If you could speak to your favourite writer, what would you ask them? Would you explore some facet of their private lives, or is there an aspect of their work that you would attempt to understand? And what if your hero knew that you too were an author? What do you think they would ask about your work?
That is, perhaps, intimidating enough, but how would an author react if their favourite author had been dead for a century? Impossible, I hear you cry!
Or is it?
In a new series of interviews I want to see what the inspirational quotes of some of literature’s most famous sons and daughters can entice from a select group of the most outstanding writers working today. How will they reflect on the well-known words of Wilde, Dickens and Bronte? What will literature’s most famous lines reveal?
Tom Williams will publish, Back Home, the third and final part of his excellent Williamson Papers series on April 18th. Beautifully written, these thoroughly researched and perceptive accounts of daring-do follow narrator John Williamson as he ranges across the Far East at the height of the British Empire. From Borneo and Sarawak in the company of The White Rajah, the complex Williamson was then witness to the tumultuous events of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 at Cawnpore. Now back home in Victorian London, Williamson will face off against the gangs in the city slums, foreign subversives, and the intrigues of the British Secret Service in order to save his old friend from the dangers that surround him.
I’m delighted to welcome Tom to my blog and to find out in what way he will reflect upon literature’s most famous lines.
“Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world”
Tom: Running away to sea was, until quite recently, a common theme for adventure stories. For hundreds of years Britain was defined by its island status and a young man in search of adventure could easily find work aboard a ship. That is how the John Williamson stories start. Williamson’s family have died in an epidemic in the Devon village where he lived. Although only twelve years old, he is old enough to know that he does not want to spend his days working on a farm. So he starts the journey that will lead to Borneo (The White Rajah) and India (Cawnpore) before he finally returns to England in Back Home (to be published 18 April).
Williamson's back story ended up being cut from The White Rajah, but it has been published on my blog. Here's his account of how he "thought he would sail about a little”:
I had no special friends among the boys and no sweetheart among the girls. I would pray together with my neighbours in the church that would now watch over my parents’ bones but I would never find true fellowship there. I saw my life stretching before me and ending where I stood beside this grave.
And so a restlessness seized me and, as I regained my strength, the restlessness grew until, one day in June, I made my farewells to the farm. I left the Bible – mine now, for there was no other family – with Mr Slattery for safekeeping. I packed my few other belongings into a stout canvas bag and set out to see what the world had to offer.
I moved first from village to village, seeking work as a farm-hand or ostler but, though I found employment enough to give me a roof for the night and food in my belly, nowhere I saw on my travels round the county offered me more than the life I was escaping. It seemed that Providence guided my footsteps ever closer to Plymouth and the sea. And then, as if by chance, I took up life as a sailor.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”
Tom: Dickens was writing about the French Revolution, of course. But all revolutions bring out both the best and the worst in people and the institutions that are being turned upside down. In Back Home we are in the Britain of the mid-19th century and the country is going through its own revolution. Although the Industrial Revolution started in the late 18th century, it is only by the middle of the 19th that Britain is changing firmly from an agricultural to an industrial economy. There are still cows grazing in the middle of London, but they are becoming a curiosity. The Great Wen that is London is growing, a network of railways allowing it to take what it needs from a countryside that is increasingly remote. Social changes reflect the importance of a growing middle class and, for them, it is, indeed, the best of times. Soon, humanitarian principles and industry’s need for a healthy and educated workforce will lead to vast improvements in public health and the condition of the poor. At the time of the story, though, those at the bottom of society might reasonably think these are the worst of times.
“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing”
Tom: Has there ever been a time when haven't said this? The quote is Oscar Wilde from 1892, but the idea is much, much older. It’s not true that everyone who went out to colonise the world in the name of Great Britain was just after money. Many saw the cultural treasures that they found as more important than any cash value but many, of course, did not. James Brooke (the eponymous White Rajah) was so taken with the Dyaks of Borneo that his enterprise there lost money hand over fist and was subsidised from England. There was often a conflict between those who saw the Empire simply as a source of cheap raw materials and those who valued other things. Nowadays we have come to see imperial rule as entirely exploitative but the reality was much less clear-cut. Those who were after a fast buck were often thwarted, for which we have cause to be thankful. It is doubtful that we would think kindly of the man who valued the marble in the Taj Mahal if he had had his way and demolished it for building supplies. Fortunately there were those who knew its value as well as its price.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”
Tom: History has an awful tendency to repeat itself. When I write my historical novels, I am often astonished by the parallels with today. Burke in the Land of Silver is set around Britain’s invasion of Buenos Aires in 1806. I was writing not that long after the invasion of Iraq and the promises that the British made, saying they came as liberators not conquerors, seemed horribly familiar. (It ended badly in 1806 too.) I wrote Cawnpore with its story of unrest in the North West Frontier provinces while my son was in Afghanistan, holding the line on the other side of a frontier that has exhausted and exasperated the British for almost 200 years. Our politicians, with their talk of Victorian values, seem to be encouraging us back to 1859 and the world of Back Home. Sometimes we seem to be deliberately steering those boats back downstream. I think the least we could do is remember where the shoals were when we passed them first time around, and perhaps try to avoid grounding on them again.
“We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories”
Tom: My heroes are the people who live in those blank white spaces. When I first discovered James Brooke and wanted to write about him, I tried to write a story centred entirely on this fascinating historical character, but it didn't work. There was no room for invention. His letters and diaries and all the histories written around him tied me down to facts. A kindly editor pointed out that I would be much better off producing a straightforward biography. Writing the story from the point of view of John Williamson freed me. There really was a John Williamson, but he had little in common with my character. My John Williamson is a fiction and this gives me room to tell a tale, always bounded by the historical facts but taking on its own life in the margins of the history books.
Ruadh: Many thanks Tom - and the very best of luck ahead of publication of Back Home on April 18th!
Buy the book: mybook.to/backhome