Sunday, 28 August 2011
Tuesday, 16 August 2011
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, I was a software designer. I’d just signed off on my biggest and most fraught project. As I sank exhausted into an armchair, my wife thrust a large tumbler of whisky into my hand and looked me straight in the eyes. ‘Sweetheart,’ she said, ‘get a life!’ Her suggestion: that I write. And about the sea...
Once I’d overcome the initial shock and decided to give it a go, I realised there was a lot of sense in what she said. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been bewitched by the sea. Going to a decent grammar school was wasted on me; on the school bus I’d gaze out across the Channel at the low, grey shapes slipping away over the horizon on voyages to who knows where, taking my imagination with them. As a young boy I remember the thrilling drama of the Flying Enterprise, when Captain Kurt Carlsen refused to leave his sinking ship and, with First Mate Dancy of the ocean salvage tug Turmoil, heroically fought to bring her within sight of port before she tragically sank. Then, too, London Pool was packed with ships flying the red ensign, and it was also the time of the very last of the square riggers: theoretically, you could still sign up outward-bound on a commercial voyage.
The only member of my family to have any connection with the sea was a distant relative we called Uncle Tom. A gentle, quietly spoken old man, he’d been around the Horn in square sail, and whenever I could I would sit spellbound and listen to him talk about life before the mast on the seven seas.
My father thought he’d knock all this sea nonsense out of me, and sent me to a tough sea-training school at the tender age of 14. It didn’t work; there was no contest – Latin and algebra or splicing and boat-handling! So at age 15, I joined the Royal Navy, eventually becoming a petty officer and later a lieutenant commander. And 40 years later, I sat down to write about the sea.
I’m ‘Old Navy’ with a deep respect and admiration for the service, so it had to be the Navy I’d write about. I chose Nelson’s time, the great climax of the age of sail and a magnificent canvas for sea tales. This was an era when the sea was respected and wooed by men who didn’t confront the sea with steam engines and brute force. I also wanted to bring the sea itself into a more prominent role, but was, as yet, unsure how to achieve this.
I soon realised that there were things from my time in the Navy that I wanted to bring to my writing; small things, but so evocative – a shimmering moonpath glittering on the water, the sound of voices from invisible night watchkeepers, the startling rich stink of the land after months at sea, the comfort of a still hammock when the ship rolls about it, the unreal beauty of an uninhabited tropical island in the South Seas.
There were the darker memories, too. Savage storms at sea when you feel the presence of nature like a wild beast out of a cage; close inshore in a gale when you wonder if a mistake at the helm will end with those black rocks suddenly bursting in. I was duty watch in the carrier Melbourne that night when we collided with and sank Voyager – there from the seaboat I saw men’s courage at work while 80 sailors drowned.
To achieve that more prominent role for the sea, it seemed logical to take the perspective of the men who actually did the job out there on the yardarm, serving the great cannon or crowding aboard an enemy deck, rather than of those shouting orders from behind. So the lower deck it was – and then I came across some amazing statistics. In the bitter French wars at the end of the 18th century, there were, out of the several hundred thousand seamen in the Navy over that time, only around 200, who by their own courage, resolution and brute tenacity made the awe inspiring journey from the fo’c’sle as common seaman to King’s officer on the quarterdeck. This meant of course that they changed from common folk to the gentry; they became – gentlemen. And that was no mean thing in the 18th century.
And of those 200, a total of possibly 16 became captains of their own ship – and a miraculous half dozen to Admiral! Yet not one left any kind of record of their odyssey, how they must have felt, what impelled them to the top – and so there I had my story! They would be the basis for my central character; I’d write the story of how he endured from the level of press‑gang victim to hoisting his own flag as Admiral.
I’d deliberately take the perspective of the common seaman as my point of view, instead of the more usual officer shouting orders from behind on the quarterdeck. This would mean I could pit my hero first hand against the reality of the sea, and let him taste the salt spray in his teeth, the fear of serving one of the great cannons on the gundeck, the courage needed to work aloft on madly flogging canvas.
In fact I soon realised my book would be a series.
My initial conception of the length of the series, eleven books, (which at the time seemed almost impossibly daunting) has now been revised considerably, upwards. The more I delved into the historical record the more I found to inspire the creative juices! My twelfth book CONQUEST is just out and I am working on book 13 to be published next June. A further eight are planned.
Thursday, 4 August 2011
How to say where something began? Start tracing the root of anything, and it twists and coils and doubles back more sinuously than you knew. When I try to trace the root of my Charles du Luc historical mystery series, it seems to begin in my doctoral research, done in Paris, on the 17th and 18th century ballets the Jesuits produced as part of teaching rhetoric at their school called Louis le Grand, on Paris's Left Bank.
During the research visits, I fell in love. With the Jesuit ballets, Paris, French history. And with the Jesuit Cultural Center in Chantilly, half an hour's train ride north of Paris, where I lived and got to know the warm, welcoming, brilliant Jesuit community there. They became my French family and I went back year after year, long after the dissertation was done.
One evening, I stayed in Paris after the libraries closed and went to see Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Molière was educated at Louis le Grand, and as I watched the play, I wondered if his theatrical experience had begun there. I also remembered that I'd first seen the play during high school, at a transplanted 18th century theatre in Sarasota, Florida. So the
root coils back to the Florida Gulf Coast, where I took my first step toward France.
From there, it wound through my university study of religion. And then it twined around my knees. I became a professional modern dancer, and after twenty years of dancing and choreographing, my knees informed me that they were doing no more jumps, no more plies. Which left me with the heartstopping question of 'now what?' Left me still an artist, but without an art form. So, like a good Monty Python fan, I decided that it was time 'for something completely different!' I became a police officer. But knees turned out to be useful in law enforcement, too. Then I became a dance professor, and during that time, another college commissioned me to write and perform a one-woman show for a lectureship. I wrote Response Time, about what happens when a middle-aged female artist hits the street as a cop.
I left teaching and toured the show around the U.S. Which let the root run along the stage of a small theatre in New York, where one night after a performance, a woman came backstage and said, "I really love the writing in your show. What else are you working on? I'm a literary agent." When I found my tongue, I said, "I'm working on a mystery novel." That novel didn't get published, nor did the next one or its revision, but the wonderful agent stuck with me. Discouraged by all the failure, I turned back to the long ago research in Paris, wondering if I could turn it into a story.
The long, gnarled, twisted root heaved up the floor of my study, and I wrote and wrote and wrote, loving every word, caring not at all what happened or didn't happen to what I was writing. Everything I'd ever done or been came together and gave itself to The Rhetoric of
Death : love of history, interest in religion, the doctoral research, love of theatre, working as dancer, choreographer, playwright, actress, professor, cop.
The novel's hero, Charles du Luc, is a young 17th century Jesuit, teaching rhetoric--the art of communication--and producing ballets at the college of Louis le Grand. In The Rhetoric of Death, he finds himself working with the first Paris police chief, Nicolas de la Reynie, to catch a student dancer's killer--while trying to keep his vows and be faithful to what he loves. To my great joy, Berkley/Penguin has made the Charles books a series and the second novel, The Eloquence of Blood, comes out September 6th. In it, Charles is faced with proving the Louis le Grand Jesuits innocent of the murder of a young woman who was disputing an inheritance with the college. The third Charles book is two thirds written. The fourth is prowling on the shadowy edges of my imagination.
Tracing the root of the Charles books reminds me that nothing is ever wasted for the artist who keeps working, who keeps making, no matter what's lost or won.
Monday, 1 August 2011
In a word: Constantinople. The city that was. And Istanbul. The city that is.
I had been researching my previous novel, ‘Vlad: The Last Confession’ in Romania in 2007. I thought: I am this close, I should visit Istanbul. So I did, for five days. Did the full tourist thing, was suitably awed by luxuriant Topkapi and dazzled by the Blue Mosque. Took my boat across the Golden Horn and up the Bosphorus. Played backgammon in alleys in Pera. Bought a rug in the grand bazaar and smoked narghile filled with apple tobacco in a place just beside it. Ate it, drank it, smoked it. Loved it… and left.
What I didn’t realize was that I had caught a fever from the city and its people. It felt so… relevant, still the centre of the world in so many ways. Not just the cliché ‘where two continents meet.’ Its totality. So much had happened there over so long a period. It had been central to so many people, their faiths, their cultures. And the more I thought about 1453, the more I realized: this is where two empires ended – the Byzantine and the Roman they’d sprung from. 2000 years of history right there. And this was where another empire began: the Ottoman who, though they had conquered much of the Balkans by then, truly established themselves by felling those two ancient worlds. And when I delved further, I discovered this: that despite all the massive preparations of assault and defense, it all came down to one moment of fate. To a single bullet.
What I most gained from a second, targeted, still too-brief visit in 2010, was a sense of the people. I talked with citizens, from warriors to publishers to concierges. To a man I’d met over a pipe before, the gentle philosopher, Akay, disciple of Omar Khayyam. I soon realized that my ambitions had shifted. If I’d ever conceived this as a story between good guys and bad, between gallant, outnumbered Christian defenders and hordes of fanatical Muslims, that concept swiftly changed. The people I talked to had ancestors who had fought either side of the walls. And they were united now in their love of what they’d fought for. The city moved me, as few have ever before – and I have travelled far.
I began to conceive characters that would give me viewpoints both sides of the walls, to tell the whole story. My central one is Gregoras: exile, proclaimed traitor, toughest of mercenaries who vows never to return to the city that took his all and does the very thing he vows not to. An outsider can see what others cannot. One who was once an insider sees more. But I also truly wanted someone who did not fight for the things ordinary men fight for – God, gold, glory. Along came Achmed who fought so that no child of his would ever die of starvation again.
I don’t like to give history lessons in my novels. But to understand the characters you need to understand their context – religious, social, military, political. I found men and women who would lead me into all those areas and tell the readers what they needed to know because they needed to know it.
The city was the key to everything. Walking those still-standing walls, you can only marvel at the courage that it took to both attack and defend them. Why would men and women do that? Because Istanbul inspires that level of love. It did in me, resident for just a few weeks. What must it do to those who live there?
I wrote of this love, from the point of view of a nameless Greek, addressed to his enemy: ‘I watch the sun pass directly over me down the line of the Bosphorus, setting the dome of Divine Wisdom afire, falling on every column that marks our history, transforming the waters that surround and sustain us from the blue smelted steel of our swords to the green of an empress’s eye. In its daily course the sun casts an even light upon the whole city, lingers like a lover reluctant to part . . . then flees suddenly, unable to look back, anxious to swiftly return, as it always does.
As shall I. If I am too tired to lift my sword, I will lay my body in the breach to trip your foot; and if my sacrifice is not worthy enough to mitigate my sins, perhaps it will yet be enough for God to grant one prayer: that I spend purgatory as a stone in Constantinople. Under that light, breathing those scents, part of that history. Part of the greatest city on earth. As was. Is. Forever will be.
I am Constantine Palaiologos, Emperor, son of Caesars. I am a baker, a ropewright, a fisherman, a monk, a merchant. I am a soldier. I am Roman. I am Greek. I am two thousand years old. I was born in freedom only yesterday.
This is my city, Turk. Take it if you can.’
What inspired him, inspired me. Constantinople. This is where the book begins and ends, stands and falls. With that city and with the people who lived and still live there.
Chris's website: www.cchumphreys.com