Friday, 19 August 2016

John Williamson and James Burke: two very different heroes

Friday is the day that I generally write my blog. This morning I really had no idea what I was going to write about. I wanted to say something about the talk that I’m giving next week in Llandrindod Wells. I am going on about that on social media because I don't want to be the guy who gives a talk that nobody comes to but there’s only so many times I can beg you to come. (Do come. Llandrindod Wells is a lovely place and you'll enjoy it even if you have to listen to me.)

Fortunately, I woke up to somebody on Twitter who wanted to know how I coped with writing two different series and which of my main characters was my favourite. This gives me all the excuse I need to talk about how I got into this writing business which, by happy chance, means chatting about James Brooke. Did I mention I'm giving a talk on him in Wales next Friday?

There are people who got into writing because they needed to make money. Two brilliant examples are Lee Child, who started writing the Reacher novels when he lost his job with Granada TV, and Anthony Burgess who started writing when he was told that he had only a couple of years to live and he wanted to leave something that might generate an income for his family. Such examples are rare – fortunately, as the chances of making any serious money from fiction are negligible. Usually people get into writing because they have an almost pathological need to write. Some people start with the idea that "writing" is, in itself, something they want to do, but for others the first novel comes out of a desperate desire to tell that particular story. I was one of those. I came across the story of James Brooke on a visit to Sarawak, in Borneo. I was completely blown away by him and spent a year researching his life. Decades later, I finally sat down and wrote The White Rajah.

Portrait of Sir James Brooke by Sir Francis Grant
National Portrait Gallery London. Used with permission

As with most first novels, The White Rajah wasn't really a first novel at all. I made a first attempt at a novel based on James Brooke soon after I returned from Sarawak and, although it was taken surprisingly seriously by a leading London agent, it wasn't working. I knew too much about Brooke to fictionalise him. While there were other people doing things round him, there, in the centre of the story, was this historical sketch where a character should have been. It was only many years later that I decided that the way to approach Brooke's life was to tell it through the eyes of somebody else who accompanies him on his adventures. I knew that the real James Brooke had an interpreter called John Williamson. I decided that an interpreter would necessarily be close to the story. I also knew that the real James Brooke was a homosexual. Could the interpreter not become his lover? So John Williamson was born.

Williamson, although sharing the name and duties of the real interpreter, is entirely a fictional character. I gave him a back story, which didn't make it to the final edit, and settled down to have him tell Brooke’s tale. Only as I was writing did I realise that the story was turning into Williamson's story.

In the end, I don't think I got The White Rajah quite right. I wasn't prepared to commit to Williamson. It was supposed to be a story about this famous historical character, not a romance based around a man who is struggling to come to terms with his sexuality. Even so, the story was successful with the small gay press that first published it in the USA and I was asked if I could write a sequel. I was more than happy to do so. In my head I had a clear idea of who John Williamson was. The White Rajah was written in the first person and this made me very close to the character. In Cawnpore I was able to develop him however I wanted. Cawnpore is closely tied to the historical events of the Indian Mutiny, but Williamson is a very minor character in those events. I can have him do whatever I want, so long as he does not change course of history. So I made poor Williamson suffer. An outsider by class and sexuality, he never really fits in to British society in India. Instead, he immerses himself in native life, in a way that was common in the early 19th century but unusual by the time of the Mutiny. When fighting breaks out, he finds himself caught between the two sides. Whatever decisions he makes he will have to betray somebody. It's not a cheerful story, but I found it easy to write and I think it is still my personal favourite of my own books.

Meanwhile, the idea that I might write books with more commercial potential than those featuring John Williamson grew in my mind. I had been told by a literary agent that I might well be able to sell a story that featured a more conventional hero – heterosexual and untroubled. Enter James Burke. Burke was based on a real person. In fact the first book about him, Burke in the Land of Silver, is surprisingly true to the historical facts. I say "surprisingly" because the idea that one man might have had affairs with a queen, a princess, and a viceroy's mistress in between engineering the British conquest of Buenos Aires seems implausible, but does fit what little we know about him. Burke is the ideal hero for a straightforward historical adventure. Brave, resourceful, apparently irresistible to women, he moves effortlessly from one success to another. Of course, if he were as straightforward as that, he'd be quite a dull chap, so my Burke is also a snob, desperate to escape what he sees as the stigma of his birth to an undistinguished Irish landowner. Burke is cynical, calculating and often cruel, but, in the end, he will always do the right thing for his country and the people who love him. I like James Burke – how could you not? And he’s huge fun to write as he brings down evil villains, saves the day at critical junctures of the Napoleonic Wars and, without apparent effort, beds yet another beautiful woman. But I will never be as involved with Burke as I am with poor John Williamson – always trying to do the right thing and always trapped in a position where all his choices will lead to pain. A damaged, tortured soul caught up in the world of Victorian Empire, which loved the James Burkes of this world but had very little use for the Williamsons. I so wanted to see Williamson come to terms with his world and find some sort of peace and he does (maybe) when his adventures finally bring him back to England in Back Home.

So that's how I ended up with two entirely different heroes in two very different sorts of book. It all started with James Brooke: to my mind, one of the most amazing adventurers in an age that produced some very remarkable people indeed. Did I mention that I'll be talking about Brooke in fact, fiction and legend at Llandrindod Wells on Friday? I've been asked to bring along some swords, too, to frighten the children and keep order if anybody asks awkward questions. It should make for an interesting illustrated lecture. It would be lovely if you could come.


  1. I enjoyed this post, Tom. It's always interesting to learn why authors write what they write. I understand that you're giving a TALK at LLANDRINDOD WELLS NEXT FRIDAY? Sadly it's a bit too far for me. But I hope you have a full house of readers keen to buy signed copies. 'Cawnpore' was superb, 'Back Home' fascinating, and I very much enjoyed 'Burke in the Land of Silver.'

  2. Thank you for that. Llandrindod Wells is really only a hop and a skip away over the Severn Bridge and it *is* very lovely if you want a Bank Holiday break.