Martin: Hi David and thanks once again for agreeing to do a second interview on my blog.
My pleasure, Martin. Good to speak with you again.
Martin: Before we focus on ‘A Storm Hits Valparaiso’ I wonder if you could tell me when you first know that you wanted to be a writer. Was there a specific event that made you decide?
David: I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. However, I didn’t really do anything (other than talk about it, or daydream) until I read Stephen King’s On Writing. It’s truly a great book, and it gave me the confidence to get going and turn that dream into a reality.
You have written a very successful book on self-publishing and two collections of short stories. Your first novel, however, is a classic historical novel. What drew you to this genre?
My reading is all over the chart, but I suppose I read historicals more than anything else. I write all sorts of stuff too, but historical fiction is my “main” genre. I’ve always enjoyed big, sweeping stories – especially those that have a new take on a well-known event, or, even better, books which uncover a lost piece of history, or a fascinating figure who has slipped from the collective consciousness. I can spend days at a time on Wikipedia bouncing between unknown battles or forgotten generals, or poring over maps of fallen empires.
The struggle for South American Independence was epic and full of heroic and dashing figures such as Simon Bolivar and Bernardo O’ Higgins. Yet you chose to write about San Martin, a private man, less well-known, who spurned fame and heroics. What attracted you to the challenge of writing about him?
The original plan was to write about both San Martin and Bolivar, but, as you have pointed out, Bolivar’s story was (relatively) more familiar, and half the fun (for me) is uncovering something less well known. On top of that, the scope of the story was already spiralling out of control and I needed to make some big decision early on regarding what to focus on and what would make a coherent story. I already had seven main characters, and I felt that was about the limit in terms of what a reader could keep fresh in their minds (and that I could keep track of).
Aside from that, there was something terribly seductive about focusing on the man who walked away when power was within his grasp. What would lead someone to do that? That question powered the whole novel.
You slaughtered a number of your characters which made this reader, at least, feel sad. Do you regret losing any of the characters in this way and, if so, who and why?
The whole backdrop of the novel is a bloody twelve-year independence struggle, and given that most of the characters were in the army, it would have been stretching credulity that all of them could survive. I was very concerned with conveying the dark side of war – even when the cause was as just as this one. The independence forces were quite progressive in terms of freeing slaves, and allowing Indians to serve in the army as equals, but I also wanted to reflect the fact that independence didn’t solve all of South America’s problems. The lot of the poor and the minorities didn’t change hugely, and, as such, I felt it essential that certain characters didn’t have a happy ending. It’s always a strange feeling to kill off a character, but war is brutal, and the novel had to reflect that. But, to answer your question more directly, I did feel some emotion in snuffing out the lives that I had created. It always feels somewhat strange.
Which authors had the greatest influence upon you in framing and writing your novel?
Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Louis de Bernières – two of my favourites – hugely influenced the kind of style I wanted to achieve for this book. I could live for a thousand years and never write as well as those guys, but it gave me something to shoot for. I especially enjoy the way that Garcia Marquez can describe an entire character in a sentence and their life in a paragraph – without you ever feeling he left anything out. Louis de Bernières can do that too, is a deft hand at weaving together a succession of captivating narrative strands. Both have a beautiful, lyrical style, and their books are among the few I re-read over and over – especially Birds Without Wings by de Bernières and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Garcia Marquez.
This might sound a little strange, but this book was also greatly influenced by some of the Cold War thriller writers like Tom Clancy. I don’t read him so much now, but devoured his work as a teenager. I loved the way his books would have one chapter in Moscow, then another in New Mexicowith a different character, then the next in Afghanistan. As a reader, you were trying to figure out how the hell all these characters were going to meet up. I tried to replicate some of that structure. I think readers like a puzzle.
How did you research your novel? Did you do it before you started to write or was it more of an ongoing process?
I first got the idea while travelling around South America. I came across the story of San Martin and Bolivar meeting in that room in Guayaquil, and I was hooked. I was in the middle of writing something else (terrible) at the time and I was merely satisfying a curiosity about what transpired between the two men. I began making notes, sketching out scenarios, and, before I knew it, I was outlining a novel. It was all a happy accident, to be frank.
I didn’t get to properly commence until a few months later, when I spent the summer in Thailand. I had three months to myself, with nothing to do but write, and I took advantage of it. I had been reading background materials for months, but I only had a vague outline of a story and half of the characters in mind. I began writing the separate narrative strands in isolation, then had to figure out where and when they could begin meeting up. The story changed a lot as I wrote it, and research was virtually continual until the book was done. There was always something else I didn’t know enough about.
I went back to South America in 2008 for another nine-month trip. It was great to walk down the streets again, and breathe in the air. I had set the book (mostly) in locations I had been in before, but it was good to refresh the memory. I also got to visit a few museums and talk to some local historians – that added an extra dimension to the whole book.
I didn’t actually finish the book until late 2009, and rewrote it several times before eventually releasing it in December 2011. There were moments when I thought I would never cross the finish line. However, just shy of the sixth anniversary of when I first got the idea, I published it
Which research tools, sources and web-sites did you find most useful?
Wikipedia is a great starting point. It allowed me to get a quick primer on a subject, before ordering a few books and researching the old fashioned way: a big table, lots of scattered, barely intelligible notes, and a generally frantic demeanour.
What would be a typical writing day for you? Do you have set times, spaces, routines or rituals?
I wish. I’m not disciplined enough to have a set schedule. I’m a binge writer, who works in spurts, then lets ideas stew for a while and recharges for the next session. I can be quick enough in getting the bones of a story down, but can fiddle interminably. My first drafts tend to be quite rough – full of plot holes, mistakes, scenes that need a lot of work – and then I will cycle through successive drafts, usually focusing on one aspect, until I feel like I’ve taken it as far as I can. Then the beta readers get to kick it around for a while, and once I fix all that stuff it goes off to the editor.
You have moved countries a couple of times and, as someone who has also recently moved I wonder if the change of culture and language has had any effect upon your writing.
I don’t know. It certainly helped in getting some of the details right in this book, but I’ve moved around so much in the last ten years that it’s hard to say what is influencing what. I suppose it has directly influenced the setting of my stories –South America, Sweden, Czech Republic– but there is nothing really deliberate about that, the story decides the setting, not the other way around.
What is your next writing project?
I’ll be releasing another historical next month – Bananas For Christmas –about a colour-blind railroad engineer with the unlikely name of Lee Christmas who swaps New Orleans for the Tropics and gets caught up in a Honduran civil war. He was one of the most famous people in America 100 years ago – regularly featuring in the Sunday supplements – but he has largely been forgotten today. That story was so much fun to write. If you think Cochrane was a colourful character, wait until you see this guy.
On top of that, I’ll be updating Let’s Get Digital and releasing a sequel, aimed at writers who have already taken their first self-publishing steps and who are looking to take things to the next level. The French version of Let’s Get Digital will be out in a couple of weeks, followed by some of my shorts – other languages are planned too.
In terms of new fiction, I’ve started work on a dystopian novella called Supertramp which is twisted take on the reality TV shows that are clogging the screens, and that will be quickly (I hope) followed by another historical, also set in Latin America, and plenty more short stories. I have a few more historicals planned for Latin America, and then I’ll be trying something totally different with a book set in theMiddle East. Too many ideas, not enough time!
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat on my blog, David.
You can find out more about David Gaughran and his work at the following places:
David also has a blog focusing on South America. This can be found at southamericana.com
‘A Storm Hits Valparaiso’ can be found at:
His new novel: ‘Bananas For Christmas’ should be available at the end of July.
Join me next Saturday when Ty Johnston talks about his work.