Questions for Martin Walker
Author of the Bruno novel, To Kill a Troubadour, kindly took time out of his busy day to answer some questions around the publication of his latest novel and to speak about his writing life. You can find a review of the book, here:
PAJNewman: To Kill a Troubadour is book 15 in the Bruno series. How do you feel that this novel stacks up against your previous work? Are you pleased with it?
Martin Walker: Yes, I’m very pleased with the way I was able to bring in my growing fascination with the degree to which medieval Europe was civilised and educated by the Moors of Spain and also by the Saracens of the Holy Land. Our musical instruments and much of our lyrical tradition comes from them, transmitted through the court of the Dukes of Aquitaine. The more I learn about Eleanor of Aquitaine, the more I think of her as the most extraordinary person – not just woman – of her day. Courtly love, the Arthurian saga, regent of England, the only queen who went to the Holy Land on Crusade, and the only woman to have been married to a King of France and King of England – and the mother of Richard Lionheart. When the troops became dispirited on the way to Jerusalem, she rode barebreated – ‘to dazzle them,’ as she put it. What a woman!
Especially in the early parts of the novel, there are some observations regarding the issues role of the Russians in Eastern Europe which look positively prophetic at this range. How important is for you to root Bruno in real world events?
Very important, because it allows me to write something with which we can all identify. I have used the IRA, Basque and, Islamic terrorists, Russian agents, American FBI agents, East Germans and assorted bad guys because they are part of the mental and political furniture of our age. Moreover, I know Russia well, having been the Guardian correspondent in Moscow for over 4 years in the Gorbachev period and I have returned often. So I was not at all surprised, after Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, his grab of Crimea and the Donbas in 2014, that he was aching to swallow the lot. He even wrote an essay on the great Russian space which signalled his intentions.
How long did To Kill a Troubadour take from beginning to end to write?
About nine months, half for research, half for writing.
You, obviously, had an illustrious career before you turned to becoming a novelist. Do you find the influences of your previous work seeping into the book?
Indeed, it would be odd if they did not, since you tend to write what you know. And it does not all stem from my years in journalism, but also from what I learned in my years in think-tanks, working on globalisation, AI, technology, demographics and so on.
Who are your biggest influences as a writer?
I revere Conan Doyle since Sherlock Holmes got me interested in detective fiction and his historical novels (Sir Nigel, The White Company) made me fascinated by the Hundred Years War. And I always like to read popular historians like Trevelyan, Michelet, Carlyle and so on. The biggest influence was probably a woman called Jean Stead, my news editor at the Guardian, who made me cut the flourishes and rambles.
What is the question you wish interviewers and readers would ask but never do?
Don’t you get bored writing Bruno?
The answer is never, because I can write other stuff in between: a wine column I write each month; travel pieces about the Perigord, a new book that comes out in Germany this year on the history and culture of the region called ‘Bruno’s Perigord.’ And I’m thinking of updating my 1993 non-fiction book, ‘The Cold War – a History.’
The novel obviously appears to exist pre-Covid. I know a lot of writers are grappling with this dilemma but will Covid play a part in your future work, do you think?
No, I think after the deaths and woes and sadness of the last two years, we are going to get used to it, as we did to TB and smallpox and AIDS. And being locked down in the Perigord with my chickens and garden and dog was hardly insufferable, and in my village we were relatively lightly affected.
What is a typical writing day for you? Has it changed as you have produced a novel a year?
Not much. In my days in journalism I regularly wrote between a thousand and two thousand words a day, and I learned to write anywhere; on trains, in aircraft, in famines, even in trenches and under fire. There was an old Fleet St motto – ‘Don’t get it right, get it written,’ and the Americans made it sound better by calling journalism ‘the first rough draft of history.’ Whichever one is nearer the truth, all of us hacks learned to write fast and often.
I’m sure you get asked this a lot, but do you ever think about Bruno being adapted for the screen? Is this something you would be interested in?
Yes, film rights have been sold but there are endless discussions over whether to film Bruno in English, French or German. I’m just a bystander in this process.
Am I correct in thinking that this year will finally see the English-language publication of Bruno’s Cookbook? How have you gone about sourcing the recipes for this?
Yes, Bruno’s Cookbook comes out next autumn in the US and UK, which is great because it has now been awarded by Gourmet International the title Best French Cookbook of the Last Twenty Years.’ The recipes come from neighbours, from some local restaurants, from hunting clubs in the Perigord, and from my wife (a food writer for the Sunday Times, Washington Post etc). I cook every single recipe that we use in the cookbook and in the Bruno novels, but with my wife watching at my side.
I know Donna Leon is not keen to have her novels translated into Italian as she is worried about what her Venetian neighbours will say. What sort of a readership do you have with the readers in the Perigourd and do you find people trying to spot themselves in the novels?
I was a little nervous when the books came out in French, but my friends and neighbours all seem delighted, and many claim to have been the model for various characters – even when they are not. I think what they love most is the remarkable impact the Bruno novels have had on tourism, which is why the French Foreign Ministry gave me a gold medal, and why the regional council named me ‘Ambassador of Perigord,. The winemakers made me a Grand Consul de la Vinee de Bergerac. Guess which one makes me most proud.
Will Bruno ever find happiness, or at least the wife and family he longs for?
I really don’t know. I keep putting interesting and attractive women in his way but Bruno seems to have a mind of his own. It’s wonderful in a way, as an author to have created a character who seems so real and independent to me, but I keep hoping that I’ll be able some day to write a chapter about his marital bliss. What a woman she would have to be!