Richard Kunzmann talks to Barbara Nadel
I first met Barbara Nadel at last year’s Guildford Book Festival when we sat down with Martyn Waites to discuss crime fiction set in exotic locations. Barbara Nadel is as entertaining as she’s interesting, and you’d never guess at the kind of travel she’s done to get her story. You see, having visited Turkey all her life, and speaking the language fluently, it comes as no surprise that this Londoner’s books are set in Istanbul. I can’t think of many crime writers who will actually travel into violence-torn areas like Eastern Turkey, where River of the Dead is set; we generally live comfortable lives safely ensconced in our studies, with nothing more dangerous in the room than Topsy the Dozing Cat. Yet, there she was, Barbara telling us about an area that’s rife with superstitions and snake-god worshippers, army tanks and Al-Qaeda insurgents sneaking over the border from Iraq. Her crime fiction is as fantastic as it’s authentic, and for this reason alone worth a read. In this interview she tells us more about her two latest books, River of the Dead, featuring partners Çetin İkmen and Mehmet Süleyman, as well as Ashes to Ashes, another series she writes, set during the London Blitz and featuring batty old Francis Hancock.
Richard Kunzmann: You obviously love Turkey and are drawn back there time and again. Can you tell us why the country is so attractive to you, and why you ultimately set your first crime series there?
Barbara Nadel: Turkey is not an easy place to pin down. It is quirky and in lots of ways elusive. Working within a Turkish context is in many ways rather like trying to hold on to water. But that is what I like about it. Turkey is a rapidly evolving country with a long and very involved history and so every book that I write about it is the result of a lot of research. I end up with masses of information but it is just that richness that I love. I set my first crime series in Turkey for all the reasons above and also because at that time (the 1990’s) there were no modern crime mysteries set in that country. I very much wanted to bring a place that I love and which inspires me to a wider audience.
Richard Kunzmann: How do you go about researching the books set in Istanbul?
Barbara Nadel: I visit at least twice a year; I read all the latest literature and journalism from both inside and outside Turkey; and I am in close contact with friends and colleagues based in the country. That said, inspiration for the topic of each novel can come from just about anywhere.
Richard Kunzmann: There must be difficulties in writing stories not set in the country in which you live…
Barbara Nadel: Of course because I’m not in Turkey every day, I do miss things. But a lot of novelists write about places where they do not live. Michael Moorcock for instance, continues to write about London even though he now resides in Texas. Of course one has to keep abreast of developments within a country and visit often, but there is also a ‘Turkey of the mind’, a place I carry with me all the time. This ‘mind country’ is the result of many years of contact with the place, its people and its myths.
Richard Kunzmann: How do you marry a story that is essentially Turkish with a language and style that is uniquely British?
Barbara Nadel: Although I work in English I do try to translate at least the feeling of the Turkish context. Some characters are more traditional than others and pepper their speech with religious sayings and/or ancient forms of address. People do this and it is something I try to reflect when I can. However one has to be aware of pace and so I can’t overload the text with such artefacts even though sometimes my idea about a character may include a lot of them. In addition, some of my books, namely river of the dead involve characters for whom Turkish isn’t the first language. In that novel we have people speaking Arabic, Aramaic and the Kurdish dialect, Zaza. These are all, and have to be in this case, expressed in ‘English’.
Richard Kunzmann: River of the Dead diverges somewhat from the other Ikmen books in that much of the action occurs outside of Istanbul. Can you tell us a bit more about Mardin, and why you decided to send Suleyman out that way?
Barbara Nadel: Mardin was a city I had never visited until 2007. In the far south east of the country it is a place that over the years has suffered much from being on the front line of the dispute between the Kurdish separatists, the PKK, and the Turkish armed forces. From time to time the city has been effectively closed to outsiders because of fears about security. So Mardin is not always easy. It is however mythic. For more years than I care to remember, I’d been hearing stories about Mardin – the city of vast honey-coloured mansions, of Syrian monasteries from the fifth century, of snakes and the pagan snake goddess that must be appeased in order to keep the serpents away. So in 2007 I went and found that all the myths were true. I was fortunate enough to spend Easter with the Syrian Christians where I found myself in company with monks, clock makers and a very old lady who specialised in primitive religious art-work. The snake goddess I discovered was called the Sharmeran and, as I spent more time in the city, I saw her likeness everywhere. In the end my companions and me were speaking of her as if she were a real presence in our lives. But then Mardin, a city which rises above the Mesopotamian plain, the cradle of civilisation, is a place of miracles and of dreams. Much as İstanbul is mythical and divine, one does not get the ‘out of time’ feeling that is experienced in Mardin. I sent Mehmet Suleyman there because I wanted to see what would happen to a modern, pragmatic man in that context. I also wanted to explore some very modern issues that are currently impinging upon life in the east – international terrorism and drug trafficking.
Richard Kunzmann: The Çetin İkmen series has been a long and successful one. How do you feel it’s developed over time?
Barbara Nadel: I’ve tackled a lot of subjects over the years in the Çetin İkmen books. These have included sibling rivalry, isolation, the nature of visual art and the reality, or not, of occult practice. In recent years however I think that the subjects tackled have become bigger and more internationalist. Çetin İkmen and co move, from time to time, out of the city and in the next book, due to be published in 2010, out of the country. I feel that this reflects both Turkey’s move outwards as a society desirous of becoming part of the European Union, and the reality of crime as an international phenomenon that cannot always be addressed on a local level.
Richard Kunzmann: The Francis Hancock series is relatively new and almost a complete flip of the coin to the Çetin İkmen series. How did you first conceive of the character?
Barbara Nadel: Francis is in many ways my paternal grandfather. Like Francis he was a World War One veteran who suffered from post traumatic stress disorder – or shellshock as they called it back then. Not that people were given any help with the fears, delusions and hallucinations that they suffered. My grandfather, like Francis, just had to carry on working, hiding how he was for much of the time, running from bombs during the Blitz. These books are, I hope, in part a tribute to all those veterans who just carried on with lives that were often a form of torture for them.
Richard Kunzmann: St Paul’s Cathedral, the centrepiece for Ashes to Ashes is a great locale for the story. What made you think up this particular novel and how did you go about researching it?
Barbara Nadel: Ashes to Ashes revolves around an incident known as the London Firestorm. This took place on the 29th December 1940 and it was Hitler’s attempt to burn London to the ground. In particular he wanted to destroy St Paul’s Cathedral because he knew how symbolically important it was (and remains) for Londoners. Again, my research proceeded from family anecdote. My maternal grandfather (yes, we are real Londoners!) was walking home from his place of work in Fleet St when the firestorm began. He just survived and his journey through falling buildings and across melting pavements has since passed into family legend. I also of course read extensively around the subject, spoke to those who remembered the incident and spent a lot of time in St Paul’s. Like Francis, I explored the upper galleries (Whispering Gallery, Stone Gallery) and also like him I felt my legs go to jelly as I climbed up hundreds and hundreds of stairs in what felt like every tightening spirals.
Richard Kunzmann: What in your mind are the key things a writer should have or develop?
1) A fund of stories, anecdotes and little facts and fictions upon which to draw.
2) The kind of curiosity about people, places and things that can potentially get you into trouble.
3) Patience. For most of us, getting published doesn’t happen overnight.
4) A sense of humour. If you have a sense of humour then some of your characters will have a sense of humour too and that is so real and so attractive too.
5) The kind of grit and determination to work at a book even when your muse is nowhere to be seen!
Richard Kunzmann: And the five things writers should avoid?
1) Not listening, not taking honestly given advice.
2) Writing work that is ‘all about me’. No, it’s all about your characters and the situation they find themselves in. They might be based upon real people or even your own life but ‘you’ have to disappear.
3) Waiting for your muse. He or she will never come unless you put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard.
4) Lack of curiosity. Deadly.
5) Being judgemental. Writers should be open in new situations. Judge only when you yourself have something to judge based upon your own experience.
Richard Kunzmann: Which authors have been your biggest influence and why?
Barbara Nadel: Lawrence Durrell has been the greatest influence upon me. He introduced me both to inventive fictional forms and the richness of character that can be possible. London writers Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair have also been inspirational. With regard to Turkey, I owe much to the work of Orphan Pamuk. All of these people get under the skin of whoever and whatever they tackle. I hope I get at least close to that.
Barbara Nadel was born in the East End of London and has worked as an actress, a public relations officer in the mental health services of the UK, and has taught psychology at schools and colleges. She’s a CWA Silver Dagger winner for her book Deadly Web, and the author of more than 15 novels.