As a child, I remember Christmas TV excitement as being about James Bond (and I used to love my The Man from U.N.C.L.E annual!). Although fictional, Tom Williams’ novel, Burke in the Land of Silver, is based on a real life spy. I’m delighted to welcome Tom to chat about his novel as well as his writing processes.
Tom Williams used to write about boring things for money. If you wanted an analysis of complaints volumes in legal services or attitudes to diversity at the BBC, then he was your man. Now he writes much more interesting books about historical characters and earns in a year about what he could make in a day back then. (This, unfortunately, is absolutely true.) He also writes a blog (http://thewhiterajah.blogspot.co.uk/) which is widely read all over the world and generates no income at all.
Besides making no money from writing, Tom makes no money out of occasionally teaching people to tango and then spends all the money he hasn’t made on going to dance in Argentina.
Tom has a wife who, fortunately, has a well-paid job, and a grown-up son who has resolved that he is never, ever, going to write anything.
Connect with Tom Williams
Welcome to Jera’s Jamboree
Please summarise ‘Burke in the Land of Silver’ in 20 words or less.
In Napoleonic wars a British spy sent to help Brits invade Buenos Aires becomes an influential figure in Argentinian independence.
What was the idea/inspiration for your novel?
I came across an article on James Burke, the real-life spy on whom the story is based. His life seemed so amazing it was perfect for my novel.
Please tell us about the characters.
James Burke was born in Ireland. He’s a Catholic and his family are small landowners. All these things count against him socially in the England of the time and he is determined to improve himself. He joins the army in the search for upward social mobility, but finds himself put to work as a spy, which he hates. It’s no job for a gentleman and there is little prospect of advancement in the work, but he is good (very good) at it. He’s an appalling snob and a womaniser and always looking out for a chance to make money or impress the aristocracy but, when push comes to shove, he will always try to do the right thing by his friends and his country.
Burke is accompanied on his missions by William Brown, a regular soldier who is a great deal sharper than he pretends to be. Brown’s abilities as pickpocket, forger and burglar hint at a murky past, but they come in very handy in his current line of work. Brown is devoted to Burke, but not above telling him when he thinks he’s making a fool of himself. They’re an excellent team.
Did you do any research for your book Tom? Did you travel to any places?
One of the attractions of writing about James Burke is that his story features Buenos Aires, a city I know quite well. I spent some time exploring the oldest parts of the city and getting a feeling for what it would have been like in the early 19th century as well as taking in the excellent museums.
Part of the action takes place on a hacienda – a cattle ranch. I went to stay on such a ranch and rode out with the gauchos (cowboys) as they checked the herd. It was such a great trip!
Burke also crossed the Andes and I had no idea what this would have been like. The Andes can only be crossed on horseback in summer and Burke went rather too late in the year. I was fascinated by the idea of travelling in the snow, so that’s what we did.
My wife (who isn’t that keen on horses) hired a guide and set off up the Andes on a horse until the weather eventually forced us back at something well over 3,000 metres. We spent the night at 3,000 metres in a stone hut with no electricity and only a small wood fire for heating. The stream that ran past us froze in the night. I have never been so cold in my life. It was one of the most amazing experiences I have ever had. In the end, it’s just a few paragraphs in the book, but I’m so glad I did it
Do you have a most creative time of day?
Thirty minutes before I’m supposed to be doing something else. ( 🙂 )
Is there a theme for your book covers? Who designs them?
All the Burke books feature a 19th century map of the place they’re set and a scene that reflects the subject. They’re designed in-house by Accent Press.
The first cover they gave me just didn’t work and I was very unhappy about it, but after I complained we worked together to develop this approach and I really love it. I am terribly impressed by the way Accent do covers. I’ve heard nightmare stories from writers with major publishers who don’t get nearly the same amount of care lavished on their books.
How do your characters come into existence Tom? Do they have a bio?
James Burke was a real person, though his later adventures are entirely fictitious. But, yes, he has a detailed back-story based on fact. William Brown is entirely invented and his back-story is less detailed.
Most of the major characters in ‘Burke in the Land of Silver’ were real people, so they come with a variety of quirks that are fun to work into the story.
Panster or a plotter?
I write historical fiction based around real people and events, so getting the fiction to fit into the real history means quite elaborate plotting. That said, within the framework I give them, I allow my characters a lot of freedom.
What has been the best part of your writing journey so far?
Seeing my books in print. (All Accent’s books are published in paperback as well as e-book.)
… and the worst?
Discovering just how hard it is to get books out there in the market-place so they are widely read.
Which authors have influenced your writing Tom?
Given that I write about the Napoleonic wars, I can’t help but be influenced by Bernard Cornwell. There’s also a touch of George MacDonald Fraser, but his books are straightforwardly funny and mine aren’t (although I enjoyed a review that said, “In spite of the violence the book has a light air to it.”)
What are your thoughts on movie adaptations? Do you have a favourite?
It depends on the book and on the movie. I enjoyed ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ but I thought it made an Aunt Sally of the fashion industry. The film was much more effective because it allowed Meryl Streep to fight her corner so effectively (though we all still end up agreeing with Anne Hathaway).
And finally Tom, Burke in the land of Silver is part of a series, what is in the future?
I’ve chosen to write about ‘Burke in the Land of Silver’ today because it was the first in a series. I’d love to write about my latest book, but I always think it’s nice to read series books in order, so I’m starting with the beginning. Burke returns in more adventures, each one set around a conflict in the Napoleonic Wars. I’ve done Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign (the Battle of the Nile) and Waterloo, and now I’m working on Talavera and the guerrilla war in Spain.
Thank you for being my guest.
Wishing you success with all your writing projects.
James Burke joins the army determined to work his way up through the ranks and become a gentleman. He never set out to be a spy. But with Napoleon rampaging through Europe, the Duke of York needs agents and Burke is plucked from the infantry and sent on a mission to the Spanish colonial backwater of Argentina. His mission is to give the country’s freedom fighters aid so that they may break free from Spanish rule at an opportune moment for Britain. Yet when Burke arrives, he finds himself falling in love, both with the Land of Silver, and Ana O’Gorman, lover of a rebel leader determined to bring about Burke’s downfall …
Buy link: myBook.to/LandofSilver