I had intended for my blog this week to add some more photos of palaces in London, but there wasn’t much interest in last week’s effort so I’m not going to continue that theme unless anyone specifically asks me to. But what to write about instead?

I quite like responding to interview requests: people send me questions and I just have to answer them, which is much easier than having to think up my own ideas. Sometimes the interview finally slips out without my seeing it or something gets lost somewhere in hyperspace, so I have interviews that may never have seen the light of day. This was quite an interesting one that somebody (I’m sorry: I can’t find any note of who it was) sent me about music in my life. Links should take you to online versions of the songs. Enjoy!

Music in my Writing

What was the first record/tape/cd that you bought? Why this one? Does it bring back memories?

When I was a kid it was the era of home taping. We didn’t even have a record player. I used to record songs off Top of the Pops (the radio version). My first tape recorder was reel to reel! Then came cassette tapes and I began buying the odd album. The first one I got was probably something like The Who or Pink Floyd. It was a long time ago – it’s all a bit fuzzy now.

Is there a song that could be the theme tune of your life or your personality?

I don’t have a particular song in mind, but Paul Simon is the soundtrack to my life. I’ve grown up with him and for every important stage of my life he had a song about it. I used to sing my son to sleep with St Judy’s Comet.

In your books do your main characters have favourite songs or musicians?

My characters lived in a time before recorded music but folk songs feature here and there. I enjoy putting in some of the bawdier songs for soldiers to sing.

Had she but told me when she did disorder me
Had she but told me about it in time
I might have got salts and pills of white mercury
But now I’m cut down in the height of my prime.

If you’re romantically involved, or have been in the past do you have an “Our Song” one that takes you back to a certain moment? Do any of your characters have a song?

I’d been married for many years before one day we were at a tango club where the DJ played Dance me to the end of love (the original Leonard Cohen version) for us to tango to. We’d never had a special song before but that’s been our song since.

None of my characters really have a romantic song, although when Burke is courting in his earliest adventure he’s in Ireland and sings Dark Rosaleen to his girl. It’s a street ballad of the late 19th century.

I could scale the blue air,
I could plough the high hills,
Oh, I could kneel all night in prayer,
To heal your many ills!
And one beamy smile from you
Would float like light between
My toils and me, my own, my true,
My Dark Rosaleen!

The story is set before any of the published Burke books, although it hasn’t come out yet. I think that Burke was, perhaps, more naive in his approach to women then than he was in his later adventures.

When did you decide to write your first novel? Tell me a bit about the inspiration, process and of course the book.

I was in Borneo, very many years ago, and I found a museum exhibition about James Brooke, the first White Rajah. I was fascinated and decided to write about him, but it really didn’t work. Much, much later, I wanted to write a book about how good people do bad things and I realised I had my character and situation all ready. The result was The White Rajah, based firmly on the true story of a man who came to Borneo to trade and ended up the legal ruler of Sarawak. (He’d helped the Sultan win a war in the region and was given Sarawak as a reward.)

I believe he really wanted to do his best for the people and, even today, his rule is widely regarded as a good thing. When the natives he was responsible for were threatened by neighbouring tribes, he called on the British Navy to help him drive them out. The result was a massacre so appalling that it shocked people even in the mid-19th century. He believed his actions justified and a British enquiry exonerated him. My book tries to show both sides of the argument. I showed it to two friends: one took his side, the other sided with the critic whose voice tells the story. I was pleased, because it is the moral ambivalence of the (true) story that I thought was most interesting.

James Brooke by Sir Francis Grant, 1847

How do you write? Do you plan or take it as it comes? Have a favourite place or time for writing?

I write historical novels based around actual events, so the planning has to be very tight. Generally I write on a computer sitting at my desk. I always end up at the end of the day of producing very little desperately trying to churn the words out before I have to give up for the day.

Do you write to music or prefer silence? Do you think that music can inspire a scene or feeling within your writing and your characters story?

I used to use music a lot, but I’m more likely to write in silence these days. I do try to match the music to the characters. When I was writing Burke and the Bedouin I listened to some peculiar modern Egyptian music, while for Cawnpore I listened to a lot of sitar music.

What song would you like played at your funeral and why? (Sorry it’s a bit of a morbid question!)

Adios Nonino a tango by Piazzolla. He wrote it when his father died and it’s heartbreakingly beautiful. I don’t think it’s a morbid question at all. I’ve known this will be played at my funeral for years. A dancing friend of mine died a couple of years ago and his partner arranged for us all to dance tangos for hours after the funeral. It was a lovely way to say goodbye to him.

What are your Top 3 Songs of all Time? The ones you can’t live without?

I don’t often play it nowadays because it is just built into my brain, but #1 is probably Bridge Over Troubled Water.  Abba’s Thank You for the Music is pretty much how I feel about music, except that I dance rather than sing. So I guess the third has to be a tango to dance to. There are so many it’s difficult to say but probably Libertango (Piazzolla again). There are zillions of versions, but I particularly like it played live by Alfredo Martin Espindola at a club I dance at (sadly not available on CD). The Grace Jones cover (I’ve seen that face before is fun too.)

I do have video of Martin playing Bajo un Cielo de Estrellas for our Ruby Wedding. He’s singing and accompanying himself on the bandoneon. It’s rather lovely. You can see it here: https://youtu.be/5i02toU2kWc