This one is not really collaborative. It seems my enthusiasms ran away with me as I subjected the poor author to a bit of an interrogation. He survived. As you can see, he’s still smiling.
Lizzy: Your first novel was a contemporary thriller. What made you switch and what are the main differences between writing contemporary and historical thrillers?
Roger: I’ve always written both contemporary fiction and fiction set in the past. It’s natural for me to do both and I don’t really see it as a switch. What interests me is the story. But it is an interesting question. Obviously, the past, to some extent, is closed off, both in the sense that it is beyond our reach, and also because it is finished. The present on the other hand is something that we all have access to, and also something that is on-going, and is never finished – if that makes any sense. What I think I mean is that when we look back at the past, there is a sense that it is contained within itself – although this isn’t true really because the past does cast a shadow on the present, as we know from things like the Balkan Conflict and the Northern Ireland troubles. My sense, as a writer, is that the present is almost overwhelming, it’s a vast, formless, out of control mass of constantly-changing material that it’s very difficult to get a handle on. Writing contemporary fiction is very daunting. There’s a very obvious point of difference also, in that if you get the present wrong there are lots of people there to pick you up on it. Whereas if you get the past wrong, it’s probably only the professional historians who will notice!
Lizzy: I know the fourth Porfiry novel is with your editor. Which Dostoevsky should I read in advance?
Roger: The fourth Porfiry novel is called The Superfluous Man, and it deals with proto-revolutionary terrorists. I had The Devils (aka The Possessed, or Demons) very much in mind when I wrote it. I would like to say that people don’t have to read the Dostoevsky book before they read mine, or that they won’t be able to or enjoy my books, if they haven’t read Dostoevsky. My hope is that if someone hasn’t read Dostoevsky, they will be tempted to have a go after reading one of my books.
Lizzy: You originally planned 4 Porfiry novels? Are you sticking to that and if so, what are you going to do next?
Roger: That’s a big question. I’m not really sure how to answer it. I’ve discussed finishing the series at this point with my editor, as that was my original plan. I had thought of the books in terms of a quartet, one for each season of the year (although they are not set in the same year), with development of the core characters over the four books. It seems natural to at least take a break there, though I don’t rule out returning to St Petersburg in the future. I definitely have other ideas, other stories to tell, that are not Porfiry stories. Returning to the question you asked earlier, there is a chance that I might write something contemporary next. Everything’s up in the air at the moment. This fourth book brings me to the end of my current contract with Faber, so, you know, I really don’t know what the future holds.
Lizzy: I’ve still got another year to wait before I get my hands on book 4. Could I ask for 3 recommendations to keep me busy in the meantime?
Roger: Well if you like historical crime fiction, you could try Michael Gregorio’s series featuring the Prussian detective Hanno Stiffeniis, starting with A Critique of Criminal Reason, which features Immanuel Kant in a central role. I think the authors (Michael Gregorio is the husband and wife team of Michael Jacob and Daniela de Gregorio) share a similar aesthetic to me. I recently finished Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which is very long, but incredibly impressive. It’s not strictly speaking a crime novel, although there are crimes at the centre of it. For non-fiction, and to get you in the mood, I recommend Edvard Radzinsky’s biography of Alexander II, The Last Great Tsar.
Lizzy: What do you read for pleasure?
Roger: I am fairly eclectic – or should that be random? – in my reading habits. My last three books were Henning Mankell’s The Man Who Smiled, Kinky Friedman’s Blast from the Past, and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. I enjoyed them all, though the Bolaño was the one that left me incapacitated with awe. I tend to be in awe of writers who have a clairvoyant ability to imagine the lives of others and make you believe in them, and he does that with such facility, intimacy and range, across such a broad canvas, that it is truly breathtaking.
Lizzy: Will you ever tame your cat?
Roger: It would be insane to try.