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Novelist finally got around to writing

A prolific writer, Robert Wilson has written six other novels besides "The Blind Man of Seville." Prior to his writing career, Wilson worked in shipping and advertising in London and did trading in West Africa. He was 36 years old before he started writing novels, but his Oxford credentials prepared the way.

During a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., Wilson, who divides his time between England, Spain and Portugal, attributed his rising star to his fifth novel, "A Small Death in Lisbon," for which he was awarded the coveted British Gold Dagger for Fiction last year. "It lifted my career to a new level. Since then, I've been able to give up odd jobs in advertising.

" 'Small Death' is a dual storyline, too. I tell two stories together, and they slowly grow together. I really don't like books that use two storylines. It puts me off. Yet I may be the best person to be writing them, because I try to make them bearable."

Wilson had always wanted to write. "It was just a question of getting around to it. Finally, I stopped work and moved to Portugal, painting myself into a corner so I would have to do nothing but write to gain income. I sold my London apartment and bought a new place in the middle of nowhere. In one year, I managed to get my first novel sorted out. I don't regret the shipping and advertising work I've done. Having some real life under your belt is not a bad thing."

Someone suggested he try writing a crime thriller, so he read Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler and thought, "I can do this." He had to develop what he calls "the noir voice," which he believes "suits America — and I manipulated it so it would suit West Africa."

It took him "18 intensive months" to write "The Blind Man of Seville," and he has "a vague idea for four other books based on the same main character, Detective Javier Falcon. "I've always been good at keeping lots of different threads of plot in my mind. I took English literature at Oxford. It seems I have a strong narrative gene to hold all these things in my head.

"My way of working is complicated. I write in longhand for five to six months, then I start transferring the work onto the computer. Then I rewrite and rework it. It ends up with a tapestry effect."

"Seville" started with a fragment. "It's almost like an archaeologist who suddenly finds a civilization beneath. I was working on 'A Company of Strangers,' and I had this image in my mind of a murderer who removed his victims' eyelids. I didn't know where it came from, so I just made a note of it. I thought later that it came from 'A Clockwork Orange,' where one of the characters has his eyelids pinned open and is forced to watch terrible violence. That movie was 30 years ago. That's a lengthy gestation period." The killer in "The Blind Man of Seville" removes his victims' eyelids and makes them watch video images.

Wilson says, "All my novels start with the setting, then everything emerges from it. The settings bring the stories with them. I have a particular problem with Seville, because everyone knows things about its traditions of wild parties and bull fighting. I could be in danger of writing a clich if I were not careful.

"I first arrived in Seville on a bike in 1984. I wondered, 'What is the important thing about Seville?' I realized it was the streets — the street life. Then I got my next fragment. I would write a police procedural that would be a psychological thriller. It fit in with the horror image. Detective Falcon was so appalled by what happened to the victims."

Wilson also decided early that the detective's father, a great painter, would have been an avid journal writer, but Wilson didn't know the content. "About halfway through the book, I realized I didn't have the diaries, so I spent three months writing the diaries — about 100,000 words. I became this very strange person. I wanted each section of the diaries to reveal some new aspect of Francisco Falcon's character.

"I used only a third of what I'd written. Then, after publication, I posted some more sections of the diary on the Internet, because people who have read the book wanted to read more."

It is Wilson's belief that Francisco "is a remarkable person, a public figure, a father, an interesting human being. But it is only when we're shown through the diaries what he is actually like that we see the reality of his personality. He's done appalling things. Yet, you can't bring yourself to hate him. I call it the charisma of evil. Good and evil can co-exist in one person. Spain was a good place to tell this story, because there is quite a blood lust there."

Wilson says he writes "from the stomach rather than from the head. If I feel something only in the head, it isn't good enough. If I feel it in my gut, I think it's working. This book seeks a particular type of reader who will allow the author to gain a grip on him. Some writers grab you by the scruff of the neck and run you through a flaming house. I try to get the reader in some sort of lock and then apply pressure."

The person who reads Wilson's books, he says, is one "who would normally read literary fiction but doesn't want to read it all the time."


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com