Today I have the pleasure of Ian Thornton here on the blog to answer a few questions about his debut novel, The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms. While this book is not one I would normally pick up by myself, it is proving to be quite the entertaining and interesting read. So here is what Ian Thornton had to say.
Where did inspiration for The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms come from?
I read an article in a Sunday newspaper in England back in the early 90s about a young man in Sarajevo who left college one Friday evening and by the time the weekend was over, he had set in motion a chain of events, which has affected the lives of everyone on the planet today. Many great men spend their lives trying to alter a city block, and here was one young chap who just wanted to be left alone for the weekend and drink coffee and read books, maybe a newspaper, but instead set fire to the twentieth century. That is powerful stuff. Imagine the turmoil, the horror of dealing with that. This kernel always stayed with me, and when I decided I was going to write, there was never any discussion in my mind that this would be my subject matter.
I guess too, in hindsight, there may have been some sub-conscious mirroring of events with those in my own life. I too had made some rather stupid decisions, and was running away from them. Maybe I empathised with this poor boy more than I realised at the time.
The book covers an entire century's worth of events. How did you decide when to be faithful to history and when to create your own version of history?
I attempted to create a moving, amorphous life against the rigid backdrop of historical events. I have not read Flashman (it is NEXT on the list, given the recommendations I have had) but I suspect parallels, though his fidelity to history seems to be legendary. I have actually avoided George Macdonald' Fraser's work while I was writing for the natural fear of mimicking what may already be of a similar feel. I think the real artistic license comes when the tale passes from the macro to the micro. Established and well-known events are solid and immovable. The minutiae of individuals movements and lives are pliable and malleable. These two positions merge when Johan's story becomes that of the planet and her trajectory, i.e. Sarajevo June 28th, 1914. This I will explain in a second.
First however, I think/hope it is quite clear from very early on that it is a fantastical tale. The line about 'the exaggerations of two old men and the DNA of the cadaver known as the tale' is a key one, explaining how this story is third-hand and told through a prism.
Yes, June 28th, 1914. The newspaper story I mentioned earlier planted the seed of doubt about who the chauffeur was. When I spent time in Sarajevo several years ago, the eminent professors there could provide no absolute answer and no overall consensus as to whether the driver was Loyka or Urban. So this, along with my memories of the newspaper article, allowed for enough room for conjecture, for fiction and for a third possible culprit.
Hemingway, Paker and Orwell were all in Spain at the same time, though quite unlikely to have been in Monreal del Campo on Hemingway's birthday in 1937. I guess it is the definition of historical fiction; an imagined story set against the immovability of history. Historical fiction in this regard does seem oxymoronic. The line may move as to where one starts and the other ends, but if the reader knows he or she is not reading non-fiction, then that license is understood, and one assumes Coleridge's willing suspension of disbelief.
On that note, how much research went into writing this story?
This is a good question. It is my first book, so I have no real measure, no yardstick. It seemed like a lot, I hope it comes across as such. I spent a lot of time in Sarajevo, Southern France, Vila di Bispo, the 'end of the world' in Portugal, Spain, London and Minehead.
Things like clothing, the architecture and the language I picked up osmotically through a raging love of early and mid-century cinema; English, European, you name it.
A lot of Johan's experiences were my own, transposed. I guess they were therefore in effect research, though I did not know it at the time. If this seems like a cop out by hanging out in these places and calling it research, then I guess I am guilty. In hindsight, it was a quite effective way of utilising many lazy and happy days for a more sensible and career-minded end. Don't they say 'write about what you know'?
Yes, there was the slog of library books and increasingly the internet, but a lot of the research came from having lived a life and watched hundreds of movies. I guess the downside of this, is that my next book is likely going to be more study-based. Or maybe not…
How would you describe The Great & Calamitous Tale of Johan Thoms to someone who knows nothing about it?
The ten second La Croisette pitch? HIstorical fiction, black comedy, love story, buddy story set against the war-torn twentieth century.
The thirty second La Croisette pitch? The fictionalised life story of the man who inadvertently started the Great War, by being the driver for Franz Ferdinand on the day of the assassination. How he took a wrong turn and couldn't find reverse gear when the lead Serb assassin walked out of a café to find, by chance, his target. How he (the driver) blames himself for not only the assassination, but also for the Great War and everything that led from there; the Russian Revolution, the Treaty of Versailles, the rise of Hitlerism, the Second World War, the gas chambers, the atomic bomb, Vietnam, you name it. A.k.a How I started a world war and finally learned to stop worrying about it. Sort of.
About the book:
A wild, rollicking novel on chance, friendship, love, regret, and the entire history of the twentieth century.Johan Thoms is poised for greatness. A promising student at the University of Sarajevo, he is young, brilliant, and in love with the beautiful Lorelei Ribeiro. He can outwit chess masters, quote the Kama Sutra, and converse with dukes and drunkards alike. But he cannot drive a car in reverse. And as with so much in the like of Johan Thoms, this seemingly insignificant detail will prove to be much more than it appears. One the morning of June 28, 1914, Johan takes his place as the chauffeur to Franz Ferdinand and the Royal entourage, and with one wrong turn, he forever alters the course of history.Blaming himself for the deaths of the Archduke and his wife, Johan hastens from the seven , and for once his inspired mind cannot process what to do next. Guild-ridden, he flees Sarajevo, abandoning his friends, family, and beloved in the fear that he has caused them irreparable grievance. He watches in horror as the Great War unfolds, every death settling squarely on Johan's conscience. Turning his back on his old life, Johan does his best to fade out of memory.But the world has other plans for Johan Thoms. As each passing year burdens Johan with further guilt for his inaction, he seeks solace in his writing and in the makeshift family he has assembled around himself. With everyone from emperors to hooligans at his side, and pursued by the ever-determined Lorelei, Johan winds his way through Europe and the Twentieth Century, leaving his indelible mark on both.