Sunday, 29 September 2013

Building Barricades - how the book came to be written


Building the Barricade
A few weeks ago I gave a talk on Barricades to a local book club, where I was asked about the birth of the novel. What led me to write it? How did I go about the research?
Predictably, the initial inspiration came from Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. Some years ago I had booked to see the musical production in London. Whilst waiting for the much anticipated date to arrive, I read Hugo’s book. At that time I was still in the police service; maybe that is why the character of Police Inspector Javert immediately caught my interest. What had gone into the making of this man? So upright, yet so flawed. So strong, yet so vulnerable.
 Seeing the musical production on stage increased this fascination, and with it my sympathy for the character. I loved the solo Stars, with its soaring power and lyrics that gave a wonderful insight into Javert’s character and motivations. I have read that Stars was almost cut from the original production because of the running length; thank goodness it was spared. Without Stars, Javert would have been something of a shadowy figure.
 Javert seems to be generally regarded as ‘the villain’ because he is the antagonist of the hero, Valjean. I have even been asked why I chose to write about the villain of the piece, rather than one of the good guys. Yet nothing Javert did was evil, he was simply doing his duty as a police officer by hunting down an escaped convict. In the end he failed in his duty by letting Valjean go, destroying himself in the process. For me, Javert is one of the most tragic characters in Les Misérables. Barricades was a book that I had to write, whether or not it ever saw the light of publication. It is not a re-telling of Les Miserables. The first two thirds are original plot, pre-dating Hugo’s novel. The final part parallels some of the later events in Les Miserables, where Javert’s path crosses that of Valjean.
 My initial source of research was of course Hugo’s novel. Hugo gives very little back-story to the character of Javert – just the fact he was born in prison, to a fortune teller and a convict. There is also nothing of his life outside of his encounters with Valjean. I set out to fill in the gaps, to put flesh on the bones.
Historical events are relatively easy to research, especially from a period as well known as the French Revolution. But of course it isn’t possible to actually experience those events or the time period in which they happened (hiring Dr Who’s TARDIS was a little beyond my budget). But if I couldn’t experience the events, I could still visit the prime locations. Most of the descriptive scenes from Barricades were written on location, to try to get a sense of time and place that can sometimes be lacking in historical novels.
The Tour Royale near Toulon is still there, now a museum. So of course is the Mediterranean. There is a sense of timelessness gazing out at the sea and knowing how little it has changed since the time of Barricades. In Paris, looking along the Rue St Antoine in the hush of dawn, I could imagine the mob surging down the street following the storming of the Bastille. Looking into the cells in the Conciergerie, it was not difficult to put myself in the place of the Aristocrats and sympathisers, awaiting execution during the years of terror that followed the French Revolution. Standing on the Notre Dame bridge at midnight and staring at the swirling depths below, I could almost hear the final notes of Javert’s soliloquy ringing in my ears.
It was easy to conjure up a sense of time and place, with Javert’s ghost at my elbow.
Barricades - The Journey of Javert