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JASON WEBSTER ON HIS NEW

Regular readers of mine will know I am quite a fan of Jason Webster. I have read all four of his previous books and thoroughly enjoyed them all. I particularly enjoyed the last one Sacred Sierra, so I looked forward to receiving his latest work, his first novel, 'Or the Bull Kills You' featuring Max Cámara a flamenco and brandy loving (he also smokes pot, grown for him by his grandfather!) detective working in Homocidios in Valencia. The book begins when the city is in the throes of Las Fallas, with Max having to stand in as judge for his superior at a corrida, Bullfighting is a sport he loathes, and then, with the murder of a famous Matador following the bullfight, he becomes more involved with the sport. The ensuing investigation, over the five days of the fiesta, and coincidentally, the final days of an election campaign that has, at its core, the proposed banning of the sport, takes place in the streets and bars of Valencia, inland to the mountains and south to L'Albufera. It's a fast paced and well-plotted read and on the way we learn a lot about bullfighting, the city, Las Fallas and Cámara's own demons.

Can you tell us a little about your life since we last chatted on the publication of the excellent Sacred Sierra, and a little about the progress of the farm.
Things have been quiet at the farm for a while. My wife and I have our hands tied up with two very small boys (two-and-a-half and three weeks respectively), so we’re spending more time in Valencia, specifically in the Huerta, where we have a little place in the middle of the orange groves.

What made you decide on a detective novel for this, your fifth book, when all the others have been factual?
I’ve been wanting to move into fiction for some time. I think fiction equates more with our experience of the world around us — sensations and feelings that are subsequently crafted into a kind of narrative by our imaginations. But I’ve always regarded myself as a story-teller first and foremost, so this isn’t too big a leap for me.

How has the experience of writing a piece of fiction differed from writing your other books?
It’s not as different as you might imagine. Essentially I think writers write, and then other people come along and start labelling it ‘fiction’ or ‘non-fiction’. The funny thing is that when you write a book of fiction everyone wants to know how much of yourself is in it. And when you write non-fiction people ask how much of it is ‘made up’. All my writing involves a strong element of story-telling, so character, plot, atmosphere — these are all key elements regardless of whether it’s a novel or travel literature.

OTBKYCOVERI am guessing you are more of an aficionado of Bullfighting than your book's hero Max Cámara. Am I right, or do you think, like your fictional Mayoress, that it should be banned?
I have ambiguous feelings about bullfighting. But I feel even stronger that this modern mania of banning things we don’t like is quite out of control. The moral dilemma at the heart of bullfighting is obvious, but I’m more prepared to hear the argument against it from a vegetarian than from a meat-eater. Abattoirs are not fun places, so I don’t quite understand how you can eat steak and wear leather jackets and at the same time be against los toros. Also, I wonder what the effect of banning bullfighting would be. It’s an ancient ritual, a blood-rite, and I sometimes wonder if there isn’t some collective benefit from its existence here. There is art in bullfighting, whether you’re for or against it, and as such it has cathartic power. Where would all that blood-lust go if you got rid of it? I think it probably channels something in human nature that would otherwise run loose, looking for some other means of expressing itself. Like football hooliganism, for example. It hardly exists in Spain. Now why is that? 

The research you did for the book on Police procedures in Spain and Valencia was obviously quite deep, did the relevant departments offer their help willingly? 
I’ve learnt to avoid doing anything in Spain ‘by the book’. You reach out, you spread the word, and wait for solutions to come to you. I have a friend who is a high court judge, and he was able to fill me in on a lot of things. Then a couple of contacts I made in the Spanish National Police helped me with the everyday details in the life of a chief inspector working in Homicidios.

Carajillo - reading about the one Max drinks in Albacete reminds me of  a job I once undertook for a friend here and I would arrive early each morning to find him making us a huge and very strong carajillo with sugar, brandy, the coffee bean and a twist of lemon peel, delicious! How do you like yours?
Sweet, hot and with as much brandy in it as it can take. Preferably when it’s cold and wet outside.

Fallas, are you a get out-of-towner or does it still fascinate you and you stay for it?
I loved it at first, but have avoided it for perhaps the last eight or more years. I don’t like the way it’s imposed on you, whether you want to take part or not.

What comes next  - More of Max, or another work of non-fiction?
The second novel in the Max Cámara series, Some Other Body, is already complete. It deals with a murder in the Cabanyal area of Valencia and will come out in February 2012. I’m currently working on the third.

Finally, what book or books are you reading at the moment?
I’ve finally got round to reading Catcher in the Rye, and am loving it. I’ve also finished the latest Arnaldur Indridason crime novel and am looking forward to picking up a copy of Giles Tremlett’s biography of Catherine of Aragon.

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A slightly different version of this interview originally appeared in the magazine 24/7 Valencia