Many thanks to Tristan for taking part in this interview and many many thanks to Tristan for his patience with me as time has been quite busy of late and I haven’t posted this interview as quickly as I would have liked.
Readers, please enjoy the following answers. Tristan is the author of Wolf’s Paw (which I shall be reviewing shortly) and the following gives an insight into the book and also Tristan as author and person. Enjoy 🙂
WOLF’S PAW QUESTIONS
The title “Wolf’s Paw” is a telling symbol throughout the book. I loved the idea of this symbol and how it was used. Please explain for the readers the significance of the title and how you came up with the idea to use this symbol throughout the novel.
I had originally conceived of this story as one, essentially, about the experience of alienation that an immigrant feels in first entering a high-tech society such as that which the Proctors find in Atlanta. I wanted this to be distinct from the more usual, dirt-poor, blue-collar, have-to-hustle-to-survive immigrant story, since that was never my experience to portray and I was writing, ultimately, to help process my own experiences. The original title was therefore “The Glass Wall”.
Having created Neill and Sharon, I needed a strong antagonist and Aaron Ryan was born. Of course, he had to have a fatal flaw and his was a life based on self-deception. There never was any medical malpractice, no abuse of his stepmother Dot, but in Ryan’s world, everything must be rationalized. Perhaps he believed that his animal paw lucky charm really was that of a wolf, but perhaps it was just one more self-deception, which finally caught up with him. On another level, as a simple literary device, it provided a graphic symbol and allowed me to tie the loose ends of the plot together, bring the past in Angola up to speed with the current events in Atlanta and link, at least psychologically, Ryan’s back story with his later avocation.
The back stories for both Aaron Ryan and Neill Proctor are intriguing and quite an important avenue to understanding those characters and how they present in their later lives. Which back story did you enjoy creating the most and why?
As you’ll be aware, I was born in Canada, but moved to South Africa when I was about six and lived there until my thirties. I lived and travelled pretty much all over SA and got to know the country well, so although Neill Proctor is most definitely not an autobiographical creation, I enjoyed creating him the most because I could incorporate so many of the experiences and stories of SA that I had come across, into his life. In the original version, Neill’s back story alone was close to a novella length in its own right and one of my early readers commented that he felt like he’d wandered into a Wilbur Smith novel by mistake.
Aaron Ryan’s life in Shiprock was drawn from the time I spent working on a Navajo reservation in the four corners area near Shiprock and trying to accurately or realistically produce his formative years was much harder. My least favourite part of the book, because I don’t think she rings true, at least in her shortened, amended format ( again, she used to be MUCH more detailed), is Ryan’s mother Linda, who takes him to Shiprock in the first place and then dies relatively young.
Are any of the characters and/or storylines based on real people and/or events?
I have certainly used characteristics of people I know to flesh out my main characters and family stories, suitably dressed up inform various characters and their experiences, but no, there are no exact copies of any real people. I suppose, because I’m a Plastic Surgeon and I’ve made Neill proctor one as well, there might be a supposition that I’m producing a poorly disguised Walter Mitty- esque facsimile of myself, but that isn’t the case. I’ve kept to the Plastic Surgery theme because it’s something I know well and I believe that there is a lot to tell of in the field and because it suited my plotline. Did you find the cases described believable? Interesting? OTT? Most of them were exact copies of real cases I’ve operated on.
You are a plastic and reconstructive surgeon. Did you enjoy being able to include your profession in “Wolf’s Paw”?
Yes, definitely. See Above and Below.
The relationship between Neill Proctor and his wife Sharon is very strained and stressful at times. Why did you decide to make this such an important aspect of the story?
As I said, my original motivation for writing was to help me process stuff. Moving to the US as a fellow myself, we met a number of other young doctors and surgeons in similar situations and the stress really was quite enormous. This appeared to be a fairly common experience. We would gather socially and swap war-stories and it is these shared experiences that, suitably blended, form the basis of Neill and Sharon’s experience and the superficial explanation for their fraught relationship – this was an essential component of the “Glass Wall” of the original title. As an immigrant, one would feel cut off, isolated, present, but not really part of the society around one. (That this was a stressful time for people in this situation can be attested to by the fact that in our group of about 8 or 10 couples, two ended in divorce and one couple abandoned their fellowship and left early) In Neill’s case, the toxicity in their marriage was amplified by his previous torture and abuse, which he dealt with by denial and putting up a brave front while developing an increasing burden of rage within. Effectively, he remained emotionally distant, holding Sharon at arm’s length.
I wanted verisimilitude, and I think it makes them a more believable and even sympathetic couple of characters. Do you think it worked?
Was it hard to write from both Neill’s and Sharon’s point of view?
Yes, definitely, so much so in fact that I’m not sure that I’ve successfully differentiated them. Do you think that they each have a recognizably distinct and different “voice”? Do they seem different or do they come across as a poor blend of one another?
In another way however, No, it wasn’t really hard – Sharon had to be gentler, more compassionate while Neill was a typical white South African man, the sort I did my National Service with, tending to be the strong silent type, who believe that you should put up and shut up and big boys don’t cry. “Macho”, with all the +ves and –ves that connotes.
Revenge is the driving force in Aaron Ryan’s life. Do you think his need for revenge is warranted? Does it make him a more likeable character than if he were to carry out his actions without revenge being the reason why?
I felt that Ryan needed a credible reason for his actions. He wasn’t to be some formulaic psycho serial killer. He is a sane, rational man with a precise, logical reason for his every action. He kills people for a living and he’s good at it, but in the end it is just a job. It’s part of the essential amorality of the organization he works for that it is regarded as simply another component of his skillset. Would you have liked him more as a ruthless undirected killer, or is he more sympathetic as a principled man on a self-appointed mission? Certainly I think he earns some kudos for the way he deals with the odious Dr.Knight, while yet remaining unmistakably the baddie.
Neill Proctor is both consciously and subconsciously traumatised by what went on in Angola. How did you go about making his experience seem authentic?
Mainly observation coupled with imagination. I knew several people who had been in the SA Special Forces and I was in the SADF during the Angolan war. As a doctor myself I had/have also worked quite extensively with various forms of psychpathology ( I also have a degree in psychology), so it wasn’t too hard to construct a psychologic framework and a personality for Neill Proctor that would be, hopefully, believable. The trauma and abuse came from reading and a good dose of pure fantasizing.
Who is your favourite character in “Wolf’s Paw” and why?
I guess my favourite character would be Sharon . She is the family historian and the central pivot of the story. As she points out, if it weren’t for her, the story would never have been told. She is a victim in one sense, but she is also every woman rising above her life’s circumstances, taking her lemons and turning them into lemonade. I found that in writing her, she took on a life of her own and refused to be moulded in anything but the broadest essentials. To me she evokes that co-existent, interdependent strength and fragility that make women the miracles they are. I’d like to meet her.
Will we be seeing any of “Wolf’s Paw” characters in future works?
I’m currently working on a second novel with the working title of “The Ugly Bus”. It’s set in Atlanta again and Nancy Yaremchulk, the GBI investigator makes a return, as does Roger Wharvey, a bit player and one of the other Junior Docs, in Wolf’s Paw. There are no murders, but it will be a gripping story with a quirky plotline. Watch this space. At the same time, I’m just starting on the third book “The woman who went away”. This starts out in Toronto, but ends in Oz and Neill and Sharon Proctor will re-appear in this story. The three books together will form a loosely-linked trilogy, with the common theme of exploring different aspects of Plastic Surgery and its relationship to society.
After that I plan to move away from Plastic Surgery and I have several ideas jotted down in my notebook.
How long did it take you to write “Wolf’s Paw”?
About ten years, working in very disjointed fits and starts.
Where is your favourite place to write?
Usually in my study or in my office at work. To be perfectly frank, it’s wherever I happen to be as long as I have my laptop. I like to work at a desk with the laptop and the mainframe so that I can do any online research I need to without changing windows and all that stuff. One thing I can’t do though, is work at a desk with a great view – I’m too easily distracted.
Are there any future books currently in the making?
See above. The Ugly Bus is up to about 55000 words by now and I’ve done the first chapter and the outline for ‘The woman who went away”.
When did you decide you wanted to write a book and why?
I’ve always loved a good story – I’m an avid reader and get through about a book or two a week. I also love the idea that one can do something to a character in a book that you’d be arrested for in real life, so I suppose it’s a form of wish fulfilment. I started writing the book in Atlanta, just jotting down experiences and then when I came across and started accumulating these great stories, these interesting cases, I began trying to figure out a way to hang them all together, and Wolf’s Paw was born. It was never really a conscious decision to sit down and write a book, but rather, like Topsy, it just grew.
Do you enjoy writing?
I do. I enjoy the act of creating living characters out of ideas, stray wisps of things one might have read or heard. I’m less sanguine about the hard part of doing re-writes and edits, but I am striving to be more disciplined and professional and sit down to write whether or not I feel inspired. In retrospect, some of my best stuff has been written when I’ve simply sat down at a blank screen and done a brain dump, then edited and emended the output.
When you aren’t writing and working what do you like doing in your spare time?
Reading, spending time with family, cooking and entertaining and generally lazing about. I also love movies.
Do you get much time to read? What genres/authors do you enjoy reading the most?
I read voraciously, and have very catholic tastes anything from biography through highbrow literature to the most purple “shockers”. I read (and re-read) classics like the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen, Conan Doyle, Harper Lee, etc. I have a great collection of 19th C and early 20th C books by authors such as Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling and G.K Chesterton. I enjoy a well-crafted thriller but love a good story, well told, even more. Sometimes I read for the sheer joy of the prose style – eg. Nabokov.
Do you find you work as a plastic and reconstructive surgeon rewarding?
Yes, usually. To be able to restore a face damaged by a congenital birth defect such as a cleft lip and palate, by trauma such as a motor vehicle accident, or even by the ravages of aging, is immensely rewarding. We all have perceived flaws, the knowledge of which undermines our self-confidence and spoils our social interactions. More than anything else, plastic surgery, by addressing that perceived flaw, be it a birth defect, a big nose, ears that stick out, asymmetric breasts or a sagging chin, restores self-confidence and I love being part of that process. It’s not about vanity, it’s about a greater sense of contentment with who we are.
Who would you most like to meet (dead or alive) and why?
Gosh, there’s a question. There are several dead people I’d like to meet. I can imagine a cocktail party to which these would all be invited and I could circulate, check out and interact with each for as long or as little time as I’d like. Of course, there would be no language barrier. I’d invite Imhotep, the early Egyptian architect, engineer and physician who rose from common parentage to become prime minister and then was deified (just how much of a polymath was he? What were his concepts of disease and surgery?); Cleopatra (was she the femme fatale popular romance suggests or was she just a shrewd politician?); Jesus Christ (Oh, just to have known him. To look into his eyes and hear his voice and to judge for oneself, free of all the accreted cant and commentary); Marilyn Monroe (what was the secret of her appeal, or was it totally manufactured?) Ayn Rand (was she really the raving right-wing looney she’s lampooned as today?); Marie Antoinette (callous villain or innocent victim?); Mozart (what a party animal – really?). Utzi the iceman – pulled from a frozen glacier in 2003 in the Italian Alps. Thought to be the oldest human remains so far discovered in such a great state of preservation (What was his society like? What were their beliefs, their customs?) Heck, the list could go on and on.
In terms of recent people – I wish I’d been able to spend an evening with one of my favourite writers – Robertson Davies, author of, amongst others, The Deptford Trilogy and The Salterton Trilogy. Great Books. Also Leonard Cohen – love his music.
When you retire what hobby would you like to take up and why?
Metalwork. I love the idea of producing stuff in metal and I love the SteamPunk aesthetic. I wish I could operate a lathe and make things like rolling ball machines and intricate mechanisms like clockwork toys, in beautifully polished metals and woods.
Who/what is your favourite:
How do I select from amongst all the writers I love? How about Rudyard Kipling? Or Lawrence Durrell
The Alexandria Quartet
Genre to read?
Any. I tend to jump between genres. I most recently read “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” and am now on Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway”. I’m keeping an eye out for a good SF story next – love the Culture Novels of Iain Banks
“The rest of my life’s a struggle – why shouldn’t this be?”
The Big Chill
Edward Norton – consummate actor.
Highbrow – Italy; Lowbrow – anywhere with a tropical beach
Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars
Halleluljah by Leonard Cohen
Meal to cook?
Cassoulet with duck, white beans and sausage
Dry red wine – a good merlot or pinot noir, or even a syrah
And last but not least, what one question would you ask yourself in an interview and what would the answer be?
Where would you like to be in ten years’ time?
Living by the sea in a beautiful spot, spending my days writing and pottering in my shed, earning a more than comfortable living from my writing.
Thank you once again, Tristan! I notice you posed some questions in the above interview yourself and I shall endeavour to get to them shortly 🙂