Theo & Flora takes place when stalled novelist Charlie Wasserman’s investment-banker wife divorces him, he finds among her belongings a box of letters. Written between 1940 and 1944, the letters reveal a love affair between her grandfather, Theo, a forty-something lawyer at the time, and Flora, a much younger journalist. Even though Wasserman’s ex-wife has her lawyers instruct him to destroy the letters, an idea for a new book – a novel that could rekindle his career – is sparked and we get to follow as the story unfolds.
I had a chance to ask him a few questions about the book . . .
When you decided to go through the box full of letters and telegrams, did you immediately know how you will approach the project? How did everything come together from there? How did that idea evolve into Theo & Flora?
At first I had no idea how to convey the story hidden in the jumble of letters and telegrams, and no idea whether there was indeed a story to tell. Like Charlie Wasserman, the character who finds the box of letters in the book, I set out trying to remain faithful to them. But the correspondence made up a rambling, repetitive and unstructured account, self-centred and often just plain boring. Wasserman’s struggle to find a way to tell the story is similar to my own, and it’s only when he understands that he will never be able to stick to the “facts” that he frees himself up to put together something that might be readable. The Wasserman character gave me my own vehicle to tell their story – he is the carrier of their narrative, and being a writer himself, he is able to express many of the challenges and obstacles I faced in writing the novel.
What sort of research did you do to write this book?
The letters themselves made up the bulk of my research material, and between the lines of the love story itself lay rich information about the lifestyle, technology, behaviours and social mores of the time. In the box there were also a number of other documents that allowed me to add historical texture to the narrative – for example, old case files from Theo’s own legal practice and permission slips allowing Theo to make longer road trips from the Controller of Petrol (a real official, despite the dystopian title, given the rationing of fuel and other resources during the War). I have a demanding day job, so the rest of my research was pretty much restricted to the Internet and chatting to people who knew and remembered Theo and Flora. This turned out to be a blessing, allowing me to add historical context lightly – I’m sure that if I’d over-researched things, I would have been tempted to be far more pedantic and heavy-handed.
Once you started writing, what were some of the challenges you encountered? What part of the writing process did you enjoy most? Least?
Once I’d extracted a storyline from the correspondence, my next challenge lay in deciding on which of the letters would best express the plot points I’d picked out, when to use extracts, and when to turn to pure fiction in creating the circumstances and events around the content of the letters. I had to be aware of the trap of replicating long passages from the correspondence, and avoided this by asking myself at every turn, “Would anyone care?” So I’ve used extracts of the letters and telegrams quite sparsely, and when I’ve done so I’ve used them verbatim in the hope that this will bring the reader as close as I was both to the source material and to the characters of Theo and Flora.
The least enjoyable part was done up front: reading every letter and telegram, noting key points on index cards, and sorting them all chronologically. The latter was made all the more difficult by Theo’s habit of dating almost all his letters only by the day he wrote them – no month, no year, just “Wednesday” or “Saturday”. It took months to figure out from the context where in the order of things Theo’s letters should appear.
My greatest joys when writing lie in seeking, finding and hitting the right notes with regard to the voices of the main characters. I’m no musician, but I’d imagine that a composer would go through the same process in setting out to write a longer work. The novel is structured in alternate chapters, the contemporary Wasserman chapters interspersed with the historical Theo and Flora chapters, so there are two distinct voices and “keys” – I’d say that Wasserman is written in E-flat and Theo very much in B-minor. The letters were an enormous help in pitching the historical voice, and I’ve often lifted written conversations and given them to the characters as dialogue. Finding the appropriate vocal key frees me up to push my limits of language, and has a profound effect on characterisation and what the characters get up to.
I really enjoyed the way the events of the past were sort of intertwined with what was happening in the current setting of the book, was that intentional?
Yes, very much intentional. The events in Wasserman’s life are in many ways a distorted mirror of Theo’s, from the banality of the way they each assess their naked bodies in the mirror, to their broader experiences and the way their lives touch love and madness.
What is the main thing you want readers to take away from Theo & Flora?
That history the way we are taught to understand it – small, personal histories like Theo’s and Flora’s, or universal circumstances that changed the world – is little more than an hotchpotch of subjective views of the objective events of the past, interpreted and corrupted for political or personal reasons, or simply through ignorance, misunderstanding or false extrapolation. Apparently Henry Ford said, “History is bunkum,” but I think he was only halfway right – it’s dangerous too.
What are you working on now? Do you have any plans for another book in the next couple of years?
I’m working on something called All Our Dry Voices, which I hope will see publication within a year or so. It’s completely different to Theo & Flora – more novella than novel, and ninety degrees from Wasserman and his letters in terms of voice, story and structure. It will be my fifth novel, and I’ve always tried to challenge myself not to write the same book over and over in order to keep things fresh and interesting (for myself, at least).
What are your top three favorite books of all time?
I don’t think I have three permanent favourites. I’ve read Russel Hoban’s little-known dystopian novel Riddley Walker five or six times. Peter Carey’s earlier works – True Life of the Kelly Gang and Illywhacker – are simply extraordinary. And every now and then I return to the early Modernists such as Faulkner, Joyce and Eliot, purely to marvel at the kind of fearlessness, experimentation and unorthodoxy that’s seldom found in contemporary fiction.
Are there any nuggets of wisdom you can impart to aspiring writers?
Unless you read broadly and deeply, don’t do it. Unless you are utterly and completely compelled to write, and by that I mean you have a deep-seated sense of absence when you’re not writing, don’t do it. Unless you have significant technical control over your chosen language, don’t do it. If you are writing for some kind of imagined financial gain, don’t do it. Unless you understand that it is a marathon to which you have no map, beset with obstacles and monsters and self-doubt, don’t do it. Write because you can’t help it. Write for yourself and not that imagined entity peering over your shoulder. Write about your own village, because that’s the only way to ensure the authenticity your reader deserves.
You can learn more about Mark by following him on Facebook here and Twitter: @giantblackdog
Title: Theo & Flora || Author: Mark Winker || Published: 15 October 2018 || Genre: Historical Fiction || Imprint: Penguin || Publicist: Frieda le Roux || Pages: 287
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