for a novel. 😂
I do apologise but we have to keep the clubhouse a secret as it’s a safe haven for writers. Now we have our drinks let me start by asking you, when you first begun your writing journey what drew you to your chosen genre?
I was always a big traveller, which started with my father, an RAF officer, being posted to France and us kids going to a French school in the 60s.At university I did a Greyhound Bus trip around America and drove in a VW van from UK to Nepal. I started the 80s living and working in Crete, went on a bicycle tour of France, Spain and Portugal in’84, and made a big trip across the Sahara, around West Africa and then through the dark heart of Zaire to Kenya and Tanzania in ’87. I moved to Portugal in ’88. So I’d always imagined I’d be that kind of writer, but when I got down to the business of writing it coincided with a flat-lining of the travel genre in the early ‘90s. A screenwriting friend, who was taking some time out to write crime and had read some of my travel stories, told me they had all the makings of a crime novel. The only problem being that I hadn’t read a crime novel since I was a teenager. He told me to read Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard and that was it. I was sold. What brilliant books they were humming with energy and humour. That’s how I ended up writing my African Noir series set on the Gold Coast.
What writing elements do you think are your strongest points, and what would you like to do better?
As you’d expect from someone who wanted to be a travel writer I had a very strong sense of place and that was where all my novels have started; feeling the architecture of the place within me and knowing I could write about it. Africa did that for me in a sensory way, Lisbon and especially Seville fitted into me psychologically and then London in the Boxer thrillers was the supreme challenge as it’s a city that’s different for everyone, very little common ground. I’ve always been able to do plot, too. I remember my new American editor asking me to cut a very specific amount of pages from A Small Death in Lisbon so that it would fit into 384 pages (24 x 16 pg segments being the max for a book under 400 pages long). The deal I struck with him was that I would cut if he could tell me where. Six weeks later he came back saying he couldn’t see how to do it as the plot was so intricately interconnected. I’ve always looked at people, paid a lot of attention to them, listened hard and been very curious even with those that others would dismiss as dull or boring. Nobody is dull, or rather, nobody who is authentic is dull and the inauthentic are glossy, which is always momentarily attractive. So I love character and really enjoy bringing them to the point when they take over. There’s nothing like putting two characters in a room, expecting them to relate according to their given characteristics, but see them refusing to comply. I never disobey my characters. Readers of mine especially seem to like the minor characters…how much is going on off centre stage. What could I do better? Every writer is trying to do everything better. You never stop learning in this game. You have to find different ways to bring readers into your world. You can’t describe place in the same way, or use the same plot devices or write the same character with a different name. In reaching for difference you’re always raising your game.
Tell us a little about latest writing project. Is it a new idea, or one you have been mulling over for some time?
When I was writing A Small Death in Lisbon in 1998 I came across the Consul General for Portugal in Bordeaux, a man called Aristides de Sousa Mendes. He made the highly moral but cataclysmic decision to disobey President Salazar’s Circular 14, which was designed to prevent refugees, including Jews escaping Nazi atrocities, from arriving en masse in Portugal. In issuing visas to the Jews camping out in Bordeaux he saved many lives, but condemned himself and his family to an abrupt return to Portugal and lifelong disgrace. I was fascinated by this brand of heroism – stamping visas in passports is not what we have in mind when contemplating war heroes. I call it administrative heroism. I was also very taken by a story told to me by a friend of mine in Portugal who’d always had a tricky relationship with her mother. In August 1939, against all advice, her mother had decided to go to Paris taking her small daughter and baby son with her and had got caught up in the exodus when the Germans invaded in June 1940. They’d escaped by car and driven to Lisbon where they caught a ship back to UK and her mother had famously left the baby out on deck during an enemy aircraft strafing. Finally I’d been reading Patrick Modiano’s books about the Occupation. His father had a somewhat unusual war as, partly Jewish, he’d played the black market and run a very dodgy collaborative line with the Germans. It was only reading these strange novels that I realized the extent to which I’d bought into the myth about the French resistance. How could there have been a big resistance when the Germans were holding the entire French army (more than 2 million men) as PoWs? So these are the elements, which have inspired my new work – a crime and spy novel set in London, phoney war Paris, the Exodus, Bordeaux, Lisbon and finally Occupied Paris. Let’s just say it’s taken a long time.
What did you learn when writing your book? In writing it, how much research did you do?
My first four African novels came from experience, from travelling (1987) and working (1990 and 1995) in West Africa. Everything was inside me and I just had to dredge it out and develop it into a story. The subsequent novels all required research. I knew nothing about Portugal and Lisbon during WW2. I had to do a lot of research on wolfram, the steel-hardening alloy that was so vital to the German Blitzkrieg style war, which was mined in northern Portugal. I like the odd things that come out of research, so when visiting a wolfram mine I spoke to the managing director and it was he who told me of one of the present day uses of wolfram, which was to tint car windows. That detail featured at the end of the book. After all the research on A Small Death in Lisbon I ended up knowing a lot about spying, the secret state, and surveillance in wartime Lisbon and out of that came The Company of Strangers. By which time the so-called ‘psychological thriller’ had become vogue. I was frustrated by the lack of psychology in these novels so I wrote The Blind Man of Seville. In doing so I not only had to research psychoanalysis but also had to find out about the Spanish judicial system so that my hero, Javier Falcón, could conduct his investigation believably. Not only that, but in order to make his father’s journals work, I had to investigate the actions of the Spanish Blue Division in Russia, the wild times in Tangiers of the 1950s and 60s and the art world in 1970s Spain. The Boxer books demanded that I live in different parts of London unknown to me. I rented apartments in the East End, travelled out to odd suburbs I’d never seen before, got a feeling of a completely different London to the one I knew. Boxer was a kidnap consultant so I had to investigate that world, which was not easy to penetrate. You have to accept that people will not reveal the secrets of a profession on which the lives of future victims depend. Research is always fascinating and involving but the writer has to remember that the reader doesn’t want to be told and certainly doesn’t want to feel oppressed by its detail and depth. All they want is story.
Did you uncover things about yourself while writing your books, whether that be a long forgotten memory, a positive experience etc.
It was only when I finished The Blind Man of Seville that I realized there was a recurring theme in my fiction – absent fathers. My father had been a big presence in my life and someone whom I’d always admired. He was a much-loved leader, a great raconteur, a drinker and a smoker, but towards the end of his life I realized there’d been a struggle. When he’d retired and just before I headed off to live and work in Crete we’d gone to the pub and I’d had my first adult conversation with him. We talked about the war. My father was 16 when WW2 started. He’d wanted to be a policeman but then decided to join the RAF. He learnt to fly in Alabama in 1941 and was so impressive they retained him as a flying instructor to new recruits. By 1943 he was flying bombing missions from N Africa over Italy and the Romanian oil fields. I asked him what it was like. He said it was…shit. As leader of the squadron he was required to drop his bombs on the target and then hover overhead to direct the rest of the aircraft so that they dropped their bombs as accurately as possible. This meant that he was not only in terror of his own life and that of his crew, but he also saw a lot of his friends blown out of the sky. I left for Athens the following day and in February 1980 took a ferry to Iraklion where I ran a travel business. In March my mother had flu and then my father caught it but, as a result of various heart problems, he reacted very badly and ended up in hospital. I flew back, but didn’t get there in time. He died in the night. It was only after his death that my sister and I discovered that he’d been married before my mother and that his first wife had died during childbirth. When my mother died in 2017 an old friend of my father’s came to the funeral. He’d flown V-Bombers with my father in the 1960s when the Cold War was at its height and aircraft loaded with primed nuclear warheads had to be kept in the air on a 24 hour basis. “We always did what Bob told us to do because we knew we could all trust him with our lives.” All that on the shoulders of one man…I regret not knowing him better.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
It never changes. I get up at 5.30/6.00. I make tea and read something different to what I’m writing myself. I work until 9.00 and have breakfast, then again from 10.00 until 2.00pm. In the summer I have lunch and sleep and start again at 6.00 for an hour or two. I make dinner. I keep that schedule 7 days a week for 5/6 months at a time.
Do you set yourself a daily word count?
I try to keep to 1000 words a day during a first draft. Sometimes I make it, sometimes I don’t. Quite often at the beginning of a novel I have to be satisfied with presenting myself at the desk and just thinking, finding my way down into the part of me that’s going to produce interesting stuff. It is not a normal place to be and can take time to arrive there. The danger is to write from the head only. In my experience the head and the gut need to be involved in the process. The only way to get there is to show your commitment by presenting yourself daily in front of the blank page. (I always write first draft longhand never directly onto the computer). The concentration required for this work is not like anything else I’ve experienced. It is totally immersive and utterly engaging so that on the other side of three or four hours of this you return to the real world, which now feels strangely bland by comparison.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
I always thought Robert Wilson a boring name and when my first publisher said ‘Graham Greene is pretty boring too?’ I replied: ‘It has alliteration and that beguiling ‘e’ on the end of Green which makes it somehow more interesting.’
What was your hardest scene to write?
I had a scene in one of the Falcón books that was logistically very tricky with three different groups in a hotel under attack from a marauding killer. Keeping track of everybody, maintaining a pov that wasn’t confusing to the reader and using CCTV whilst upping the tension and suspense was very tough. Another scene, in The Hidden Assassins, was politically very difficult to write, in a post 9/11 world I had an Arab character who was being recruited to spy for the CNI (Spanish secret service), which demanded constant updating as the situation changed. Just as I thought I’d cracked it, Yasser Arafat died. In the book I’ve just finished the Exodus from Paris after the Nazi invasion in 1940 originally came out as 7 or 8 short chapters in a draft that was nearly 200,000 words long. It was clear things had to be cut. I decided that, in order to show the mayhem and chaos, I would rewrite those chapters as 6 x 1000 word sections in which all the action came out backwards and would be interspersed between the 7 opening chapters of the book. It took a month, drove me nuts, and didn’t work. There were some magnificent aspects to reversing the action but, in the end, it felt too comic like a Buster Keaton movie. The good thing about writing the action backwards was that I’d extracted everything important from those chapters. I could then rewrite them (forwards)in a way that conveyed the mental instability of the protagonist and the chaos around her, but this time by coming in and out of focus – sometimes picking out a delirious moment, other times playing out a complete harrowing scene.
How long on average does it take you to write a book?
These days publishers like you to produce a book a year. I could do that with my 4 African novels but once I started getting into the more complicated work demanding more research it became harder. I wrote A Small Death in Lisbon in 9 months because, had I not, publication would have been delayed by a year and I couldn’t afford that. I made myself ill doing it. The Falcón novels took around 18 months each. For the Boxer books I was back on the book a year treadmill.
Thank you so much for join us, Robert. Just let our driver Brutus know when you’re ready to leave and he’ll run you to your chosen destination.
If you want to find out more about Clubhouse Member’s Books don’t forget to check out the Clubhouse Bookshops .