Please give a warm welcome to Historical Fiction author, Tom Williams.
When Mary Anne Yard offered me the chance to write about the inspiration for Burke in the Land of Silver, I was a bit disconcerted. Traditionally, authors are inspired by something they stumble across and then write the book that they have to write because they are so moved by their experience. The origins of Burke in the Land of Silver are probably more typical, but much less romantic.
The first book I wrote was The White Rajah and I was lucky enough to get an agent who was able to get it read by several major publishers. They generally seemed to think that it had merit, but that it was not sufficiently commercial for a first novel. My agent said that I should write another book which might prove more popular with readers and that it should be historical.
The White Rajah had been based on the life of a real person and I felt comfortable writing about people who really existed. (Perhaps I lack imagination.) But who could I find to base a book on? Or, given that this was to be a commercial enterprise and nowadays that means a series of books, who could I find who might be the hero of several novels?
Friends began to make suggestions. One of these was an Alaskan woman who I had met, as you do, in a dance hall in Buenos Aires. She knew that I was fascinated by Argentina and pointed out that there were many Europeans who had lived exciting and glamorous lives during the period when South America was looking for independence from Spain. Why didn't I search for a hero amongst them?
I started to read books about South America, looking out for interesting people. It's not the traditional way of getting inspiration, but I suspect it's what a lot of writers – especially historical writers – end up doing.
Eventually I came across James Burke. I found only passing references to him. It seems that he had been a spy and that he had been working for the British ahead of their attack on Buenos Aires.
|Portrait of Sir James Brooke by Sir Francis Grant
National Portrait Gallery London. Used with permission
What attack on Buenos Aires? It turns out there were two, one in 1806, which started well, but ended in a British defeat. The British had another go in 1807, which didn't end well either. Perhaps because both attacks were ultimately ignominious failures, the British don't dwell on them. That's certainly not true in Argentina: a major street in Buenos Aires is called La Defensa, commemorating the fact that it was where the 1807 attack was turned back.
Anyway, the initial success of the 1806 attack was probably at least partly due to the efforts of James Burke. What exactly he did was not easy to discover. There were stories about him in Spanish, but my Spanish wasn’t up to reading historical research. There seemed hardly anything about him in English. The one paper I found was in an Anglo-Irish journal (Burke was Irish) not widely available in England. Even the British Library had lost their copy and had to send out for one specially.
It turned out that Burke was quite an exciting character. He had fought in Haiti and travelled widely in South America and Europe. His name was linked with a succession of women, including the queen of Spain, a princess in Brazil and the Viceroy’s mistress in Buenos Aires. Little is known of his later life, but he remained on the Army List, with a pattern of promotion and transfers between regiments that suggested that he continued to work primarily as a spy, rather than as a straightforward soldier.
James Burke, it turned out, was the ideal hero. Brave, cunning, irresistible to women he was, indeed, the James Bond of the Napoleonic wars. The first story about him, Burke in the Land of Silver, was based closely on his real exploits and practically wrote itself. Burke has gone on to have fictional adventures in Egypt and at Waterloo, with more planned for the future. He has, indeed, proved an inspiration, but not, perhaps, in the way that most people imagine writers become inspired.
Have you ever noticed how many authors are described as ‘reclusive’? I have a lot of sympathy for them. My feeling is that authors generally like to hide at home with their laptops or their quill pens and write stuff. If they enjoyed being in the public eye, they’d be stand-up comics or pop stars.
Nowadays, though, writers are told that their audiences want to be able to relate to them as people. I’m not entirely sure about that. If you knew me, you might not want to relate to me at all. But here in hyperspace I apparently have to tell you that I’m young and good looking and live somewhere exciting with a beautiful partner, a son who is a brain surgeon and a daughter who is a swimwear model. Then you’ll buy my book.
Unfortunately, that’s not quite true. I’m older than you can possibly imagine. (Certainly older than I ever imagined until I suddenly woke up and realised that age had snuck up on me.) I live in Richmond, which is nice and on the outskirts of London which is a truly amazing city to live in. My wife is beautiful but, more importantly, she’s a lawyer, which is handy because a household with a writer in it always needs someone who can earn decent money. My son has left home and we never got round to the daughter.
We did have a ferret, which I thought would be an appropriately writer sort of thing to have around but he eventually got even older than me (in ferret years) and died. I’d try to say something snappy and amusing about that but we loved that ferret and snappy and amusing doesn’t quite cut it.
I street skate and ski and can dance a mean Argentine tango. I’ve spent a lot of my life writing very boring things for money (unless you’re in Customer Care, in which case ‘Dealing With Customer Complaints’ is really, really interesting). Now I’m writing for fun.
If you all buy my books, I’ll be able to finish the next ones and I’ll never have to write for the insurance industry again and that will be a good thing, yes? So you’ll not only get to read a brilliant novel but your karmic balance will move rapidly into credit.
Can I go back to being reclusive now?
Burke in the Land of Silver
He falls in love with the country – and with the beautiful Ana. Burke wants both to forward British interests and to free Argentina from Spain. But his new found selflessness comes up against the realities of international politics. When the British invade, his attempts to parley between the rebels and their new rulers leave everybody suspicious of him.
Despised by the British, imprisoned by the Spanish and with Ana leaving him for the rebel leader, it takes all Burke’s resolve and cunning to escape. Only after adventuring through the throne rooms and bedrooms of the Spanish court will he finally come back to Buenos Aires, to see Ana again and avenge himself on the man who betrayed him.