A LITERARY WORLD: An interview with Antoine Vanner
A LITERARY WORLD
Author interview with Antoine Vanner
Today I would like to welcome to A Literary World, the distinguished author, Antone Vanner, a man I’ve come to admire, not only because we share a common interest in The Ottoman Empire, but because Antoine’s own life would make a thoroughly gripping book in itself. Having spent many years in the international oil and gas industry and also travelling extensively on a private basis, Antoine has survived military coups, guerrilla warfare, a militia attack, storms at sea, and life in mangrove swaps, tropical forests, offshore platforms and the boardroom – the latter which I suspect may have been the most hazardous of all to navigate. Thankfully for devotees of naval history and fiction, he emerged unscathed to chronicle the life and exploits of British naval officer, Nicholas Dawlish in three thrilling novels; Brittania’s Wolf, Brittania’s Reach and Brittania’s Shark.
Welcome to A Literary World Antoine.
1. Where do you live?
South East England. London’s just an hour away but on my doorstep is the beautiful rural countryside of South-West Surrey and East Hampshire.
2. Can you tell us what inspired you to write The Dawlish Chronicles and what are they about?
Two interests came together, a love of history, particularly of the 19th Century, and an interest since boyhood in naval warfare and technology. My business career took me all over the world, enabling me to see the locales where such history was played out. In addition I’ve been involved in development and application of new technologies. I was fascinated therefore by how, a century earlier, naval officers coped with the introduction of steam power, torpedoes, heavy guns, radio and aircraft. I could identify with them so that imaging myself back in those times was the first step to creating stories about them.
3. How did you come up with the titles?
My title’s all begin with “Britannia’s” – which indicate that they’re set in the apogee of the British Empire – while the second word – Wolf, Reach or Shark so far – hint at a theme in the plot. My new book, scheduled for later this year, will continue this.
4. How did you come up with the fictional hero, Nicholas Dawlish? What qualities did you look for in his character?
As mentioned earlier I was interested in a character who was faced with accommodating to the challenges of a torrent of new technology – in this case naval – in the late 19th Century, and whose career would involve him in major events of the period. But I also wanted to make him a man born in mid-century, and who would live on into WW1, and who would carry with him the attitudes and values of the Victorian era. I didn’t want a 21st Century man in re-enactor dress. Dawlish is fundamentally decent, though his integrity is often challenged, and sometimes all but compromised, by his ambition, but many of his social concerns and his robust attitude to dealing with injustice, seem alien to us today. Some otherwise enthusiastic readers have criticised him for hesitating to commit himself to the woman he loved just because she had a background as a servant. For a Victorian gentlemen the dilemma would have been a very painful one, and so it is for him.
5. Your books span three major eras – The Age of Sail, The Victorian Era and The 20th How are these linked together?
So far my books have concentrated on the Victorian period but as Dawlish lives on to 1918 later ones – if I live long enough – will continue into the 20th Century. The Age of Sail doesn’t feature as a direct setting for any one story, but any naval officer born in 1845 – like Dawlish –entered a navy still commanded by officers who had come to maturity during the Napoleonic Wars. Memories of the Great Age of Fighting Sail, and of the Nelsonic era, set the standard of professionalism and integrity that Dawlish and his contemporaries strove to emulate.
6. In your first book – Britannia’s Wolf, we learn that Dawlish had an enduring affection for the Ottoman navy and that he wore his medals with pride after serving in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-79. How did he justify his actions when at a later stage in his life, he played a major role in planning the Dardanelles campaign in WWI?
The only answer possible is “Painful”. Few things can be worse than to be forced to regard former friends as enemies. As an officer however he had to obey. It’s interesting however that 20 years after the Dardanelles campaign Kemal Ataturk, Ottoman commander at Gallipoli and by then President – and founder – of the Turkish republic, reached out the hand of friendship to the families of British and Anzac troops killed there. It’s a heartening example of how generosity of spirit can end old enmities.
7. When talking about naval battles, this often brings to mind battles fought at sea. In your second book, Britannia’s Reach, the setting is about river warfare in South America. Can you tell us more about this?
I was fascinated by the Tripartite War fought by Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay against Paraguay’s crazed dictator, Lopez, in the 1860s. In relative terms it’s been estimated to have been the most destructive war in history with Paraguay’s male population practically wiped out. The war was characterised by fighting on the region’s river systems, largely by ironclad steamers, which represented ultra-modern technology at the time. I was simultaneously fascinated by the commercial penetration of South American economies by British companies, especially those taking advantage of canning and refrigeration technology to bring beef to Europe. In the aftermath of the Tripartite War Paraguay represented just such an opportunity – which is where the Hyperion Consortium that Dawlish finds himself working for, comes in. Just how ruthless such companies could be in pursuit of profit reached its nadir in the Putomayo region of Peru, where rubber was the resource to be exploited – a very unpleasant story indeed. So in Britannia’s Reach I set as the central theme the moral dilemmas of a decent but ambitious man caught up in the conflict between profit and principle.
8. Your writing concentrates on the Victorian period until WWI and the perspective is from a British viewpoint in a global setting. As the British Empire expanded, what were the attitudes that shaped the world of Nicholas Dawlish?
Though we think now of the British Empire as a single entity there were in fact several empires, all radically different as regards methods of rule, presence or not of British settlers, attitudes to native people and of course strategic significance in Great Power politics. By the late 19th Century however British dominance was coming under threat, especially in military terms from the new German Empire, and in commercial terms from both Germany and the United States. It was also falling being as regards new technology and industries. It’s interesting that at the time of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, Rudyard Kipling, the arch-imperialist, should write his poem “Recessional”, warning that British power was on the wane. Looking back one is surprised by just how much the politicians of the time underestimated the instability, and dangers, of the international balance of power. Their short-sightedness and incompetence led in no small part to the disasters of the First World War.
9. Much of Dawlish’s career seems to have included involvement in what Kipling later describes as “The Savage Wars of Peace”. Can you tell us what these wars were and their importance in a global setting?
These were the colonial and frontier wars which were waged almost continuously through the Victorian period and indeed afterwards. Some were quite large – such as the Afghan and Sikh Wars and the Indian Mutiny on the Sub-Continent, or the Sudan campaigns – but smaller affairs such as the Ashanti Wars, the Burmese Wars, the Benin Expedition, Younghusband’s invasion of Tibet, the Abysinnian venture, not to mention innumerable small campaigns on the North-West Frontier – went practically unnoticed at home. The only such campaign that seems to survive in the British consciousness today is probably the Zulu War, mainly because of the depiction of the defence of Rorke’s Drift in the perennially-popular movie “Zulu”
10. When the Age of Sail ended, it was replaced by steam propulsion. How did this affect naval power?
The most obvious impact of the arrival of steam was that it allowed larger and faster ships to be built, including ones with heavy armour and powerful weaponry. But this in turn had implications for the global scope of the British Empire. Sailing craft were independent of fuel supplies while steam-ships were voracious consumers of coal. Britain needed bases for stockpiling and supplying coal, leading to need for acquisition of otherwise uninviting places such as Aden. And wooden ships – which most sailing vessels were – could be easily repaired with minimum facilities. Iron and steel ships needed much more complex maintenance, demanding large drydocks and extensive workshops. This was also a major factor in the growth of Hong Kong, Singapore, Capetown etc. – and the commercial implications these represent are the background to much of Joseph Conrad’s writing.
11. The themes in your books cover not only technological progress but social changes too. One of the greatest social changes during this period involved slavery. What impact did this have on Dawlish?
The Royal Navy was heavily involved in the suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars and up to about 1860. This was demanding and dangerous work, not least since it needed bases in malaria-ridden parts of West Africa. From the 1870s onwards the emphasis shifted to the Indian Ocean. Arab slavers were striking deep into East Africa, destroying whole villages as they captured men, women and children. Huge numbers of these victims were shipped by dhow, in appalling conditions, to the slave-markets of Arabia. Missionaries and explorers such as David Livingstone were particularly active in rousing public opinion in Britain against this. Royal Navy forces based in Zanzibar fought this appalling evil for much of the rest of the century and many officers were “blooded” in the resulting encounters. We know that Nicholas Dawlish was involved in this as a young officer. In a later book, set in the years before Britannia’s Wolf, we’ll be meeting him there.
12. As we have previously mentioned, you have a background living and working in politically unstable countries. How has this impacted on your writing?
It’s summed up in a family saying that “We don’t live on Planet Sweet”. There are a lot of cruel and vicious people out there, of every nation, race and creed, and they don’t hesitate to exploit or oppress the weak and vulnerable. There are more of them out there than most of us want to admit. A half-remembered phrase from Catch 22 sums it up: “They’ll do anything to you that you’re not strong enough to stop them doing.” Being strong – and resourceful and determined to strike back, and with no illusions – is the most important response.
13. How long did it take you to write each book?
Including plotting and research, which takes one to two months, I usually get the first draft done in about six months. I do a quick revision, then put it aside for a year before I do the final rewrite. Having a book on the back-burner like this means that I’m thinking about it and likely to work in refinements that result in a much better final version. This means that at any one time I’m writing one book, getting ready to revise the previous one – and am also thinking about what will happen next!
14. What are you working on now?
I’m just finishing the first draft of the sixth Dawlish Chronicles novel. Thereafter I’m getting the fourth ready for publication later this year.
15. As a writer of historical fiction, what is it that you look for in a story?
First and foremost a strong story line that keeps readers wondering “What happens next?” Then characters one cares about, not just the hero and heroine but others, including the villains, and none of them wholly black and white in moral terms. I particularly like somewhat ambiguous figures like Nusret in Britannia’s Wolf, Roybon and Culbertson in Britannia’s Reach and Driscoll in Britannia’s Shark. I suspect that I’d have liked them all in real life. There’s another such figure featuring strongly in the fourth novel, which I’m now revising for publication. And all this must fit into an internally consistent and realistic historical context – once again not just a 21st. Century re-enactment but one that reflects the values and attitudes of the period.
16. What were the whispering voices of advice that helped you? Do you have any tips for us?
I had been writing sporadically for years but was encouraged to become wholly focussed after I heard the respected naval-fiction novelist Douglas Reeman (who also writes as Alexander Kent) speaking at a local bookshop. He was inspirational and he emphasised the need for focus, determination and discipline. I’ve been indebted to him ever since.
17. What are your typical working conditions? Do you have a special place to write and can you describe it for us?
I have a dedicated study at home and work just about every day – Trollope’s motto of “Nulla dies sine linea” – “No day without a line” – is essential. Even if I’m blocked sitting staring at a blank screen finally me you going! Long walks are an important part of the process to, allowing scenes, and sometimes dialogue too, to be worked out in detail.
18. Do you write longhand?
I’m afraid I can no longer read my own handwriting! My essential tool is my laptop is and it’s is also invaluable as regards revision and optimisation. The wordcount feature is invaluable since I know how much I’ve written, making me feel bad if I fall below my daily quota.
19. Do you listen to music when you write?
No! I prefer to do so in silence.
20. What kind of child were you?
Very focussed (I see the same in my grandson) and career-oriented from the time I started school. My parents were splendid in bringing my sister, brother and me out on museum and gallery visits, picnics, explorations and “adventures”. I’ve never been a games player, though later I enjoyed long-distance running.
21. Were you an avid reader?
I was quite voracious, having read most of Dickens, Austen, Melville the Brontes etc. by the time I was about 13. When I was about 11 my father introduced me to C.S. Forester, making me a devotee for life, but he also enthused me about Henry Rider Haggard. The result was that I was fascinated by Africa and I swore to myself that I’d spend part of my life there. So I did, over a decade in Sub-Saharan Africa, and I still have some involvement there. I love Africa and it all started with Rider Haggard!
22. Can you share with us some of the things you like to do when you’re not writing?
I continue to do some limited academic work, only on topics and challenges that I like. The beauty of being retired is having a choice! I live in a beautiful area so that walking is a joy and our dog, and my wife’s horses, demand a lot of attention!
23. Do you have a philosophy on life?
People matter. Regardless of what spiritual belief one adheres to Kant’s Categorical Imperative is a sure guide. Make the most of every moment, set goals and strive for them – and never give up or give in!
And a few quick questions:
24. Who are your favourite authors?
Zoe Oldenburg, Trollope, Dickens, C.S. Forester
25.What are some of your favourite books?
Destiny of Fire (Oldenbourg), Joseph Andrews (Fielding), Doctor Zhivago (Pasternack), The way we live now (Trollope), Bleak House (Dickens), The Ship (Forester), The Cruel Sea(Monserrat), The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald), The Trumpet Major (Hardy)
26. Favourite type of music to relax to?
27. Favourite film?
I’m a movie buff so we could do a whole interview on this! But if I had to take one only to the desert island it would be Heaven’s Gate by Michael Cimino’s. It’s an underestimated masterpiece and when I need to be cheered up I watch the sublime roller-skating scene and what follows. And the music is inspired!
28. Favourite painting?
I love 15th Century Flemish painting and The Descent from the Cross by Rogier v/d Weijden is my favourite. It’s in the Prado in Madrid.
29. Favourite holiday destination:
Can be anywhere! I’m widely travelled but always want more!
30. Favourite drink:
31. Where can we buy the books?
Via Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk or other national Amazon sites. They’re available in paperback or e-book format and measures are in hand to get the first of the series, Britannia’s Wolf, recorded as an audio-book. Here are the contacts on Amazon.com:
Britannia’s Wolf: The Dawlish Chronicles: September 1877 – February 1878
Click on: http://amzn.to/1CibJ3l
Britannia’s Reach: The Dawlish Chronicles November 1879 – April 1880
Click on: http://amzn.to/1NMrroH
Britannia’s Shark: The Dawlish Chronicles April – September 1881
Click on: http://amzn.to/1LOpOaL
32. Do you have a website and blog?
I’ve got a very large website – www.dawlishchronicles.com – which gives not only a lot more information on Nicholas Dawlish and his world, but some 80 articles 9adn increasing weekly) on naval and political history 1700 to 1930.
I also blog at least weekly, and often more frequently, with similar articles, mainly drawing on information I’ve identified in my researches but which I’m not using directly in my books. These stories are usually too good to go to waste! So check out the bog on http://dawlishchronicles.blogspot.co.uk/
And in addition readers are always welcome to ”like” my “Dawlish Chronicles” wall on Facebook, on which I also post regularly or to follow me on Twitter as @AntoineVanner
And last of all: Many thanks to you Kathryn for hosting me on your blog! It’s been a delight answering your questions!
Its been a pleasure to have you with us. We wish you continued success and look forward to many more adventures with Nicholas Dawlish.
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