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Tuesday, 7 June 2022

Interview: Lynne Patrick in conversation with Martin Walker

 

Martin Walker

Martin Walker was educated at Balliol College, Oxford and Harvard.
 In twenty-five years with the
Guardian, he served as Bureau Chief in Moscow and, in the US, as European Editor.
In addition to his prize-winning journalism, he wrote and presented the BBC series
Martin Walker’s Russia and Clintonomics. 
Martin has written several acclaimed works of non-fiction, including
The Cold War: A History.
He lives in Washington and spends his summers in his house in the Dordogne.
Many of his novels feature the old-school chief of police, Captain Bruno.
The most recent being
The Coldest Case. You can visit Bruno’s website at

 
brunochiefofpolice.com


Cards on the table: I’ve been a huge Bruno fan ever since I first encountered him nearly ten years ago. So, it was a real pleasure, a treat, even, to be asked to interview his creator.

Lynne: Martin, I know how much valuable writing time and creative energy promoting a new book takes up, so thank you for taking time out for Mystery People. Pre-Covid you led a busy, globetrotting life. In what ways did things change for you when the pandemic effectively closed the world down? And now we’re told that the pandemic is over, that we’ve reached a point where we have to live with the virus and go about our daily lives as normally as possible, have things returned to your previous normal, or is your life different from before?

Martin: Covid stopped my usual three months a year of book tours, May and October in Europe and the US in part of February and early June; though it gave me time to complete a collection of short stories and the English-language version of the cookbook, I did not get nearly as much work done as I had hoped. Covid, even without catching it, seemed to sap energy and depress the spirits, and of course it cut down the pleasure of welcoming the usual friends and family to the Perigord. This year life seems to be getting back to normal but I doubt we have seen the end of the pandemic.

Lynne: Some writers have been writing as long as they can recall, were simply born that way in fact; others come to it later. How was it for you?
Martin
: I have been writing most of my life. I’d follow my mother around the house, telling her little stories and poems I made up. When I was nine I produced my first newspaper on a wall at school and called it The Junior
Journal. Later, I loved the constant deadlines and challenges of daily journalism, particularly when I was able to travel around Africa and the rest of the world. And it was all fascinating – the politics, the tensions, the massive social changes that came with the OPEC price rise, the threat of climate change, the dramatic shifts in the status of women and the impact of new technologies, being in Moscow for Perestroika – the fascinating turbulence of it all. So I wrote my non-fiction books on politics, Gorbachev, the Cold War, the impact of the world’s elite newspapers, the dramas of American politics. Stirring times.

Lynne: Journalism was where you forged a career and made your name: a very different style of writing from fiction. What motivated you to write novels? Or has fiction always been there in the background?
Martin
: It has always been there, partly because I was always reading and loved writing book reviews, and then I enjoyed making up bedtime stories for our children; but it was the fascination with the prehistoric cave art of
Lascaux that made me want to write about the kind of society that could have produced such a masterpiece. And then the French setting and the huge floods of history that I began to explore launched me into the Bruno novels – partly because by then I was involved in think-tanks rather than journalism and just wanted to write.

Lynne: The setting for the Bruno series is at least as important as the plots, and rightly so; the Perigord is a glorious corner of a country which is a patchwork of beautiful places. When did you first discover the region, your love of which shines out of the novels? Has it changed much since your early visits?
Martin
: My wife and I discovered it, with our newborn daughter, nearly thirty years ago, staying with friends who lived there, and then when we were based in Moscow, visiting them every summer for a glorious food-and-wine-filled holiday. And the more time we spent there the more we were fascinated by this tiny corner of Europe that contains so much of its history?

Lynne: Bruno himself is a wonderfully complex character – on the surface, exactly the kind of policeman every small community needs, as dedicated to the people he serves as to the law, but with hidden depths that allow him to deal with matters well outside the comfort zone of the average village copper. Do local police chiefs like this actually exist in rural France?

Martin: Bruno was initially inspired by my local village copper in the Perigord, a man who spent ten years in the French army, teaches the local kids to play tennis and rugby, hunts and cooks. He is now retired and his replacement is not nearly as good. But in any small community a policeman can get to know almost everybody, and I think this is very different from the experience of cops in big cities, who usually deal with strangers.

Lynne: Plot, say the writing manuals, evolves from character, and certainly the character you’ve given Bruno ensures that if there’s a body to be found, he will trip over it. But where do those bodies come from? Where do you find one perfectly plausible plot after another in a region where the crime rate is surely on a par with a small town in Cornwall?

Martin: My police friends would sometimes say to me, ‘I spend all my time making sure there is no crime in our village. I dance with the wives at their weddings, teach their kids to play sports, go hunting with the dads – and you litter the landscape with corpses.’‘Fictional corpses,’ I would always reply. ‘Imaginary crimes.’

Lynne: Fair comment!
What about the process of writing? As a journalist, you must have been pretty organized and methodical about your work. Does the same apply to your fiction, or are you the kind of novelist who lets the story take you on its own journey?

Martin: A bit of both. I start off with an idea for a theme, try to work out a plot and sub-plot and new characters, but things always change as I go along, which is part of the fun.

Lynne: Who is your target reader? You write in English, but about France; are you writing primarily for an English-speaking audience, or are you aiming to draw in French readers as well?
Martin
: Most of my sales are outside the US and UK, and since the books are in eighteen languages I’m always aware that there is a world and an audience beyond the English speakers. And I’m always keen to be sure that French readers will not discover some appalling howler. I remember writing about a local soup called a Tourain, and my first French translator, a Parisian, wrote that this was a soup in the style of Tours, a place on the Loire. Had that been published, I might have been lynched in my own Perigord village.

Lynne: Between the food element which is a highlight in every book and the hugely informative website, Bruno’s world has become something of a family business. Was it always your intention to use the books to promote the Perigord region, or is this something that just happened?
Martin
: It just happened, alongside my own growing interest in cooking and the local wines, and then readers started demanding a Bruno cookbook, and my wife Julia is a magnificent and inventive cook, and I became more and more interested in the people who made the local wines and helping them start to export their wines, and then I began bringing out my own wine, Cuvee Bruno.

Lynne: Your novels are alive with wonderful characters, some who return in novel after novel, others who appear in just one. How do you go about researching those people? Are they based – loosely, of course! – on people you know, or have met in the Perigord? Do they appear fully formed in your mind?
Martin
: The men are always based (very loosely) on someone I know, but the women are pure inventions. I find women very mysterious and often baffling, fascinating but elusive. This is particularly true of my wife of 44 years. So although I will borrow a stance, a stride, a mannerism from women I know or meet, I wouldn’t dare use one as a model.

Lynne: Bruno was short of his fortieth birthday when the series began. Was this a deliberate ploy, to allow the first book to develop into a series, or did the series happen because people asked for more?
Martin
: When I wrote the manuscript of the first Bruno, my wife said, ‘You may have something here, and publishers always like the idea of a series, so go away and write five paragraphs, one of each of the next Bruno books.’ So I did, but I hate to be tied down by chronology, so Bruno and his friends stay in a magic realm where none of them ever ages.

Lynne: Without giving away any spoilers, can you tell us a little about the new Bruno novel, To Kill a Troubadour?
Martin: I’m fascinated by the medieval troubadours, the origins of their music and their instruments and the forms of their poetry, and also by the way they give us the first international mythology that did not come from the Bible: King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table; and a lot of that comes through that amazing woman, Eleanor of Aquitaine. But how to make that relevant to modern France? And how to bring in my outrage at the behaviour of Putin and his creatures?

Lynne: Finally – please say you’re already planning book sixteen! More than a year without a new Bruno novel is unthinkable!

Martin: I’m writing the Bruno novel for 2023, The Battle of Sarlat, and there are more books planned after that.

Lynne: Martin, thank you so much for that glimpse behind the scenes of the world of Bruno and his creator. I look forward to following his adventures for years to come.

 If you haven’t already discovered Bruno and his friends in the Perigord, you have a treat in store.
The books in order are:

Bruno, Chief of Police, also published as Death in the Dordogne

The Dark Vineyard

Black Diamond

The Crowded Grave

The Devil's Cave

The Resistance Man

The Children Return also published as  Children of War and Death Undercover

The Dying Season also published as The Patriarch

Fatal Pursuit

The Templars’ Last Secret

A Taste for Vengeance

The Body in the Castle Well

The Shooting at Chateau Rock

The Coldest Case

Bruno’s Challenge and Other Stories of the French Countryside

To Kill a Troubadour

 Martin Walker’s standalone novels are:

The Infiltrator

The Money Soldiers

A Mercenary Calling

The Caves of Perigord

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives in Oxfordshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

 

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