Author Joan Druett interviews Antoine Vanner

In October 2014 the New Zealand historian and novelist Joan Druett sent Antoine Vanner a series of questions, the answers to which appeared in her blog “World of the Written Word”.

Nicholas Dawlish is a fascinating character in the classical mode, a hero with a fatal flaw.  Who or what was your inspiration for such a complex person?

There are a number of inspirations, all linked with the period 1845-1918, in which Dawlish lived. Several charismatic and influential British naval officers were born in the same decade, Fisher, Scott, Beresford – and later Jackson – among others. They joined a navy commanded by veterans of Nelson’s day but they themselves shaped the navy that fought WW 1, having introduced new technologies such as steam turbines, submarines, radio, torpedoes and even aircraft.

These men had very adventurous careers and managed a massive amount of change.  The closest character-inspiration for Dawlish belongs however to the generation that followed him. Sir Walter Cowan served on the Benin expedition in West Africa in the late 1880’s, captained a battle-cruiser at Jutland in WW1 and commanded British forces in the Baltic against the Bolsheviks in 1919. He then retired but came back into service in WW2, training with the commandos in 1941 at the age of 70. In the North Africa campaign he was to take on Italian tank crew singlehandedly when armed only with a revolver. He was to be the oldest officer serving in combat WW2, just as Dawlish was to have the same distinction in WW1 which, unlike Cowan, Dawlish was not to survive!

Though of high moral character, all these men were driven by ambition and demonstrated the necessary degree of ruthlessness which was essential to achieve what they did. If this is a fault, then it is the one they share with Dawlish!

Leading on from this who is your favourite fictional hero (apart from Nicholas Dawlish)?

Since I first read Doctor Zhivago 53 years ago I have always been impressed with the character of Pasha Antipov, the schoolteacher from  a poor background who proves to have unexpected martial and leadership skills when called to the colours in 1914. In the Russian Civil War he becomes “Strelnikov”, a military expert in Bolshevik service.  Though his story ends in tragedy he has always seemed to me the embodiment of courage, conscience and dignity in the most extreme circumstances.  He is faced with impossible moral choices but he confronts them head on and does not shirk his destiny or ask for pity. As such he is the counterpoint to the much weaker character of Zhivago himself and his death – prefigured in a song sung by an old peasant woman earlier in the book – is of unbearable poignancy. Strelnikov was played brilliantly by Tom Courtenay in the movie and the memory of him thundering down the track in his armoured train is unforgettable.

The Dawlish Chronicles can be read as separate novels, as the setting of each is so different.  Because the stories are historical the places where they take place no longer exist, per se, but still do you feel a drive to explore them?

My own career has brought me all over the world and I have lived long term in 8 countries and undertook shorter assignments in a dozen others.  I have travelled in some 55 countries and this, combined with my enthusiasm for history, has afforded me ample opportunities for getting the feel for the locations – and, more importantly, cultures – in which my stories are set.  A good example is my novel Britannia’s Wolf which, though set in Ottoman Turkey in the 1870’s, reflects my own knowledge of Turkey and my experience of having lived and worked there for three years.  The search for new and challenging locations never stops and indeed I am dictating this answer on a visit to Sarawak, Northern Borneo.  Who knows whether I may find that Nicolas Dawlish himself might have encountered adventures here?  Only further research will answer that question!

Before your first Dawlish novel what else was written?  Are there unpublished short stories or memoirs lurking in a desk drawer?

I wrote a fair amount over the years, including two novels, but never of a quality that deserved to see the light of day even after revision and re-writing. I was clear-eyed enough to recognise that! This material has, however, proved very useful in affording me opportunities to learn through my mistakes. Also, in the course of my business career I have had to produce, or edit, or approve, reports, reviews and submissions to governments which had major economic implications. This experience proved invaluable as regards fine-tuning documents so that every word counted and all ambiguity excluded. Such experience is invaluable.

I was inspired to start writing again – and this time with total commitment – by encountering the naval novelist Douglas Reeman (who writes the Bolitho series as Alexander Kent) at a book-signing session some years ago. I understood from him just how much dedication and professionalism is required to research, write and complete a novel. He was inspirational. The consequence was that I made the necessary time and within 11 months of that meeting I had produced Britannia’s Wolf.

What are your recommendations for historical research?  How do you track down the little details that make your settings so convincing?

The most important advice is that you don’t try write about a period you don’t already know a fair amount about. You need to understand the overall historical context – political, social, religious, cultural, scientific, technological and military.  The understanding of this background is something that one builds up over years – decades in my case. I continue to read very widely, normally up to sixty books a year, mostly non-fiction, and maybe 25% of these are related to the 19th Century. Reading contemporary memories is invaluable, especially as regards values and attitudes.

Within this wider context one must create a plot that links credibly to the realities of the period and to populate it with characters who are of that time, not 21st century people in re-enactors’ costumes. That plot will demand more detailed research on aspects directly relevant to it – sometimes entire books, other times information from the internet. Google is invaluable, and often surprising in this regard.  Information coming from this type of research may often demand restructuring of the plot. Very specific details such as “In what year was Singapore linked to the outside world by telegraphic cable?” can be easily accessed on the internet only if and when needed. However, one has got to be careful not to go overboard.  Judging when “Enough is Enough” is the key to effective research.

Outside of writing and researching, what do you really like to do?

I have got a very active life for, though retired from my business and academic careers, I play a role as an elected local councillor and as such am active in my community. My wife’s horses and our dog are great sources of pleasure and I continue to enjoy travelling widely. My enthusiasm for history and literature remains unabated. Long may it continue!

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