September 2007

Kelly Spitzer

features

An Interview with R.N. Morris

Like most writers, R.N. Morris (aka Roger) has always been drawn to the written word. As a child, the stories of Enid Blyton, Alan Garner, Leon Garfield, and Robert Louis Stevenson absorbed him. His teachers encouraged him to write, and once, when the class was asked to read their stories aloud, his classmates urged him to go first. “It was pretty overwhelming,” Roger said. “Something happened that day.” Luckily for us I will add, as Roger’s most recent endeavor, the historical crime novel The Gentle Axe, is a tightly plotted and wonderfully descriptive novel which continuously surprised and delighted me.

The Gentle Axe, published in the U.S. by The Penguin Press in March 2007, takes Porfiry Petrovich, the police investigator in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and turns him into the lead character. Porfiry's mission? To investigate the deaths of a burly peasant and a dwarf, the first found hanging from a rope in a tree with a bloodied axe in his belt, the second with his skull split, packed inside a suitcase at the peasant's feet. Of course the answers aren’t as easy as they seem, but only Porfiry Petrovich intuits this, and Roger does a masterful job twisting and untwisting this intricate plot.

In addition to The Gentle Axe, Roger has written the contemporary urban novel Taking Comfort, which was published in 2006 under the MacMillan New Writing imprint. His work has also been performed as a one-act opera and printed as a comic book. Roger lives in North London with his wife and children.

What inspired you to take a supporting character from Dostoevsky’s nineteenth century classic and give him the lead role?

I think that writing is the way we respond to the world we experience. For someone who reads, other people’s fictional characters are part of that world, and therefore a valid stimulus for our own writing. When I first approached Crime and Punishment, I was slightly wrong-footed by a misleading blurb, which described the book as one of the first detective novels. It isn’t really that, but something of that expectation stuck in my mind and got me thinking, What if it had been? Also, I studied Classics at University. The great classical authors always used figures from the mythology in their work. I have this idea of great fictional characters forming our own modern mythology. Of course, Porfiry Petrovich is a great character. He’s only in Crime and Punishment for something like three chapters, though the idea of him does take over and obsess Raskolnikov. I think the reader, this reader anyway, is left wanting more of Porfiry. Then I have to say that it seemed such an obvious idea that I was sure that if I didn’t do it, someone else would. So I was very motivated to get in there first.

In Crime and Punishment, Porfiry is Raskolnikov’s nemesis. Is it fair to say that Raskolnikov is, in many ways, Porfiry’s nemesis in The Gentle Axe?

It’s certainly true that Porfiry is Raskolnikov’s nemesis. I think what’s interesting about the character of Porfiry in Crime and Punishment is what a powerful influence he has on the book, and yet how little of the action he participates in directly. Our understanding of Porfiry comes entirely from Raskolnikov’s perception of him. We see Porfiry through the prism of Raskolnikov, as Dostoevsky developed for the book what I call a closed-off third person point of view. It’s something a lot of writers have used since, but it was pretty new when he did it. He may even have invented it. The first draft was written in the first person but that didn’t allow him the distance from the murderer that he felt he needed. So he worked out this innovative way of handling the point of view. The result is we feel pretty intensely how Raskolnikov is fascinated by Porfiry and in fact becomes obsessed by him, convinced that Porfiry is on to him. I imagine -- though we’re not shown this explicitly in the same way -- that Porfiry is equally fascinated by Raskolnikov. There’s the detail of him tracking down an article Raskolnikov wrote, for example. He’s obviously finding out as much as he can about his adversary. As for what I did with the relationship, I should point out that Raskolnikov is not in The Gentle Axe ­- but the case still casts a shadow over Porfiry and he refers to it a number of times. There’s the character of Virginsky in my book, another student, who reminds Porfiry of Raskolnikov. I think he is fascinated by Virginsky, and his dealings with him are coloured by his memories of Raskolnikov. One of the things that I think is interesting about Crime and Punishment is that Raskolnikov does not, in the end, confess to Porfiry. He deliberately denies him that pleasure and triumph. I have held on to this, and imagined it somehow being significant to Porfiry, perhaps something that he has brooded over. This, maybe, is a factor in the way he treats Virginsky. There is a sense of unfinished business.

You’re quite knowledgeable on the subjects of Dostoevsky and Russia. How much time did you spend researching prior to writing the novel? What were your methods?

Well, I'm glad you get that impression! I remember when I met my US editor, the first thing he said to me was, "So you must be an expert on all things Russian?" I nearly choked on my beer -- we were in a pub at the time. No, I'm not an expert and I didn't start from a position of expertise. When I had the idea I realised pretty quickly that I was a long way from knowing enough to write it. The task was daunting. In fact, I'm convinced that a more sensible person would never have attempted it. Well, I did. I started reading, general histories of Russia, social histories, studies of the period, books on the main intellectual figures and movements -- and of course, novels, the novels of Dostoevsky and his contemporaries, as well as his non-contemporaries. Anything that could help give me some handle on the culture, the mind, the soul of Russia. I used the Internet a little, but cautiously. There were some academic sites, an academic library that I subscribed to, that gave me searchable access to learned journals and books. That was very useful. But I realised fairly soon that this was a task that had no limit to it. I could spend my whole life becoming an expert on Russia, and still only scratch the surface. In the meantime, I had a book I desperately wanted to write. So I had to pull myself away from the research and take a leap into my imagination. When it came to the writing, I was perpetually writing at the edge of what I knew and I would come up against vacuums of ignorance that were preventing me telling the story I wanted to tell, so I would go back to the books and hunt down footnotes till I had something like an answer.

I think being a novelist is a little like being a stage illusionist -- you're creating these effects, which you hope will dazzle and amaze people. Or maybe it's more like being a confidence trickster, a con artist, with the emphasis on confidence. You have to create the universe of your book, and you have to do it with absolute confidence, but a lot of the time it's a question of staring the reader straight in the eye and not letting on that for all that you do know, there is a whole lot more you don't.

The characters in The Gentle Axe, as well as in Crime and Punishment, are often referred to by their first and second names, or a pet name. Zoya Nikolaevna Petrova is called Zoya Nikolaevna, for example, and Raskolnikov is called Rodion, or Rodya. Why is this?

Ah yes, the Russian names! Essentially, every Russian has three names: Christian name, patronymic and family name. The patronymic is the one that causes non-Russians the most trouble, I think. It literally means son or daughter of so-and-so. It’s the middle name; the male version (son of) usually has -ich or –vich at the end, the female, -ovna or –evna. We don’t have it in English, but it’s widely used in Russia, or certainly was at the time the novel is set. To refer to someone by their first name and patronymic, for example Fyodor Mikhailovich, is generally the polite, respectful term of address, perhaps the equivalent of us saying Mr. Dostoevsky. So it does crop up a lot in nineteenth century Russian novels, as does the female equivalent, Zoya Nikaelovna. Then, at the opposite end of the spectrum, between friends and family members, there’s a wealth of affectionate diminutives, which can be confusing, I agree. For example, in Crime and Punishment, Rodion Romanivich Raskolnikov is also called Rodya, Rodka and Rodenka. And Sofia Semyenovna Marmeladova (the feminine version of the surname Marmelodov!) is also called Sonia. Really, what was I thinking setting a book in Russia!

Porfiry is quite the virtuous hero, and yet he does have one vice: chain smoking. Why did you give him this particular bad habit? Or a bad habit at all?

Interesting that you see him as virtuous. I suppose my intention was actually to make his virtue ambiguous. I think, viewed objectively, Porfiry exercises a compromised moral authority. He’s an officer of the law, an investigating magistrate, but he is in the service of an absolute authoritarian regime, an unjust regime. To my mind, he has a strong sense of natural justice, he is compassionate, and his compassion is informed by a religious faith. And his job is to track down murderers. Murderers are the bad guys. The law enforcers who put them away are the good guys. So yes, to that extent he is virtuous. But I think Porfiry is also, at times, cruel, deceitful, manipulative -- I see him almost as a Mephistophelean character. As for the smoking, Dostoevsky has him smoking in Crime and Punishment, so that’s where I got that from. I just pushed it a little further, maybe, took it to outrageous extremes. Incidentally, I’m not sure that at the time smoking would necessarily be seen as a bad habit. Not all that long ago, in the late 1940s it must have been, my dad was advised to take up smoking by his doctor as a way of dealing with stress. Porfiry uses the cigarettes professionally, to aid his concentration. I suppose, in one way, I was establishing a link with Sherlock Holmes. I suppose the cigarette, and the smoke it produces, becomes a distancing device somehow -- part of his mystique.

In any mystery or crime novel, plot is key. You must keep your readers guessing, while at the same time, dishing them clues that will lead to a logical ending. I was stunned at the expertise in which you handled your plot. Does plotting come naturally to you? Did you utilize any specific techniques while plotting this story?

Thank you, Kelly! I do enjoy plotting. In fact, I might even say that for me it’s the most enjoyable part of the writing process. That’s where the story is forged and formed, the point at which you’re in direct contact with your subconscious. I’m a great believer in the old "character is destiny" dictum. So the story is the working out of the character’s destiny, which is, in effect, the character made manifest in action.

My characters must be true to the period and setting of nineteenth century St. Petersburg, so I tried very hard to have the plots arising specifically from that setting. That is to say, what I didn’t want to do was impose an arbitrary murder story on this milieu. The ideas, the intellectual and moral atmosphere of the time, as well as the political and social structure of this particular state -- these are the things that shaped my story.

As far as specific techniques are concerned, I like to work out a time line, both for the action of the novel, and for the action that has taken place before the novel starts, if you see what I mean. The trick with crime is, as you say, the balance between concealing and revealing. I like to plot on fairly big sheets of paper, A3. I grow these strands of scrawl which become interconnected. I also use index cards at the very early stages of planning, one for each character. I color code my index cards, using different colours to relate to different subplots -- I use the same coloured inks on my big sheets of paper. Oh, and another thing you may find interesting, or odd, the big sheets these days tend to be tracing paper. That started accidentally, because one day I went to the local stationery shop, desperate to begin work, and the only big pad they had was tracing paper. I took it and actually found that being able to see through the sheets, to layers below, was helpful. I could lay different strands over each other and create a kind of overlapping pattern. It all sounds a bit mad, but it works for me.

Will you ever tour the U.S.? For your readers who live in England, do you have any readings or signings planned?

I’d love to come to America for a book tour but my US publisher hasn’t suggested it yet! We have some very good friends in San Francisco, so it may be that I visit them and try to fix up some book shop signings in that area. And now I have a lot of "virtual" friends, mainly through the online writing community Zoetrope. It would be good to hook up with some of them at some time, but I’m afraid I don’t have any definite plans as yet. As for the UK, I’m actually teaming up with a group of writers all working in the same genre of historical crime fiction. We all happen to live fairly near to each other in North London. We’re planning a bookshop event in Hampstead for February next year, which we hope to take to other bookshops. And if we can get it into some literary festivals that would be great. The other writers are Lee Jackson, Andrew Martin and Frank Tallis. We’re doing a panel event on "Gaslight Vice." Oh, and the Russian edition of A Gentle Axe comes out in Russia in November. It would be great to be there for that!

 Will we see Porfiry Petrovich again?

Yes! I’ve already written a second Porfiry Petrovich novel, to be released in the UK in February 2008. The title is A Vengeful Longing. If Gentle Axe used Crime and Punishment as its source inspiration, then Vengeful Longing uses Notes From the Underground -- but perhaps I’ve already given too much away! It’s set in a hot St Petersburg summer. After that, who knows? I have no contract with any publisher beyond that book, though I do have a couple more storylines up my sleeve!