Can you share a few details about The Leonardo Gulag?
For readers who enjoy Cold War stories, The Leonardo Gulag is one of the most original they’ll come across. They’ll find themselves rubbing shoulders with Stalin himself – and with that archetype British traitor Anthony Blunt. The novel’s central character, a young Russian artist called Pasha, has a unique gift but is put through hell because of it – the frozen hell of the Arctic gulag. There’s a cast of other unforgettable characters – Pasha’s elderly mentor; his friends in the gulag camp; the camp’s evil commandant. Add to all this some fascinating insights into the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci, and readers will find themselves in truly unique territory.
What inspired you to write The Leonardo Gulag?
One summer, with my wife Roz and our three sons, I visited the Château du Clos Lucé in the French city of Amboise in France, where Leonardo da Vinci spent his last years. The château is now a museum dedicated to Leonardo, with working models of many of his inventions. On that summer’s day a seed was planted in my mind, to write a novel that somehow involved Leonardo’s work. But life and other novels intervened, and the idea just got filed away. Then one day, years later, Roz said: ‘You should go back to Leonardo.’ So I did. And the result is The Leonardo Gulag.
Any other influences?
Yes – geography! Windsor Castle, which houses the Royal Collection of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings, and where Anthony Blunt worked, is just down the road from where I live. Blunt was one of the longest-hidden traitors in the history of espionage; astonishingly, he was also personally close to two British monarchs, including the current Queen. With all this on my doorstep, how could I resist?
Who are the most sympathetic characters in The Leonardo Gulag?
My personal favourites are the good people – Pasha, with his special gift; his mother, with her love and patience (‘she will walk the entire world . . . in bare feet if she has to, to find her Pashenka. She is a mother, it is what any mother would do.’); Viktor, worldly wise and always looking out for Pasha; Irina, so sparky and full of life; big Sergei with his flamboyance and Karl Marx beard.
Who are the least sympathetic characters?
Stalin, of course, and Bolotsov the corrupt camp commandant – monsters, both of them, though I have tried to give them some humanity. There is much to despise in the character of Anthony Blunt as I present him in the novel, but even he has some redeeming characteristics. Lavrenti Beria, however, head of Stalin’s secret police, has none.
What part of writing The Leonardo Gulag did you find the most challenging?
Time in the novel is very elastic – in some passages a few days and weeks are described in detail, while in other sections several years whiz pass. With Leonardo’s drawings, I wanted to give them the degree of description needed for the reader to see what Pasha is doing and how remarkable that is, but without turning the novel into a treatise on fine art.
What do you hope readers will take away from The Leonardo Gulag?
There are many things I hope for, most of them to do with readers empathising with the various characters, particularly Pasha, and becoming immersed in the story and its settings. But if they also find themselves wondering if some of the Leonardo drawings in the Royal Collection might, just might, be forgeries, then the novel has done a great job!
After The Leonardo Gulag, what next?
I’m working on a Second World War story set in Nazi-occupied France to which the backdrop is the tension between the French Resistance and ordinary citizens whose focus is simply to survive. It will be a companion piece to Villa Normandie.
Further details in due course!
How does your life experience enrich your writing?
People are people, and novels are about people.
We write as we find.
Is there anything autobiographical in your novels?
I suspect that everything in my life feeds into my writing in some way or other. Sometimes I might not know when it’s happening. My son Ben read one of my novels and asked me if a certain character’s story was inspired by a particular aspect of my own past that he was aware of. The moment he asked the question I knew he was right, but I had simply never made the connection. I had spent a year writing that book and had never seen the thing that he, with fresh eyes, saw instantly.
We write among shadows.
How do you research the background to your novels?
It varies. I might begin by researching specific events, situations and people that interest me. I might already have a basic idea or it might only be a feeling about ‘something to do with such-and-such’. When I think I have enough understanding, I begin to write. I find it’s important to do this rather than wait too long – because the danger with research is that there is no finish line.
The research continues while I write – and even when the first drafts of the story are complete. There might be issues I’ve set aside to deal with at that stage because I know they can wait, or I may have come up with another idea that I want to check out.
Usually the physical settings for my novels are places I already know well. But not always, in which case I have extra work to do. I had to visit what was then the Soviet Union in order to get the locations and settings right for Patriots. That was a bit of a challenge, as there were so many things and places that you were forbidden to take photos of – not just obvious places like military establishments or security headquarters but also transport infrastructure such as roads and rail lines, and even bridges and rivers. Meanwhile you could take all the photos you wanted of Red Square! But I went ahead and took my chances. I also studied Russian (most of it now forgotten), partly to be able to talk to people whose help and input I needed, and partly to give as accurate a flavour as possible to the dialogue in the book
Describe what the writing process is like for you.
It’s the best job in the world. If it’s going well, I’m utterly lost in the world I’m creating. Some parts of writing a novel are straightforward and logical, but some are quite baffling. There are times when an idea arrives out of the blue and I think ‘Where on earth did that come from?’ and I genuinely don’t know. These are the most magical moments of all.
How and when did you start writing?
When I was sixteen or seventeen I wrote a full-length novel. Believe me, it’s best forgotten! Many years later I decided it was time to have a serious go. I took time out from my business career and wrote Patriots. It was published and I returned to the world of business. But the bug was there; it was only a matter of time before I felt the need to write again. In due course, along came Villa Normandie and then Charlie’s War.
Can you give some background information on your other novels?
In Patriots I use the background of the Cold War as the setting in which to portray the way in which the lives of Nikolai Serov and Edmund Knight intersect and come into conflict because of choices each man made many years previously – secret decisions and loyalties that I reveal only gradually.
I called the novel Patriots because I wanted to point to the irony that patriotism is sometimes no more than a cloak for motivations that are far less noble.