Leading up to the September publication of John Lawton's stand-alone historical thriller Then We Take Berlin, Lawton sat down with his friend and fellow author Livia Vaccaro to talk about Paul Auster, New York jazz clubs, the Berlin Wall, and how this new novel - and its Cockney protagonist, Joe Wilderness - relates to his beloved Inspector Troy.
Livia Vaccaro: Who are you reading right now?
John Lawton: Right now I'm on a Paul Auster run. I've read three or four in a row. The Glass City, which cries out to be a Coen Brothers film, Invisible, Brooklyn Follies, and Moon Palace. Moon Palace was disturbing. It was as though he'd been looking over my shoulder when I lived in New York in the nineties.
JL: Well, it's the similarities, the coincidences if you like. I was living in one of those grandiose apartment blocks on Central Park West with an old man who loved word games, who I pushed around New York in a wheelchair. My old man was a hell of a lot nicer than the one Auster depicts, but it was an uncanny read. I wrote two or three novels there.
JL: Old Flames and White Death in their entirety - bits of the ones that followed. Arthur - there, I've named him - well, no harm in that. He was Arthur Cantor, the Broadway producer. When he was still able he'd go into his office on Times Square every day, leaving me in his study with several thousand books and a desk the size of a Ping-Pong table. If I got up in time, we'd go through the papers, play a word game, do a crossword puzzle. Once he left, I'd work til I ran out of words, shower, shave, change, and be in a jazz club for the first set of the evening. Great way to earn a living. I put Arthur in the new novel. He was always larger than life anyway. I stuck him in Elaine's with Ingrid Bergman. He was crazy about Bergman.
LV: Yes, you mentioned jazz clubs before. You have a favourite?
JL: I liked the small ones. Detour in the East Village. Last time I looked it was a sports TV bar. Metropolis on Union Square - Nora York was the resident singer there twenty years ago. Visiones on MacDougal was pretty damn good. The resident band was the Maria Schneider Orchestra. That's gone too and these days you'll pay fifty bucks a pop to see Maria in venues that are just too big for jazz. That's success for you. Hundreds of thousands of people saw the Beatles live - after 1963 they played venues so big that everyone saw them, but no one ever heard them. These days I favor Smalls on West 10th. The name says it all. Last time I was there, Scott Albertson was singing. The front row comprised me and a tomcat - pity, Scott should fill a venue like that, and he will - but I wish I'd had a camera for the moment the cat stepped off its chair and poised to leap onto the piano. The look on Scott's face...
LV: And besides jazz?
JL: Right now I'm listening to the Unthanks sisters. I cannot stand folk music - or so I thought, but equally metafiction can bore the arse off me, but that's what Auster writes - and the revelation of the Unthanks is that they build on traditional lyrics and melodies and push them into something almost classical. There are times they sound like Satie or Debussy, but they're singing about lost cattle or drowning at sea in Northumbrian dialect that is redolent of Chaucer or Langland. And I'm listening to Schubert.
JL: Do the gods tire of ambrosia? Does Bart Simpson tire of Squishies? To be precise, I'm listening to Anna Malikova play Liszt's transcriptions of Schubert Lieder.
LV: OK, to the new novel, Then We Take Berlin. Leonard Cohen?
JL: Of course. In fact, it began life as First We Take Manhattan but it was universally agreed - i.e., me, agent in London, editor in New York - that Then We Take Berlin said more about the book inside.
LV: It's not part of your regular series?
JL: Weeeell...'tis, an' t'ain't. My London editor - a Cambridge bluestocking who has truncated her moniker from Samantha to Sam and looks as though she would punch my lights out if I ever used her full name - she was the one who summed it up as "a Troy novel without Troy." I had not thought of it that way, but she's right. A very succinct phrasing.
JL: It's a Troy world, a Troy era ... a Troy vocabulary. One of the central characters is a bit player in most of the Troy novels. Swift Eddie Clark. And Troy himself makes a brief appearance as I reverse a scene from Black Out and show it from Eddie's point of view. That is their first meeting.
LV: As I recall they met in Berlin during the airlift. Right at the end of Black Out.
JL: Yep. I was working on that last chapter in...I think it was 1992. And I realized I needed to introduce someone new to the plot. That was Eddie. He came out of nowhere, although with hindsight I can see a lot of the actor Warren Clarke in him. I took to the little chap. He's as big a rogue as Troy, but far less lethal, not a mean bone in his body. So I brought him back, again and again. He's in all the sequels. And maybe it got to be time he had a book of his own ... but he's a character player. Elisha Cook, not Bogart. Gabby Hayes, not Gary Cooper. Hence I had to invent a new lead. And that new lead was inevitably going to be as different from Commander Troy as I could make him.
LV: In what ways?
JL: Well, he's a damn sight nicer. He understands betrayal and guilt. He feels betrayal and guilt, and I suspect those are meaningless terms to Troy. But he's a thief. They also come from opposite ends of the English class spectrum. Troy is a Hampstead toff. Joe Wilderness is a Cockney wide boy who only visits Hampstead to burgle houses.
LV: Are you saying your cat burglar is more decent than your cop?
JL: That is exactly what I'm saying. Joe is a mensch. No one would ever say that about Troy.
LV: Tell me a little about the plot.
JL: The book opens in 1963 in New York, where Wilderness, a retired MI6 agent, meets up with Frank, an old buddy from the postwar years, a retired CIA agent who now runs an ad agency on Madison Avenue.
LV: Shades of Mad Men?
JL: Yep. I used to work with the Palestinian historian Said Aburish. Said died about a year ago. I knew him during his London years, but he had spent the sixties on Madison Avenue at the Ted Bates Agency alongside people like Rosser Reeves, another larger than life character, and I'd stored up Said's tales of New York life, and I rather think Mad Men just crystallized them for me. Frank and Joe clearly go back a long way, and I hint that something in all their black-market scams in occupied Berlin went badly wrong, but I don't say what - as that would be the ultimate spoiler. Frank is now hiring Joe to go back to Berlin, and instead of smuggling goods West to East, he's smuggling an old woman East to West. And, almost needless to say, the vital difference between 1948 and 1963 is that the Berlin wall went up in 1961. I imagine reading the book is a matter of slow revelations that bring the reader back to the beginning. But that's not really for me to say.
LV: Did you ever see the wall?
JL: It had several incarnations. The Russians rebuilt it at least twice. Early versions were just barbed wire and concrete blocks. Toward the end it was incredibly high and curved at the top to defeat grappling irons. That was the version I saw. There are a lot of photographs of people standing on the wall just before it came down in - what? '89? One of them is me. That said, that contributes nothing to the novel. The novel is about a tunnel. There are plenty of tunnels under Berlin - I went down several of them - but fiction has its own demands. Nothing fit the bill, so I made one up.
LV: What attracted you to writing about Berlin?
JL: Initially it was Hamburg, which was where my father's war ended in '45. I have a few scenes there, but Berlin - as the point where all the Allied Forces met, especially in the years before the wall - was irresistible. My father had portrayed Hamburg to me as a free-for-all of black markets and looting, and I assumed, rightly, that it was but a pale shadow of Berlin. Berlin in the late forties was about survival, and survival meant crime. If you lived on the ration you might survive, but you'd be pale and thin and feeble. So the black market thrived.
One of the hardest things to grasp about the war is that in any sense but the diplomatic it didn't end in 1945...people went on dying in droves. By the summer of '45, there [were] something like twelve million people on the move in central Europe - the most staggering displacement of population in history. And it was that that prompted the invention of my heroine, Nell. Nell is a displaced person trying to find her way back to Berlin, against the tide as Germans flee Berlin and head west.
LV: And she and Joe meet?
JL: No love story if they don't.
LV: So it's a love story?
JL: All my books are love stories. I trail this with messages on walls - the Germans really did this, posted notes for the missing on walls and lampposts : Nell, I'm alive, where are you? Joe. Of course the Joe who writes this on every wall isn't Wilderness, and the Nell isn't Nell Breakheart, but it hints at the inevitable in a rather surreal way.
Livia Vaccaro is the nom de plume of a Kentucky-born author now carpetbagging in NYC.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher.
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