An Interview with Tim Willocks
If he’s not careful, Tim Willocks might just become a big deal. While the British novelist is an accomplished writer of crime fiction -- see Bad City Blues and Green River Rising for blistering examples of his stock in trade -- his publishers are about to unleash a monster of a publicity campaign for a book that is something of a diversion for the author.
Due in May, The Religion is the first volume of a historical trilogy centered on Matthias Tannhauser, a dynamic soldier-of-fortune with a lust for many things in life, gold being merely one of his many vices. The Religion sweeps the sword-wielding hero into the Siege of Malta circa 1565, as Suleiman the Magnificent, Emperor of the Ottomans, sends the largest armada ever assembled against the Knights of Saint John the Baptist who christen themselves “The Religion.” Tannhauser has unique knowledge of both faiths, and it’s put to the test when a French countess engages him to rescue her kidnapped son from the bloody fray.
Willocks, a trained surgeon and long-practicing psychiatrist, has tasted fame before in myriad forms. He’s spent the past several years crafting screenplays and producing feature films that have put him in the orbit of Michael Mann, Steven Spielberg and Curtis Hanson, among many others, and the film of Bad City Blues starred Dennis Hopper. But his new novel, which Kirkus calls, “A long, bloody, vastly entertaining story,” threatens to put him in a whole new orbit.
On the eve of The Religion’s American debut, Willocks weighed in on sex, death, violence and, of course, religion.
The Religion is quite an endeavor. What story does it tell?
The Religion is an epic adventure story -- a "Romance" in the medieval sense -- set during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. Two women, Carla and Amparo, recruit an arms merchant, Mattias Tannhauser, to help them get to Malta in search of Carla’s long lost son -- a boy whose name she does not know and whose face she’s never seen. Trapped in a fundamentalist bloodbath between Christian and Muslim, and on the run from the boy’s father -- a Roman Inquisitor named Ludovico -- they are swept along on an odyssey of holy war, redemption and love.
Your earlier novels are stand-alone books about violent criminals in the American south. What inspired a lengthy historical trilogy this time out?
I discovered the incredible richness and beauty of the 16th century -- a world turned upside down, a world of chaos and passion, a world full of dreams that had never been dreamt before -- in philosophy, music and art, in science, astronomy and medicine, in politics, economics, exploration and warfare. The Western mind at last broke free from the chains of the Middle Ages, and the collective imagination just exploded in every realm. The energy of that era was extraordinary, and this energy fed the characters and the writing of the novel in a way I hadn’t expected. I was fascinated -- and this inspired characters who themselves are fascinated and who are filled with wonder at their world and the cosmos beyond. They live life in a very immediate or intuitive way. They’re not crippled by modern analytical notions or neuroses. Even religious worship was much more personal, and much less systematically controlled, than it subsequently became. In immersing myself in this era, I also discovered a sense of the Divine, which I think our own world has abandoned, to its cost.
The inspirations, then, were many. I didn’t feel that I was turning away from my earlier work, but rather that I was irresistibly drawn to a larger, unexplored canvas.
What sparked your original interest in the siege of Malta?
I produced a revival of Christopher Marlowe’s play Jew of Malta on the London fringe, in which the Turks (briefly) invade the island. In looking into this event in more detail, I opened Pandora’s Box.
Matthias is integral to the story, and you obviously have great affection for him. How critical to the story is his ability to move between the Christian and Muslim worlds?
All the Western sources concentrate on the siege from the Christian, and specifically the Catholic, point of view, though some fine scholarship in the ‘90s uncovered Turkish records. I found the Ottoman world no less fascinating than the European -- the Turks are a most extraordinary people -- and not only wanted to portray it but also to avoid the sense of "good guys and bad guys." Tannhauser’s familiarity with both worlds was the vehicle by which I tried to achieve this. It also enabled me to suggest that the great folly is war, not religion. I think Mattias comes to a deeper understanding and respect for both these remarkable creeds, and indeed he is a man who comes to Malta "not for riches or honor but to save his soul." It’s important to say that this is not a book against religion, quite the contrary. Religion is probably the greatest civilizing force in the history of mankind, in my own view. Without faith in God, war and cruelty would have flourished even more than they have done.
I’m sure your work as a doctor helps you to empathize and understand different points of view. But how do you put yourself into the shoes of an aggressive, jaded Saxon arms dealer?
The key to Tannhauser for me was his love of life, which is rooted in both his vast curiosity about the world and his love for his companions. All his decisions and actions are motivated by these two characteristics. This is what makes him not only an adventurer but, as Chandler so wonderfully put it, "a man fit for adventure." My theory is that if you surround your hero with unusual people and places -- if you put him at the center of a web of intense relationships, not only with other people but with the universe at large, and even with God -- then you can’t help but draw a vivid portrait. His character grew piece by piece through his interactions with the people around him, both enemies and friends. Each brings out a different facet of his personality, as do his various passions -- for business, for alchemy and medicine, for war, for the stars above. All this is true of our own lives. And of course this is true for Carla, Amparo, Bors, Abbas, Ludovico and all the other characters too. They all begin as abstractions in the writing process, then become real via their feelings and relationships. I never know quite how things are going to turn out -- I put the characters together and see what happens. They often surprise me, and they often say and feel and do things that I would never have thought of myself.
How much research went into creating the world portrayed in your book?
I did a huge amount of research, though it never felt like work because the world was so intriguing. Apart from what I would call "formal" research -- information -- I also tried to internalize the soul of the period in a more experiential way. I explored Istanbul, Rome, Malta, Sicily, hoping to soak up the essence of those days, the sense of awe and spirituality. I went to church more frequently than I was previously wont to, and rediscovered the beauty of the Catholic ritual with which I grew up. I listened, for years, to the music -- that’s the real voice of an era -- and music became a key element in the story. The love affair between Tannhauser and Carla is founded on her playing of the viola da gamba. It’s the voice of her heart. The paintings of the era were another great guide -- because that’s where you see the world as they saw it; it’s also where I drew many physical descriptions of the characters, their clothes and faces. I read a lot of period texts (in English or translation) -- science, alchemy, journals, literature -- and of course Shakespeare was a great companion and inspiration. On the whole, I would say that this "informal" research was the more important because, as you put it, it helped me to "stand in their shoes."
A book like The Religion that examines a conflict between religions seems likely to draw comparisons to present-day events. Is it challenging to draw a line between the historical conflict depicted in your book and modern events? Does one inform the other?
I made a very conscious effort in writing this book not to draw any overt parallels with the present-day conflict. I wanted the story and its characters to be true to themselves and knew that trying to say something clever in that regard would undermine their integrity. At the same time, I would take a break and switch on CNN and the 1st Cavalry Division would be battling their way into Fallujah. After I finished the book I heard Howard Fast say, as regards Spartacus, that a writer always writes about his own times, whether he’s aware of it or not. I’m sure he’s right. As you say, past and present must inform one another, but I prefer to let this interchange take place on a subconscious level. There’s no shortage of analysis of the present conflict, from every point of view, and the novel seems to me a poor venue for that kind of discussion. I focused on creating a vivid portrait of war in 1565. Readers will draw their own parallels, or not. On the geo-political or ideological levels, I think any such comparisons are inevitably crude. Too much has changed in those respects. The more valid and interesting level, to me, is that of the more universal emotional experience of combat and of humans coping with the horror, exhaustion and uncertainty of war, as they are still doing all over the world.
It’s been noted by some critics that The Religion, and Matthias himself include a healthy portion of bloody violence and lusty appetites. Is it more challenging to write fight scenes or sex scenes?
Sex and violence always seize a disproportionate amount of attention, even in a novel of this scope. Mattias Tannhauser is a man in search of hidden and eternal truths, a man -- though he doesn’t know it -- in search of a family, a man in search of redemption from a terrible past, a man of tremendous learning, a man of the wide world, a man of adventure -- and as loyal a friend as anyone, man or woman, could ever wish for. He’s also a healthy heterosexual, may God forgive him, and is inclined -- when provoked -- to acts of pitiless violence. Cut that into equal parts and I’d allow it was a fair measure of his character.
I love writing scenes of warfare and violence. The practice of medicine obliged me to examine the world as frankly and honestly as I could, to observe and record pain, bodily contents and ugliness with fascination rather than revulsion. I’m also very interested in the phenomenon of human cruelty and its manifest allure. Therefore, if I’m going to portray violence or cruelty, I feel obliged to do so as truthfully as I can; otherwise it seems to me a form of titillation. All the violence -- and very much more -- portrayed in my book took place in 1565. The one thing I can say for certain is that no matter how bloody my novel is, the reality was unimaginably bloodier still. And so it is today all over the planet. Our masters shield us from these realities very successfully, but only for their own benefit, not for ours. That the human race is fascinated by violence -- is indeed on some level addicted to it -- is perfectly clear, so it seems to me a perfectly valid subject for the novel to tackle. I would say that to do so is an obligation.
As to sex, I’m as confused as anyone else by the fact that its depiction routinely provokes far more squeamishness and horror than the spectacle of one man eating another’s brains while the latter is still alive. I don’t find sex harder to write, because my characters dictate these particular events as much as, or even more than, they do the others. The Religion is a book about life, and sex is one of few compulsory components of human life, albeit, as in my book, often seasoned with a little farce. A novel about human beings who don’t have sex is hardly a novel about human beings at all. Frankly, I don’t see any way around this problem. When all other elements of my characters’ lives are vividly portrayed, it seems absurd to draw a veil over the fact that they have genitals, just like the rest of us. Tannhauser’s reactions to the women he finds attractive, and vice versa, seem to me to stand on the absolute baseline of normality, so I had no reason to hesitate in writing these scenes. One must also remember that in war, as chronicled by, amongst others, Chris Hedges (in his superb War Is A Force That Gives Life Meaning), all human passions are intensified, including sexual desire. To have written this story and denied the characters their sexuality would have been a falsehood.
You’ve said that the language here is a little more flowery than usual. What sorts of other advantages does the historical setting give you as a writer?
Yes, the use of English has become much more terse in recent times, not just in literature, where "spare prose" is invariably seen as a virtue, but also in public speaking, journalism, movies (where the amount of dialogue per minute has, on average, halved in the last fifty years) and even everyday conversation. There’s no sense bemoaning this, yet I love the more elaborate use of language in the older style. I love reading it and hearing it, and I discovered that I loved writing it too, though it was very much an experiment to begin with.
Another advantage was the freedom to explore life on a raw or organic level that no longer exists, at least in the West. For good or ill, and of necessity, 16th century life was lived much closer to nature, and this imparted to the characters a great vitality. Such an unfamiliar world also demands greater effort in bringing it alive, so one can exercise one’s powers of description to a greater degree. No one needs much description of a "Cadillac," but a "galley" is a different matter. And connected to this is the power to evoke a sense of awe and mystery at the universe, a sense much diminished by modern life but which writing this book taught me to appreciate much more keenly. I’m a scientist by training, and it’s marvelous that we know so much about, for example, the stars. Yet the mythical view of the stars that was held in the 16th century has much to recommend it in terms of beauty and awe. I spent a lot of time watching the night sky while writing this book, as does Tannhauser, and I became entranced by it. By the way, all the astronomy in the novel -- all the phases of the moon, the positions of the constellations, etc -- are accurate to the minute (in terms of both time and angular measurement) thanks to some (shamefully) modern software that allows one to see the night sky over Malta at, say, midnight on June 12th, 1565.
After many years in psychiatry, it was a pleasure not to have to deal with modern neuroses and, instead, deal only with core emotions and feelings, which, dramatically, was a great freedom. Modern Western affluence has unleashed a vast range of new concerns, to which I’m as prone as anyone else, but most of which are rather trivial by historical or even most contemporary standards, internationally speaking. There are no neurotics in Shakespeare -- even Hamlet has a real gargantuan problem on his hands. He’s not worried about his cholesterol. Morality, too, back then was much more primal or basic, and its implications much more dangerous. So I enjoyed working with a world where I didn’t have to consider the minutiae of modern emotional and political sensibilities, and instead deal with full-blooded impulses and feelings.
Finally, spirituality -- an awareness of the Divine -- was woven throughout the fabric of life in those times, and this is not so today. Now we live in a world largely dominated by the concrete, by what is rationally knowable, by what can be demonstrated and proven, bought and sold, verified, litigated and calibrated. Back then, life, for all its cruelties and hardships, was dominated by a sense -- an awareness, a knowledge, a perception -- of realms transcendent to the one in which we breathe. At the very least, and even from a neuro-scientific perspective, I believe that the power to sense the Divine, the infinite, the transcendent, is a part of our human essence and ability, whether or not these things can be measured or defined by the tools of our intellect. To deny or repress this faculty, as so many do -- to be afraid of it -- seems to me unintelligent. Our intellect has proved overwhelmingly powerful in dominating our environment, our lives, and each other; but even intellect and its many servants cannot encompass all that we are and all that we can know. Art itself would certainly be shoved out of the door if that were the case. If we confine our notion of "knowing" to the merely rational, we strip ourselves of a fundamental aspect of our human being. One of the great joys of writing this novel, joys which at certain moments bordered on ecstasy, was to inhabit a world in which such a sense of transcendence and mystery was absolutely real.
Its marketing compares The Religion to a variety of other epics ranging from Shogun to The Scarlet Pimpernel. What within the canon of great adventure stories would you compare it to?
I’m not ranking my work alongside the works that follow, but they’re all woven through my imagination, consciously and otherwise, in ways that influenced this book. Restricting myself to adventure stories, again I must mention Shakespeare -- especially Macbeth, Lear and Titus Andronicus -- for his bold plotting and characterization, his grand architecture and his fearless embrace of bloody violence. Richmond Lattimore’s translation of The Iliad of Homer, for much the same. Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo, which I first bought in a bus station in Kansas City, and which kept me awake all night on a Greyhound to New York City. Moby Dick, which I first read on Block Island. H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain. Henri Charriere’s Papillon. Prescott’s Conquests of Mexico and Peru (whose ferocious real life 16th century characters make Tannhauser look like Woody Allen). Last of the Mohicans (Mann’s movie; never read the book). Howard Fast’s Spartacus (book and movie). Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Franklin Shafner’s The Warlord. Cy Endfield’s Zulu. Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Other movies and non-fiction books too numerous to name. Charlton Heston. And everything by Sergio Leone.
You’ve been working on film projects for some time. Was there any conscious effort on your part to bring any cinematic qualities to The Religion?
Absolutely. Plays, poems, operas, paintings, songs and movies galore are all roaring round in my head and helping me to make my writing richer and more powerful, or so I hope. I learned a tremendous amount about storytelling through working with film directors, especially Alan J. Pakula and Jerry Zucker. Yet I must point out that cinema adopted wholesale all the dramatic techniques of the nineteenth century novelists, the Elizabethan playwrights, and the Italian opera -- techniques now largely abandoned by the literary novel itself, I sometimes suspect because they’re so complex and demanding to master. That’s why so many filmmakers, to this day, return to those older sources for their material. Cinema also adopted numerous purely visual techniques from classical painting -- angles, framing, point of view, depths of field, lighting effects and so forth. But in the long human darkness that reigned before the advent of the movies, the place that most people acquired their portraits, visual and otherwise, of worlds beyond their own was from the novel.
Many of the qualities of The Religion that might appear to be cinematic are in fact, then, novelistic -- or certainly dramatic. The novel itself is a relatively recent dramatic form. And we must remember that "drama" is an art all in itself, arguably the most ancient art of all. Having said that, I certainly wanted to evoke a cinematic sense of visual spectacle, especially in the scenes of battle, both panoramic and intimate. Again, novelists did this long before the camera was invented, but cinema has undoubtedly raised the portrayal -- not just the visual composition but the narrative or structural organization -- of complex and large-scale action to its highest possible level. I deliberately used certain specifically cinematic reveals and editing techniques, even certain lighting and sound effects, and music, to make the world more palpable or real. In any given chapter, I stuck to a tight internal point of view from a specific character, so I was able to use their eyes like a camera. On occasion this can evoke something akin to a track or a dolly, if they’re in movement, or to a pan. And in life, we do "cut to" and "pan" with movements of our eyes and head.
Kubrick is the master of the dolly and the track, especially in battle, and a character in motion can evoke this -- such as Orlandu crawling along the bloody gantlet. One great piece of advice that Pakula gave me, was that in large scale action one must always locate a character that the audience knows, and has connected with, in every moment, whether he or she is in the frame or is providing a point of view. We’re not interested in people we don’t know, even if they’re being elegantly slaughtered; time starts to drag within seconds and we get bored; but if we’re seeing the action through the character’s eyes, or the character is in the action, we are there too, and we’re gripped. I also admire Leone’s juxtaposition of extreme facial close-ups with enormous landscapes. The novel doesn’t have recourse to "the close-up," but it does have access to the interior of the character (which is of course what the close-up is seeking). So you’ll find many moments in the novel where a series of inner emotions or thoughts gives way to a huge exterior canvas, most often what the character is seeing or is surrounded by.
What do you want readers to take away from reading The Religion?
I’d like them to take away a sense of wonder, not at the writing but at the world I’ve tried to evoke and the people who lived in it. Most of my characters are fictions, but the larger events in which they take part are not. The characters -- Tannhauser, Carla, Amparo, Bors, Ludovico and the rest -- all walk a tightrope between God and His negation, between ecstasy and horror, between life and death, both temporal and eternal, but I found that they never abandoned their faith in love. I believe that that was true of the people who lived and died in that war, and I hope that too is something to take away.