Shortly after Jake Arnott’s event with Rupert Smith in the Purcell Room on Friday the 3rd July, Paul Blezard sat with him in the green room to discuss the event, the book and Jake’s writing. Here’s what they said:
PB How did the event go?
JA It was a fantastic event, really good. The Purcell Room is a lovely place to talk about books and Rupert Smith, who was interviewing me, made everything work so well. I had a really good time.
PB How did people react to a story in which we have “The Beast” Aleister Crowley and this fantastic character Hector Macdonald, who I hitherto had known nothing about?
JA Well the interesting thing about Macdonald is that he had tremendous fame in his lifetime but because of the terrible homosexual scandal he was embroiled in he was wiped off the face of history. He was a crofter’s son from the Highlands of Scotland who rose through the ranks after being a soldier in the Gordon Highlanders. He fought in every major conflict in the high Victorian Empire period and was a complete military hero that we should all know about. But the scandal of his sexuality really brought him down. He had a very hidden life, which makes him the perfect character for a novel as it allowed me to invent a complete interior life for him. I think the audience really engaged with that aspect of the story.
PB It’s a very fine novel, Jake, to my mind the finest writing thus far in your already stellar career. Is it actually a novel tho’ or is it a historical fiction? Where indeed does the border between the two exist for you?
JA I think the difference is that in a novel one is allowed to go to places that one can’t as a biographer. Of course, a comprehensive biography of Hector Macdonald would be fantastic but completely impossible as he didn’t leave many papers behind. He didn’t write a journal for example and he wrote very few letters. He was a very repressed man, such a close-knit character, because of the nature of his sexuality in the world he inhabited. I think it’s a bit like Shakespeare’s histories. There are obviously all these real characters in a Shakespearean history, but it’s the author – here I am comparing myself with Shakespeare! – it’s not so much that they’re histories however but the attitude of the writer that is the key. It’s a political area. The history in The Devil’s Paintbrush exists between the cracks in the paving stones of creativity as I did have to make up a lot of material, that’s why I consider it a novel. That’s why it is a novel, there’s a lot of speculation.
PB In your acknowledgements you give thanks to another author of note, Stephanie Theobald (for three years the Society Editor of Harper’s Bazaar and author of four novels: Trix, Sucking Shrimp, Biche and A Partial Indulgence) not least for her first hand account of a black mass in Paris. How did this come about?
JA Stephanie is my partner and yes, she is a fantastic writer. She’s spent a lot of time in Paris, it’s her city really, so when I was setting a story there I felt indebted to her knowledge of the demi-monde of that world that still very much exists. The interesting thing is that the occult, and Satanism particularly, is still quite fashionable in Paris. It seems to be part of that tradition – from Catherine de Medici to Huisman, the decadent period – that they have a particular way of understanding that hidden world.
PB Finally, what does it mean to you as a writer to have participated at the 3rd London Literature Festival?
JA Well I think it’s fantastic that it’s happening, It’s so good that London, the most literary city in the Universe, now has this. The capital’s a hard place to have a literary festival in as there’s always so much going on and also there’s something slightly jaded about Londoners, everyone seems to be an itinerant writer of some sort or another and not that willing to go and see people like me talking about their books. All that seems to be changing now though. Up until now the South Bank wouldn’t have been able to put this on in the way that it has and the ‘new look’ South Bank has really made itself the home of a festival with a true heart. Everything is so well done and I’m so glad to be a part of it.
PB My second ‘final’ question; What are you working on now?
JA It’s another historical thing. This will be mid 20th century… It’s hard for me to talk about it because it’s still… you know I really don’t want to talk about it, Paul… do you mind?.. is that…?
PB (interrupting to rescue JA from a conversation he clearly doesn’t want to have!) …then let’s not. I understand. Jake Arnott thank you so much for your time and many congratulations, both on the publication of The Devil’s Paintbrush and on a such a good event here at the London Literature Festival.