07.2006 Interview with Tim Willocks.
Histo-Couch: Could you tell us something about yourself? What about your family and your hobbies?
Tim Willocks: I was born and raised in a Pennine hill town in the North of England. I have a younger sister and two younger brothers. My father (now retired) was a bricklayer and my mother worked at home during most of my childhood. Until aged ten, I was educated by the Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeaux, and until aged seventeen by the Xaverian Brotherhood, a teaching order which has roots in the Jesuits. I qualified as a doctor in 1983 at University College, London and practiced medicine and psychiatry until 2003.
I’ve practiced Shotokan karate for over twenty years, and still train for four hours or so per week. I play the guitar and enjoy riding horses, though I’ve no great skill in either. I do a lot of walking and climbing in the Kerry mountains, which gives me an immense sense of freedom – far from the madding crowd – and where I find myself filled with an awareness of Eternity. I enjoy re-watching old movies on DVD, especially Westerns. I admire Leone, Kubrick, Visconti, Peckinpah, Michael Mann, Kurosawa, each in his unique way for the scale of his vision and his juxtaposition of character and landscape. I love opera. Among my favorite recordings are Muti’s ‘Aida’ and Solti's ‘Parsifal'. I find that the great operas, and certain movies, embody a boldness and intensity of dramatic ambition that inspires me in a way that modern literature rarely does. I read a great deal of non-fiction; in fiction I tend to re-read old favorites as one can always learn something new. I’m presently revisiting Lampedusa's ‘Il Gatopardo'. I like to keep up with international affairs via the Internet, and to that end regularly read newspapers or websites in the USA, Israel, Pakistan and India, as well as the UK. The world is perceived in so many different ways – something I tried to portray in The Religion.
Histo-Couch: „The Religion“ is your first historical novel. Up to now you only wrote thrillers. What made you turn to historical novels now?
Tim Willocks: I’ve written numerous (18) screenplays in a variety of genres from straight drama to thrillers, comedy, high adventure and historical romance, so I felt no great change of direction in writing a dramatic novel set in history. I approach all settings of time and place in the same way, which is to stand in the shoes of each character, be he or she living in the present or the past, and to imagine their experience, their emotions, their reactions and decisions. At the point of writing, and I hope of reading, the character is experiencing the present moment – their own present moment, in their own small life – and so they should not be self-conscious of acting on a larger stage. As Homer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wagner, Tolstoy, Kubrick and numerous others teach us, historical drama transcends not only genre, and not only setting and form, but also Time itself. I’m preoccupied first and foremost by creating drama, characters and emotions in a living and breathing world. The tools to achieve that end are the same whatever the genre or setting.
However, the historical novel allows a great freedom from the strictures of contemporary literary fashions and political correctness, and this I enjoyed greatly. I also sought the opportunity the work with language in a rich and elaborate way. The modern use of language – in life and therefore in any literature that seeks to be naturalistic – is rather anaemic compared to its use in days gone by. I wanted to put to use a style of syntax, dialogue and imagery that was both splendid and direct. The modern world has largely abandoned the finer possibilities of language, along with a broader turning away from – a seeming distrust of – beauty in general. A novel set in the 16th century – a time when beauty was revered – offered me the chance to explore, or indulge, my passions in this respect.
Histo-Couch: The German previews of your book mention that you were allowed to work in Ken Follett’s house. Did that influence your book in any way?
Tim Willocks: I’ve never met Ken Follett, nor read his work, but we share the same literary agent, Albert Zuckerman, founder of Writers House in New York. Mr. Zuckerman, knowing that I had long been prevaricating over beginning this novel, invited me to live in his country house in New York state. This certainly had a great influence on the book in all sorts of ways, some no doubt unconscious. The first influence was that Al Zuckerman is a great inspiration who understands authors deeply and has great expertise in helping them to construct novels of a large and complex architecture. I would certainly recommend him to any novelist with a book to sell.
Having spent most of my adult life in either London, New York or Los Angeles, I also found living and working in Nature to be a huge liberation and inspiration. I don’t think I could have written this book in a city. The power of nature, the forest, the seasons, the sky, the stars at night, all helped me to live in the kind of dream state, or quasi-trance, that I believe was necessary to write ‘The Religion'. I vividly remember setting off from London on that great journey, knowing that I had set myself the task of creating a whole world, a world very far distant from our own, a world that I myself did not know at that point. I had to open myself, heart, mind and soul, to a different reality and capture it in words and images. To do that required me to be apart from the hurly burly of our world, and Al Zuckerman’s house in the woods enabled me to do so. It was the most wonderful experience of my life, and as with all such experiences, I sometimes fear that I will never know its like again.
Histo-Couch: The original title of your novel is „The Religion“, the German title is „Das Sakrament“. What do you think about that title?
Tim Willocks: I think „Das Sakrament“ is a wonderful title, as bold and powerful as I hope the original is too. I’m not sure why the publishers chose to change it but I trust their judgement. Certainly they have produced an unusually beautiful book. To my regret, I have no German, and presume there was some complexity of translation. The Knights of Saint John called themselves ‘The Religion’ and referred to their order as ‘Our Holy Religion'. This is one meaning of the title, but it also refers to War, Christianity, Islam, and, in the end most importantly, Love. I expect that the German title can carry these allusions too, not that such interpretations are terribly important. What’s important is that the book give the reader a rich and memorable experience.
Histo-Couch: Did you travel to Malta and Sicily to do research for your book? If yes, how much time did you spend there?
Tim Willocks: Yes, over the course of several years I went to Malta, Sicily, Istanbul, Jerusalem and Rome. I expect each author has their own method of research. My own is to absorb the essence of a place without doing very much in the way of making notes. I never know what details I will need until I am writing a given scene. Instead I try to feel the stones beneath my feet, to absorb the diverse qualities of light, to imagine life as it was or might have been, to take in the landscape and the sky, to feel the size and scale of the world as it was then rather than is now. In these travels I would say that I tried to rediscover that sense of awe which the power of the modern world has taken away from us. Perhaps also, a sense of the Divine.
Now, Istanbul, or Malta, is as close as a few hours on a plane; then each was at the far reach of the earth. Now we – or at least we in ‘the West’ – live in a world almost entirely dominated by the concrete, by what is rationally knowable, by what can be demonstrated and proven, bought and sold, verified, litigated and calibrated; back then life, for all its cruelties and hardships, was dominated by a sense – an awareness, a knowledge, a perception – of realms transcendent to the one in which we breathe. At the very least, and even from a pedestrian neuro-scientific perspective, I believe that the power to sense the Divine, the infinite, the transcendent, is a deep part of our human essence and ability, whether or not these things can be measured or defined by the tools of our intellect. To deny this faculty, as so many do – to be afraid of it – seems to me un-intelligent. Our intellect has proved overwhelmingly powerful in dominating our environment, our lives, and each other; but even intellect and its many servants cannot encompass all that we are and all that we can know. Art itself would certainly be shoved out of the door if that were the case. If we confine our notion of ‘knowing’ to the merely rational, we strip ourselves of a fundamental aspect of our human being. One of the great joys of writing this novel, joys which at certain moments bordered on ecstasy, was to inhabit a world in which such a sense of transcendence and mystery was absolutely real.
I’ve done a fair amount of formal scientific research in my medical life, and somehow I don’t like to be so formal in my research for stories, though no doubt old habits die hard. I prefer to let my unconscious get to work, to let impressions seep inside me, to let the archetypes speak from the hidden depths. I found that I rarely referred back to those notes and photographs I did make on those visits; but I kept the instinctive impressions alive, almost, perhaps, in an animalistic sense. I attended religious services in some of the old cathedrals, churches and mosques. I tried to open myself to the spirit of the various peoples. In these respects, I trust the power of the unconscious more than the power of the intellect. The latter can get in the way of emotional or artistic truth. I’m always aware that even in a discipline as rigorous as medicine, the observations that I’m recording and presenting are, to some degree, an illusion – the map but not the territory, so to speak. Therefore, in the task of creating a dream that others might share – which is my conception of a novel – I fear that too strident a verisimilitude can undermine the dream, or my own pursuit of that dream.
Having said all that, I did go to great pains to check all historical and geographic details, including every word of the vocabulary, which I didn’t want to be anachronistic. I am expecting various mistakes to be pointed out, but hope that none are so glaring as to undermine the pleasure of the novel.
Reading the literature and letters and journals of the time was also very important. As always, Shakespeare was a great friend. I re-visited the ‘Essais’ of Montaigne, Tyndale’s New Testament, and so forth. The paintings of that era were also invaluable, and each worth volumes of words. That led me to Peter Robb’s magnificent biography of Caravaggio, ‘M', which is a great evocation of the era. I also listened constantly to music, as much as possible the music of that time – of which there is relatively little – and also of the subsequent Baroque era. The wonderful gambo recordings of Jordi Savall and Paolo Pandolfo were especially inspirational companions, and I hugely recommend them for their otherworldly beauty. As regards absorbing some essence of Renaissance life, feeling and sensibility, I would say that exposing myself to these arts – and most of all to the music – was far more important than the formal research that I did. The latter gave me the surface, the facts, the details; the former gave me a window into the heart and the soul. Observation and reportage produces the map, but not the territory; the great thing – the mystery – of art is that it can let you stand in the territory; or at least I hope so.
Histo-Couch: The historical background of your story is the great siege of Malta in 1565. Did you model any of your protagonists after persons who lived at that time?
Tim Willocks: There are some historical figures in the novel – La Valette, Oliver Starkey, Michele Ghisleri, Le Mas, being the principle ones. I was wary of taking too many liberties with these characters, because whilst many of the major actions or motives that I portray on their behalf are documented, their personalities are not. I told myself that this anxiety in no way prevented Shakespeare from giving us his fantasies of Julius Caesar and Henry V, but even so I was much more comfortable with the fictional characters who command the great bulk of the novel. ‘Model’ is too strong a word, but I reassured myself that Tannhauser was plausibly well travelled and adventurous with the examples of men like Blaise Montluc and Hernan Cortes, and certainly there was far more traffic across the Christian/Islamic divide, in both directions, than I had at first imagined; Dr John Dee provided some inspiration for Petrus Grubenius; Artemisia Gentileschi for Carla; Sabato Svi had many real life equivalents and ‘Moshe Mosseri’ was a real figure; the career of the inquisitor Alexandrini provided a partial model for Ludovico’s. In most cases this wasn’t a matter of taking biographical details, but of finding resonances in terms of lifestyle, temperament or career. All the fictional characters are original and unique, but even though they are extraordinary, they would not have been considered freaks in that world. That’s another reason for choosing to write this novel: ours is a timid world in which boldness seems almost a crime; in the world of The Religion, it was considered one of the greatest virtues.
Histo-Couch: You describe numerous fights with weapons in a very detailed and precise way. Are you yourself interested in historical fighting? Is it a hobby of yours?
Tim Willocks: I’m fascinated by the fighting arts of all eras, though the only one in which I have trained is Shotokan karate. I have friends who have some skill with medieval weapons, and I looked into the details of various 16th century combat techniques. Various re-enactment societies take this very seriously, and certain armouries, such as the Royal Armoury in Leeds, have some first class practitioners. It is quite a surprise to see a man in full armour performing cartwheel somersaults. Each weapon had its own intricacies of use, but space prevented their exploration. I must say that during various revisions of the novel I edited out a fair amount of technical detail as I feared that it would bore that majority of readers who do not share my fascination. What I was most keen to portray was how gruelling and exhausting fighting is – the physical experience rather than the technical aspects, and the enormous mental concentration required to survive. The breathing, the footwork, the burning muscles, the nausea; the conquest of fear; the aftermath; and of course, the peerless exhilaration of combat – another forbidden truth which the modern liberal world would have us deny. All these you can experience in a two hour karate session in which no one is even trying to seriously harm you; so I remain in awe of the combatants of that era.
Histo-Couch: How did you think of this very interesting but mostly unknown historical background?
Tim Willocks: I’m always alert to the possibility of rich dramatic settings for a story, settings in which I can explore the extremes of human emotion and experience. For instance, in reading a paper in a psychiatric journal about the New Mexico prison riot I was inspired to write ‘Green River Rising'. The Great Siege of Malta came to my attention when I produced ‘Jew of Malta’ by Christopher Marlowe for my fringe theatre company, Kurtz, in the early 1990’s. The play is very loosely set at the time of the siege and this led me to investigate the event in more depth. I knew at once that I had to create a story against that background, but it was many years before I sat down to write it. During those years I wrote another novel (‘Rachegottin'), the screenplays, and produced three feature films (none of them commercially successful, I must add). When I’d had my fill of Hollywood – a marvellous and tremendously complex industry, by the way, for which I have the greatest admiration – I retreated into the backwoods of upstate New York and immersed myself in ‘The Religion'.
Marlowe’s play is grossly inaccurate in historical detail, being written only a few years after the siege, but the protagonist, Barabas, is character of extraordinary dimension and complexity. In modern terms the play’s anti-Semitism is easy, if dull, to whine about – Barabas makes Hannibal Lecter look like Homer Simpson – but even more than Shylock, Barabas is actually the victim of appalling injustice before he takes his outlandish vengeance, and he goes down spitting defiance at a crowd of sanctimonious swine. He’s undoubtedly the hero of the story. It set the tone for many later Jacobean revenge dramas, and must also have influenced Shakespeare, especially in Titus Andronicus. It hadn’t been seen on the London stage in over two decades when we mounted our production. It’s well worth reading as well as seeing – and casts an interesting light on the notion of ‘historical fiction'. It was essentially a contemporary story at the time, but now has all the elements of what we might look for in such fiction at its best: extravagant plotting, vivid characters, passion, intrigue and bloodshed galore.
Histo-Couch: This is your first historical novel, will there be more? Or a sequel?
Tim Willocks: My intention is to make a trilogy – two more novels – featuring Tannhauser and Carla. If I live long enough, I have a loose idea for a trilogy set in the 1930’s and 40's in Europe. And I’ve developed a story set in Australia in the 1870's that I’d like to write.
Histo-Couch: What is your recent project about?
Tim Willocks: I’m working on the next Tannhauser adventure, which is set in Paris in 1572.
Histo-Couch: You already wrote scripts for films. Could you imagine writing a script for „The Religion“? Could you already think of an actor you would like for your main character?
Tim Willocks: In an ideal world, a fine movie could be made of ‘The Religion', though even a three hour epic would require a much truncated version of the story. I could also imagine writing the script, though experience and better judgement would counsel that I put my efforts into another novel. It would take a very long essay indeed to explain why such a film would be extremely difficult to finance and bring to the screen at all, let alone with any semblance of fidelity to the novel. However, Al Zuckerman is attempting to sell the film rights, so who knows? Certainly I am not holding my breath.
As to the casting, I never like to think of actors when I am writing a character (even in screenplays) because the power of an actor’s image restricts the growth or possibilities of that character. To pick an obvious illustration, if you have Eastwood in your head, your character isn’t going to say a great deal and will react in certain ways; and perhaps he should say a lot and act in others ways. You also have to remember that movies are very much simpler than novels in terms of characterisation, inner psychology and plot. Movies by their nature can contain very little of these elements. The genius of actors, directors, screenwriters and composers is to convey the illusion of such complexity, in which service the human face is the most fantastic tool imaginable. There are many fine actors who could play Tannhauser, though most of my favorites are dead. And since I want to keep working with Tannhauser – that is, with his permission, as he is alive and striding the dreamworld despite any inclinations of my own – I will keep my peace on this matter.
Histo-Couch: The name of your protagonist, Matthias Tannhäuser, recalls the German legend of Tannhäuser. That saga emerged a good hundred years before the Turks started to conquer Malta. Did this Tannhäuser legend influence the work on your novel in any way?
Tim Willocks: Yes, the name had an enormous influence on the novel, but I do say ‘the name’ rather than ‘the legend'. As Mattias himself reflects in the novel, and on this very subject, ‘a name has a power all its own', and so it proved. We each have our own relationship to such things as names, and to some readers, at least in English, the name ‘Tannhauser’ will be new or will carry little previous meaning. To answer your question, then, I will tell you the history of my own relationship with this name.
From an early stage of conception I wanted very much to name the protagonist ‘Tannhauser', but considered it for a long time before daring to do so. To me it is one of the greatest names ever conjured, which is why it took some audacity to use it. The first classical music recording I ever heard was Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture. I was about nine years old and the record was given to me by a friend of my mother. I was overpowered by the music and the sense of haunted, tormented heroism that it evoked. I still am. At that age it seemed to me like the music for some amazing film that I’d never seen, with a hero of the stature to match it. In my boyhood imagination, then, this mythical name already loomed large. At a much later age, in my twenties, I became familiar with the entire opera and the legend as there related, and also came to love Wagner’s work as a whole. This is no place to discuss Wagner as a controversial figure, but the fact that he is so only added weight to the power of the name ‘Tannhauser'.
In inventing a story to set during the Great Siege of Malta, and thus in looking for a hero, I knew from the start that I wanted that hero to be German, initially through an instinctive desire and conviction, later for a whole series of reasons. In retrospect, I think this decision enriched the story hugely. In principle, he could have been from any one of a score of ethnic origins, but no other, to my mind, would have been so apt or would have given him the freedom to be a man of such daring and complexity, especially at that moment in history. Almost simultaneously with that instinct and decision, I knew that he should be called – that he was called – ‘Tannhauser'. I knew that, as you point out, the legend predated the period of the novel, and so I thought, ‘If Wagner can use it, why can’t I?' It was hardly a name that he might have been born with, but in those days it was not uncommon for a soldier of fortune to take a ‘nom de guerre’ and this provided the perfect solution. That Mattias chose ‘Tannhauser’ himself, and that it was a bold choice, both reinforced the character and validated the use of the name.
I chose the name, then, because I loved it, and because it had great power, not because I intended the legend to form the basis of the story or of the hero’s character. Because of the weight and stature of that name, both historically via Wagner and in my own mind, the character and the novel had to live up to that promise. It was a gauntlet thrown down at my feet: the name constantly demanded that the novel justify my use of it. I realized after I’d finished the story that there were some crude parallels to the legend – a wandering adventurer, of strong appetites, caught up in the complexities of love; a man trapped by the rules and hypocrisy of society; a man who feels himself to be lost to God but who is actually on a quest to save his soul. But I wouldn’t claim any precise parallel with, and no inspiration from, the legend itself. The inspiration was provided by the name.
Histo-Couch: Thanks for the interview, it was very detailed and interesting. We wish you all the best for your new novel and for the future.