A Cafe For Authors and Avid Readers
J. F. Slattery was born in Essex, England, in 1950. In the course of a varied education (some said restless mind, others intellectual butterfly) he studied Classics, social history and German - the latter at London University, after which he spent twenty years teaching German literature and philosophy to university students. During this time he published scholarly articles on Heine, Thomas and Erika Mann, and the history of the BBC German Service. In 1995 he decided he could not stand the university world for another moment, so he escaped. In 1996 he founded Slattery Translations, an international business, which in 2000 he relocated to Portugal. He lives in Cascais, near Lisbon.
What makes you proud to be a writer from Cascais, Portugal? People often ask me where I am "from", and I never know what to reply. I am not really "from" anywhere: I have lived in so many cities, in England, in Germany, and in Portugal. But Cascais – that elegant, cosmopolitan town, on the coast twenty miles from Lisbon - suits me, and suits my business, (my day job) completely. Some people have found it strange that I should be living here and writing books which rely on a precise evocation of another city (London) in another time (nearly two-hundred years ago). I reply that such abstraction of place is not unusual: Arnold Bennett wrote many of his books about life in the industrial heart of England (the "Potteries") while he was in fact living in Paris; while Thomas Mann's minute evocation of life in Lübeck, Buddenbrooks, was composed when he was living in Munich – a very different city, especially at that time. I think physical removal from the place you are writing about has great advantages: you are forced to imagine it most vividly and most carefully, and it comes to have an existence much stronger than would be the case if you could just look at it out of the window. But every so often I make forays to London and pace round the streets I am describing, to make sure I have got it right.
What or who inspired you to become a writer? I cannot think of any single thing or person who, or which, inspired me to become a writer. I only knew, from an early age – certainly by the time I was about thirteen – that I wanted to describe the world in words. But how exactly? In diaries? Letters? Dramas? Narratives? And, if narratives, what sort of narratives? Narratives of real events, in the present or past, i.e. history or journalism? Or fictional narratives, novels or stories? By the time I was eighteen I had tried them all and was pretty sure that narrative fiction or historical narrative was what I really wanted. Yet I looked on all my work as just a hobby, something which amused me privately, and which I rarely showed to others. It gave me pleasure, and that was enough up to that point.
When did you begin writing with the intention of becoming published? It's a complicated story. By the time I graduated from university I was ready to become more serious in my writing. I meditated a novel, or a collection of stories. But at this point I needed a job and found myself teaching literature and philosophy at a university. People think college teachers have plenty of spare time, but they don't. So my literary ambitions were largely squeezed out – but never completely. I wrote a couple of novels during these years (1975-95), but I was dissatisfied with them and consigned them to the drawer. I assuaged my wish for narrative, however, by writing biography: my studies of Thomas Mann (1988) his daughter Erika (1991), which appeared in scholarly journals. When I left the university world and founded my own business, my time was even less my own. But by the time I was sixty, in 2010, the itch to write, always ticking away in the background, would be ignored no longer. I scaled down my business and looked for a subject. In the London Library I came upon their archive of The Times newspaper, and at random opened the volumes for the year 1830…. Here was a world which demanded a narrative of its own. So I wrote a study of one aspect of that world, the aspect of crime and punishment, and called it Before the Beak. True Stories from the London Police Offices in 1830, which I finally published in 2012. It is an account of the criminal cases which came before the London magistrates in the course of a year, from pickpockets, to bigamists, to burglars and confidence tricksters, and a murderer or two, all as reported in the daily press. As a narrative, it pleased me. It was not fiction but historical fact. Yet I found that the historical mode did not express what I wanted. The people, places and events of the early nineteenth century, it seemed to me, could only be adequately represented as fiction, but fiction based closely on fact. So I conceived of a historical novel on the subject; and it may seem strange that I had never thought of combining history and fiction before in my work; but so it was. I wrote Wisdom and Rubies, a work of fiction, inspired closely by the factual journalism of the early nineteenth century. Did I say earlier that no single thing inspired me to write? Perhaps I should revise that statement. If any single thing inspired me to narrative fiction, it was a famous nineteenth century newspaper, in dusty files, in a library basement.
Did your environment or upbringing play a major role in your writing and why? Oh yes, quite definitely. My family were all very aware of words, and very good at them. My mother, educated by the French nuns, spoke excellent French; my father was an admirer of Italian language and literature. Our cousin was a well-known journalist. But inheritance is nothing without environment. Looking back, I am sure two factors operated in my childhood and adolescence to propel me towards writing; more specifically, towards writing the way I do. The first was my school education; the second was television.
We are talking of the 1960s. Up to the age of sixteen I had a wonderful education, based strongly on the study of the Latin and Greek Classics. This type of education hardly exists any more, which is a very great loss. It taught the student language, literature and history, all in one package. The history of Rome in particular fueled my imagination; it was no abstract pursuit, but a living thing, drawn from the language and the books of the period itself. So I early thought of history as narrative, and as very real.
English television at that time had only two channels. That meant that everybody tended to watch the same thing. Much was rubbish, but much was not. In particular, there was at that time a great deal of original drama to be seen almost every night. These plays would be reviewed in the newspaper next day, and at school we would discuss them in our lunch hour. So I learned how to construct a story in the form of a drama, and found how people reacted to what they saw.
In this way, through the Classics and through the TV, the life a boy in a dull country town was filled with light and interest, with art and history and the fascination of language. I have little doubt: I owe everything to that early experience.
Do you come up with your title before or after you write the manuscript? I have a title in mind when I start to write, but I may well change it. I could not decide what to call the book that ultimately became Before the Beak, and even now I am not very satisfied with the phrase: "beak" in the sense of "magistrate" or "judge" is so very English and may not be understood elsewhere. Wisdom and Rubies was originally Mr. Adolphus Remembers. Now I have been working for some months on a sequel, featuring many of the same characters, and I have been calling it The Scapegoat. But now I find that Daphne du Maurier used this title, so I think I shall have to change it. To what? I don't yet know. All books grow and develop in the writing of them, and titles are no exception.
Please introduce your genre and why you prefer to write in that genre? I recently came across the phrase "docu-novel." It means a narrative fiction based in detail on the author's actual experience of particular events, a cross perhaps between fiction and journalism. I think this phrase might helpfully be applied to Wisdom and Rubies, though with certain reservations. The novel is very closely based on real events, but they did not happen to me; they happened in London in 1830, and the novel is in that sense a successor to my historical study, Before the Beak. You might call it a historical docu-novel, drawn from the journalism of nearly two-hundred years ago. But, as I say in my Author's Note, I have altered many details. Moreover it has a certain feature which you will also find in TV soap operas. The events which befall the characters in soaps are perfectly plausible, but it is unlikely that they should all have happened to the same people. So the lives of my characters were quite unusually eventful. Beyond that, I have striven for absolute historical accuracy in all things, including the English of the dialogue. I prefer to write in this genre because it enables me to say everything I wish to say about my characters, their personalities, minds and interests, while remaining strictly truthful; while sticking to facts. I like facts. The theme is an old one: crime and punishment. I hope Mr. Winterbourne, the elderly, ironic, tolerant and kindly lawyer who narrates the events, both tragic and comic, of Wisdom and Rubies is a pleasant guide to the criminal underworld, and the justice system which attempted to cope with it, in the years shortly before Queen Victoria came to the throne. He has a long literary career ahead of him: I have a number of sequels planned.
What has been your most rewarding experience with your writing process? Creating something is of itself rewarding. If people like what you have created, and even pay money to read it, then that should be a bonus!
Have you had a negative experience in your writing career? If so please tell us about it. I cannot think of one. Writing is hard work, and getting a long book into shape will always be a struggle (see below), but it is a rewarding struggle, and the end result is endlessly pleasing.
What has been your most rewarding experience in your publishing journey? The actual physical existence of the books, enabling other people to read and comment on them, even if the comments are not wholly positive. While a book is unpublished, you are speaking merely to an inner world. When it is published, real people read it. It's so different! One reader told me, of Before the Beak, that it had one great fault: in most cases it failed to tell you what ultimately happened to the real people who walked through its pages and whose lives were briefly glimpsed in newspaper reports. A reader, he said, wants to know what happens to the characters. I agreed, and this criticism was one of the incentives for turning to historical fiction, rather than writing another purely historical narrative. In a novel I can tell you what happens to all the characters. I cannot promise that vice will be punished and virtue rewarded. But I hope, in one way or another, that the ending will be satisfactory. I might not have seen this point if Before the Beak had never been published.
Have you had a negative experience in your publishing journey? If so please explain how it could have been avoided. Oh, rejection by agents and publishers, of course. Everyone must persevere in the face of rejection. But it does require some determination. And it can’t be avoided, any more than bad reviews can be avoided.
What one positive piece of advice would you give to other authors? Accept the existence of chaos. By this I mean that writing a book may be a bumpy adventure. Will the book be any good? Will I even finish it? More than once I thought I could not solve certain formal problems in Wisdom and Rubies, and was about to give it up; but on each occasion my mind came up with a solution: chaos was reduced to order. But, for this to happen, you must endure some chaos. Writing, like all art, is about form and the creation of form. It does not necessarily come easy.
And remember: it's never too late to start.
Who is your favorite author? It depends what is meant by favorite author. If, by this phrase, we mean the author who, over all the many years, I have returned to repeatedly with delight; the author who, if you have nothing new to read, you pick off the shelf and say, "I'll just read that bit again where he says…"; the author whom you are constantly recommending to others…then it would be Macaulay, in his Essays and History of England. Try his account of the arrest of Judge Jeffries History, Chapter X)…you will be hooked.
Eminent criminal barrister Adolphus Winterbourne had been worried about his godson Arthur before but when he discovered that the young man was in Clerkenwell prison on remand for suspected burglary, he got quite a shock…
It is 1829, and burglary is a capital offense. But Arthur's brief stay in a London prison on a mistaken charge is only the first in a strange series of interlinked events into which he and Lord Horatio Carlton, his friend and fellow student, are inextricably drawn – events involving every aspect of London life: its journalists and politicians, its artists and scholars, its idlers and gamblers, its burglars, confidence tricksters and pickpockets. Meet George Marshall, irascible editor of The Morning Indicator and his striking print workers; Colonel Henderson and his Indian wife, whose greatest ambition is to walk in a London street without a veil; Oliver Morris and Lieutenant Peterson, on leave from Madras, whose friendship ends in violence and death; and above all, Frank Hoskins – charming, talented, kindly Frank, receiver of stolen goods and police agent, whose career spirals down into robbery and murder. Once Arthur and Horatio lived a life of jokes and laughter but as events unfold they find the shadows of tragedy closing in around them. Only a desperate plea to Sir Robert Peel, Home Secretary and founder of the new Metropolitan Police Force, will avert disaster.
When, twenty-five years later, Mr. Winterbourne takes up his pen to write an account of these events, he wonders how he is to do it…
Based on actual police reports of the period, Wisdom and Rubies is an engaging fictional account of a vital period in English social history.
A sequel to 'Wisdom and Rubies' will shortly be published, entitled 'The Scapegoat'. It will be a story of mutiny on a ship returning from China and a subsequent trial for murder, based once again on real events of the period as reported in the newspapers.
This review is for Wisdom and Rubies by J. F. Slattery. As soon as this book arrived I knew that I was in for an educated read.
Author J. F. Slattery was born in Essex, England in 1950 and is well educated in social history, German literature and philosophy. His research into nineteenth century London is impeccable. He successfully draws his readers into the time period with tales of police/authority, accounts of murder (crime/punishment), religious differences, old customs like dueling and portrays the attitudes and experiences within the full spectrum of London society.
His cast of characters are large in number, are well defined and their conversations, letters, poems, songs and quotes are clear and concise. They draw you into their lives and story.
Great descriptive characters. I especially liked the description of Lord Horatio being excessively intelligent, profoundly sane, not a dreamer but “enthralled, not by imagination, but by reality”. Having said that I like this my mind went to whether this author is a dreamer or not.
I liked the character named Arthur (Lord Horatio’s companion) who “felt some momentary excitement, wondering what a thought–experiment could be”. When Professor Gottschlegel asked his class “think of a wall” and Arthur’s vision of the wall was …”about six feet high, quite new, the brick not yet to discoloured, and on the other side - out of view, but he knew it was there – was a summerhouse.”
The language and mind set of these London times represent a man’s world but not without a few colorful characters like Madame Anastasia “a shrewd, tough Russian who learned her trade among the aristocracy of St. Petersburg.”
Given the title of this book, I would have been disappointed if the author had not quoted through his character Horatio from Proverbs 8:11.
Although the genre is fiction the book is based on actual events so he instructs his readers to “consult ‘The Times’ of 1830” for the actual cases. It is the opinion of this reviewer that every reader will find their own way in this book and come away with something or many things that he or she can relate to.
Cold Coffee Press endorses Wisdom and Rubies by J. F. Slattery for the intellectual reader who enjoys reading historical events as they pertain to society, impact on individuals and perhaps a comparison to how far we have come or not come within some societies today. I found this book extremely interesting and thought provoking from the perspective of someone who is not familiar with nineteenth century London.
Cold Coffee Press (August 2014): http://www.coldcoffeepress.com