An Interview with Gary Raymond / John Lavin

Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, editor and broadcaster. He is one of the founding editors of Wales Arts Review, and has been editor since 2014. His second novel The Golden Orphans was recently published by Parthian and chosen as Pick of the Week in The Bookseller. He is a widely published critic and cultural commentator, and is the presenter of BBC Radio Wales’ new The Review Show

John Lavin: It seems to me that the setting of The Golden Orphans is as important a protagonist as any of the lead characters in the novel. What made you choose Cyprus and its party capital, Ayia Napa, as the setting?

Gary Raymond: I lived there, and worked there, for a period of about seven months, in or around 2007. I had some very interesting experiences there, not least finding myself in rooms with some dubious characters on more than one occasion. If you’re not a tourist, but just a foreigner, Cyprus can be a fruity experience. It attracts dubious characters – not that I’d suggest I’m a dubious character, but I certainly do seem to have (or have had) a Greenian knack of finding myself in the company of them. In many ways Cyprus, with its atmospheric landscape that has a touch of the classical world and a touch of the spaghetti western about it, was destined to one day be a setting for me. But the exact impetus of this book was that I had told many stories of the people I met while in Cyprus – gangsters, wide boys, bar owners, outcasts, hideaways, would-be-playboys – and eventually my publisher told me it was time to write a novel about it. He essentially laid down a challenge and I accepted, without ever having really put my mind to the place before in terms of writing of a novel.

JL: Since I finished The Golden Orphans I’ve been reading up about Famagusta and its ghost town suburb, Varosha, a location which plays an important part in the novel. The history of the city is extraordinary but the story of deserted Varosha especially so. I found some drone footage of it online and it’s the most startlingly eerie place. As a location it really is a gift for a writer and I’m genuinely surprised that more people haven’t set books there. Is it somewhere that you’ve attempted to visit yourself – or maybe viewed from a distance, the way that the narrator and Lou do? Was it always going to be a centrally important location in The Golden Orphans or was it somewhere that suggested itself as an ideal location once the book was already underway?

GR: As soon as I set to writing a book about Cyprus – a thriller – I knew it had to end in Famagusta. In a way, my challenge was to get my characters there so they could play out the climax. It is, as you say, a gift for a writer.

And I have been there – or seen it from a distance, as you say. When I was in Cyprus, you couldn’t go in to Varosha – as far as I remember it was peopled only by Turkish soldiers. Perhaps I’m remembering that wrong. And it might be different now. If you went to the north beach and came right to its edge, looking down the coastline of Famagusta and its abandoned luxury hotels (it’s startlingly reminiscent of the waterfront in Christopher Nolan’s Inception movie), the guards, positioned in the now glassless windows of the hotels, will train their weapons on you from hundreds of yards away, just to let you know not to try and swim around the fence that marks the no-mans-land. We were warned they would do this, and they did. It was a very adrenalizing moment that stuck with me, having a submachine gun pointed at me.

But I should also say that as with most of the ‘sets’ in the novel, I have very much used poetic license. It is the Famagusta of my imagination, just like this is to a certain extent the Cyprus of my imagination. Every character in the book is based on a real person I met, believe it or not, but I have put them all into a completely fictitious story. And sometimes you have to bend what you know to be true so that truth can serve the story better. Famagusta was no different.

JL: You’ve previously mentioned that Graham Greene was an influence on this novel and it’s true to say that there are strong echoes of The Third Man in the opening funeral scene (during the books denouement you again tease the reader with the idea that Francis Benthem is a kind of Harry Lime figure). Could you tell us something about Greene’s influence on your writing and on The Golden Orphans in particular?

GR: Greene was everything to this book, really. And as I went through the writing process he kept making himself known in ways I had not expected. I had forgotten, for instance, what a profound influence The Power and the Glory had had on me, and that I had first read it in Cyprus. The revelation that you could write about faith and betrayal and doubt and redemption and wrap it all up in the dust and dirt of a chase narrative is something I seemed to have forgotten in adulthood. I began remembering this and then Greene just set about teaching me how to write the novels I have been trying to work out all my life how to write. He, of course, was indebted to both Henry James and John Buchan. Somehow I had forgotten you could write meaningful stories that also thrill the reader – I had spent too long reading those great big American novels that are about everything but nothing ever happens. It might seem a bit churlish to put it this simply, but Greene, at exactly the right time, showed me how to have fun when writing. I had definitely forgotten that, but I was romanticised by this bullshit notion of nobility. I had spent too long in the mists of the Leavisite land of eating-my-broccoli. It was relief to get out of there.

There was this peculiar infestation of Greene’s legend in me almost as soon as I started on the book. I saw him everywhere. There is even the Christopher Hitchens essay where Hitchens starts out, ruminating on the characters he sees around him in a bar in Nicosia in 1977, by saying, how on earth did Greene never write about Cyprus? I found this essay, unread in a collection I had owned for a decade or more, and it jumped out at me, as if Greene and Hitchens were giving me their blessing from their graves. Sounds very self-indulgent thinking back on it now. But I honestly felt like every difficult decision I had, Greene was there for me with an answer. Looking back, I may have been swapping an element of my sanity for progress with the book, talking to Greene the Oracle in my sleep, but what writer wouldn’t be more than happy with a deal that exchanged temporary insanity for a finished manuscript?

Gary Raymond reading for The Lonely Crowd in Cardiff.

JL: The narrator of The Golden Orphans is much more reminiscent of the biographer reading the memoirs of Hal Buren in your debut novel, For Those Who Come After, rather than Buren himself. A borderline alcoholic with financial and relationship problems back home in the UK, he is a deeply 21st Century character (albeit one with a touch of Holly Martins about him), finding himself unexpectedly caught up in the noir-ey depths of the novel’s plot. This contrast is one of the elements that contributes to the books success. Was it always your intention that the narrator of this novel be a very contemporary character? What was he like to write?

GR: The narrator was difficult to judge, actually. One of the first things I had to decide was the era. The invasion of Cyprus in 1974 is integral to the development of the story, so I had to decide how close I needed the action to be to that event. Once I’d decided that, the narrator began to take shape. He is modern, to an extent, but then the Cyprus of the book is a kind of otherworld, a timeless, shapeless entity that even has a mountain at its centre from where you can see the entire island. So I think the narrator sits in the strange surroundings of the narrative and feels even more familiar to us as readers. Without him the book is almost a fantasy – it’s like an anxiety dream, where nothing quite stays static long enough for you to really focus on it. I felt very strongly that my only real responsibility to the narrator was to make sure he kept you, the reader, rooted.

With the first narrator of For Those Who Come After, he was more of a framing device, of a way to bring you in to Hal Buren’s sprawling life story, and then to give the reader some kind of closure at the end. Without him, Hal Buren’s story just sits there with no resolution. But that’s ultimately all he is – a device with some human failings attached. The narrator of The Golden Orphans is much more of a full character, in that he has recognisable motivations, recognisable shortcomings and foibles, and recognisable regrets. One of the reasons why he allows himself to be drawn into the strange, surreal scenes of the Cypriot underworld is that it is so far removed from the very real problems of debt and disintegrating relationships he has at home in London. In that sense he represents something of myself – not debt and disintegrating relationships – but I guess I was in Cyprus in the first place to try and break some chains that I, rightly or wrongly, felt were holding me down back in Wales. And I guess when writing the book, ten years later, I was also, personally, very much ready for a new chapter to start in my life, and I didn’t really know how to force that to happen. We don’t always know how our own lives find our ways into our fiction, but they always do. That’s what makes fiction so enduring. For the writer it is dredging: it is honest in ways that bypass our decision-making faculties.

JL: Both The Golden Orphans and For Those Who Come After have a definite cinematic quality to them (the opening of FTWCA, for instance, reminded me in some ways of the opening of the Howard Hawks film of The Big Sleep), and it seems to me that The Golden Orphans could easily be made into a movie. Does cinema have an influence on your writing, and if so, in what way? Are there any directors that have particularly influenced your writing, or if not your writing specifically, then your artistic impulses?

GR: You rightly pointed out that The Third Man had an influence on The Golden Orphans. And it’s important to remember that The Third Man is not a novel at all, but the publication of Greene’s treatment for the movie, as if it was a novel. And I specifically remember thinking, because of The Third Man, what better way to start a mystery than with a funeral. So there I went – no point in trying to reinvent the wheel.

The Golden Orphans marks a point where I think differently about my fiction when writing to how I have done in the past. I am not precious, and not interred in prose-thinking. I write dialogue as if it’s a script. I read it back out loud, I act the parts, and I edit according to how it sounds coming out of actors mouths. I’m a terrible actor, but it suffices for this workshop scenario. I snip away at anything that doesn’t sound like it’s a good script. I am obsessed with great script-writers, and the art of great script-writing, just as much as I have been obsessed with great prose writing. In The Golden Orphans I wrote chapters, for the most part, as if they are scenes. I apply many script-writing rules to the structure of the book. I wanted it to be fast, and exciting, and for readers to come out of the book as if they were emerging from the cinema – with that kind of buzz. But then I wanted to continue to do all the things you do in a novel. I wanted ideas and depth and ‘literariness’.

Now, that’s very different to writing something that is just trying to attract a movie producer. Dan Brown even goes as far as to offer casting advice in The Da Vinci Code, describing his hero Robert Langdon as having a ‘Harrison Ford quality’ in the first chapter. Well, frankly I think that’s just fucking sad, not to mention bad writing.

The Golden Orphans is one hundred per cent a novel, and nothing further. But I think we read now entirely informed by the art of cinema. And I write that way. There’s nothing wrong with that. Writers must use all the tools at their disposal to create images in the reader’s mind, and if we share the language of cinema, then we must cultivate that telepathy. Cinema is the dominant artform of our age, and I think it’s slightly perverse to try and resist that if it’s pulling you in. I have always been a cinephile, and maybe I was guilty of thinking my writing had to be from a separate place in the past. The experience of writing The Golden Orphans ended up being about me relaxing many of my literary hang-ups, much of my snobbery. I am proud that you find The Golden Orphans cinematic – it was meant to be.

When I’m forming a set piece, okay I’m thinking of Greene, and I’m thinking of how Patricia Highsmith builds discomfort, and how Dorothy Hughes twists and turns our expectations, but I’m also thinking of how Al Pacino drops the gun after he shoots Sollozzo and McClusky, and how that Ford Mustang screeches through the streets of San Francisco. If I’m writing a chase scene, surely it’s better to go to The French Connection than an Ian Fleming novel? Fleming was a bad writer, but a good creator of cinematic impetus. That’s where his success lies – you can read a James Bond novel in one sitting, and it’s just like watching a movie where you can see round corners. Well, I never want to be a bad writer, but I do want to draw on the kinetic energy of cinema like he did.

JL: In some ways The Golden Orphans is the polar opposite of your debut For Those Who Come After, in that it is a very short book, written relatively quickly, while your first book is, of course, a much larger work, written over a number of years. Was The Golden Orphans written in part as a reaction to FTWCA?

Not at the outset – I didn’t sit around thinking of how I could react to For Those Who Come After, which ultimately was a big literary novel that took me eight years and about twelve people read it when it came out. Nobody was interested in it. That does make you think about what happens next. But when I decided The Golden Orphans was going to be a project it had its parameters – my publisher said to me that he’d be happy with a 50,000 word book. Under half of what For Those Who Come After is. That was his idea. I grabbed at it of course. And then when it got going, and it became relatively easy to write – as if it had been waiting for me all these years – then it did begin to feel like a reaction to the first novel. And it has made me feel like I have found out the sort of writer that I am supposed to be, because I have those two experiences to compare now. For Those Who Come After took 8 years of work bordering at times on self-flagellation, and nobody read it, and The Golden Orphans was done and dusted in 4 months and just got pick-of-the-week on The Bookseller. I’m hoping this is me finding my lane.

JL: Do you have a regular writing routine?

GR: For The Golden Orphans it was an intense period of writing over three weeks. I planned the book out meticulously in a weekend. There was a great deal of wine. And then I wrote. Thousands of words every day, and then the next day, I would rewrite the work from the day before as a way to slide back into the mindset. That is one of the few writing tips still worth a shit from Hemingway in this day and age. After three weeks it was done, and I went over it all in one go for the first time. Then I sent it to my publisher and it came back with some fairly minor editorial suggestions. No book I ever write will be as painless as The Golden Orphans, I am fully aware of that.

For the book I’m working on now, it has already taken me three weeks to write the first 10,000 words, so the routine has already changed quite a bit. More grabbing an afternoon when I can. But at some point I will have to clear the decks and focus on the book entirely. You can’t write novels with one hand and carry on with life with the other – that’s not how they get done. You have to be focussed, but also totally turned on by what you’re writing. It has to excite you enough to get you to the desk at 6am. I don’t believe being a writer is a great privilege – this much work, time, and sacrifice never went in to a privilege – but I do believe if you’ve managed to get the luck you need to start to carve out a readership, maybe even a career, you have a responsibility to all those writers out there who haven’t had that luck to take the work seriously and turn up for work.

JL: Graham Greene aside, are there any writers that have had a particularly influence on – or that have acted as a particular inspiration in relation to – your own writing?

The Golden Orphans by Gary Raymond, Parthian Books £8.99

GR: For The Golden Orphans I was very much influenced by writers who have very particular, but very different roles in the literary psyche, I think. I was trying to learn how to write a ‘literary thriller’. Highsmith was very important. Not just for the claustrophobia of her books sometimes, but I like how bitter she is, and how that creates subversion. I like how in The Price of Salt she pretty much puts her two fingers up to Checkhov by introducing a gun in the second act and then NOT having it go off in the third. She was obsessed with the Russians, and that comes through all the time I think. This Sweet Sickness is both her Dostoevsky moment, and a novel about toxic masculinity that could not be more relevant today. I mentioned Dorothy Hughes earlier. I was fascinated by just how dark In a Lonely Place is – it holds nothing back about the psychology of her male characters – in a way that Nicholas Ray’s lauded movie version could not stand up to. I was looking at these writers to teach me how to put my ideas into a propulsive plot. But I also looked at straight-forward mechanics. Dashiel Hammett, who was a really superb craftsman, and a pretty brilliant writer; Raymond Chandler of course, although I don’t think his work has aged all that well. Ann Quin was a major discovery for me a couple of years ago. Berg is one of the great novels of the middle part of the twentieth century. Unlike anything else in English – although there are shades of Highsmith in it at times. I got to Quin from reading Robbe-Grillet, who wrote a couple of brilliant experimental psychological thrillers in the 50s like Jealousy. But also I was reading writers who come at novels from different angles, with the desire to figure things out from their sets of responsibilities – like Philip K Dick is fundamentally about ideas, and Eric Ambler is fundamentally about plot, etc. What can I learn from these writers about their primary concern? Truth is, I rarely bother to read a novel unless I am hoping to learn about writing.

 

JL: Can I ask what are you working on at the moment? Is there another novel on the way? Am I right that you have also been working on a poetry collection inspired by the time you’ve spent in India?

GR: I decided against the poetry collection. Two reasons, really – firstly, I have no idea if I’m any good as a poet. I’ve been published a bit, and I take that seriously. But really poetry has become for me an expression of ideas without any pressure to publish. It’s a way for me to record things, to play with words and ideas in a way I can’t do in prose, but to have the freedom to just let something sit, half-formed, or overdone, or just plain bad, and to leave it. There is enough pressure in writing, and I’ve found it’s really nice to have poetry to myself, pressure-free. Secondly, it’s worth noting I very much doubt I would have had it in me to produce a collection of poetry about India worthy of publication. I don’t believe poetry is something you can fuck about with. I read a lot of it, and I’ve lectured on Yeats and Edward Thomas and Auden and others. So I know what great poetry looks like. I am a novelist, and I’m more than happy with being able to call myself that. I have a stack of poems about my travels in India but when I started discussing the potential for a collection, it was just me being over-excited. India can do that to you – a writer can be so overwhelmed you’ll grab on to anything that looks like a way to express your feelings about the place. It’s strange to feel obligated to write about a place – but India gets you like that.

But as far as India goes, my relationship with it continues, and it’s one of the most valuable relationships in my life. The Golden Orphans will be coming out there in December, so I’ll be there next January, hopefully, to help promote it.

JL: Finally, you recently became the presenter of BBC Radio Wales’s new The Review Show. Having long fostered a new culture of arts criticism in Wales through your work as Editor of Wales Arts Review, the advent of this new programme seems to me to represent an exciting and important new addition to the Welsh cultural scene. Could you tell us a little more about the programme and what listeners can expect over the coming months?

GR: The Review Show is a new monthly discussion about the arts in Wales, using the tried and tested roundtable format of shows like The Saturday Review on Radio 4. I’m the presenter and we have two guest critics, different each show, and so far it’s been very well-received by the listeners, I’m very happy and very relieved to report. Regardless of the fact I’m extremely pleased that the BBC wanted me to do the show, I think it also stands as a marker for a change in attitude from BBC Wales to the way arts is covered here. I was given a very clear brief, and it was to deliver a serious, thoughtful, engaged, but accessible show about the arts, and that has pretty much been the modus vivendi for Wales Arts Review these last 6 years. Serious and accessible. Discussion that is worth listening to for it’s own sake, whether you have any interest in the subject or not.
My attitude to criticism has always been the same – that it should feel like the best conversations you have ever had with mates down the pub. And the idea for The Review Show is to make that listening experience feel a bit like that. I guess Wales Arts Review has taught me that without readers there is an integral digit missing in the equation of why we do any of this. The Review Show, similarly, is pointless without listeners, so we have to make sure we are not esoteric, or elitist, but also listeners really enjoy that my guests know their stuff. And it’s the same for The Golden Orphans. I have written it with readers in mind, trying to attract people to my way of doing things using the lessons of great writers who have gone before me. We write to be read. I don’t think there’s any shame in coming to that conclusion.