An Interview with
Interviewer Luan Gaines:In each of your novels, and certainly this one as well, you have a unique talent for inhabiting your protagonists. How difficult is this process?
Robert Wilson:The most important thing about creating believable characters is that you have to be prepared to change your mind. You may go into a story thinking that your character will behave in a certain way or wanting him/her to behave in a certain way because it will suit your story. However, once the character is thrown into the melting pot of the novel and brushes up against other characters and reacts to certain plot developments you may find that they don’t do what they’re told. I always know whether this is a good or bad thing by the extent of my fascination with the unexpected behaviour. It will, of course, involve going back over the character’s every scene and rewriting them so that earlier behaviour accords with later developments. To inhabit your protagonists successfully is a question of concentration. You have to listen to them once you’ve created them and you have to be prepared for some laborious work.
Do you formulate a complicated plot and fit the characters to it, or do the characters determine the direction of the plot?
The setting comes first, followed by the characters and I may start the ball rolling by killing someone. Thereafter it is the characters who determine the current of the plot. I use the word current because sometimes plot is visible and other times it’s not. It’s visible when an investigation demands certain action from the characters like finding a body, which requires an autopsy which gives some clues on which the detective can act. It is invisible when the characters determine the flow of the plot. A perceptive reader might be able to pick up the detail of this through close reading of dialogue for instance, but normally it would be something that accumulates as the reader delves deeper into the characters. It should not be dissimilar to going into the sea, swimming out for a bit and gradually beginning to feel uneasy so that you turn back only to find that you’ve drifted a mile down the shoreline.
What inspired you to bring back the formidable Inspector Javier Falcon in The Vanished Hands?
I always intended to write a minimum of a quartet using Javier FalcÛn. I decided to write him into a series as a challenge to myself. Each book would feature that central character but each would be distinct from the other rather than being formulaic. I perceived a difficulty in series novels featuring male detectives. Senior policemen tend to be middle-aged men - it takes some maturity to conduct a murder investigation and some mental stability, too. The problem with middle-aged men is that they don’t change. They might give up smoking or crack a new joke but they rarely develop into different people. They are set in their ways. I wanted a character I could develop. This was why Javier went through such a mental upheaval in The Blind Man of Seville. That set the scene for his future development.
After his last traumatic case, is the Inspector ready to work again or is it time for him to put the past behind and just do it?
The Vanished Hands was always intended as Javier’s rehabilitation into the world. This is why it is told in dialogue. It also shows the extent to which he has learnt about himself by the way in which he operates with other tortured people. He knows how to communicate with them, he can gain some of their trust. Future books put more distance between him and the events of The Blind Man. He doesn’t stop developing as a person but his suffering is not so close to the surface.
Your characters cover every aspect of human behavior, from the noble to the ignoble. Do you know the role of each character at the beginning or do they evolve as you write the story?
There has to be some fun in the writing of the book. If everything is planned and mapped out the unexpected is less likely to occur. I was certain about RamÌrez and his role in the book. I didn’t want to continue the antagonism between him and FalcÛn for another book because it felt tedious to me. I liked the idea of a failing being revealed to RamÌrez which would draw him closer to FalcÛn. RamÌrez is no different he’s just gained self-knowledge. However what happens to RamÌrez over his daughter’s mystery illness reveals another side of the man to the reader. I was less certain about CalderÛn’s role in the book. I had thought that he and Javier might become friends in The Blind Man but this was put out of reach by the judge’s affair with Javier’s ex-wife. The idea of CalderÛn as a womaniser grew on me as I wrote the book and when I introduced him to Maddy Krugman I saw some ghastly potential there. I also saw that there was more to come and this will be developed in the third book of the series.
The residents of Santa Clara are like most rich people, living in isolated enclaves, protecting themselves from the outside world. What about the inner demons they carry with them?
The idea of wealth is very attractive. That’s why millions of people play the lottery. The reality of wealth is something else. Money creates barriers and walls. As you say, wealthy people isolate themselves. Isolation, as any old person will tell you, is a terrible state. You have only your own mind to talk to. Your thinking can become cyclical and without outside reference it can become paranoid, too. Most of the depicted residents of Santa Clara have been living in a state of denial and all that they have suppressed has begun to surface. None of them has anyone to reach out to. The only therapy on offer comes from Inspector Jefe Javier FalcÛn. They want to talk but in revealing themselves they condemn themselves, too.
How does Falcon make sense of all the conflicting information, when the murder/suicide of the Vega's rips the cover off a number of other activities in the well-bred community?
He keeps on talking. The more he talks to people the more is revealed. Small things come out in apparently irrelevant conversations which lead to major developments. Consuelo mentions that she’s seen Rafael Vega in an old beaten up Peugeot and that creates some extraordinary links to the house of horror up in the hills. What Javier found very difficult to do in The Blind Man, i.e. talk, he now finds is his most effective tool in teasing out what people don’t know is relevant. Only he is in possession of the whole picture which he can add to with every conversation.
Besides a complicated case, Javier is beset by a number of personal issues, his feelings about Calderon and his attraction to the seductive and available Consuelo Jimenez. How does he manage to integrate the personal with the business at hand?
He has become more a creature of instinct. This is all to do with his rehabilitation. In his previous state he had a tendency towards the clinical and the scientific. Now he is developing different talents and there is a learning curve as well. At the start of the book he is impressed by CalderÛn, he admires the man’s intelligence and political savvy. Of course Javier is only seeing the judge professionally and it is through the more personal revelations of the man’s moral weakness that he and the reader comes to know him for what he is. With Consuelo he has put aside his professionalism and is almost surprised to find himself going to her house for dinner. Instinct has taken over and it means he is able to make vital mental, emotional and physical connections with Consuelo.
What inspired the title of the novel, The Vanished Hands?
I use various tactics to get myself into the right frame of mind to write a book. In this case I wrote a poem called The Dictator (retd.). It was about the past welling up into the consciousness of an old dictator and ‘the vanished hands’ were particularly troublesome to him.
Did you have a favorite character in this novel: Maddy or Martin Krugman, Pablo Ortega, even Juez Calderon?
Definitely my favourite character in this book was Pablo Ortega. I still think of him. I don’t quite get to the point of mourning the loss but it’s close. The famous man and lost soul, who couldn’t love those close to him (except his two pugs) and needed the adoring crowds to give him his sense of worth, a man who knew himself so little that he didn’t really understand his own sexuality. Now, in the twilight of his career and after the traumatic events that surrounded his son’s incarceration he has isolated himself and a series of damaging truths have surfaced. What I love about him is that he does his best to deal with these terrible realisations. His remedies are not entirely successful - he apologises in writing to his son, he cuts his brother out of his will - but they show a sense of his own failure. His relationship with his wayward nephew also shows that he was at heart a good man and that if he’d made some different choices things could have been a lot better. The final scene between him and Javier FalcÛn is my favourite in the book. I do readings of it.
Maddy is a catalyst in the story, her voyeuristic photography and aggressiveness, her penchant for watching everyone, even the Inspector. Would you say she is one of the pivotal characters in solving the case?
That depends very much on what the reader decides ‘the case’ is. Is it Rafael Vega’s ‘suicide? In which case Maddy’s photography gives us a valuable insight into the workings of Rafael Vega’s mind but it’s only by accident that those shots come to light. She’s pivotal in pushing her husband to the limits of his sanity but she is driven to do that by a sense of guilt and a bizarre and innate understanding of how she and her husband’s fate are joined by his past actions. The fact is that all the characters play their part in ‘solving the case’ but none of them know what the case is...not even FalcÛn. This is a book in which Good triumphs over Evil but the ways and means by which it is accomplished are not at all clear. There is a terrible balancing out here, retribution is exacted for past misdemeanours but the punishment comes from the most surprising quarter.
The people Falcon interviews are so jaded and lie with ease. What is the best approach in dealing with such sophisticated stonewalling?
FalcÛn keeps talking. His conversations with all the players gives him valuable information which only he knows and which he can use against others.
The various couple's convoluted relationships seem to contribute to their own destruction. Agree/disagree?
It’s less to do with convolution within the relationships and more to do with moral transgressions which have their repercussions. In the case of Marty and Maddy the transgression has been very serious. The effect is profound on both parties. This was why I made them both creative people (architect and photographer) so that their self-destruction would be even more poignant.
Inspector Falcon is an astute observer of human nature, not easily surprised. Is he shocked at the degree of depravity he uncovers in this neighborhood?
He isn’t shocked by the depths to which human nature can descend. He’s been a homicide cop for too long to let that get to him. What disturbs him most in this story, and again it is part of his rehabilitation, are the consequences for the survivors of the initial tragedy ie. to Vega’s son, Mario, and the depraved human behaviour, which ultimately comes to light during the case. He empathizes with Mario and it drives him to get involved in Pablo Ortega’s son’s case and to fight for justice when he sees what has gone wrong.
The 9/11 reference seems obvious at first, a hint of the recent past written in a suicide note. Do you think your American readers are aware of the other 9/11 that occurred in 1973? Can you speak to that event?
I doubt many Americans were aware that the Chilean coup actually occurred on 9/11 1973 or that a similar number of Chileans died under the Pinochet regime as did on 9/11 2001. Although I’m sure by now that most Americans are aware that there was a coup and that the Nixon administration was material in making it happen. I think there has been too much in the press about it for them to ignore - all those papers released by the Clinton administration, the numerous books written about it, even Colin Powell’s recent remarks about ‘the dark days of American foreign policy’ - all that must have got through. It was big in current events when I was at school and there was a lot of activism on behalf of imprisoned Chileans when I was at University.
Power acting with impunity is a theme you visit often in your novels. In The Vanished Hands, what does Falcon represent in his stubborn pursuit of the truth?
One of the themes of this book is the betrayal of trust, whether it be on a personal level as in a child by its parent or on a general level as in a population by its elected government. FalcÛn, too, has suffered a betrayal of trust at the hands of Francisco FalcÛn, which makes him even more determined that these wrongs should be righted.
Certainly money and politics make strange bedfellows, but is greed the stronger motivation or ideology?
As we are seeing now, ideology, whether political or religious, has a tremendous power to inspire especially if the ideas are spread amongst a poverty-stricken population with no future possibility. In our modern first world society where ideology has been degraded to the point that we can no longer differentiate between political parties, and where the consumer society has become such a powerful entity, I would say that greed presents a more formidable motivation.
Spain has a complex ex-pat society. What are all these people looking for, opportunity, secrecy? Explain please.
Beautiful places like Tangier in the '30s and St. Tropez in the '60s attracted a wealthy bohemian crowd of lotus eaters. Nowadays anybody with a bit of money can invest in European property. The Euro interest rate is very low making mortgages cheap and people are buying up everywhere. Added to this the great influx of immigrant workers from the old Eastern Bloc and you’ve got a complicated expatriate stew. Most people are looking to have an easy time in the sun with good food and cheap wine. They don’t make very interesting subjects for books. Added to this the authorities are getting much more demanding about what people do, where they get their money from and whether they pay tax...so secrecy isn’t so easy to achieve. Perhaps the few expats that are interesting exist only in my imagination.
Once more you've proven that nothing is ever what it seems. Do you already have plans for your next book?
I am writing my next book which, after the Madrid train bombings of last year, will be taking a look at terrorism in all its forms.
What is your usual timeframe in creating a novel, from concept to final editing?
They give me 18 months to produce a presentable draft these days and I use pretty well every single day and hour to get the book done. Once it’s in the hands of my editor she’ll take a month to make her comments by which time I’ve had a rest and developed my own thoughts about what needs to be done. My editor’s input is mainly to do with the story; getting me to clarify things for the reader, increasing pace and a sense of threat where its needed, that kind of thing. My own input is primarily cutting...stripping out the stuff that the reader will probably skip. It’s a long apprenticeship.
Was the urgency of writing always with you, or was there a particular time when you realized the direction your life would take as an author?
From the moment I read out a poem I’d written to my classmates and silenced them I knew I wanted to be a writer. I was fourteen years old. The process by which you actually become a writer is more difficult than the idea. I read English at university and all that did was make me realise what a long way I had to go and that in all probability I was not going to be a great poet. Literary fiction made me nervous - did I have anything to say? Reading Chandler and Leonard made me realise that there were possibilities elsewhere but one needs a different sort of education to write those kinds of books. Travel, business, trading, living in foreign countries - all these experiences have contributed to my writing but I only actually felt that I could become a writer when I wrote my second novel. I learnt an enormous amount from that book.
You have compiled an impressive body of work. Has the process been personally rewarding, other than the obvious?
The books get harder not easier. That was a surprise. Each book seems to take more out of me than the last. The ideas, however, keep coming. I still find human beings fascinating and the telling of a story is a mesmerising experience. I didn’t go into this job with the idea of making my fortune. I went into it thinking that I would never be a happy man unless I gave it my best shot. The interesting thing was that I gave it my best shot and that was OK, I got published, but now I’m going after more interesting and difficult targets.
Click here for
Luan Gaines' first interview with The Vanished Hands author Robert Wilson
Robert Wilson is the author of seven novels, including A Small Death in Lisbon, which won the Gold Dagger Award as Best Crime Novel of the Year from Britain's Crime Writers Association. He has lived in Greece and West Africa and currently lives in Portugal and Oxford, England.
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines interviewed Robert Wilson, author of The Vanished Hands (see accompanying review), about his book via email for curledup.com. This text is the property of Luan Gaines and the author for whom it is intended. No part may be reproduced without permission. Luan Gaines/2004.