Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bill Maher nails the Big Issue

I didn't see this when it first came out, but it's too priceless to miss:

For a more serious, but highly readable exploration of this issue - one that puts everything into perspective - follow this link to a recent speech by Graham Parkes.

Monday, October 18, 2010

An interview with Matt Beynon Rees

I had the pleasure of meeting Matt Beynon Rees in Darmstadt a couple of weeks ago (see previous posts), where we were both reading from our latest books. A holder of a Crime Writers Association John Creasey Dagger (2008), Matt has been nominated for an enviable number of literary honours, and is busy carving out an international reputation as one of the most intelligent and stylish thriller writers of his generation. His four Omar Yussef mysteries are mostly set in and around the Palestinian territories, but while the Palestine/Isreal conflict frequently pops up in blockbuster thrillers,  Matt brings an authenticity and understanding to the field that is quite unique. His writing springs from the best crime traditions, with echoes of Chandler and Hammett, but with a flavour that is all its own. Here he answer some questions about his past, present and future.
When and why did you first visit Jerusalem, and how do you come to be living there now?
I came for love. Then we divorced. But it worked out for me. I worked as a journalist for a British newspaper and then for Time Magazine. In 2006 I had been a decade in Jerusalem and I was tired of the repetitive nature of journalism. I decided I either had to leave and report from somewhere else, or do something else with the knowledge I had gained over those year. Fiction was the answer.
Had you done any fiction writing before you went to the Middle East? Or did living there inspire you to attempt it? 
I’ve been a writer in my soul and in practice since I was seven years old. The Middle East gave me material, in the sense that I saw people living in extreme circumstances. During the intifada of 2000 to 2005, I saw some terrible things. But it gave me a great many insights into myself. On an emotional level, that period of violence drove me beyond the initial excitement of witnessing dramatic events as a journalist, and it made me look hard at the way I viewed humanity – and my place in it. It made me less outwardly ambitious and more content to look inward.
Were you a big reader of crime novels before you started writing them? If so, which authors did you most admire?
To have written any of Raymond Chandler’s novels, I’d be prepared to drown kittens and bite the heads off chickens. He’s the greatest. I particularly enjoy when other writers whose work I love take a foray into the genre – I’m a fan of Morality Play by Barry Unsworth, for example, which is a mystery based around a medieval mystery play (in medieval times, of course, the mystery was the mystical nature of Christ’s passion or some other biblical element, rather than a whodunit. It’s Unsworth great stroke to mix the two.)
Which other crime writers (or writers in general) do you think a novice can best learn from? Are there any particular authors or novels that you keep by your desk?
Besides Chandler, I often look at Dashiell Hammett for inspiration. They could create a neat phrase so well that now they’re imitated to the point of cliché. But they’re truly wonderful.
How did the character of Omar Yussef (the protagonist of your four novels to date) come to you?
He’s based on a friend of mine from Dehaisha Refugee Camp. He impressed me as an original thinker and a man of integrity. In a time of conflict, those two qualities are often subsumed, because people who confirm are less likely to attract the attention of the bad guys. He was a very rounded character, because his good qualities also made him irritable in the face of people who didn’t share those attributes. He’s quite a short-tempered fellow, but always in the face of ignorance or dishonest thinking.
Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?
The latest Omar Yussef mystery is The Fourth Assassin. After novels set in Bethlehem, Gaza and Nablus, this one is in the famous Palestinian town of Brooklyn, New York. There’s actually a growing Palestinian population there. Omar, who is a principal at a UN school, goes to New York to attend a conference on the Palestinians. He goes to visit his son, who lives in Brooklyn, only to find a headless body in his son’s bed. He has to clear his son’s name of the murder, and in doing so he uncovers an assassination plot. It’s great (!) because it incorporates a contemporary mystery with clues and elements of plot tied to the medieval Islamic sect of The Assassins, so you get an entertaining read and a great deal of insight into Muslim history – and what it’s like to be a Muslim in the US now.
 In one way or another the Palestine/Israel conflict is ever-present in your novels. Have you ever got into trouble or been criticized for appearing to take sides in your fiction?
My fiction hasn’t got me into trouble. As a journalist people assumed I was always on the OTHER side. Yasser Arafat once wanted to have me arrested for an article I wrote about corruption in the Palestinian Authority. I eluded him, as you can see. My fiction seems to disarm all but the most blinkered types, because it gives readers a way of seeing what it’s like to live as a Palestinian without blaming everything on Israel. People recognize that the story as it’s told in newspapers is obviously wrong because it’s black and white. Fiction is set up perfectly to handle the gray areas where reality lies.
Can you describe your first route to publication? How many rejections did you get along the way?
For my first Omar Yussef novel, there wasn’t such a hard road. I had collected all the rejection slips I could use during my teens and twenties. I had published a couple of short stories while I lived in the US, in tiny literary magazines. I wrote a forever unpublished pair of novels there and during my first year in Jerusalem, as well as poetry, plays and screenplays. Then I did a nonfiction book about Israelis and Palestinians which WAS published. So I’ve done my time.
Do you write fiction full time? If so, for how long have you been doing that? If not, how do you balance fiction writing with your other work?
For the last four – almost five - years, I’ve been writing full time. I do very little journalism now. I’ve managed to live off the proceeds, which I consider to be a victory.
Has becoming a novelist changed you in any way?
I’m much, much happier. Writing is like a meditation for me. To enter into a deep concentration. To do the same thing every day, but with different mental challenges. To work at home. I’ve had to look much deeper at what it means to be human, so that my characters will demonstrate the breadth of experience and respond in true ways to what happens. For that, I’ve had to understand my self. I meditate, I do yoga, I work out, I swim. It’s all intended to make me a better writer. …And a better father, because I have a three-year-old boy.
How do you research your books? How long does the research take?
With the Omar Yussef novels, much of the plot and character is taken from my years as a journalist here in the Middle East. I’d cull old notebooks, which I had kept with very anal catalogues of what they contained. With each book I’d return to the scenes and people involved (if they hadn’t been killed by the Israeli army) to refresh my memory and to probe. Now I’m writing historical novels, so the research is a little different. But with my forthcoming  Mozart's Last Aria I spent time in Vienna, read a lot, and learned the piano. Now I’m working on a novel about Caravaggio, so I’ve visited Rome, Naples and Malta (poor me), learned how to paint with oils, and am taking lessons with a rapier. I do four or five months of research before I write, but I also like to do additional research while writing. To enter the head of the main character, as it were. So for the last year, I’ve been living in 1610. Which was a very good year!
What is your ideal working environment?
I have to work at home. I write standing up (because I dislocated a rib playing soccer a few years ago and it hurt to sit down for a while). I do yoga stretches between each chapter, so the blood keeps flowing. I have a humidifier blowing in my face, because the Jerusalem air is so dry. Sometimes I get a little Mozart playing to add to the calm. I’d look pretty silly doing that with a laptop in a café.
What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?
This, from Paradise Lost:
"The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven."
What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?
In The Long Goodbye, a beautiful woman walks into a bar full of men. Chandler says: “There was a silence like the silence when a conductor has tapped his baton against his music stand and raised his arms.”
Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?
Barry Unsworth. Sacred Hunger is a great novel. The Rage of the Vulture, which is set in Ottoman Istanbul, is an overlooked masterpiece.
Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?
Martin Cruz Smith in his wonderful Arkady Renko novels.
Do you think you will always be a crime writer, first and foremost, or do you have plans to branch out in other directions?
Mozart's Last Aria, which will be published in May by Corvus, is a historical crime novel. The one to follow that, about Caravaggio, is also a sort of mystery/thriller. I think I’m starting to write about art and artists, as a way of delving deeper into my self. Crime fiction does that in an extreme way, because it’s shows people in extreme situations. But I realized recently that all my novels – including the Palestinian crime novels – are about one thing: love. They aren’t romances, but the relationships at their centre are loving ones, and the main character always learns something about himself and his capacity to love. If the focus of your life isn’t love, then I don’t think you understand the world well enough to write a good novel. Whether it’s crime fiction or less easily definable, love’s what I’ll always be writing about.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

From Darmstadt to Dortmund

Last week was book-ended (pun intended) by appearances at two different literary festivals in Germany: the first in Darmstadt, near Frankfurt, the second outside Dortmund in a region known as Hellweg  - which translates as “Hell’s Way” for reasons connected, so I was told, with salt.
The two events were very different, but I enjoyed them both. At Darmstadt I had the great pleasure of meeting two other British writers, Matt Beynon Rees, who had flown in from Jerusalem, and Martin Walker who came via Switzerland from his holiday home in a French vineyard.  Matt has, not unjustly, been called the Dashiell Hammett of Palestine; while Martin’s comical writings about crime in Bordeaux (in his reading the ‘victim’ was a bottle of Chateau Petrus 1989) reminded me of Clochemerle with a dash of Georges Simenon and a frisson of Inspector Clouseau. The event, which took place in the beautifully reconstructed Stadtkirche, was a sell-out, a fact which owes much to the energies and enthusiasm of the organiser, Martin Schneider. I also enjoyed meeting Béatrice Habersaat, one of the people behind DTV’s impressive marketing campaign for Das Einstein-Mädchen. Getting retailers to stock the work of an unknown writer is a huge challenge, and to this day, I’m still not sure how they managed it.
My involvement with the ‘Mord am Hellweg’ crime festival was more leisurely. Beforehand I got to spend a sunny Saturday afternoon wandering around the little town of Unna, with a very companionable minder from my German publishers, called Marianne. Like me, she suffers from a poor sense of direction and a tendency to trip over inanimate objects in her path. I bought some rather superior toy cars for Leo and consumed a variety of regional dishes.
The event itself took place on Sunday at a specially converted railway station in Werl, a small town of 20,000 (which nonetheless boasts two book shops), the birthplace of Franz von Papen, the last Chancellor of Germany before Hitler. My short readings in English were supplemented by longer readings in German by the actor Eckhard Leue. Eckhard’s is quite famous in Germany.  For millions he is the voice of WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk), one of the biggest broadcasters in the land. (The company HQ is known as the Funkhaus, which sounds like it ought to be where James Brown lived…) He read extremely well and with extraordinary assurance.
Despite delays on the local railway network, the turnout was extremely good. In Germany, I was told, people still enjoy gathering to hear books read aloud. Certainly the interest in literature there seems more evident and lively than just about anywhere else I've been.