An Interview with John Lawton

About a dozen years ago, browsing through the fiction in my local library in Seattle, I came across a book by John Lawton. It featured a London policeman named Troy and was set during World War II. Worth a chance, I thought, and took it out. Two days later I was back to hunt for more of the Troy novels. Lawton had me hooked. He was immensely readable, the book filled with fine period knowledge that dragged the reader into the time and place. Every character, even the minor ones, was completely three-dimensional, a mix of fictional and real people. The plot was part-mystery, part-thriller. And the icing was Troy himself, one of the great creations. Clever, the son of a Russian émigré who’d smuggled a fortune out of the old country and become a publisher. Troy – Frederick – was British in name, upper-class by education. And an outsider by nature.

Over the years, after moving back to England, I’ve bought all Lawton’s fiction, all of the Troy series and Sweet Sunday, his novel set in America (he’s one of the few English writers to really capture the rhythm of American speech). He’s become one of my favourite writers, and one from whom I regularly learn – I read the Troy canon ever couple of years. Now he’s come out with a new book, Then We Take Berlin, featuring Joe Holderness – or Wilderness, as he’d nicknamed. For those who know the Troy books, there are several familiar faces, Eddie Clark, Tosca, even Troy himself very briefly. It is, as someone has noted, a Troy novel without Troy. Well, yes and no…

“Every so often you reward yourself with a break,” John Lawton explains. “I’d written two Troys in a row. I don’t know where it came from but it wasn’t a Troy. I started kicking around Eddie Clark.” But although Clark might be a deep and profoundly interesting character, he wasn’t the stuff of leading men. “I made the lead as different from Troy as possible. When I was at university in the 1960s, two of my teachers were from working-class backgrounds. When they’d gone through National Service (Britain’s version of the draft) they’d been offered the choice between square-bashing or learning Russian. So I decided on a working-class background for him; I’m more comfortable dealing with that. I lived in Stepney in the 1970s (an area of London that’s featured in many of his novels, here as where Holderness grew up) and it still looked like World War II. I put on my blog that I was writing about Sidney Street and someone from there responded. I asked him to tell me everything. I put it all in the book and gave him an acknowledgement.”

Although much of the book (whose title comes from a Leonard Cohen song, for those who don’t understand the reference) takes place in Berlin, there’s also a section in Hamburg, just after the war ends. The city, like much of Germany, is a sea of rubble.

“I ran out of ways to describe rubble,” Lawton says with a laugh. He restricted the descriptions of destruction to Hamburg, figuring that “it was a given for Berlin. The hardest part was imagining Berlin just before the Wall. I had to make it up and hope no one picked me up on it. Tony Le Tissier’s book, Berlin Then and Now was very helpful. I was there when the Wall came down, but not in 15 or more years until I went to do my homework.”

One of the key locations is a particular Flak Tower in Berlin, and Lawton struggled to find pictures of it when demolished. Books and documentaries didn’t help, until he chanced up a Montgomery Clift film shot on location that contained a scene with the ruined tower. “He goes past the Flak Tower. You almost get a 180. It was a godsend, better than any other movie.”

The ending of Then We Take Berlin begs the question of whether there’ll be a sequel – will this be a new series for Lawton?

“I told the publisher I would write a sequel,” he says. “I can see a second book. After Blackout (his first Troy novel), I couldn’t see another.” And that series now stands at seven books.

For much of the ‘90s, in addition to being a writer, John Lawton was also a television producer, working extensively with Channel 4, and people as diverse as Harold Pinter and Gore Vidal (in Mississippi, of all places). In fact, his writing and television careers seemed to begin in parallel.

“I was just starting at Channel 4 in the late 80s and my agent put me in touch with a publisher that was looking for a study of 1963. I agreed, as the book was something I could pick up and drop. In the end it was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1992 and 1963: Five Hundred Days (now long out of print). It was a gift. Because of that book I’m well-versed in the culture of the US and the UK from 1945 onwards.”

1963, of course, was when it all changed. Kennedy was killed, the Beatles and others brought Britain into Technicolor modernity. It was, really, when the Sixties that everyone remembered kicked into gear. The year it all went boom. And the year that’s the cut-off (so far) for both Troy and Holderness.

“It’s my cut-off point,” he agrees. “I stop when the ‘50s end in any sense but the chronological.” It was a time he can recall, although he was never part of himself. “Everyone was out doing drugs and fucking and I was studying maths!”

Of course, no rules are hard and fast. Lawton’s just-published short story, Bentinck’s Agent, takes place in the 1980s. But in Troy he’s had ample chance to examine the 30s, 40s and 50s, and even take a jaundiced view of the 1960s. The character changes over time, of course.

“In Blackout he’s an idealist. Then he’s taught to shoot properly and once he learns he’s lethal. And at the start he’s an innocent. I kept that in the two prequels, but from there he leads a precarious sex life.” Sexually, though, Troy is quite passive – it happens to him, rather than especially involving him. “By 1963 he’s in bad shape. He’s a drug addict, popping Mandies (Mandrax) and he lets himself get picked up by a 15-year-old. He hits a low point when Val, the mother of the girl (who knows on some level what’s happened as is another old lover of Troy’s) slaps him around. But the lowest point is at the funeral for Anguse – I liked writing his character – when his widow Anna (also an on-off lover of Troy says ‘Hold me, Troy.’ ‘Now fuck off, Troy.’ It’s the complete failure of his relationships.”

He’s the antithesis of Holderness, and that’s intentional.

“Troy isn’t a nice man,” Lawton insists. “He doesn’t belong.” And because he doesn’t belong, whatever he does, which is a great deal, can’t be betrayal. “Wilderness can appreciate betrayal.” He’s the outsider who comes inside “and when he’s accepted, he will accept.”

These days, although often described as a producer and a writer, Lawton admits that “I haven’t made a programme in 15 years. It’s time to admit that I make a living from my writing – and it’s a privilege to do so.”

Although lauded by critics and those who’ve discovered his work, Lawton has yet to become a household name on the order of, say John Le Carré. Why remains a mystery, although perhaps Then We Take Berlin (which will be published in December), which is more direct than the Troy novels, might help him vault higher in the public consciousness. That it’s good enough is beyond question.

But he hasn’t forgotten Troy and he’s not ready to give up on him yet. Although he has a couple of shorter things in his head, there will be another Troy, “set in 1958. This is between Old Flames and Blue Rondo. It’s what my characters are asking of me.”

And that, as any writer knows, is a summons that must be obeyed.

Many thanks for Rhian Davies for putting me in touch.

4 thoughts on “An Interview with John Lawton

  1. He’s long been one of my favourite authors and I’ve read all his books at least twice. I’m looking forward to reading ‘Then We Take Berlin’, which I shall buy as a birthday present to myself.

  2. William Wong

    I am hooked on troy not a very nice character but very interesting and I can relate to him. I can relate to all the books as I am 88 born in the east end between the two WW and also am an ethnic minority. Having just read A little white death where Troy is left jobless lonely and aimless abandoned by old lovers and unable to accept the conditions for reconciliation required his neglected wife possibly facing a relapse into TB. I am left frustrated that his life deserves a better ending. What about it John Lawson?

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