Most recent book: An Evil Eye
You studied history at Trinity College, Cambridge. I was at St John’s College, Cambridge, and found the place wonderfully evocative and inspirational, but largely because it was so weird and otherworldly. How did Cambridge influence you as a writer?
Interesting question. What it is, I suppose, is that Cambridge is a huge library, isn’t it? You’ve got the University Library, each college has its own library. At Trinity we have the wonderful Wren Library, stuffed with Newton’s work and so on. You can’t leave that place without having an extraordinary love of books. Why one would want to add to the huge stack of books they have there, I don’t know. Doing History there, I found that it was the turn of phrase that you could use to bamboozle your supervising into thinking you’ve already done your research, learning that was quite useful. When I left Cambridge, I guess I would just say that my essays got longer. Instead of 8000 words they’d be 80,000 words, and they’d be a book.
Where do you live and why?
Now I live in Dorset, what they call [Thomas] Hardy country. We’ve lived in London, we’ve lived outside London. In the end, wherever you go, London is looming over your shoulder. If you can go far away enough, and Dorset’s about 150 miles west of London…it’s by the sea, it’s very beautiful, and there’s a very strong sense of community around here. It’s a great place to bring up kids.
With your non-fiction books being travelogues, and your fiction recreating the foreign world of Istanbul in the 19th century, did you ever think to live abroad?
It is the regret of my life. You’re lucky, you’re doing it [the interviewer lives in Europe]. When my wife and I first got to Istanbul we thought we’d go back and live there. Somehow it just didn’t happen. We got back to England and things just snarled up, life ran on as usual. We took the kids and we went and lived in the south of France for six months. It was good, but after awhile, we ran out of people to talk to, so we came home again.
Your non-fiction reminds me of the writing style of another great British author who, like you walked across Europe, Patrick Leigh Fermor [Fermor wrote two books about walking from London to Istanbul in the 1930s, Jason wrote one about doing the same trek in 1990]. Did he influence you, either in writing or in your decision to walk across Europe?
He certainly influenced the decision to go. He is probably the greatest travel writer of his generation. But his particular style is to be so intricate and crockety, so immersed in his turreted, florid style… Funnily enough, when we decided we were going to walk to Istanbul, my aunt, who knew Paddy [Fermor] vaguely, invited him over for a drink and we met him. He sat down and we said “we’re going to walk to Istanbul” and he said, “Ah, what a very very good idea!” As if we’d thought of it—he was very charming and gracious, and incredibly knowledgable. I saw him a few years before his death, and he was still firing on all cylinders. Amazing man.
Now when he walked to Istanbul, he experienced a sort of elegiac moment, [in the 1930s] he was looking at a Europe that was disappearing. A Europe of German barons in their castles and gay Hungarian aristocrats—gay in the old-fashioned sense of the word. I mean, he had a tumble with a peasant girl in a hay barn, that sort of thing. It was very evocative. What inspired me to go on this walk in 1990 was the sense that there was another world which was, again, about to vanish—that of Communist Eastern Europe. But it was also that peasant world that hadn’t really changed since before the Second World War. That was the amazing thing about the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Outside the cities, things didn’t really move on very much. So I did get to see a world that has largely vanished. Horses are replaced by tractors, people move around by car, and roads are paved, but otherwise it had not changed all that much.
Describe your morning routine.
First off, cup of tea.
What kind of tea—I know you’re a tea aficionado [Jason’s first book was about traveling to China and India in search of tea]?
I was a tea aficionado, but now I’m a speed aficionado. It’s a tea bag of builder’s best dropped in a mug. Then the school run. Up at about 7, by about 9 I’m back, having dropped off the kids. My working day is divided between dropping children and picking up children. But that gives me a good six hours for work. Then it’s back into the office.
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space?
Yes. I’ve got a room in the garden, an old summer house. I’ve got my computer in there, my desk, a comfy chair, which is usually occupied by the dog. Lots and lots and lots of books, and pictures and maps, all the paraphernalia. And an incredible mess it is, too. Everything is piled up. It’s like a sort of wizard’s chamber. It’s quite shaming to tell you about it, really, I keep meaning to clear it up.
Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.
Well, I’ll sit in my wizard’s chamber, begin by diverting myself with some emails, pretty much anything I can think of before I have to open up the bloody document and start writing. Then I write until lunchtime, break for lunch, my family always has lunch together, and then get back to it until I have to pick up more children. If I can snatch some time to get work done in the evening, that’s great, too.
What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
I don’t really have a set routine, but if I can come away with over 1000 words, then I’m thinking, “Oh, that’s great.” But the other day I managed 2000 words, and I thought that was pretty good, but then the next day I didn’t get much of anything done, so it ends up averaging out to 1000.
1000 a day is pretty good by any standard. I’ve interviewed a lot of authors in the course of this series, and everyone seems to target 1000 words as a productive day’s writing.
It depends what you’re writing. If you’re writing a chase scene…I discovered that I love a chase scene, and I can actually get up to about 3000 words in a sitting if I’m writing one. You always add another bend in the street. But if you’re writing some quite tricky dialogue, then you should be happy with about 450 words. I mean, how much do you write?
Well that actually leads me to my next question. I find non-fiction far faster and easier to write than fiction. I can produce 3000 words a day, if I’m in the zone for non-fiction, but fiction comes far slower.
I’m the opposite. I find that fiction comes much easier. I can get by quicker with fiction. When I discovered fiction, that I could write it, I realized that, you know, you can make it up. You don’t have to look it up. And if you can make something up then you’re sort of channeling something. You’re in the moment. It’s you bounding across the room, watching the fleet sail away. So I can describe those things faster than when I’m grappling with a sequence of events that’s got to be correct and accurate. For me, moving from writing non-fiction to fiction was like learning to fly. You’re sort of supported on angel wings.
Like you, I write fiction and non-fiction, but we are a rare breed. The publishing industry tends to discourage crossing out of a successful genre, much less bouncing between fiction and non-fiction. How was your desire to write both received within the industry?
You’re absolutely right. When I went to my non-fiction publishers and said, Look I’ve got a novel, they said, We’ve already got novels. We don’t want you to be a novelist. In fact I sent them a draft manuscript of my first novel [The Janissary Tree] and they wrote back and said “This doesn’t seem to be a very complete history of the janissaries.” What book were they reading? They just couldn’t see what they were reading. In order to publish fiction I had to switch publishers. Luckily my agent was behind the idea. I showed it to her with some trepidation, because they’re the Wylie Agency, and I thought, Maybe this is too silly or down-market. But they said, This is intelligent fun and we’d like to do it. So they made it into a great success. But I think you’re right, I think it’s hard to persuade publishers to let you change.
Reading your wonderful history of the Ottoman Empire (Lords of the Horizons), I found myself thinking of all of the interesting periods in Ottoman history in which a novel could be set. You chose circa 1830s for your Yashim detective series. I have to say that, of all of the periods of Ottoman history, that would not have been high on my list (as a professor who teaches 16th century art history, I’m partial to that era myself). How did you choose that period for your fiction series and what sort of research did you undertake in order to evoke it so effectively in your novels?
I’ll tell you what it was. There were two periods with an obvious draw. One was 16th century, the Ottoman Empire at the peak of its powers, pushing up to Austria, pushing down to the Red Sea, Sulyeman the Magnificent, and all that. The trouble with that is that triumphalism is a kind of dull mode. I think it’s much more fun to write about decay and decline, things growing a bit shabby. The 1830s was an interesting period when you’ve got two moods clashing. There’s the nostalgic one, you know, Where have we gone wrong? And there’s the fearful, Where are we going next? I suppose that just makes for an interesting milieu. And, when I think of writing a novel, I think 19th century. Dickens and Balzac and Tolstoy…obviously not comparing myself to them, but the novel is the ultimate literary form of the 19th century, and so going back to the 19th century seems like a comfortable place to be. Reconstructing an Early Modern or Medieval period is a stretch, it’s a harder world to grapple with, whereas the 19th century has familiar handholds, in known territory, even if the subject matter is exotic.
How did you decide on the character, Yashim?
I had to do this really cruel thing to Yashim. I knew he had to be an investigator, he had to be independent but connected to the palace, he had to have a reason to do what he did. He needed to talk to women as well as men. And frankly, the only way he could do all these things in 19th century Ottoman Istanbul was to have his balls chopped off. A scream from him off-stage, but some advantage gained for me as a writer.
You don’t plan to dramatize that scene in a future novel, do you?
Well, I think we’re going to have to go back into it. I think eventually the readers will want to know what happened. So I’ve got a story in which Yashim is going to go back and, sort of, level the score.
Do you have a writer friend who helps and inspires you?
I don’t really talk shop, as it were, with other writers much. But I do have a friend who got me onto writing fiction. He writes novels for children, great big animal books, about talking animals, but more like Watership Down, 450 pages or so. I was talking to him and I said, God, that must have taken you years to write that book. And he said, No, about 8 months. And I thought to myself, Ah, maybe fiction is a way to go.
What is a scent, taste, and sight that you associate with Istanbul, the realm of your books?
The obvious scent is the spicy smell you get when you’re hanging about outside the Egyptian Bazaar, before you plunge in. Once you realize that this place has been imbued with spices from all over the world for centuries, that’s an interesting way to go back in history. You can smell the history. For a taste? I think it could be coffee, actually. Those wonderful little Turkish coffees that they boil up, and you get it very thick in the cup, and you can have it sweet or medium sweet, and it’s a very relaxed feeling. For me it summons up a whole culture. For sight, I think something I saw the last time I was there, just the other day. I was walking down a very dark alley and there was a cat slinking along in front of me. And it suddenly flipped, and jumped into the air, and pawed at the air. This cat was leaping about, and I finally realized it was chasing after bats. I thought that was a wonderful sight.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins.
I’m a great one for just jumping in. I like to know my characters, who we’re going to meet in this book. I usually know who’s going to die, and I guess I know who’s done it. Whether I like to do this way, I don’t know, but this is how I do it. I don’t map it out, because I think that I would then lose interest, if I knew it all too pat. It’d be a terrible struggle to roll that ball uphill every day. Part of the fun of it is making, as one writes, this world into which one sinks. You begin to see and hear connections that you couldn’t possibly have thought up ahead of time. You have to be in that situation to start to channel those things. It does mean that, about two-thirds of the way through every book, I have to put a cold towel around my head and think, well, how are we going to escape from this? That’s kind of a scary moment, when you might think to yourself, Oh my god, none of this works. Touch wood, so far that moment has come and I’ve weathered it.
Do you have any superstitions?
I have got one. I’ve noticed that, whenever I look at the clock, it says 11:27. I don’t know why, I always notice that. There’s something about 11:27…it’s probably 11:27 right now, in fact.
You won’t believe this, but it is. At least my clock says 11:29, but I’m sure it’s 2 minutes fast.
It is? I don’t know what this means, but perhaps my children will discover that time on my death certificate. Otherwise I think that the writing life is difficult enough as is, without making it more difficult with neurotic, sort of, superstitious habits. I know one author who can’t get any writing done if the phone rings before they start to write. I just think, we’ve got to be more robust than that. Just wait until you have kids. A writer with kids learns that sometimes you just have to get on with it. I don’t think I can afford to have any special writing hats, or something like that.
Your book readings can be rather unorthodox. I believe at least once you performed an impromptu jam about your protagonist, Yashim, rocking out on a mandolin? Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
I’ve done the whole thing, yes. I was in Seattle once, on an American book tour. It was the rather terrible night that the Spaceship Challenger crashed. The book signing went ahead, but there were only two people in attendance. And I thought, I’ve come a very long way to talk to two people. I talked to them for an hour, I gave them full value. And when I stopped one of the two, a Chinese woman, got up and opened the door to the bookshop, saw that it had stopped raining, and walked out. The other one said, That was a very nice talk, thank you. Then she started to go, and so I said, Aren’t you going to buy a book? And she said, Well, I’m a librarian, you see, so I can get them all for free. I think we’ve all had that, we writers. I hope we’ve all had that—I’d hate to meet someone who’d never had that. The fact is that I love talking to people, so I do enjoy standing up and trying to make people laugh, talking about books and life. I find that if you stand there and look at your audience and think, How am I going to make them like me? That doesn’t work. But if you stand there and think, Gosh, these people have been nice enough to come out to listen to me, I like these people. Then immediately you’re off on the right foot, and can have a fun evening.
What was it like to win an Edgar Award? That’s about as good as it gets for thriller and crime novelists.
I was in Jackson, Mississippi, and I took a break to go around Eudora Welty’s house. I noticed that she had her Pulitzer for literature stuffed into a closet, but her Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America was proudly on display in the living room. It’s the Oscar for mystery writers.
When The Janissary Tree won the Edgar for Best Novel in 2007, my publisher in New York collected the thing – I was in England – on my behalf. Every time I visit her I have a Eudora Welty moment – I see this pottery Edgar in her office and say I’d quite like to take it home and she says, well, it’s awfully fragile… and changes the subject. So I never get it. In San Francisco a kindly bookseller gave me the plastic, nodding Edgar with his head on a spring which everyone who attends the awards ceremony gets to go home with. So I make do with that.
Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
Oh my God, Noah, what could it be? Perhaps my weakness for Dan Brown novels. You have to admire that man, because in many ways his books are total crap. On the other, if they’re such crap, then why do we turn the page? I’ll always go for a second one.