Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Matthew Carr

Matthew Carr is a novelist, journalist, blogger, and lifelong Hispanophile. He has written for various publications including the New York Times, the Observer, and the Guardian. His nonfiction is published by The New Press: Fortress Europe; Soldiers, Civilians, and the American Way of War; and The Savage Frontier.

Carr's first novel, the acclaimed The Devils of Cardona (Riverhead), was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.

His new novel is Black Sun Rising.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Black Sun Rising is a suitably ominous and mysterious title, and it also references certain symbols and expectations at the heart of the novel that students familiar with the history of Nazism and pre-Nazi movements will recognise. The original working title, which was at the forefront of my mind while writing the book, was Degeneration – a reference to the nineteenth century social critic Max Nordau’s book with the same title.

The concept of degeneration – cultural, physical political, national, social - was a recurring obsession in Belle Epoque Europe, and it’s a key theme in the novel, whether it refers to Harry Lawton’s ongoing struggle with epilepsy, the racist paranoia of Randolph Foulkes and his circle, or the violent insurrection known as Tragic Week.

That said, I think Black Sun Rising is a more appealing and inviting title, and by the time readers reach the final page its real meaning will have become very clear.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

Given what I was reading and watching at the time, my teenage reader self would think that I haven’t advanced very far! I grew up on a diet of Hammer horror films, superhero comics and westerns, on Roger Corman, Hitchcock, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Raymond Chandler. Dracula, Frankenstein, the ape/murderer in the Rue Morgue, the Hound of the Baskervilles, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde – all these monsters populated my adolescent imagination and my teenage reader self would recognise and enjoy the references to them in Black Sun Rising.

My teenage self was also very conscious of the legacies of Nazism, apartheid, and colonialism, and often pondered over the ideas, forces, and motivations that had ‘driven a culture mad’, as Auden put it. Once again these themes are all present in my novel, and my teenage reader self would be pleased to find that I have still not entirely outgrown my youthful fascination with anarchism.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I don’t find either beginnings or endings especially difficult. For me the difficulty lies in constructing a plausible and coherent chain of events that connects one to the other. When I first began to write fiction many years ago, I rarely plotted in advance. I just set off from the first page and allowed the story to take me wherever it felt like going. Sometimes it didn’t take me very far!

Nowadays I plot very carefully before actually starting out, so that I know where I’m going, and how I might disguise where I’m going from the reader, and what kind of characters will take the story forward. This can be quite an arid and tedious process, but once I have that clarity I can really feel that I’m ‘telling the story’ rather than finding out what the story is.

This was the process I followed with Black Sun Rising, and once I had that overall shape and structure, the actual writing flowed relatively quickly.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Always an interesting question! The answer is both. As someone coming from a fairly tormented family background, and with a long history of depression, it was not such a stretch for me to imagine Harry Lawton – the epileptic ex-detective who lives in a constant state of dread at the prospect of his own disintegration.

To some extent the anarchist teacher Esperanza Claramunt represents my youthful, more idealistic self, with all the naivete and fervor that implies, whereas the more jaded and circumspect poet-journalist Bernat Mata says and thinks things that once upon a time I would have found much more difficult to imagine.

So all these characters might contain potentialities and contradictions that I recognise in myself, but I hope I’ve given them sufficient independent existence so that they think, feel, and talk in their own right.

Other characters, such as Randolph Foulkes, the psychotic Klarsfeld, and Doctor Weygrand are thankfully a world apart, otherwise I would probably have ended up behind bars a long time ago.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Both my fiction and non-fiction have always been heavily influenced by history and politics. I’m always writing with one eye to the present and another to the past. I’m interested in how things came to be the way they are; in warnings, precedents, and missed opportunities that can shed light on where we might be going.

That applies whether I’m writing about terrorism, immigration, Sherman’s march through Georgia, the destruction of Islamic Spain, or Barcelona’s Tragic Week. Even in this age of information overload, I continue to see books as essential tools for combating injustice, prejudice, and the abuse of power, that can help us think and imagine our way towards a better future and a better understanding of the human predicament.

I don’t consider these aspirations incompatible with entertainment. On the contrary, I like to tell stories and spin yarns, and I always try to treat the readers who come to my books with the respect they deserve, but I don’t ever want to make them feel comfortable with the world as it is, because that world needs changing.
Visit Matthew Carr's website.

--Marshal Zeringue