Friday, December 14, 2012

Author Spotlight: Simon Tolkien

We’re pleased to have join us for this edition of the Gazalapalooza Author Spotlight novelist Simon Tolkien. Tolkien’s here to tell us something about his brand new thriller, Orders from Berlin, and to share with us some of his insights about the writing life, and life generally.

As is our wont with all our intrepid Spotlight guests, a bit of authorial background is in order. Tolkien was born in England in 1959, and grew up in a small village near Oxford. He studied modern history at Trinity College, Oxford, before establishing in Britain a successful legal practice specializing in criminal justice. The author of four gripping novels, Tolkien now lives with his family in sunny southern California.

Did we leave anything out? Oh, yes…

Before we venture further, we’re sure our guest’s last name rings a bell loudly for many of you. Perhaps all the more so with this weekend’s highly anticipated theatrical release of the movie, "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey." Tolkien is the grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien. In 2003, shortly following his debut novel’s release, Tolkien said of that heritage, "Living in the shadow of The Lord of the Rings has not been an easy experience and I was always telling myself that I couldn't write fiction. However, I began writing my first novel on January 1, 2000. The first effort was rejected and that was hard, but I was determined to carry on and the result was The Stepmother (since retitled Final Witness — ed.). I think that my grandfather would be both pleased and proud that I have become a novelist. My book is a courtroom drama; it could not be further removed from his world of elves and dwarves, but writing it has made me feel close to my grandfather again. It is as if I have come into my true inheritance."

We agree. And in the years following the publication of Final Witness in 2002, Tolkien has proudly continued his family’s august literary legacy by authoring excellent novels that consistently earn well-deserved acclaim from critics and readers. Tolkien’s second novel, The Inheritance, was published in 2010, followed a year later by his third, The King of Diamonds. Those books appear in more than half a dozen languages round the world, and we’re confident the fate for Tolkien’s latest, Orders from Berlin, will be at least the same.

Preliminaries now complete, it’s time to welcome Tolkien to the bright klieg-lit glare of the Gazalapalooza Author Spotlight. Without further ado, let’s get this Spotlight underway.

Gazala:    In my omnipotence, I've sentenced you to be stranded alone on a desert island for offenses best left unnamed. In my beneficence, I've decided to allow you a limited amount of reading material to make your stay a little less bleak than it would otherwise be. I'll spot you your religious text of preference, and the collected works of William Shakespeare. In addition to those, name the one fiction book, and the one nonfiction book, you'd choose to take with you, and why you choose them.

Tolkien:    Doctor Zhivago — because it is the most true novel I have ever read, describing how we pass in and out of life in a haphazard way, caught in cross currents, unable to control the vagaries of chance that can be most cruel. And non-fiction — a huge, well-written history of the world complete with illustrations to keep me distracted while I wait for rescue.

Gazala:    Your latest book is an excellent and gripping thriller titled Orders from Berlin, about a Nazi plot to assassinate Winston Churchill during WWII. I've read it. I enjoyed it immensely, and recommend it highly. Shockingly enough, however, from time to time my bare recommendation doesn't always motivate a book's potential reader to become a book's actual reader. Tell us something about Orders From Berlin, and why its potential reader should make the leap and become its actual reader.

Tolkien:    Here’s why — it’ll take you back to the fall of 1940 when the world’s fate hung in the balance poised between good and evil, when fact was stranger than fiction, and an assassination could have changed the course of history. It’ll make you feel what it was like to live in a city that was being bombed day and night and in a country that expected to be invaded by the most terrifying military machine that has ever been assembled. You will walk through the corridors of power and meet Churchill weighing options in his underground bunker, Hitler venting his fury on his generals, and England’s top spies meeting in secret conclave. And you will stand on the shoulder of a young detective constable and feel his anxiety and frustration as he works alone against overwhelming odds to try to foil a plot to kill Churchill and take England out of the War. It’ll keep you awake into the small hours and leave you satisfied when you close the book at the end of the final chapter.

Gazala:    What are books for?

Tolkien:    To take us out of ourselves, to extend our limits, and to people our imagination. To entertain and to move and to instruct. To make us see the world in an infinity of different colors and to make us more than we are.

Gazala:    W. Somerset Maugham said, "There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are." Do you agree, or disagree, and why?

Tolkien:    Somerset Maugham is the greatest writer of short stories that I have ever read. I particularly love the ones set in Malaya that bring a vanished world to vivid life in a few pages, setting up and exploring conflicts that can rarely be resolved. Maugham could not have done this without a mastery of his art and I don’t think that starting at page one and seeing what happens can ever be a recipe for success. Writing good novels requires great organizational skills, particularly if the writer intends to keep his reader absorbed in the unfolding story. My years of practice as a trial lawyer have helped me with plotting. And there is research too — a book can be more interesting if it takes the reader into another world or historical period, although I think it’s important that this is not done for its own sake — the novelist’s purpose is to create, not educate. For me the research and plotting can take longer than the actual writing, but I need to make sure that I don’t over-prepare. It’s vital to leave enough space inside the plot structure for the characters to develop into real three dimensional human beings with credible motivations for their actions. And the story needs to evolve naturally but cohesively out of their interplay.

Gazala:    I've got to crack this coded message — time is of the essence. Ask yourself a question, and answer it.

Tolkien:    Q: What do you believe in? A: That we may well be alone and that God — if He exists — is not involved in the day to day workings of the world. I am left cold by the emphasis in western religions on the continuation of life after death; the importance that Buddhism places on exploring a consciousness beyond the self makes more sense to me, as do its tenets for how to live life wisely. That death makes life more precious, not less. That love and creativity and artistic endeavor make human beings more than they are and that the evil of men like the Nazis has at its root a complete limitation of imagination and empathy. That we need to understand that the dead were just as alive as we are now and that the past is another country just as real as our own — simply to walk down a street in another time is the greatest experience I can imagine. And finally — as you say — that time is of the essence.

Yes, time is always of the essence. And to save you some time, we’ve made it very easy for you to get your own copy of Orders from Berlin. All you have to do is click here, and Amazon will have your copy heading your way in mere moments.

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