15 October 2010 4 Comments

Crime fiction’s ‘French porn’: Martin Walker’s Writing Life interview

Martin Walker’s series of crime novels about the chief of police of a small town in the beautiful Perigord region of France is a delight. When we met at a recent “British Crime Fiction Night” in Darmstadt, Germany, he described the books as “French porn – wine, food, women – in a crime fiction frame.” Certainly Martin’s bon vivant personality matches the playfulness of his fiction (Though he’s a Scot by birth, he divides his time between Washington DC and his vineyard in France). But he’s also a former correspondent with The Guardian and his novels have significant undertones of social commentary, as you’ll see from the interview here. By mixing the pleasures of France – the “porn” – with its dark underside, the Bruno novels remind me very much of the terrific Inspector Montalbano series, where the Sicilian setting is the beautiful backdrop to a detective who enjoys a good dinner as much as nabbing the villain. So here’s Martin Walker, the Andrea Camilleri of the Dordogne.

How long did it take you to get published?
Not long at all. My first book, non-fiction, was commissioned. My first Bruno novel sold as soon as my agent offered it.

Would you recommend any books on writing?
No. Just read and read and read and get a feel for what works.

What’s a typical writing day?
There isn’t one, but whether on a plane or a train or at home or in a hotel I try and do at least a thousand words a day.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?
The latest book is ‘The Dark Vineyard,’ third in the Bruno series, which is about fraud in the truffle market in France, which traces back to China and to consequences of France’s 1954 defeat in its failed colonial war in Vietnam. Along the way, it involves militant Greens, a lot of wonderful French food and the complex romantic life of my hero, Bruno. I think it’s my best Bruno novel yet, because he seems to grow as a character with each book and my portrait of modern France gets richer. While writing it, I more than once had that magical experience of a character doing something I had neither planned nor expected, as if Bruno was taking on a life of his own.

How much of what you do is:
a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
None.
b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with?
Quite a lot; I have a hero, who lives in a small French town and spends a lot of time cooking, hunting, eating, drinking wine and teaching rugby, with a cast of characters that changes only moderately with each book. It’s a much more liberating formula than you much think.
c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?
Within the constraints of the series, I try for something very different each time. So far we have had the murder of an old Arab immigrant that is connected to the Vichy era; globalisation as a big US wine company tries to muscle in; China-Vietnamese gang wars in Europe and illegal immigration; and the 4th Bruno novel will include archaeology and Basque terrorism.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep” – Shakespeare’s The Tempest. It catches the balance between our dreams and our reality, capped by our transience.

What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?
The most striking must be Philip Roth’s masturbating into the piece of liver that is about to become the family dinner. The best is Shakespeare’s Chorus in Henry V:
But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?
In crime, Elmore Leonard. In novels of ideas, Neal Stephenson. In historical fiction, C J Sansom.

Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?
Ian Rankin and Neal Stephenson in a tie.

How much research is involved in each of your books?
A lot, into food and wine along with French history and law and some forensics.

Where’d you get the idea for your main character?
From my friend and tennis partner, my village policeman in France.

Do you have a pain from childhood that compels you to write? If not, what does?
No pain that I’m consciously aware of. I write because I like it and always have, as a journalist or non-fiction writer and now as a crime novelist.

What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?
Relentlessly pursue all your media contacts.

What’s your experience with being translated?
Pretty good so far, when I can read the result, but some things seem to get left out.

Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could make a living at it?
I could live off my writing but don’t, needing the energy and interest and social interaction that comes with a day job.

How many books did you write before you were published?
One – a teenage novel that went nowhere.

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?
Arriving for a reading in Germany that turned out to be a four-course French dinner for a hundred people with good wine from the Perigord, held in a very plush golf club.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?
A book of key events in history as recorded by today’s hacks from The Sun – eg, for 1066…”Unsporting Frog battle tricks rob gallant English defenders in extra time.”

4 Responses to “Crime fiction’s ‘French porn’: Martin Walker’s Writing Life interview”

  1. Nathalie 16 October 2010 at 7:37 am #

    Amazing. I am addicted to Inspector Montalbano and I definitely need to get to read Martin Walker’s books.
    Thank you for this great post.

  2. Matt Beynon Rees 17 October 2010 at 12:59 am #

    You’ll love them, Nathalie. Montalbano is one of my favourite detectives, and I think Martin (who wasn’t aware of Camilleri and therefore wasn’t copying him) has hit on a wonderful French version of good old Salvo from Sicily.

  3. Nathalie 17 October 2010 at 11:44 am #

    Talking about Montalbano, are you aware of the RAI produced films on his books ? http://www.raifiction.rai.it/raifiction2006fiction/0,,1503,00.html
    Quite good actually.
    I’ll get some of Martin’s books tomorrow.

  4. Matt Beynon Rees 1 November 2010 at 7:10 am #

    Enjoy the books, Nathalie. I knew Montalbano had been filmed, though I haven’t seen one yet — I live in the desert in more ways than one here in Jerusalem… I’ll look them up.


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