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Author Spotlight – Robert Wilton

Robert Wilton ImageThose of you who read my recent review of  The Emperor’s Gold by Robert Wilton may recall me mentioning the author’s rather interesting credentials for writing historical fiction. Robert read History at Oxford before completing an MA in History and Culture at The University of London. On top of this, a career in the Ministry of Defence and the Cabinet Office not only allowed him to stumble across the records of the Comptrollerate-General which feature so heavily in his debut novel, it has also allowed for the extensive travel and variety of experience which from the sound of his answers to my questions below, is surely going to result in some fascinating work to come.

All in all, I would love to be able to fast forward ten or so years into Robert’s writing career, as it sounds as though we may be in for some real historical and political treats.

Read the full interview below…

-- Robert Wilton interviewed by Des Greene --

DG – Firstly, many congratulations on a most excellent debut novel. I found that the records of the Comptrollerate-General for Scrutiny and Survey added a really tangible glimpse into history. How much digging was involved to unearth the actual records that were of use in formulating The Emperor’s Gold?

RWThe archives of the Comptrollerate-General are like a playground for me. So many amazing stories, hidden in the background of the most critical moments of British history. To have stumbled across this archive is an extraordinary privilege and excitement. And you can literally touch history – your fingertips on a page that felt the fingertips of these remarkable men of the shadows one hundred or four hundred years ago.

DG – Do you have other novels planned for The Comptrollerate or your main man Roscarrock?

RW Definitely. The intention from the beginning has been a series of novels describing episodes in the history of the Comptrollerate-General. It was chance that made the first one Napoleonic. This remarkable organisation was (has been?) around for at least four hundred years, and there’s enormous potential to tell some extraordinary stories. I’m currently working on the second, set during the British Civil Wars, when the organisation was trying to come to terms with the collapse of the whole system of government. But I’ve been interested to see how many readers of ‘The Emperor’s Gold’ have got really caught up by Tom Roscarrock himself. To me at the start he was just a useful focus for following the events of summer 1805; but people seem to have found his story, his abilities, and the unresolved sense of mystery around him, rather attractive. On the page the unusual character of the man got out of my control. So we might pick up his story again; there’s some interesting material about the Comptrollerate-General ten years on, in the period leading up to Waterloo and the final crisis of Napoleon’s career.

DG – Your press release gives a fascinating insight into your career and also your love of history. This must have provided a wealth of subject matter over the years, are there any novels bursting to come out from other eras or political landscapes?

RWI’ve loved history since I was a boy – something to learn about, to explore, to try to understand, and – as I had to admit when applying to read it at University – I just love the stories. Always my favourite subject, and my way into any new place. I guess it was unavoidable that, when I started writing, history would be a powerful element of it. Not just historical periods, but our relationship with history. Over and over again when I was writing short stories I would find myself playing in and with history: the veterans going back to the trenches 50 years later and being surprised by the gradual revelation of an old mystery; the melancholy memoir of an incident in a world war two prison camp; the tale of Edwardian diplomatic intrigue revealed in a butler’s pantry-book. I guess it was likewise unavoidable that I would end up writing about something like the Comptrollerate-General.

I’ve now spent more than ten years working on and in the Balkans, and I’ve written a fair bit of quasi-academic analysis of the history, the culture, and the lessons of international engagement there. It’s a place that has fascinated outsiders for two hundred years – especially the British, for some reason – and I suspect there’s a novel in those forbidding mountains and hidden highland pastures. The combination of the deep slow rhythms of life with the brittle kaleidoscope of politics is fertile ground. The Comptrollerate-General’s activities in the Balkans before the first world war climaxed at Sarajevo, of course, but its agents were getting into some very strange and obscure places in the years and months leading up to that.

DG – In your own reading, which fictional authors provide you with the most inspiration?

RWFrederick Forsyth because his grand fictions read like extensions of his journalism. I’ve a soft spot for games of history – when the past suddenly starts biting in the present – authors like Anthony Price. Len Deighton and I suppose John Le Carre because of the humanity – the banality – of their characters: ordinary men in an extraodinary world. Alistair Maclean because he’s almost the opposite: he makes simple characters engaging and melodramatic plots gripping. Hilary Mantel because she shows that I might as well stop bothering because I could never recreate history so vividly and humanly, and because she then inspires me to write better – more imaginatively and less lazily. And I can still read John Buchan or Alexander Dumas and admire their captivating power of adventure. I should also mention Ivo Andric, the Yugoslav Nobel Prizewinner, who’s the great poet of the endurance and rhythms of peoples, and who made me start to consider why human animals tell stories.

DG – Would it be possible to tell our readers a little more about your charity; how it came into existence and what its aims are?

RW When we were first working in Kosovo five years ago, I and in particular my partner Elizabeth found ourselves doing more and more voluntary projects in areas like cultural heritage, the environment and education. She helped to draw public attention to Prishtina’s ethnological museum, a buried treasure of the city’s architectural and folk heritage, for example, and organised workshops in a restored traditional house with local experts on everything from traditional law to wine; I ran a writing competition for children, and organised an oral history project to capture some of the traditional songs that have been passed from singer to singer for umpteen generations. The Ideas Partnership, formed with our Kosovar friend Ardian, was a way to formalise these kinds of project. Last summer we ran an environmental summer camp for children, in an isolated village high in the glorious Rugova Valley. This year Elizabeth and some volunteers are giving catch-up classes to children left out of the mainstream school system to give them a chance of re-integrating, and we’ll be running English language classes over the summer. Volunteers welcome! Basically, in a country that’s been very welcoming to us, we’re just trying to support and stimulate people in areas that we think are important. Kosovo’s a country where so much needs to be done, but so much can be done.

DG – Robert, many thanks for finding the time to take part in this interview; it really has provided a fascinating insight into your work and background. We wish you the best of success with The Emperor’s Gold and also in your future writing career.

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