Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Guest Post: Robert Wilton, author of The Emperor's Gold

On June 1st Corvus published The Emperor's Gold by Robert Wilton. I have a copy sat at home, with a bookmark partway through, and I am enjoying this historical adventure very much.

Rina Gill offered me the chance to request a guest post with Robert, and I thought it would be particularly interesting to ask him about his influences - especially considering that The Emperor's Gold features a little known organisation called the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey. Sounds a little dry, you might think on first encountering this department, but I loved the fact that the records provided a truly engaging look at history.

Anyway, without further ado, here is Robert:

The Emperor's Gold is an espionage thriller, mysterious and dynamic, but also a great game of history. In that sense the exploits of Tom Roscarrock in the strange summer of 1805, caught up in the activities of the arcane Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey and Napoleon's imminent invasion of England, reflect themes that have recurred in my writing and reflect the kind of writing that I have enjoyed reading.

The Comptrollerate-General series was the product of a pretty cynical calculation about what I thought might appeal, but it evolved with styles and ideas and preferences that were instinctive and unavoidable. On Port Isaac beach one night in winter 2008, shingle and sand and the eerie hulks of the fishing boats looming askew around me, I went hunting for ideas for the novel that I had found myself with time to write. From my miniscule awareness of publishing, I was aware that a series would tend to appeal more than a one-off. My interests and strengths would probably push me towards an historical rather than a contemporary setting. Crime? Espionage? Politics? I needed a recurring character, one who through heroism or entertainment would be engaging enough to sell a book and a potential series.

One figure hovered over me in the darkness, laughing with more than a hint of malice. George Macdonald Fraser's Flashman is a fatally appealing model for an author contemplating an historical series. As an inspiration, the Flashman series was simply and unequivocally genius: the wheeze of picking up a famous fictional character and taking him forward was rapidly overtaken (helped by the fact that subsequent generations are less and less familiar with Thomas Hughes's original) by the much more entertaining idea of a character who weaves seamlessly into non-fictional history. Flashman doesn't just exist against a backdrop of history: he inhabits particular historical actions and meetings and, as Fraser's tongue-in-cheek footnoting shows, his presence even fills in gaps in the historical record. The series is a carnival of British imperial history, with drama and adventure and controversy accordingly ready-to-wear. Fraser gave himself seventy years of canvas to play with, and it's an enormous pity that he died before he could describe Flashman's exploits in the Zulu war in more detail, for example, or how he came to fight on both sides in the American Civil War; oh, and the first person narrative is pitch-perfect over a dozen books.

And there's the snag. Flashman's appeal to an author is fatal because he's been done, and I doubt anything like him will be as well done again. All I could contrive on Port Isaac beach were shallower, duller versions of the same thing: what if there was a young politician who had a series of rollicking exploits in the high-points of nineteenth century political history? A detective? A criminal, a... no.

Then I got lucky. I found the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey. My character wouldn't be a person at all. Drawing on the extraordinary documents in the archive of the Comptrollerate-General, I would be able to pull together engaging episodes from several centuries of history. The first period where the documents crystallised into a coherent and dramatic story was the few months leading up to the battle of Trafalgar: a time when the country's future really was on a precipice, when a change in the weather for a few hours would put Napoleon on Dover beach and destroy the British Empire in a day, when French intelligence was infiltrating London and trying to stir up insurrection, when men and women at the heart of British society were making their own private calculations about the future...

The idea was one that I thought would work, and one that I knew I would enjoy. Time and again when I'd been writing short stories I found myself playing with history - the pilot returning after the war to the French village to find out what happened to the woman who'd sheltered him; the journalist trying to make a good story out of an incident at Gallipoli in 1915, and not realising how good the real story had been; the veterans returning to the Somme fifty years later, and at last learning the truth about a cherished myth; the diplomatic intrigue told through a butler's pantry-book. I like it what we think is fiction breaks through a wall into what we're pretty sure is fact. I liked it when Daphne Du Maurier's romance about The King's General turned out to explain a contemporary mystery of a grave inscription and a skeleton; I liked it when Clive Cussler put a decades-old international fight for minerals onto the Titanic; I liked it when the melting of aliens in Doctor Who started the great fire of London.

Three decades of reading influence what I think can be written. Frederick Forsyth has an amazing ability to blur fact and fiction: you start reading one of his chapters and you know you're reading well-known history; within three paragraphs you're among what you're pretty sure are his own characters and narrative, and you didn't see the join. Hilary Mantel makes historical characters and atmospheres vivid in way that opened my mind; she's a constant insistence to be more real, more alive. Len Deighton puts extraordinary fictional doings in the hands of fallible, human people. Alistair Maclean - as well as combining action with mystery brilliantly - reminds you that those people have to be engaging.

It is, after all, a book that needs to be read and to appeal. I'm pulling together the second episode from the Comptrollerate-General archives at the moment, from the strange chaotic years of the British Civil Wars. There's a constant effort to avoid too many 'forsooth's and 'prithee's, but the reader does still need to feel that they're in a different time: the seventeenth century needs to feel human, but the humans need to feel seventeenth century too. Angus, my so-patient Editor at Atlantic/Corvus, remarked that the final scene of The Emperor's Gold sounded a bit like an Agatha Christie-style denouement - 'the crucial clue was...' and so on. The thing is, I had to explain to him, that I really like Agatha Christie-style denouements. That's how books are supposed to end.


Thanks so much, Robert! The Emperor's Gold is out now in all good bookstores, and is described as "Patrick O'Brian meets John le Carré, with a hint of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell". I think it's definitely worth a look.

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