Monday, September 26, 2011

Jason Webster

Jason Webster was born in California and was brought up in England and Germany. After spells in Italy and Egypt, he moved to Spain in 1993, where he was inspired to write a number of highly acclaimed nonfiction titles. He lives near Valencia with his wife, the flamenco dancer, Salud, and their son.

His new novel is Or the Bull Kills You.

A few weeks ago I asked Webster what he was reading. His reply.
I’m attending the Wigtown Book Festival in Scotland at the end of September and have been asked to talk briefly about a ‘lost classic’. So I’ve been flicking through a wonderful book that has been sitting on my shelves for some years now - What’s What! Published in 1902, it was meant to be something of an accompaniment to Who’s Who? But where the latter gave the names of the great and the good of the land, What’s What! was more an encyclopaedia, or an attempt to define what an Edwardian gentleman was supposed to know, and even think. ‘A guide for to-day for life as it is and things as they are.’

There are entries on everything from ‘Cataracts: Treatment of’ to ‘Comparison of English, German, French and Italian as singing languages’, ‘Devil-Worship in France’, ‘Hats, Prices of,’ and ‘The American Civil Service: its “sweet reasonableness”.’

Perhaps you’re suffering from consumption? Well, the authors have a list of all the best spas in Europe to go to for a cure, including train ticket prices and cost of accommodation. (Getting to Davos from London, for example, would cost you £6 12s. 4d. changing at Basle and Zurich, while a room would set you back anything from 13 to 19 Franks a day. ‘Drinks and drugs extra’.)

You’re wondering about women’s rights, and whether women should be allowed to work? There’s an article giving the standard viewpoint of the day on the topic, as well as whether it was healthy for ‘the fairer sex’ to ride bicycles.

And just what is this new thing called ‘electricity’? (An ‘invisible agent, of whose precise nature little is known…’)

History books and novels can give us a sense of the past, but I doubt I have ever quite had the same sense of travelling back in time as I do when reading these entries. Give me a town house in Mayfair, a top hat and a droopy moustache, and the picture would be complete.

Sadly, What’s What! was meant to be the first of many, supposedly annual, editions. And there is an appeal in the introduction from Harry Quilter, the prime mover of the project, for readers to send in information for updating and completing the work (amazingly, the 1,182 pages were written in about a year). But no further editions were published. As it is, it remains an indispensable resource for anyone contemplating writing a novel set in turn-of-the-century London.

I live in the city of Valencia, on Spain’s eastern Mediterranean coast. Like most of the country, it has a curious relationship with its complex history, not least the Moorish period, when this part of the world was ruled by Muslims.

Most people will tell you that Moorish Spain came to an end in 1492, with the fall of Granada. And that’s true up to a point. What many forget is that very large numbers of Moors continued living in Spain for another hundred years, until they were finally expelled in 1609. And Valencia had one of the largest concentrations of these ‘Moriscos’ - or little Moors, as they were then referred to.

I’m fascinated by the Moriscos, not least because they are a largely forgotten people. Muslims in North Africa tended to look down on them as tainted by living under Christian rule, while Christians were suspicious of them, fearing that they might ally themselves with the ‘Islamic threat’ from abroad and cause problems.

The parallels with our own times - the fears, mistrust and paranoias - are all too obvious. And so I was delighted when a friend gave me a book the other day on the subject, Entre tierra y fe (Between Land and Faith). A series of articles by experts detail everything from the way the Moriscos worked the land, to their traditional medicines, use of paper, artwork, and how they built their houses.

The book goes a long way to explaining how much of the world I see around me - and by extension the world beyond - came into being thanks to the centuries of Moorish presence here. Everything from the food I eat (oranges, artichokes, spinach, saffron, rice), to the clothes I wear (cotton cloth - light colours in summer and dark ones in winter), the games I play (chess) and even the way I think, can be traced back to Moorish Spain.

Finally, I picked up a copy of Robert Harris’s thriller Archangel yesterday and can hardly put it down. He is a master of drawing you in, bringing to life a world and a time you know a little about (this time Soviet Russia) and then telling you some of the darkest secrets that it holds.

Hooking the reader in, entertaining, informing and creating a whole and believable world to step inside - these are some of the most important skills for a writer, and Harris is a very clever technician.
Visit Jason Webster's website and blog.

My Book, The Movie: Or the Bull Kills You.

The Page 69 Test: Or the Bull Kills You.

--Marshal Zeringue