Theakston File 4: Jason Webster interview with Mrs. P.

If you tuned in to the 8th episode of the Radio 4 ‘Foreign Bodies’ series on Wednesday, you’ll have heard crime authors Jason Webster and Antonio Hill in animated discussion with Mark Lawson about Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s investigator, Pepe Carvalho.

Listening to the episode, I realised now was the time to post my interview with Jason Webster at the 2012 Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. Key areas explored with the author of the ‘Max Cámara’ series, which is set in Valencia, include the legacy of the Spanish Civil War and the influence of Vázquez Montalbán.

Mrs. Peabody (MP): You’re a very versatile author: you started out as a travel writer, examining the history and culture of Spain, before turning your hand to crime fiction. Could you say a little bit about what led you to crime?

Jason Webster (JW): I suppose in some ways writing crime allows me to keep exploring Spain – this massive country that I’m really fascinated by – and has become an extension of the travel books, because the ‘I’ of the narrator in the travel books isn’t a million miles away from a detective: it’s exploration, it’s questioning, it’s looking for clues. And often there was a quest format in my previous books, so my writing has rolled on quite easily from those into crime.

MP: Are you able to take some of the material from those earlier books and incorporate it into your crime novels – say about flamenco or bull-fighting or Spain’s historical past?

JW: Definitely the past – the Spanish Civil War. I draw on that quite heavily for the third Max Cámara book, The Anarchist Detective, which will be coming out next year. So there’s a lot about this dark, dirty legacy of the Civil War – stuff that lots of people in Spain don’t want to talk about. Flamenco a little bit as well. Max likes flamenco so that fits, but it hasn’t played a huge part yet in any of the books.

MP: And do you think the crime genre is particularly suited to tackling subjects like the Spanish Civil War and the legacy of the past?

JW: Yes, absolutely. I mean there’s this largely untold violent history and lots of old wounds which haven’t healed. You have to remember that the families of those who were killed by Franco’s troops couldn’t mourn their dead. Anybody who was on the other side – on Franco’s side – and was killed or wounded – their stories were glorified for years and years. And when Franco died there was this period called ‘the pact of silence’ [pacto de silencio]. During ‘the transition’ [from Franco’s dictatorship to democracy] everybody agreed that you ‘don’t mention the war’… because that’s the only way we’ll get out of the dictatorship and move into democracy. But about eight years ago people started to ask – ‘hang on, what did happen to grandpa?’. So the grandchildren of the people who had suffered during the Civil War were saying, ‘well actually, I want to know’. And that opened up a can of worms, because a whole section of Spanish society – the political right, essentially – just didn’t want to go there. So there are a lot of untold stories, a lot of unhealed wounds, and a legacy of violence.

It’s perfect for writing crime, I think, because there are a lot of secrets … And in a sense there’s a long tradition dating back from the period of ‘the transition’ – just before Franco dies and just afterwards – of great Spanish crime writers like Vázquez Montalbán writing very much from a political point of view. They want to talk about what’s going wrong in Spain, and finally can publish their books once Franco dies, when the dictatorship is over and censorship has come to an end. So that’s very much part of the tradition of Spanish crime writing.

MP: Do you see yourself now as part of that tradition?

JW: In some ways, sure. Vázquez Montalbánwas definitely an inspiration, and the name that I gave Max Cámara…I was thinking of two things, really. I was thinking of Christopher Isherwood and ‘I am a camera’: ‘cámara’ means ‘camera’ in Spanish and it’s a perfectly legitimate surname as well. And this gives us a handle on Max’s character – he observes, he waits, he doesn’t really jump to conclusions. But I was also thinking of Vázquez Montalbán when he was writing under Franco and had been thrown in jail and had to write under a pseudonym – one of the pseudonyms he used was ‘Sixto Cámara’. So there’s a sort of homage to that, to Vázquez Montalbán…

MP: Can I take a tiny detour to your third book, Guerra: Living in the Shadows of the Spanish Civil War. What prompted you to write it?

JW: I was talking to one of the locals near where we live, which is in the middle of nowhere, off the grid. We were just chatting away, when she started telling me some things about the Civil War and took me to a place where she said there was a massacre, in around ’38 – so getting towards the tail end of the war, just as Franco was moving south towards Valencia. And she had seen this happen as a young girl – these bodies being buried. I’d sort of heard about this and it was about the time when it was starting to come out – these mass unmarked graves dotted around the country where people who had died at the hands of the Francoists were just buried… There was no commemorative plaque, there was no gravestone, no one had been allowed to mourn, the dead were buried there for years and years. And you know, death is important in Spain; it’s a culture where you seriously mourn the dead, and so for a whole side of the country not to have been able to mourn their dead… that’s a big deal.

I think a lot of people are just hoping that that generation– anyone who lived through that, anybody who suffered – will just die and then we can all forget about it. But there are quite a lot of people who are trying to recreate the oral history from the time – not let it just slip away. Paul Preston [the historian] and I have met on a number of occasions … and the book that he’s written on the ‘Spanish Holocaust’ is a very interesting one with a very interesting title… He’s deliberately being controversial. And he’s doing that because he’s making a statement about contemporary Spain as much as he is about the past. There are lots of Spaniards who don’t accept what happened. And they say we should just ‘turn the page’. But how are you going to get over the wounds unless you confront the past?

MP: It’s the classic model of the repressed, isn’t it?

JW: Yes, absolutely. Spanish society is still very much divided and this is what forms the backdrop to my second novel, A Death in Valencia. I’m trying to look at these massive divisions that split Spain apart still, eighty years after the Civil War.

MP: You build that history into your crime fiction through the figure of the grandfather, Hilario. He’s somewhat disapproving that his grandson Max chose to join the police.

JW: That deep paradox goes to the heart of who Max is, and I bring this to the fore in the third novel, The Anarchist Detective. Max comes from an anarchist family; he is essentially an anarchist himself, but an anarchist in the broad sense of the word. At the same time he’s an agent of the state, and of state authority, so how does that work? How does he square that circle? In some ways, what I’m doing in the second book, A Death in Valencia, is showing a breakdown in his character, because of this contradiction, whereas in the third book, he kind of resolves that paradox within himself.

MP: Do you think it’s helpful that you speak Spanish? I notice from having read some of A Death in Valencia ­that you include Spanish proverbs [refranes] in their original form, perhaps as a way of communicating with readers who are non-Spanish speakers – imparting the culture and giving us a flavour of the language as well. Is that a deliberate strategy?

JW: I think so. The problem is that it’s hard for me to put myself in the position of not knowing Spanish. Sometimes I’m just writing and there are certain phrases which I just think are so wonderful that I want to put them down in English. The proverbs are there because they are an important part of Max’s character. The Spanish are very, very proud of their proverbs, and it’s one of the things I love about Spain. It’s not Spanish intellectual culture that gets me going in the morning, it’s this intuitive side to the country and to the culture – and I see that in the proverbs. Essentially, there’s a deep wisdom that you feel has been passed on for centuries, by word of mouth – it’s an oral tradition. And I love that, so I did want to get that across in the novels.

MP: What do you think the Spanish would make of your crime novels?

JW: The first one, Or the Bull Kills You, might wind some people up because it’s about bull-fighting, but the second and the third ones don’t deal with so-called Spanish stereotypes, so they might be more acceptable. Basically, don’t talk about anything they term ‘el folklórico’ – flamenco, bull-fighting, all that kind of stuff that the Franco regime tried to promote in the 1950s and 1960s to get tourists to come over. It’s what they consider to be the backward side of their culture and they don’t want to perpetuate the image that that’s all Spain is about. But the Spanish Civil War is a legitimate topic for foreigners to discuss…. It’s complicated!

Interview carried out at the Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate, 20 July 2012

You can still listen to the ‘Foreign Bodies’ episode on Montalbán’s Pepe Carvalho via BBC iPlayer.