Recently I had the honour of interviewing and reviewing the work of writer, Brian Stoddart. He sent across his latest book A Greater God, and in return and I sent my questions. This is how the conversation went.
What would you say is an interesting quirk in your writing?
"What many readers say is that they really enjoy the depth of the actual history in the Le Fanu novels. My PhD was on the period and the place in question, and I work hard to unravel the fictional tales against the solid backdrop of events and personalities of Madras in the 1920s.
"That helps the city come to life, and even the heritage authorities on the city concede that I get it pretty much right. In all that, though, I try to make it all readable and palatable, and a few of those readers are kind enough to say that they enjoy history for the first time in the Le Fanu stories. That is gratifying."
As Brian’s answer suggests, his books are packed with real history, and A Greater God is no exception. This is great for anyone with an interest in 19th-20th Century India but can be a little discouraging for the more casual reader.
In your humble opinion, what do you think makes a good story?
“Same old principles, I think – believable characters (be they good or evil), a great setting, and compelling 'action' that for me may be either physical or mental. As a reader those are the things that engage me, and I judge writers by their ability (or lack of) to push those buttons.
"Think Le Carre, Kate Atkinson, Evelyn Waugh, Val McDermid, Philip Kerr, Jane Harper and all the rest, and I do believe they all have in common a focus on those principles.”
I feel Brian absolutely hit the nail on the head with what makes a good story, and those principles definitely carry over into his work. For all his talent as a detective and ‘chief problem solver’, he's quite fallible. He gets distracted, becomes overwhelmed, makes mistakes; which creates an element of relatability.
Setting-wise, Le Fenu explores several Indian locations: from the bustling vibrancy of Madras, to the rural tranquillity of Hyderabad. And of course, there's action (though some could argue in modest quantities). I really found myself engaging with the raid and interrogation scenes. The former because of the exquisite detail in which Le Fanu navigated genuinely terrifying situations with a calm, cool head; and the latter because of the depth of psychology employed in cracking suspects.
Of the many works you’ve written in your distinguished career, which is your favourite? The one that really made you feel smug and highbrow for having thought of it?
“Like most writers my immediate favourite is the one that has just appeared! It is the fourth in the Le Fanu colonial India series and, to my mind, the best so far in character development, story arc and scene setting. Over all my books, however (and there are over twenty of them), the abiding favourite is A House in Damascus: Before the Fall.
"I worked in Syria immediately before the outbreak of the civil war, and it remains one of the best experiences of my life. What began as a travel diary turned into a memoir of all the wonderful people and places I encountered living in my old house in the middle of the old city, and a calibration of those things against travellers of the past. It became an homage to the city, and luckily others liked it as well – it was an Amazon #1 in Middle East travel for a while.”
One criticism I have about the characters is that I found it hard to distinguish between them, as they mostly speak in a similar manner. Characters referring to Le fenu by name or initials when speaking to him was a small blessings but I did often find myself mixing up Willingdon, Whitney, and Wilson.
The major exception to this was my favourite character, Arthur 'the Jockey Jepson. As callous as he is belligerent, Jepson uses colourfully crass language which makes his dialogue easy to locate and his personality easy to loathe.
As a writer of both fact and fiction, as well as an educator, what is the single most interesting fact you’ve come across?
“In relation to the Le Fanu stories, the fact that MI5 and MI6 really began over rising concern about Indian revolutionaries ramping up activities in America, Canada and Europe. The staple source of fictional stories surrounding spies and conflict, then, really began in India.
"That seems fair, given Kautilya discussed the craft in the Arthashastra written around 300-400 BC. Then, that sits nicely alongside the invention of finger printing in India in the later nineteenth century, which is referenced in A Greater God. As India rises globally now, it is useful to remember that it always has had an international impact, even in the spy game.”
In many ways Jepson personifies Le Fenu's primary foil, one any working adult will be all too familiar with: incompetent management. LF wants to do the right thing and get the job done, but the system, and by extension, the people running it are too backwards and set in their ways to allow for that and it's that believable struggle that demonstrates just how well written this book is.
Another is example when the horde of huge, life changing decisions are closing in around our protagonist, it started making me anxious about my own life and responsibilities, which in my mind, is the mark of strong writing.
And finally, the question I pose to all creatives! Given your significant experience with writing and publishing, do you have any wisdom you would be willing to share?
“It really is just keep writing because the more you practice the better you get. But there is also the need to think hard about the craft while you do that, the search for continuous improvement that comes mainly from reading thoughtfully, because that shows you how others do it well.
"For me there is nothing better than every now and then stumbling across a writer who just does it differently and impressively, a standout who shows other ways of doing things. Most recently for me, that is someone like Lou Berney, a bit earlier Megan Abbott, and every now and then someone like Denis Johnson.”
If you are a budding historian or someone studying the time period, A Greater God will fascinate you. If you're reading this review and feeling on the fence, because you’re not that fussed about real-world goings-on of 1920s India, I'll tell you this: what it lacks in action, it makes up for in history and humanity. So there’s something in there for everyone.
Thank you very much for reading this piece, it means a great deal to me. I would also be quite appreciative of a like and a follow on Twitter @Mooscittles and @superinkarts for all the latest views and reviews.
Written by Kyle J.