T. J. Gorton is the author of Renaissance Emir. His latest book, Only the Dead: A Levantine Tragedy, is published by Quartet Books on 27 June 2019.
T.J. kindly answered a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about Only the Dead.
A young man comes of age in Aleppo, Syria (at the time part of the Ottoman Empire), one of the world’s oldest cities and a hub of intrigue during the First World War. Vartan Nakashian is an Armenian, and the vast Empire is carrying out a policy of deporting and massacring the numerous Armenian inhabitants of Cilicia in SE Anatollia, where they had lived for many centuries. His story involves him in love, espionage, betrayal, loss of loved ones, and a heavy burden of guilt for “collateral damage” during a terrible act of revenge. Intertwined with the story of the young Vartan are vignettes of his old age: alone with his memories in a battered palace in Beirut as his adopted country destroys itself in a decade-long civil war. His consolation is in the Persian poetry he learned during years living in Iran, and he and a scholarly Iranian engage in a poetic dialogue drawn from the exquisite verse of Omar Khayyam and Jelaluddin Rumi. I won’t give away the ending!
2. What inspired the books?
My background is firmly in the area of non-fiction: a (deadly) Oxford doctoral thesis on Arabic poetry, two volumes of Arabic poetry in translation, anthologies about Middle Eastern cities and countries, and a biography of a “Renaissance Emir” of the 16th century. Only the Dead came from a totally different angle, inspired by a real story I had heard snippets of but which captivated me and eventually became an obsession, occupying five years of my life. I had to fill in so many gaps with imagined events and feelings that it had to be fiction, and gradually the imagined story took on a life of its own. The “nugget” of inspiration was provided by stories told by a very elderly man whose early and late life would inspire Vartan’s story, without “being” it in any sense. He died decades ago, but I like to think he would not have minded the many liberties I have taken with his story.
3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you?
A bit of both. As with my non-fiction books, I did a massive amount of research for Only the Dead, weeks on end at the British Library filling notebooks with jottings and facts and ideas, but then in this case putting them aside, hoping that the significant bits would intrude themselves into the page as and when needed. I do usually sketch out a plan with themes, events, places, and ideas, but once the writing begins, the original plan fades away and is replaced by a de facto stream of events and emotions, guided but not controlled by the original plan. Telling the story of a young man caught up in exciting adventures and visceral conflicts needs to acquire a momentum of its own, or else the story would just plod along from beginning to middle to end. I sincerely hope that is not the impression given by Only the Dead!
4. Having been through the publishing process is there anything about the process of creating a novel that surprised you?
I sent out my first draft to friends and one friendly publisher, and all said the same thing, basically: “Good story, nice character, but too many facts. Maybe you should do it as non-fiction?” I was surprised and sorely disappointed. I concluded that—unless one is Tolkien or C.S. Lewis—an academic background will burden one’s first attempts at fiction, and I concluded that is what happened to me. So it was back to square zero, another year, a complete re-write and transposition from third to first person. A lot more thinking about character evolution; the same readers now said it worked! The other surprise was how much I benefited from interaction with my editor at Quartet, Peter Jacobs. I thought my revised text was pretty good, ready for the press, but he kept plugging (nagging?) at me until I had snipped and tweaked my prose to a much more polished state, not letting me get away with fuzzy thinking or trite images.
5. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
A tale hangs on that one. Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with advanced, nearly terminal prostate cancer: “two years at the outside.” My wife, my rock, once she recovered from the shock, asked me what I wanted to do; and that was easy. I had sailed a bit years ago, and loved the freedom of being suspended between wind and sky and sea; but work and moves and life in general had got in the way. So I said “sail,” and within days had booked sailing courses for me and my surprised but willing 20-something son, and a few months later I had my skipper licence and we were on a chartered boat in the Ionian Islands of Greece (think Ithaka and Kefalonia and Corfu), as close to Paradise as anything I could imagine. That is a long answer to a short question, but the short answer is “sail”, now on my own boat (Moira or “fate” in Greek). She is moored on one of those islands, and I am on her whenever I can get away. In between, I write and dream about the next cruise; on her, I often dream about the next book. Very self-indulgent, but something seems to be working.
6. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
War and Peace. Tolstoy’s epic has it all: lovable and despicable characters, cosmic events, a festival of rich Russian culture, high and low, told in an unselfconscious register that never gets tiring despite the book’s legendary length. I had the chance to work in Moscow for a couple of years, and doubled down on my college Russian in part so as to be able to read it in the original, which is a great thrill.
7. I like to end my Q&As with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
Ah. Tricky one. I suppose one question I ask myself is “why does one write? Why do I write?” A sort of corollary to “why do artists paint (or sculpt etc.)?” While I don’t have a pat answer to either version of the question, I would have to say that for visual artists, I sense that the best have an inner vision they have to give concrete, sharable form to; whether it is the creation or the sharing that counts for them is another question. In my case I have always known I would write some day, as a form of exploration of the basic mysteries of life which don’t lend themselves to Q&As. Many of those questions have no single or perhaps any answer. I felt that Only the Dead, especially the “Vartan old” passages, gave me the opportunity, the vehicle to elaborate some of the questions that bother me; perhaps to foreshadow a tentative answer or two, but with no pretension to solving any of those mysteries.
About the book
Only the Dead is part adventure story and part exploration of the moral complexities arising from war, brutality and the desire for revenge
As old Vartan sits reading mystical Persian poetry amongst the dust and disintegration of war-torn Beirut, the fluted pillars of his decaying house wreathed in shadows, his thoughts wander back, inevitably, to another conflict, many years before…
Only the Dead is the story of Vartan Nakashian, a young Armenian from Aleppo caught in the midst of a world war that is proving catastrophic for his people. We follow his journey of love, espionage, tragedy, betrayal and revenge across the tumultuous Levant of 1915–18, as the crucible of war and genocide makes a man of the boy we first encountered. Now advanced in years, Vartan ruminates on life, loss, guilt and the many adventures and horrors of his youth, seeing them mirrored in the fresh catastrophe of the Lebanese Civil War.
This book – based in part on a real man, a true story – is about the struggle to reconcile conflicting loyalties and affections, the desire for revenge, the search for atonement and poetry’s power to make sense of the human condition.
*I was asked to host this Q&A to help promote Only the Dead. I have not received a copy of the book or any payment for hosting this content*