Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Open Arms of the Sea by Jasper Dorgan - Triskele Books giveaway week Day 5

Welcome to an awesome week brought to us by Triskele Books:

Day 1 - Complicit by Gillian Hamer
Day 2 - Tristan & Iseult by JD Smith
Day 3 - Tread Softly by JJ Marsh
Day 4 - Gift of the Raven by Catriona Troth

Triskele Books Day 5

Catriona interviews Jasper Dorgan.

The Open Arms of the Sea
by Jasper Dorgan
Published November 1st, 2012

The Open Arms of the Sea is set against the background of the British Army in Aden in the early 1960s. It's a brutal environment - beautiful but savagely violent. The two sides are engaged in a guerrilla war whose tactics are growing ever nastier. In the midst of this, Triskele member, Jasper Dorgan, presents us with an unlikely, understated and agonising love story.

From lyrical descriptions of the desert scenery to the stark, unblinking views of acts of violence; from the black humour of the soldiers' exchanges to the fragile tensions of buried feelings - Dorgan balances the elements of his story to produce a book that has stayed with me long after I first read. So it is with great pleasure that I undertake this Q&A.

Jasper, at the heart of this novel is a very tender, understated love story, between two gay men trapped in a situation where it would be impossible to declare their love openly. What drew you to their story?

Love is a key driver of the human spirit and character and it shapes the people we are or become. For someone to have to live with their love caged, hidden away and outlawed creates a character tension that is just too compelling not to explore and to write. Put it in a strict military jacket and then throw bombs at it and compulsion becomes a demand. A story that must be told.

The time period of the story seems pivotal – just at the start of the swinging sixties, at the cusp of a sexual revolution, and yet a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain. The location, on the other hand, is more surprising. What led you to set the novel in British occupied Aden?

Yes the time and place are crucial to the various themes and conflicts of the story. The 1960s were a time of great cultural and social change that was resisted and demonised by those in power. For many ordinary people, the changes were as bewildering as they were exhilarating and it was too easy perhaps to find yourself confused, un-compassed and un-rooted by it all. The main characters are all, in their own ways, trying to find themselves and a sense of their place in a turbulent new world. They are lonely and disconnected, but inwardly they burn. The forgotten conflict in Aden in the 1960s seemed a perfect setting to reflect this cool-heat of caging and desolation and to backdrop the story I wanted to tell. Lonely and far away in a foreign field with a restrictive, powerful military setting made more dynamic and dangerous by war seemed to resonate strongly. And for scorch and the savage beauty of deserted landscapes it had to be Aden.

The book is full of telling details about army life in Aden at the time – from the officers’ social lives to the grim details of guerrilla warfare. What sources did you draw on to build such a convincing picture? Did you have any personal, family connection with the army in Aden?

The Open Arms of the Sea is the result of research and imagination. There is no great secret to research and I dipped my foraging bucket into most of the usual sources – Google, reference books, military records, soldiers diaries etc. Photographic sources were particularly important as was, I suspect, a lifetime’s devotion to watching classic war films and documentaries. I have no military experience and no living family member in the armed services or associated with the Aden conflict. As I say, it’s all research and a storyteller’s imagination. Fiction.

Lockett is a wonderful character – clever, rebellious and yet utterly loyal. Was he one of those fortunate characters who spring full-formed into the writer’s mind, or did he have to be chiselled from stone?

I regard Lockett as the true hero of the book. I like and very much admire him as a character, and perhaps because he was strongest and fondest in my writer’s eye, he was the most known and the easier to write. That strength came from his being obstinately unconventional in an utterly conventional world, the moral, quiet and effective rebel. Lowly cast and effectively alone he survives and grows by his wits and natural abilities, he is a sponge of knowledge and experience that is always lightly worn, true to himself and his friends, intelligent, fearless and witty with it. I found his thoughts and dialogue came naturally and easily to me. Perhaps that is because he is me, or at least what I might wish myself to be. After all, I write fiction.

The Open Arms of the Sea began life as a short story, didn’t it? How did the novel develop from there? Did you always have the long form in mind, or was it one of those ideas that simply wouldn’t let go?

All the short stories I have written are, in one way or another, test exercises in learning the writing craft. Sometimes the story tries to shape and pin a particular character or a situation or simply is trying to explore a voice or stylistic technique. My first ever short story, ‘A Good War’, came from a test I set myself to write a convincing story about someone who was the complete antithesis of me. So Gretchen, a young German girl growing up in the Second World War, arrived. For The Open Arms of the Sea, the story started out as a straight-author exercise in writing a convincing gay love story. To test myself further, I wanted to write a gay love story that had no sex but was involving and romantic. The no sex rule was included because it was a thrown gauntlet and I can't resist bending to pick them up. To crank my spine down even lower I set it all in a macho military regime. And in an unvisited land far away. That is why short stories are harder to write than novels. Once the shorts are shucked down and clear, the novel simply just has to pee.

When the short story came out, it was well received, and during its writing I had the notion that there was more to show and say and explore about its themes and characters that it could become a novel. Even the first of a trilogy that would take the protagonists through to the 1990s. Removed from the constraints of 3000 words, the story grew and unfurled and became the novel. Its writing was a labour of love as well as release. See above.

Deacon and Lockett’s story unfolds primarily through small acts of friendship and tenderness amidst the horror – a way of telling a love story that seems very appropriate to the period (one thinks of Brief Encounter). Was it a deliberate decision to leave out the sex, or in the end did it just feel like the right way to tell this story?

My post-rationalisation of having no sex in the novel is that it would not be in keeping with the story, the times, the characters or their situation. No sex was right for the story, but hopefully this does not make it less romantic or involving for the reader. My pre-rationalisation would be that I’ve never yet written or read any sex scene that didn’t make my writerly toes curl a little and to attempt to try to do so here would have shrivelled more than the story.

There is a deep underlying anger in the book that is hard to miss, against characters like Villiers who lie and hide their true nature. Would you say hypocrisy is a red flag for you?

Oh yes. Along with hubris, cruelty, bigotry, deceit and men who wear socks with sandals. I have herds of bulls and more red flags flying than Tiananmen Square. It’s probably why I write.

Where has your writing taken you since you completed The Open Arms of the Sea? And would you ever consider returning to any of these characters, or are their stories done now?

I have written a dystopian novel for older teenagers which got an encouraging response from a leading publisher and I am currently re-editing the manuscript. I am also working on a new adult fiction novel set in the Special Operations Executive during WWII. As I mentioned earlier The Open Arms of the Sea was half-conceived as a trilogy and I fully expect to return to writing the second novel sometime soon. The only thing holding me back is finding a suitable, interesting and above all unique backdrop for Deacon and Lockett to operate in during the 1970s that might compare to the intrigue and exoticism of Aden.

Finally –can you suggest one book that, for you, evokes a particular time and place?

One of the first and most impressionistic books I read that evoked that real sense of being transported by reading to another place and time is Cider with Rosie. It is still one of my favourite reads, even though I know it almost by heart. I visit the Slad valley often. Cider with Rosie captures the landscapes, seasons, nature, fruits, colours, trades, smells, characters and times of life of Cotswold rural village life just after the First Great War and holds it up to us to admire as if it was our holy life in a glass bowl. The encapsulating vignette of young Laurie under the summer’s hay cart with Rosie and cider has stayed rooted in me. Definitely on my Desert Island book list.

Read Jasper’s article on researching historical fiction in the Triskele Toolbox.

Jasper's website:

Find Jasper on Goodreads.

For each day of the week, starting 26th May, a different Triskele Books author will be interviewed, and will offer a free e-copy of their book. And on Launch Day - June 1st - it's the Big Giveaway. All seven of the Triskele Books will be on offer for a signed paperback giveaway of whichever book(s) readers choose.

Jasper is offering an e-copy giveaway of The Open Arms of the Sea.

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