With Antoine Vanner
Tell me your story.
As a student I made maximum use of my long vacations by working and traveling in Europe and the Middle East, experiences that triggered my determination to seek a career in international business. This involved, in due course, over 36 years, work and residence in eight countries, with shorter jobs or assignments in a dozen others and in yet more in the thirteen years since then. As an engineering graduate I started out with the conviction that “Nothing is impossible”, and so it proved in every aspect of my work, whether as a technologist and project manager early on, or later as a senior executive with one of the largest multinationals. Much of my career consisted as much of “adventures” as of“experience” and my late first wife – clever, fearless and beautiful, a force of nature – and I were especially lucky to have spent four years in West Africa shortly after our marriage: you name it, we experienced it then. This started a love affair with Africa – and its magnificent people – that continues today. I “retired” from full time work thirteen years ago but since then have been involved in academic work in Britain, the United States, Spain, Latin America and the Philippines, including also development of bespoke training programmes for senior politicians and administrators. I also got involved, on a pro-bono basis, in advising African governments on energy-development policy. I also served four years as an elected local councilor and held an executive role on the council. I devoted myself increasingly to writing in this period, to the extent to which I’ve cut back on all other work except for limited teaching by electronic link at a major American university. I do continue to travel widely – I’m now close to having visited 60 countries – and I’m massively short of hours in the day. The same applies to my wonderful second wife, who’s had an equally varied life around the world and whose horses now keep her as busy as my writing does me.
Tell me about your latest book.
My most recent, Britannia’s Amazon, is fifth in the Dawlish Chronicles series of Late-Victorian adventures: think “Hornblower in the Age of Steam” with a dash of Joseph Conrad as regards moral complication. I set myself a definite challenge in Britannia’s Amazon – and indeed took a chance. The four previous books dealt with a naval officer, Nicholas Dawlish, and saw the action through his eyes, but the fifth concentrates on his wife Florence – indeed this book, hers, set in Britain, runs in parallel time with the fourth, his, set in Korea. Florence had been a major player in two of the earlier books and she, no less than many of my readers, was crying out for one of her own. (Characters do take on a life and demand a full life from you!). The challenge was two-fold – the first was for me as a man to tell a story wholly from a female viewpoint and the second was to reflect accurately the social and other constraints an intelligent woman had to cope with in the 1880s, not to mention the values and attitudes of the time. This latter exemplifies for me what is the main challenge for any historical novelist – to portray people of the era as they really were, rather than modern-day people, with a twenty-first century outlook, dressed up in re-enactors’ costumes. Like all my other novels there is a strong element of ethical challenge and moral ambiguity in Britannia’s Amazon – especially as personal loyalties to compromised characters is involved. Like my other books, it ties in with actual events of the time – in this case a major scandal – but it also reflected my outrage about similar abuses being uncovered in Britain in recent years. The next book, my sixth, is due for publication shortly and will once again feature Nicholas Dawlish as the main character, struggling for Queen and Country on the fringes of empire!
Where do you get your information and ideas for your books?
I’ve been reading history all my life, and I’ve been particularly interested in the nineteenth century, though around 40% of my reading is about other periods. This provides the basic foundation I build upon – every story starts with a “What if…?” question and a cast of characters. My main characters, Nicholas and Florence Dawlish, are wholly real to me, to the point that I know the dates of their births and deaths and I have a detailed timeline of their lives, which only gets revealed in the books as they’re published. Detailed research for each book concentrates on actual events, personalities, time-frames, etc. Much of my research involves material available in the London Library, the largest private library in the world – indeed one of my reasons for choosing Britain for my retirement was to be close to it. There’s no substitute for reading books written in the era you’re interested in, whether you need the material directly for your own novels or not. My favourite find had the wonderful title “To Lake Tanganyika in a Bath Chair”, written by a missionary’s wife in the 1880s!
Do you have a specific process when writing a book?
With my background it’s inevitable that I follow the dictum “Plan the work and work the plan.” Management education at a major American business school was a very valuable preparation for systematic writing. I start with a theme – which can be summarized in three or four sentences. I then make a list of characters, some of whom I know I probably won’t use – but I don’t know which yet – and I sketch a backstory for each, typically a page of bullet points. I then go in for intensive mind-mapping drivers, outcomes and linkages. I go back over these steps several times, refining with each iteration. I make a lot of use of maps – of invented locations as well as real ones. I’m then in a position to set out the story-line, paying due regard to pacing, build-up of tension, introduction of information etc. I can then divide that into chapters, do some last revision and have a 90% plan. In some cases I know the setting already – to the extent on occasion of having walked over the ground. Then the actual writing starts. And why the 10% uncertainty in the plan? It’s because I may need to modify in the light of insights or opportunities that present themselves in the course of writing. That get’s me my first draft, which will typically be subjected to two or three revisions, sometimes with very major changes. (I outlined the process briefly at a workshop I ran at the Weymouth Leviathan Literary Festival last year in which I guided participants to develop a basic plot, based on a theme they chose).
Do you have a writing/reading quirk or ritual?
Sit down and hit the keys. If I’m stuck I just keep looking at the screen and until sheer frustration gets me going. I average about 880 words per day, sometimes more, mainly in the morning. I seem to be written out if I go much beyond that. I walk with my dog most afternoons and I play out the next day’s action in my head, like an internal movie.
What is something you’ve learned about yourself through the process of writing?
Primarily that all your experience and knowledge is relevant in some way for some part of some story. Your entire previous life is a preparation for the moment you start the first chapter.
What do you think makes a good story?
The reader is always unconsciously asking two questions: (a) Do I want to know what happens next? and (b) Do I care about what becomes of the characters? If the answer to either question is “No” than the reader is going to stop reading. I’m a movie buff but it’s noticeable how many movies I switch off when I watch on video, usually long before the critical 24th minute, which is the key moment for locking in the audience. In every case it’s because I don’t care what happens next and/or I care even less about the characters.
If you could only read one book over and over, which one would you pick and why?
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. I first read it when I was sixteen and I’ve read it countless times since. It gives the sense of an even vaster story waiting to be told since all the main characters, even minor ones, have the potential to be the protagonists of their own novels. One could argue that Zhivago himself is such a weak individual that he should not have been the focus, but that is perhaps why others are illuminated so well by contrast. My own favourite is the magnificent Pasha Antipov, later Strelnikov. He deserves a book of his own. (By the way don’t confuse the novel with the movie – it’s a thousand times better. Tom Courtney as Strelnikov was splendid however).
And why do I like it so much? Largely because throughout my life Zhivago has shown itself to be true to the way people really are and really behave in extreme circumstances. Life-experience has taught me to downgrade very substantially my original estimation of many authors – Hemingway is an example – because they seem to lack real conviction and truth as regards how people really are when faced with brutal realities.
What books are currently on your night stand?
Joseph Conrad’s collected works (on Kindle). I’m working through those of his novels and stories I haven’t yet read. I find him an almost terrifying writer, often depicting, and building on personal experience, as an exile and at sea, how moral squalor can degenerate into outright evil. “Mr. Jones” in “Victory” is one of the most appallingly depraved characters in all literature and yet you can see how he got there, step by step. I’ve encountered several people like him in my own life, especially in Africa and Latin America, when the societal restraints are loose to non-existent. Conrad’s stoic outlook appeals to me, his acceptance of bleak realities, his recognition that only courage, love and integrity count in this world where life is so easily nasty, brutish and short. The fact that Conrad’s a master in a language not his mother tongue also never ceases to amaze me.
I’m also reading “Freedom’s Forge – How American Business Produced Victory in World War II” by Arthur Herman. At first glance this may seem like a somewhat dry subject but Mr.Herman makes the story as exciting as any thriller and I can’t wait for the next chapter.
And finally, “Female Caligula” by Keith Laidler, a biography of Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar. The title says it all!
How do you organize your books?
When I lived overseas – most of my life – I had little access to libraries, so I bought large quantities of non-fiction hardbacks and paperback fiction. My hardback and reference material are in a custom-designed library with floor to ceiling shelving – a surprise gift from my late wife. I hang on to very few paperbacks and they’re stored separately. Today I buy all my fiction on Kindle and rely on the London Library for my non-fiction.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
- Henry Fielding – a man of action as well as of literature, and always attractive for his humanity, generosity of spirit, and humour. And yet no push-over, as his founding of the Bow Street Runners and his fight against crime confirm.
- Joseph Conrad – If he could be got talking about his experiences we’d be there all night!
- Rudyard Kipling – possibly the strangest and most inconsistent genius to have written in English. 80% or more of his output is dire to mediocre, whether in prose or in poetry, but much of the other 20% is superb, especially considering that some of his best stories were written in his twenties. And, as I said about Pasternak, the truth of his best portrayals is stunning.
And finally, Meghan – thanks for the interview! It’s been a pleasure.
Thank you for joining me on Of Quills & Vellum today, Antoine! It was a pleasure talking with you.
Find out more about Antoine and his writing on his website (which includes over 200 articles on naval and other history from 1700 to 1930!) or find him on Amazon, Facebook and Twitter. Click here to watch a video interview with Antoine and learn more about how he created such a historically-authentic female character in his latest book. And if you sign up for Antoine’s mailing list, you’ll receive a free short story!