Tuesday, September 16, 2014

7 Questions with Robert Wilton, Author

Robert Wilton is a writer and diplomat. His latest historical novel, The Spider of Sarajevo ('a beautifully written, elegant spy thriller', The Times), is newly available through Amazon.com. Set exactly one hundred years ago, at the outbreak of World War One, it draws on documents from the archive of a mysterious organization in the shadows of the British Government, and on the author's own experience in the Balkans. He was advisor to the Prime Minister of Kosovo in the years leading to the country's independence, and has more recently been running an international mission in Albania. He is also co-founder of The Ideas Partnership, a grass-roots charity working in education, the environment and cultural heritage. There's more at www.robertwilton.com, and you can follow @ComptrollerGen. He divides his time between the Balkans and Cornwall, England.

1.         How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?

As early as I can remember. There was a legendary series of children's books in England called the Ladybird Books, and in them I could read about our Kings and Queens, with a beautiful picture on every page. And I remember finding a set of postcards in a drawer at home - I think my parents had got them free with something - each a beautiful painting of one of Britain's heroes with some text on the back; I was fascinated by those faces, and read their stories over and over.

2.         What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?

It's always been my way into anything. My Dad and I researched our family history - this was back in those ancient days before the internet, when you had to go to an institution in London to get copies of birth, marriage and death certificates, with the scratchy signatures of my forefathers (or in some cases just an 'x' because they couldn't write their names). When we were done with that we researched who'd lived in our house. Any time I go somewhere new I have to know its history: it's how I understand the world, how I see it. I studied history all through school - I got lucky with some great teachers; even outside fiction, history is story-telling - and then University. When I was writing short stories, my themes kept coming back to history and its resonances: a soldier returning to the French village where he hid from the Nazis and fell in love; a decades-old mystery solved when a group of veterans returns to their battlefield.


3.         How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?

One of the many over-clever sayings about the Balkans is that they've produced more history than they can consume. The people of the region think and talk too much about their history - or, in fact, usually about a nationalistic, mythological version of it. But if history doesn't excuse the crimes and idiocies of the present, it can explain where they came from. Too often the international community has blundered into interventions without really understanding what they're getting into. If I want to help people in south-eastern Europe escape the toxic legacies of their history, I must first understand them, otherwise there's no chance of finding the right road to change. It's also a matter of respect to a people.


4.         Why is studying/knowing history important?

Mark Twain said that history rhymes; and he was a wise fellow. It's not only about the direct links - understanding how the United States of America, or indeed Kosovo, came to be independent and what that means for today; understanding why there's DNA from Roman soldiers in the population of a village in the north of England, or why there are Scottish and Irish family names across a chunk of the mid-western US. It's also about Mark Twain's rhymes - the patterns of history, the echoes. Exploring history - any history - taking apart the mechanism and trying to work out what makes it tick, gives you ideas and approaches you might apply in a completely different historical context. The brilliant novelist of Rome, M.C.Scott, says that when she wanted to try to understand what it was like to be a Roman legionary she read the memoirs of soldiers from World War Two. I once listened to  a guy lecturing about the unique and unprecedented phenomenon of Al-Qaeda, as a non-hierarchical movement of belief flourishing thanks to the internet revolution in communications technology. And I thought of Britain in the mid-17th Century, and the spread of diverse, mainly Protestant strands of belief thanks to the revolutionary power of printing and increasing literacy. History also teaches you skills of thought, of analysis, in a more general way. I approach any problem - a challenge at work, maybe; probably even a faulty light switch - as I approach a question of history, trying to see the context, trying to see how the factors come together. P.s. History is great stories; and stories are how we as humans make sense of our existence.


5.         What makes a great historical novel?

A feeling for history, and a feeling for the individuals caught up in it. Preferably a great battle, a great love and a great death; ideally, the constant sense that you don't know where the history ends and the fiction begins. I don't know if Gone With The Wind is great history or great literature, but it's a great historical novel because it captures the scale of a vast war and keeps your attention through two people you care about. For most English people, Gone With The Wind is that war. Tolstoy - the grand-daddy - portrays the epic sweep of what at the time seemed like the greatest war there had been, and gives you an army of characters to care about. A great historical novel doesn't have to be big in size or focus: Daphne Du Maurier's The King's General is a little gem. And now there's the astonishing, prize-winning Hilary Mantel, who writes history that you can smell.


6.         Both your British government career and your writing career have focused on the Balkans.  Why the Balkans?

Chance. Bismarck said (see over-clever sayings, above) that the Balkans weren't worth the bones of a single Pomeranian Grenadier; I don't know if they're worth the career of a single Englishman. In the British Ministry of Defence I started working on the region in 1999, during the NATO bombing campaign against the Belgrade regime and its oppression of the people of Kosovo. Each time I was thinking of moving on, someone would offer me something to do with the region which used my growing experience. When I was looking to work abroad in 2006 - go anywhere, do anything, maybe volunteer - I got a call saying that the new Prime Minister of Kosovo wanted a British Advisor, and it looked like me. Coming from a pretty traditional - I guess pretty sheltered - background, suddenly immersing myself in a new culture - particularly one that was so scarred by so much suffering - blew my mind. The Spider of Sarajevo is dedicated to the Albanians, because of their extraordinary hospitality - to this guest, like so many before him. Helping to run a charity and, separately, an international human rights and democracy mission, I've had the great good fortune to find in the Balkans a place where I can try to help - in a small way to make a positive difference. And once in the Balkans, of course, I got interested in the history. In a place where widespread literacy and education came late, I learned the power of stories being told around the fire and down the generations. And I was inspired by the landscape, and by the traditions and spirit of the people, and that's what gives The Spider of Sarajevo its dramatic opening scene, the subplot of unstoppable revenge that runs through the novel, and of course the climax in Sarajevo.


7.         Tell us about your latest novel, The Spider of Sarajevo.

I've been really excited by the response to its topicality. It's set in the weeks around the outbreak of World War One, and so it's been published exactly one hundred years after the events it illuminates. There's so much interest at the moment in how and why the world went to war in that mad summer of 1914, and so I think the intrigue and adventure in The Spider of Sarajevo has extra appeal. The mysteries it explores - what was going on in the shadows in those desperate weeks - have a particular resonance. It's a picture of what Europe was like at that extraordinary moment, and of course it's a novel of espionage and action as well. With war imminent, an anonymous official of the British Government took a spectacular gamble with the future of British intelligence - which at that time was in its infancy. As the documents used in the novel reveal, he sent four young agents out into Europe - and even they didn't know exactly what their mission was. Their adventures, and what happened to them in the end, are what drives the novel - and everything converged on Sarajevo and the spark that ignited a world war.

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