An exclusive interview with the author of ¡Guerra!
This interview originally appeared in 24/7 Valencia Magazine
What do you think it is about Spain that appeals to you?
I’ve thought a lot about this over the years and still find it a difficult question to answer. Obviously the weather and people are crucial factors, but it’s more than that. Spain seems to be an intricate and beautiful tapestry of a country which can surprise you at every turn. I still feel there’s so much to learn and discover about the place, and although it can be occasionally frustrating, some deep vein of compassion and humanity that runs through it always manages to win me over. Also, there’s a kind of ‘earth-wisdom’ that you come across every now and again, particularly in the old proverbs that I find attractive.
Music, history and literature are strongly entwined in your work. What were your early influences? Did you always want to be a writer or musician?
I suppose these are things I’m interested in, so they come out in what I write. I never really had a clear vision of what I wanted to do, or be; writing started as a kind of ‘let’s see what happens’ exercise, and out of that came Duende. I was very lucky to have some close writer friends (Robert Twigger, Christopher Ross) who were able to give me some pointers along the way and tell me where I was going wrong. That was invaluable. Literary influences are harder to specify. Reading depends a lot on mood, I find, everything going into the melting pot and having some effect or other. But I’ve never tried to mimic or copy someone else’s style. If I had to name writers I like, I’d say Patrick O’Brian, John le Carre, Halldor Laxness. That’s this week. Next week it might be others. The thing is, in the end I think my main influences come either from life experiences or from ‘non-literary’ books – history, psychology, popular science, etc. Travel writing and novels are the end result of a process. If you’re only influenced by writing of same genre, you’re going round in circles.
In your first novel ‘Duende’, you explored the underworld of flamenco. Why is it so special to an ‘outsider’ like yourself? What did you learn from it?
Flamenco hit some deep, previously untouched emotional nerve in me and I responded to it, without knowing very much about it, or what it was about. One of things I discovered, though, was that despite the idea of Flamenco being an art-form of people on the margins of society, of ‘outsiders’, it creates its own laws and structures which are as limiting as the mainstream. Flamencos are not ‘free’, as they like to boast they are. They are simply bound by different rules. The Flamenco guitarist Vicente Amigo alluded to this just the other day when he talked about how nervous he felt bringing out new CDs, and how great musicians he knew refused to record anything for fear of judgement by their peers. The flamenco world can be incredibly bitchy and back-stabbing. That said, the music and dance can produce the most moving experiences you’re ever likely to have. That’s still at the heart of what it’s all about. And the pain and joy it is capable of producing in the audience are able to bypass many of the defensive walls we build around ourselves. I embarked on a journey to discover Flamenco as an emotionally under-developed ingénue. It showed me parts of myself I didn’t even know existed.
In ‘Andalus’, your latest work, the Moorish influences of Spain are sought out. Why did you feel the need to do this?
One of the things which drew me to Spain in the first place were some images I saw quite by accident as a teenager of the Alhambra. I thought it was simply the most beautiful and wonderful thing I had ever seen, and wanted to know more about the people who’d built it. As a result I ended up studying Arabic at university and travelling around the Middle East. When I finally came to live in Spain I couldn’t help seeing influences and picking up echoes of the Moorish country it once was. Andalus was a way for me finally to get to the heart of all of this, and try to pin down what the Arabic legacy is here. It’s a vast subject, and I only scratched the surface, but the ‘Moorishness’ of Spain is one of its great attractions for me, not just for the great palaces like the Alhambra, but in the way people behave, their customs and food. Spain has great lessons to teach us about how Islam and West can get on.
What are your future plans regarding writing? Is there another part of Spain’s past or present you are interested in documenting?
I’m currently working on something looking at the Spanish Civil War. Modern Spain was forged by that period, and is still trying to move on from what was a great cataclysm in many ways. Even today, ‘The Two Spains’ are very visible and the right-left divide in politics is much more important than, say, in Britain. To understand what’s going on today in the country you have to know what the Civil War was all about and the loose-ends it left behind. Also, I’m trying to look at some of the darker sides of living in a foreign country. It’s not all ‘driving over lemons’.
Since the success of both novels, do you find that your daily life has changed much? Is travel now a burden or a pleasure?
Writing has become more of a job, which is fine as long as you can keep it fun and enjoy what you’re doing. The problem is it can become a bit like a permanent essay crisis. Travel is perhaps more of a necessity now than it was before: sometimes just moving in space feels like it can open up different parts of the brain.
Why did you end up in Valencia and what do you really think of it? (Culture, people, weather, nightlife, history, flamenco scene…)
I’m strongly attached to Valencia. Of all the places I’ve lived this is the closest I’ve ever felt to being at home. It’s not perfect, but nowhere is. Valencian friends often complain about the city, about the ‘fallera’ culture, how they make things look good on the outside but forget about the inside (take the new science museum, for example). All show and no substance. But the city has so much else going for it: the food, people, and climate. I still get a kick walking around the market and just staring at all the fresh fish on offer. And now they’re cleaning up the Carmen the centre looks great. I kept saying to people back in Britain years ago: ‘Just wait – Valencia’s going to be “the new Barcelona”.’ And while I hate these tags, it’s definitely going that way. There’ll be a price – the city feels ever more ‘pijo’ and everything’s much more expensive, but there’s a growing buzz about it. After years of being a kind of ‘forgotten sister’, the rest of Spain seems to be waking up to the fact that Valencia is a great city. I ended up here more by accident than chance because my wife is Valencian, but really think now I wouldn’t want to live in any other Spanish city. The noise levels get to me sometimes, but I’m happy here.
COPYRIGHT 24/7 Valencia magazine 2007