Tuesday 7 April 2009

John Baker again

Here is the second part of my interview with John Baker about his new book, Winged With Death.

Martin: One of the differences between us that I mentioned is your love
of dancing. Whereas I have two left feet. The tango plays an important
part in your book - was that part of your original plan for the novel,
or something that developed as you wrote?

John: I have wanted to use dance as a metaphore for some time, so it was
part of the original plan. It fitted this time because of the location
of the action. The River Plate is where the tango was born in that
critical period around the 1880s. The original maetaphore was coined by
the tanguerros; the leader was immigrant washed up on the shores of this
strange land, while the follower was the land itself. The dance was
about the settlement of the immigrant, the acceptance of the immigrant
by the land, the battle of each against the other and the knowledge that
each needed the input of the other.

For my own purposes, although this original metaphor was almways in the
background, was about communication. It was still about a fight, of
course, because that is what literature is always about, but it was about
reconcilliation as well. And it was there to temper and to modify and to
echo some of the other themes in the novel.

Martin: The book is, in part, set in Montevideo. Yet you've never been
to Uruguay. Of course, you did quite a bit of research, but what
prompted you to write about a real geographical location that you've
never visited?

John: I dreamed about Montevideo. I woke up one morning and realised
that I'd just returned from a night-long trip to Montevideo. I could
still smell it, I could see the colours and hear the sounds of a South
American city in the late sixties/early seventies. I thought I would
have to go there, to visit to make sure that I got everything right. But
then I realised that it could just as easily remain as a dreamscape. I
did the research. I spoke with others who knew the city with some
intimacy. I made sure that I got it right while all the time being aware
that in a very real sense it didn't matter. I was anyway playing with
the concepts of time, why not include those of space as well?
And now, when all that work has been done, do I want to go to Montevideo?
To have a look, to measure perhaps how right or wrong my idea of it was?
It's a place I love. I don't want to give myself an excuse to change it.

Martin: It might be said that one of the themes of the book is 'denial'.
Do you agree, and if so, what fascinates you about denial?

John: In terms of denial in the book, it is one of those themes I
mentioned earlier, which contrast with the theme of dance. Because
denial is an active emotion. It keeps you on the move, keeps you running
away. Whereas dance, in a very real sense is about the moment, and the
moment is about stillness.
What is fascinating about denial is that it represents the modern dilema.
Everyone is hurtling through time with pretensions of permanence; becoming
precious about rock climbing, the razor-edge of a blade, Jesus or
Mohammed. They believe the obsessions of those around them to be founded
on illusion.
That millions of Americans, sophisticated people in many other respects,
can block out all the evidence and assert that some simple controls over
the sales of guns will not affect the stats on the death rate from
firearms accidents, school-room killings, etc., is only one example of the
place of denial in the society in which we live.
There is also the concept of Holocaust denial which is fought against by
the Israeli's, who in turn are in denial about their own State’s murderous
policies in relationship to the Palestinians.
And on a personal level it's exactly the same. Denial is a defense
mechanism in which a person is faced with a fact that is too uncomfortable
to accept and rejects it instead, insisting that it is not true despite
what may be overwhelming evidence.
A man told that his wife is dead may refuse to believe it, setting the
table for her and keeping her clothes and other belongings in the bedroom.
A woman having an affair may not think about pregnancy or sexually
transmitted diseases.
People usually take credit for their successes and find 'good reasons' for
their failures, often blaming the situation or other people.
Alcoholics and drug users often deny that they have a problem.
Optimists deny that things may go wrong. Pessimists deny they may succeed.
There have been many documented cases of people refusing treatment for a
terminal disease because they do not believe it is happening to the. They
would rather die than accept reality. And they do.

Martin: What was the starting point for your writing of this book?

John: I can't honestly say. My starting point is always thematic. I'm
not interested in plot. The themes which converged around Winged with
were time, tango, denial, revolution and abduction.

Martin: Your prose is extremely well-crafted. I'd like to think that
this is the product of endless painful revision, and suffering for your
art, rather than effortless, otherwise the envy wouldn't be easy to
control! Do you write many drafts, and how long did the book take to

John: My first drafts are not very inspiring. Writing, for me, is about
rewriting. About revision and rewriting. I don't go through a fixed
number of drafts, but there are always more than I expected.
Winged with Death took a long time. Around two and a half to three years.
The best part of the experience was the editing. Lots of things came
together then. While I was writing it seemed as though the connections
weren't always there; only in the editing stage did everything fall into

Martin: And did you enjoy the writing process?

John: Yes. Writing is the one thing in my life I always enjoy. Even when
I hate it. When it's absolutely impossible I still manage to hang on,
not go insane, kep the faith. Every time something doesn't work I know
it's only like that as a trial of strength. I only have to close my eyes
and hang in there and it'll all come together.

Martin: You have been blogging for some years, and to much acclaim.
What, for you, is the appeal of blogging? And does it get in the way of
your other writing?

John: Blogging does get in the way of my other writing. But it's part of
my day now. It's a way of communicating with my readers, and with other
writers; it's a way of publishing stray thoughts and irritations and
freeing myself up for the main job of writing another novel. If I didn't
blog I'd have to invent some other way of avoiding the beginning of
another novel.
Blogging is my way of sharpening my pencils, of getting ready to do
something else.

Martin: And finally, what next for John Baker the writer?

John: I'm writing a novel set among the people who left Europe for
America during the middle part of the 19th century. I suppose it's a
kind of quest novel. America is the grail; and the question, or one of
the questions, might be: when you find the grail, what then? When you
find it and collect it up and it ceases to be a quest and becomes
instead a possession, are we actually better off?

So there you have it. I'm not sure I agree with John that it's not a crime novel - in fact, one aspect of the story has a faint echo of a famous Christie mystery. But what can be said for sure is that it's an intensely readable and very rewarding piece of work from a polished writer with a worldview that I find fascinating, even though (or maybe because) it is very different from my own. Recommended.


Maxine Clarke said...

Hello Martin, A bit off-topic for this post, apologies, but you may remember some time ago you wrote a post about Half Broken Things by Morag Joss. I enjoyed reading your book and as a result bought both the book and the DVD. I have not watched the DVD yet but I read the book and enjoyed it - my review is at Euro Crime this week at
Thanks for the recommendation - I doubt I'd have discovered this author if I hadn't read your post.

seana graham said...

The book sounds fascinating. Montevideo dreamscape!

And the discussion of denial gives me much food for thought. For some reason it reminds me of a common story I've heard recently, of people who know for months that they are facing foreclosure, but can't deal with it, and in the end just drive off and leave everything. Not just the furniture and kitchenware, but everything--what's irreplaceable along with the less important.

Dorte H said...

"Writing is the one thing in my life I always enjoy. Even when I hate it."
What a wonderful paradox! I certainly enjoyed this interview with lots of information about the creative process of writing.

John Baker said...

Thanks, Martin. It was good to see you enjoyed the book. And a pleasure to be a part of your pages for a short time.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Maxine, glad you liked MJ's book - but not surprised! And I am fairly confident you'll like the DVD.
Seana and Dorte, thanks for your thought-provoking comments. And as for John's book, it's good to have the chance to spread the word about a novel that deserves success.

John Baker said...

Seanag, thanks for the comment. Denial is one of the big questions for us altogether, when you think about what we're doing to the planet. I know you were referring to the phenomena in individuals, and that, of course, is my own main concern, but what is particular often turns out to be general as well.
I wonder if past ages experienced the concept of denial to the same degree that seems to be here now?

John Baker said...

Dorte H, I do seem to talk a lot about the process of writing these days. But it often strikes me when I reflect on what is happening, that I'm talking about the creative process altogether.
When I speak with musicians or painters, dancers, etc. we often manage to relate those different processes together.

Martin Edwards said...

Denial is a truly fascinating subject, John. Of course, views as to who is in denial about what may vary. But addressing it as a theme in a novel was very thought-provoking and worthwhile.

Nik Morton said...

John has packed a lot into his novel and it sounds intriguing on a number of levels. A layered novel is going to offer more satisfaction, I think. As for stillness - yes, when my wife and I dance the Argentine tango, for me it's those moments of stillness in between that give it the edge over other dances. Best of luck with your new publisher, John!
Nik Morton

Dorte H said...

John, I am not a professional writer but a teacher, and from my amateur point of view I agree that the creative processes of various artists are similar to some extent. Not that painters can write or musicians paint, but years ago when I wanted to get away from work I tried to paint & today I try to write, and I can see that the feeling of getting something off my chest and putting it "on paper" is the same.

John Baker said...

Thanks, Nik, it's always nice to receive encouragement from another writer. And a fellow dancer, to boot. You must let me know what you think to "Winged with Death" when you get around to reading it. A dancer's point of view would be useful to see how that central metaphor works out.

John Baker said...

Hi again, Dorte H. There was also a time when I painted. I believe it was more of a therapeutic thing for me, and never really had the same sting that I get from writing. I was also untrained. But conceptualizing and working up that head of steam to get started, that was all reminiscent of writing.
I suppose one could use almost anything for therapeutic purposes, but for me the writing process has always been too exciting and often disturbing, so when my time for therapy comes around I tend to reach for a ball.

John Baker said...

Martin, I suspect we're all in denial to a greater or lesser extent over different aspects of our life experience. Isn't it only when denial begins to put us in jeopardy that it's worrying?