Here is the interview with Tim Willocks for his great novel "Memo from Turner". Keep in mind there will be some spoilers as we discussed some specific moments, enjoy !
First, let me thank you once again for taking the time to make this interview, it's a pleasure every time ! You've been in Paris for a signing event and in Toulouse for Toulouse Polar Sud recently, can I ask how did it go ?
I was in Pau and Toulouse and both festivals were a great success, good writers, good people, good crowds.
When we made the last interview, you talked about how you wanted to take some rest after the writing of « The Twelve children of Paris » by writing some kind of dark western in 19th Australia. « Memo from Turner » takes place in South Africa, may I ask what made you change the setting, and did writing this novel gave you the rest you longed for ?
I still battle with the temptation of the 19th Australian epic ; I’m still not sure how to tell it. I have the story but am not sure how to handle the narrative point of view or who should tell it. That’s one of the most important decisions and it’s sometimes difficult to see the answer. I think 19th century novelists were much more flexible with narration than we are now. The rules have petrified, it’s hard to break out of the cage of ‘third person free indirect’ style. I had a similar issue with ‘Turner’ – was the protagonist Turner or Margot ? I decided it was Margot, even though Turner is the hero. It’s a very interesting problem. ‘Turner’ is also a kind of Western and yes, it was a refreshing break from the 16th Century and the style that requires.
How did you feel going back to a modern days' setting for this novel after « The Religion » and « The Twelve children of Paris » ? Do you think the way you write changed between a novel with some historical background and a contemporary one ? (I felt like the deaths scenes were more sudden in « Memo from Turner » for example)
Everything in life moves faster in a contemporary setting, so the style has to reflect that in the language, the plot, the dialogue and the action. In particular, information flows incredibly fast in the modern world, I mean information between characters. Now it takes seconds. In Tannhauser’s time it could take weeks - at any given moment no-one knew what was going on anywhere. Even in the 1990’s, as in my early books, you could turn a plot around the difficulty of communication before mobile phones – they couldn’t easily call for help or give warning. The different extremes raise different challenges for plotting, you just have to work with the different realities.
Did you make any research for this book, did you go to South Africa or did you read some South African writers like Wessel Ebersohn, Roger Smith, Mike Nicol, or maybe André Brink ?
I’ve never been to South Africa, but then I never really went anywhere that I set a story before I wrote it. I went to Paris and Malta, but not in the 16th Century. I admire J.M Coetzee and Deon Meyer. In the tradition of innumerable writers, I choose the landscape that best serves the story I want to tell. That landscape is always, by definition, a fantasy, even if it’s the street you grew up on. A novel has no existence outside the imagination of the reader : that’s the only place the world of the story exists. I researched the locations, the politics, manganese mining, and all sorts of things the story needed – such as maps of mobile phone coverage in remote areas. I need to know that the events are plausible or believable; which was one reason for choosing South Africa – some real events there are more extreme than anything in the novel, especially as regards corruption and violence. On the whole, the characters tell me what I need to find out as the story unfolds.
What are the essential differences between Turner and Tannhauser ? In your opinion, what would Turner think of Mattias if he ever read his adventures ?
They are different men from very different worlds with different moral boundaries, yet both have origins in lives of oppression. Tannhauser was enslaved as a boy ; Turner grew up under the yoke of apartheid. Each had to forge his own way through life, to create himself from whatever he had within him, without any privilege or external advantages. That gives them both a strong survival instinct, a distrust of political authority, a determination to march to the beat of their own drum. The key difference is in their attitude to the law. Mattias has no faith in it and respect for it, because he sees it as no more than the tool of the powerful in a game they have rigged to serve themselves. That hasn’t changed much, and Turner knows it, but he also sees it as the only way he can contribute to a fairer society. Mattias doesn’t really care about improving society. What’s the point of improving Hell ? But I think Turner would see where Mattias is coming from, and would admire, perhaps even envy, his amoral sense of freedom. However, I’m sure Tannhauser would have kept the whole suitcase at the end.
I already told you about it, but I would like to come back to it, if it's ok with you. Turner reminded me a lot of Richard Stark's Parker, his name, how he seems so cold, methodical, almost unemotional and clinical (how he checked his pulse several times during the novel), but all of this is only on the outside, on the inside, it's a whole different story. And then, how he comes back after being left to die, to get the long awaited justice he was looking for. You told me you read Richard Stark, but I was wondering was he or Parker on your mind while writing the novel ?
Parker wasn’t on my mind but he’s always in my mind because I loved those novels in my youth, and that’s when the real influences take root. I have a particular affection for Parker because my mother once told me ‘You shouldn’t be reading that filth !’ Which, of course, only increased my devotion. Parker, the ruthless criminal, and Turner, the incorruptible cop, are moral opposites, but their attitude to getting a job done is similar. They take each problem as it comes and go at it in a straight line, without wasting energy or time on emotional reactions. But good surgeons are like that too, or learn to be that way. Surgical events often potentially provoke shock, surprise, horror, pity, disgust, fear, self-doubt : all sorts of ‘Oh shit !’ moments. But in the few seconds of time and focus that you might waste on processing that emotion, you can clamp an artery, grab a scalpel, save a life ; you can turn the whole situation around – or you can blow it. You’ll never get those seconds back if you squander them on feelings. It might seems cold, but it’s just practical intelligence in action. In crisis, the emotion has no useful contribution to make ; only calm action matters. When I was a young doctor I’d hear people complain that surgeons were cold. I’d think : ‘What kind of fool wants a hot surgeon ?’
« Everyone is racist when needed » says Turner in the novel, do you agree with him ?
Racism is a very complicated phenomenon, but at the risk of over-simplifying, yes, I do. When we feel threatened in whatever way, when the pressure of anxiety gets too much, when we are confused (which is often), we seek markers of difference to explain our discomfort, weakness or failure, and to justify our counter-hostility, even if it’s all misplaced. We are prone to transference and we love blaming. Christianity, and hence Western consciousness, is riddled with it. Racism is an easy form of prejudice because the difference is so visible and vision is so powerful to our paleological brains. The logic is twisted and poisonous but the inclination is built into all of us and flawed learning processes are almost universal, which is why we all need to make the conscious effort to overcome it.
« L'étranger » by Albert Camus is important in the novel for Margot, can you tell us what it represents for you ?
It represents much the same as it means it Margot, It was a great revelation to me to discover it in my mid-teens, in a cultural backwater in the North of England. It helped me to realise that life held many more possibilities than I had been told or had imagined. It was a pathway into other worlds and Camus helped me to take it. That’s not an interpretation of the text, which is very complex, but it was a talisman of liberation for me.
The twelve children took place during 36 hours or so (I still think the rythm and the pace were incredible by the way), Turner takes place from sunday morning to tuesday morning, it seems you like more and more playing with a short period of time to tell your stories, what does it change when you're writing ?
It increases the intensity of the drama, as Aristotle told us. It also leaves me with fewer gaps to fill. I always wonder what characters are doing when they are not involved in the story. Sleeping ? Watching TV ? If so, there’s something wrong. If a story is as exciting as I want it to be, there shouldn’t be any time for anything else. So a short timeline forces the pace and keeps the characters on their toes. And me too – I have to keep them moving, though it’s often the other way around, they keep me moving.
You created really great characters, I won't repeat what I think about Tannhauser or Grymonde, and now Turner joins them. I would like to draw attention on your female characters too. There were Amparo and Carla, Alice, Pascale and Estelle. Margot is a really great one too. She's a great « bad girl », how would you describe her ? She and Turner are kind of alike, they both became who they are after being marked by death and violence.
Margot is a very strong opponent but I never thought of her as ‘bad’. In many ways I sympathised with her more than with Turner. I find her thinking reasonable and not unjust. She’s right that a thousand poor girls die in gutters the world over ever day and no one gives a damn, including you and I. She bends over backwards to make amends for her son in a productive and intelligent way. In a world – our world – that seems routinely corrupt at the higher levels of power her version of corruption is positively enlightened. And she has her own reasons for not wanting to be pushed around by authority. She doesn’t want violence and doesn’t initiate it. But a whole series of events and characters conspire to push things out of control, which is the much larger political allegory of the story. They are alike in the strength of their convictions and, yes, the inner pain that lies behind them. The central story is really the tragedy of Margot Le Roux, a great person brought down by the very fatal flaws that made her great.
There is an interesting moment in the novel where Margot gives her vision of chess, it reminded me another vision of this game in « The Wire ».
Here is the video
"It's the Queen, she's smart, she's fierce..."
Did you watch this tv show ? And I would like to have your opinion on this vision, how the vision and explanation of chess are molded by their life and their environment.
Yes, I love The Wire and have watched each season at least twice. That’s a brilliant scene and shows the incredible symbolic power of chess in relation to life, including their life – as pawns to be sacrificed without mercy. The vision the Wire gives applies to the politics we all live under. Chess was created in India a thousand years ago and now, even in the digital game era, it’s played by more people than ever. I find myself playing online with people in Brazil, Russia, Nigeria, everywhere. I can’t think of any other way in which one can lock minds with a stranger on the other side of the planet. It’s much more than a game, certainly it’s a form of art – it can generate pure beauty – and an emotional, psychological and intellectual confrontation with one’s self.
I would like to talk now about the solar still scene if you don't mind. It's an incredible scene, I guess a lot of people are going to ask you about it.. I was wondering, maybe I'm reaching too far, but the whole conversation between Rudy and Turner could almost be read as Turner's first hallucination. Even if he hasn't been without water for that long, it can be seen as the way his mind found to help him bear with what he is about to do. Rudy's blessing is what makes him keep going.
I hadn’t looked at it that way but it’s perfectly valid. The novel you read becomes your novel, and yours alone. It’s no longer the author’s. The scene is certainly hallucinatory. And as the Judge says in ‘Blood Meridian, ‘Men’s memories are uncertain and the past that was differs little from the past that was not.’ I liked that Rudy, who is the most unpleasant character in the story, surprised me by having that kind of courage in the face of death. It felt true and, vicious though he is, true to his life and his land. The whole scene unfolded in more depth than I had planned. I had in my mind that Turner would set fire to the car and the bushman would save him. Then that Turner would only to take the blood. Then Rudy wasn’t dead. Then the logic of the reality insisted on taking more. In a way, Turner worked it all out, not me.
During the event at l'Ecume des pages, you said you wouldn't mind writing new novels with Turner. Can I ask what you would like to explore about him ? As far as I'm concerned, I would be more than happy to read about how he became who he is and learn about what happened to him after his sister's death.
I’d like to explore his reaction to the events of this novel, which are devastating and contrary to anything he might have intended at the start. His whole vision of himself and what he believes in is thrown into question. I wrote some scenes in my mind of him undergoing a compulsory psychotherapeutic examination – dueling with a therapist, not giving anything away, but still having his own thoughts. Then being called once again to adventure…but I don’t know what the adventure would be. If and when I do, I’ll probably write it as he is rich character. More backstory can always come in as appropriate.
Can you tell us about your projects, anything about a Tannhauser's novel, or maybe something regarding « Doglands » ?
I’m working out some ideas for Tannhauser and his family to become victims of a witch hunter in 16th century Languedoc, which was no joke back then. It’s hard to find a story that matches his stature, but I’m getting there. I did once start another Furgul book – Doglines – but lost the momentum and was carried away by other things (not least fatherhood).
There are a lot of novels or crime novels currently being adapted in tv show or movies, like Megan Abbott's « The fever » and « Dare me », Thomas Mullen's « Darktown », Attica Locke's « Bluebird, bluebird », Elizabeth Hand's Cass Neary's novels, Matt Ruff's « Lovecraft Country »... I read that « Green river rising » has been adapted in the late nineties, but I was wondering, have you ever been contacted for a possible adaptation of one of your other novels ?
Lots of people have wanted to make Green River over the years but so far none have, though Jon Bernthal currently has an option. Several options came and went on The Religion. I’m also working on an adaptation of 12 Enfants de Paris for Sydney Gallonde in Paris. You can never believe in these things until the cameras roll, and even then the result can be disappointing. But that’s showbiz.
Last question, did you read any book or watch any movie that blew your mind lately ?
I’d love to have a list but these days I have to think hard to answer that question, unfortunately. My mind hasn’t been blown by anything new in a long time, though older favorites still have the power to blow it all over again, sometimes more powerfully than ever as I better understand the ingenuity of their creation. I think we are more afraid than ever to confront ourselves with the truth of ourselves in movies and books. I recently re-watched ‘The Wild Bunch’ (I love the French title : ‘La Horde Sauvage’) and ‘Unforgiven’ recently, and was amazed at the intricate cross-weave of characters and themes in both, plus their deep moral ambiguity. Eastwood raving in a storm, beneath the US flag, that he will ‘kill all you sons of bitches’ (including wives and friends) remains a radically disturbing image.
Thanks again to Tim Willocks for his time, go read his novels, and go watch "The Wire", one of the best tv shows of all times...
The interview for "The Religion"
The interview for "The twelve children of Paris"