I’m delighted to welcome Antoine Vanner, author of the “Dawlish Chronicles” series of naval adventures. The series is set in the late Victorian era when technological progress was more rapid than at any previous time in history. This time is also one of growing international tension. I’ve just read the first in the series, Britannia’s Wolf, a fascinating and thrilling tale of derring do set in Turkey in the last years of the Ottoman Empire, so I was keen to feature Antoine and his books on my blog.
Tell us about yourself – where do you live and what do you do when you’re not writing?
We moved recently from Surrey to East Somerset to a new-built ranch-type house with some twelve acres. Horses are my wife’s big passion and we wanted to have them on site, rather than out at livery. The area is quite magnificent – delightful rural scenery, many small villages close together, splendid walks, friendly and welcoming people and easy road and rail connections to London.
Ans when I’m not writing? A lot of the time I’m reading, mainly history and biography, some historical fiction and a lot of revisiting classics read in earlier years. I’m currently working my way through George Gissing’s works – he was the last of the great Victorian novelists and gave remarkable insights to the lives of the working class and lower middle-class and to their concerns and pre-occupations in the 1880-1905 period. His novels hook the reader from page one.
Can you give us a brief picture of your personal journey as a writer ?
I’d written on and off for some forty years but other than completing one book – never published – but which did provide the idea for what would subsequently be the Dawlish Chronicles series. The series is based on the life of a British naval officer whose life spanned an era of constant and revolutionary change from 1845 to 1918.
I had a very full and rewarding business career, working much of the time on a sixty-hours plus per week basis, and that didn’t allow the sort of writing disciple I needed. The “now or never” decision was triggered by attending a bookshop signing, by the late Douglas Reeman, who also wrote as Alexander Kent. He was a delightful, open, unpretentious man who had served in the navy in WW2 and in the police thereafter. He had produced a large number of nautical fiction novels, many of which I had enjoyed and they all had a great sense of realism, not just as regards the technicalities, but the human aspects as well. He spoke about the discipline needed for writing and I found him both pragmatic and inspiring. I started plotting “Britannia’s Wolf”, my first Dawlish Chronicles novel, the next day.
There have been six Dawlish Chronicles novels so far, plus several short stories, some free to anybody who joins my mailing list. Moral ambiguity is a feature of all the plots and in some cases it dominates – most notably in “Britannia’s Reach”, probably my darkest book. My www.dawlishchronicles.com website, plus associated blog, also takes up a lot of time – there are almost three hundred separate historically-related articles on it – and growing weekly.
How do you keep the inspiration flowing?
I’m tapping into a background of some sixty years reading of history, much of it related to the 1700-1945 period. I’m interested in military and naval history, but also in the impact of the West on the rest of the world. This reflects the fact that I’ve lived and worked long-term in eight countries and have done business in another twelve, not to mention having visited some forty others. In aggregate I’ve spent over a decade in Sub-Sharan Africa, and I still have links. The European impact on Africa – a vast continent – was far more varied, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, far more nuanced, than the popular negative knee-jerk anti-colonialist judgment assumes. South America – in many ways a sadder place than Africa – offers a stark contrast. My books are linked – some more strongly than others – to actual historical events and personalities, and most are set in locations I know. They necessitate my treating the protagonist, and his wife, as real people, whose lives from birth to death I know well, even if details only emerge gradually in the books.
If you could wave a magic wand and change something about your writing career what would it be?
That the word processor – indeed Word, PowerPoint and Excel – was not invented earlier. I cannot imagine any greater aids to the productivity of writers, facilitating not just the writing process itself, but revision, editing, plotting, planning, organization of background material etc. etc.
Mark Twain said “Most writers regard the truth as their most valuable possession, and therefore are most economical in its use.” – How much of your own fiction is based on truth?
My plots are linked to real circumstances, and often to specific events, to the extent that plots are sometime integrated day by day with the historical time line. That’s the easy part. More challenging is reflecting the attitudes, beliefs, values and motivations that my characters would possess at that time. Account also needs to be taken of the ignorance, even by intelligent, educated people, of knowledge we take for granted today – such as the cause of malaria or yellow fever. This demands a close familiarity with cultural, economic, political, religious and other drivers. Without this, historical fiction is no more than twenty-first century people clad in re-enactors’ costumes.
Tell us about your latest book and why we should all buy it?
Britannia’s Gamble is the sixth in the series and it finds the series protagonist, the Royal Navy officer, Nicholas Dawlish, involved in one of the great epics of the Victorian period, the attempts in 1884/85 to rescue the national hero, General Charles Gordon, as the Sudan is plunged into terror and massacre by a fanatical Islamist uprising. Set against a background of barren mountains, parched deserts, raging cataracts, tribal rivalries and merciless enemies the issues involved are primarily of loyalty, duty, of achieving personal victory in the midst of overall defeat. Dawlish himself has to cope with doubt, even despair, but through tragedy he is granted a gift that will change his life, and his wife’s forever.
The latter, Florence, is an equally important character in the series. The entire fifth book, Britannia’s Amazon, is hers alone, the action playing out in Britain while her husband is absent in Korea.
What comes first –location, plot, characters?
They all come first – simultaneously – since I use mind-mapping techniques at the beginning and reiterate numerous times, zeroing in on the overall plot outline. Thereafter I follow a more rigorous approach in which “plot generates character, character generates plot” until the plot is worked out, divided into chapters etc. I place a lot of importance on management of “the stress level” throughout the sequence of action.
Tell us about your writing day. Do you work to a routine? Do you have a dedicated space to write in? Endless cups of coffee or tea?
I usually write from 1000 to 1300 hrs. and in this time usually average 880 words (its remarkable how consistent this average is – not 900, not 850). I start by reading the previous day’s work and in the previous afternoon, while walking, I’ll have played out in my head the action that has to be written up. The challenge while actually writing is in the choice – and pace – of wording. And coffee? A temptation to be yielded to only in moderation!
Anthony Burgess once said “Literature is all, or mostly, about sex”. How true is that of your books?
I guess that it’s in the background, as Nicholas Dawlish and his wife Florence have an intense and loving relationship that lasts from 1877 to his death in 1918. It’s a particularly strong theme in “Britannia’s Wolf”, “Britannia’s Shark” and “Britannia’s Amazon”. But they’re Victorians and they wouldn’t want anybody to know intimate details and their wishes are respected.
Who or what has been the greatest help to you as a writer?
As mentioned, Douglas Reeman – though I met him only once. Otherwise it’s having read widely for so many years, having lived in other cultures and countries, and having an understanding of what was the cutting-edge technology of the period I write about. This helps enormously in thinking one’s self back into another era and location.
A further help is that I’ve regarded my main characters as real people and have developed biographies for both of them, with a fair amount of detail on what they did at various times. Their lives span a period of enormous change in every area of human activity – Nicholas lives 1845 to1918 while Florence lives 1855 to 1946. Though mid-Victorians, both get to fly (in the “Britannia’s Eventide” short story), Nicholas will return to duty in 1914 and will have an enviable death at Zeebrugge (“the oldest serving officer to die in either World War”) while Florence will hear of Hiroshima before she dies herself. Each book fills in yet more of their story
What has been the hardest thing for you to overcome in becoming an author?
The fact that no publisher was willing to take a gamble on a Naval Adventure series set in the late nineteenth century. Three different agents made herculean efforts on my behalf, and one fiction director of a major publisher tried on several occasions to convince his colleagues, but all in vain. I was told repeatedly “We like your plots, characters and style and we’ll publish you if you can set your stories in the Napoleonic period – that always sells. Nobody wants to read naval fiction set in the Victorian era.” In the end I went Indie, then got together with other writers who had formed the Old Salt Press. As an Indie I’ve had significant success, selling well and steadily, and have established a large following, especially in the United States. It’s a lot more rewarding financially than if I had gone the traditional route, and though I have to put a lot of effort into promotion – which I enjoy – I guess I have the last laugh.
If you could pick one of your own characters to spend some time with, who would it be and why?
I’ll exclude Florence, splendid though she is – I guess her husband would horsewhip me if I made any such suggestion. Of the other characters I’d have especially enjoyed working with Nusret Pasha, the half-brother of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II. We meet him in “Britannia’s Wolf.” Nusret is a flawed but generous, courageous and likeable character. He has a vision of what a modernized, liberalized Turkey could be under constitutional government – indeed of what Turkey became under Kemal Ataturk, and that is now under threat. Nusret devotes himself unsparingly to that vision and I’d have been honoured, as Nicholas Dawlish was, to have been part of that effort.
What are you working on now – or next?
I’m about 40% into the first draft of the seventh Dawlish Chronicles novel (They’re all 120,000 to 130,00 words). The background to this latest work is an aspect of the late 19th Century geopolitical balance which I haven’t previously explored in a novel.
And thank you Clare for inviting me for interview! It’s been a pleasure for me.
Clare Flynn is the author of five historical novels and a collection of short stories. To receive a free e-book of her short story selection, A Fine Pair of Shoes, and keep up to date with special offers and news from Clare, sign up here.