Monday, December 31, 2012
RATLINES by Stuart Neville
There's a reason I'm behind on my submissions reading and it's RATLINES by Stuart Neville. Could NOT put it down.
RATLINES pubs tomorrow 1/1/13 and Stuart Neville was kind enough to answer a few questions for me for this blog post today:
1. Tell us what RATLINES is about
RATLINES, set in 1963, is about a Dublin intelligence officer called Albert Ryan who must investigate the killings of several foreign nationals. When he realises they were all former Nazis granted asylum by the Irish government, and that he has to protect the infamous Nazi commando Otto Skorzeny, he tries to put aside his distaste at working for those he fought against twenty years before. Blood and mayhem ensues.
2. How long did it take to write?
The first draft took maybe six months all together, but there were a couple of years of research before that, and another six months of editing.
3. Early on in RATLINES you have the phrase "a nationalist without a nation." You point to several well known nationalists [Che Guevara; Yassir Arafat] who were in fact foreigners to their revolutions. I'd never thought of this before; how did you get interested in this?
That’s a trend I’d noticed a few years ago, and I always found it odd that some men would fight so hard for countries that weren’t the places of their birth. Two close-to-home examples were Eamon de Valera and James Connolly, two of the leading figures of Irish republicanism – but although both had Irish roots, de Valera was a US citizen born in New York, and Connolly was born and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland. More directly relevant to RATLINES, both Hitler and his favourite commando, Otto Skorzeny, were actually Austrian by birth, rather than German. You keep seeing this with revolutionaries throughout history, so I thought it was worth noting in the book.
4. You're writing a book set in living memory, but not your living memory. How did you research and verify details, things like the Irish soldier seeing pasta for the first time, no menus in Sicilian cafes?
I’m lucky to have a couple of friends who were around Dublin at the time Ratlines is set. The thing that was impressed upon me by them was how grey and insular Ireland was at the time. A recurring tic in the book is Celia asking for lime in her gin and tonic, and how hard it was to come by. Restaurants in Dublin were generally very basic, and I was told the height of sophistication was a mixed grill in a hotel – a plate of meat and potatoes, in other words. I’d been to the tiny Sicilian island of Ortigia for my honeymoon while I was researching RATLINES, and I kept thinking how exotic somewhere like that must have been for an Irishman like Albert Ryan. And the most traditional eateries there still don’t have menus – you’ll eat what you’re served!
5. I didn't realize Otto Skorzeny was a real person until I read your list of source books. Did you have to alter much to make him an interesting character?
Skorzeny was such a larger-than-life character that, if anything, I had to tone him down a little to keep him believable. I read so many stories about him, from rescuing Mussolini from a mountaintop to his dalliances with Eva Peron, that I realised I could never invent a character like him. I was discussing him with my good friend and WWII expert James Benn, and Jim pointed me in the direction of research that suggested Skorzeny’s mythology was exactly that – a myth. Most of the accepted facts about him where actually his own fabrications. All of a sudden he became a lot more interesting, and much more human.
6. Celia's landlady Mrs Highland has all of two/three scenes, and mentioned maybe two other times, but she's absolutely three dimensional and memorable. How much did you have to know about her to get her on the page so neatly?
Mrs Highland came fully formed, really. I just thought of a prickly, middle-aged spinster landlady, and let her get on with it. Sometimes it pays not to overthink a character, and just let them behave as they will.
7. Do you outline, or just write by the seat of your britches?
Seat of my britches. I need a beginning and an ending; what happens is between is a process of discovery.
8. What did you learn when you wrote it?
With a novel like this, I learned so much history I feel like I deserve a diploma. But it’s the small details that stick in my mind, like Irish seaside guesthouses being named after saints.
9. When you're stuck while writing, what do you do?
I get out my notebook and pen and start jotting down thoughts about the characters: what are their desires? What are they willing to do in pursuit of them? How do their desires conflict with those of the characters around them?
10. What did the copy editor catch that made you groan?
She caught something that a historian beta reader missed, and that would have been quite embarrassing: Dublin’s main train stations were renamed in 1966 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising. I called them by their modern names, not as they were known in 1963. I dodged a real clanger there thanks to a copy editor with some local knowledge.
11. Do you have a favorite book about the craft of writing?
On Writing by Stephen King is a must read.
12. A memorable book you've read this past year, and what made it stand out?
Absolute Zero Cool by Declan Burke; it’s one of the most original and, frankly, bonkers crime novels you’ll ever read.
13. If you could save the life of any one fictional character who would it be and why?
I always wanted to know what happened to Babe Levy after the end of William Goldman’s Marathon Man. In the novel, a cop finds him skipping diamonds across the surface of the Central Park reservoir. Babe tells the cop where to find Szell’s body. I wonder if Babe was able to convince the authorities of the truth, or was he treated as a murderer?
14. What things (other than books) have had an effect on your writing?
I’ve been a musician most of my life, and I think that must play into the creative process somehow. So many writers are also musicians, I don’t think it can be a coincidence.
15. Is there a book that makes you think "if I could write something like this, I'd die happy?"
Either James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, or Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities; how those authors can juggle so many plot points is beyond me.
16. Care to confess to any guilty pleasures?
I’ve got a soft spot for reality cop shows, the ones that focus on the really mundane crimes and the lowlifes who perpetrate them.
17. How does your dog or cat make you laugh?
Watching dog Sweeney and my baby daughter Issy become best buddies makes me smile.