Mark Oldfield's Blog
January 29, 2018
In the interests of never letting an argument go unsettled (Guzman certainly wouldn't) I have visited a number of Spanish Culinary web sites and consulted Spanish friends. The conclusion is that Churros do require salt - up to 5 grams in one recipe. Glad to clear that up.
December 23, 2017
September 12, 2017
And then there was the strange stuff: guys at parties telling me how much they liked Galindez! Would you talk like that about someone's daughter? I hope not. But there it is. Time to move on.
And what I'm moving on to, is a series set in 1950 featuring a French detective sent to Saigon in what was then French Indochina. Working title is 'Silent Rain'. That will keep me occupied for a while.
January 2, 2016
Many thanks Rita!
November 15, 2015
We all reach a point in our lives when we sense a growing disconnect between our beliefs about the world which are rendered less relevant or less important than those of younger generations. Those things we have taken for granted and revealed to be much less permanent than we imagined, be they social manners, norms of conduct, fashion or gender roles or sexual mores. Things change though not necessarily in ways that make complete sense to us. Ageing is an existential challenge which requires negotiation and accommodation. If change is enforced rather than voluntary, we are likely to experience extreme discomfort.
If coming to terms with such a situation is an established part of our lifespan, how much more difficult is that for someone like Guzmán, whose life has been predicated upon enforcing the rules of a hypocritical and spiteful regime? His reactions to that inform his actions as the plot of ‘The Dead’ unfold.
Firstly, Guzmán wants out, though in a fairly ordinary way: he wants his promised pay off in order to spend the autumn of his life in comfort, away from his violent existence as a secret policeman. He assumes it’s a job like any other: that he can leave when he wants and on his terms.
Though Guzmán is uncomfortable about the nature of change, he is not grieving for the loss of Franco. Unlike some, he was well aware of Franco’s opportunistic streak that enabled him not only to steal the country from its people, but also from his fellow generals and politicians, all of whom he outmanoeuvred in order to secure his place as leader of the country. In turn, those like Guzmán were able to utilise their entrepreneurial skills to secure a place in the pecking order. But now, that pecking order no longer exists and Guzmán is not a politician who can change his affiliations to order: he is a ruthless killer with a long, damning history of violence and cruelty. He has lived the good life, though that lifestyle has been funded by his bloody deeds. Leopards don’t change their spots, as one of his key allies, General Ortiz remarks early on in the book.
On his return to Madrid, after being involved in unspecified counter intelligence operations, Guzmán realises the extent and pace of change extends far beyond his expectations. In two weeks, the election is widely expected to return a socialist government for the first time in fifty years. The Communist Party has been legalised, an idea that shocks both Guzmán and his Boss Brigadier General Gutiérrez. Not only that, but a secretive cabal of old Francoist Generals, ‘Los Centinelas’ is now pulling the strings in Madrid, exercising influence by bribery, blackmail and coercion and should violence be necessary, they utilise their connections with organised crime to subcontract the kind of work Guzmán and his associates once performed.
As a result of so much change, Madrid is almost a foreign city to Guzmán. Ever the pragmatist, Guzmán would be happy to be paid off – but finds the Brigada Especial’s funds have been frozen pending an investigation into its lethal work during the Franco era. Even so, all is not lost: Guzmán still has his code, something he worked on for years and which he will happily sell to the highest bidder. No matter that the bidder turns out to be from the Centinelas. Once Guzmán has the money, he is quite willing to leave Madrid for good –as the Centinela’s lawyer advises.
But there is one piece of business to be taken care of first: the destruction of the documents of the regime that were so assiduously collected and stored by units like Guzmán’s. They name names, both of the victims and of the killers. And mainly they name Guzmán and Gutiérrez. The Job seems simple: General Ortiz lends Guzmán a squad of young Civil Guards to assist him in stealing the relevant documents from various archives scattered around the city. Using a secret catalogue prepared by Franco’s office years ago, the job should be easy. All Guzmán needs to do is keep his head down and tolerate the insults of the Centinelas’s subordinates, mostly career criminals like Eduardo Ricci, the owner of ‘El Topless,’ a city centre nightclub that not only has Go Go dancers but is also a hot bed of vice and prostitution.
And there lies the problem. Guzmán knows only one way to deal with people who insult or threaten him. As long as he can keep his mercurial temper in check, he may yet leave the city on his terms. But when a bombing campaign threatens to derail the elections, drawing press attention to the presence in the city of people like Guzmán, things start to get strained. There is a limit beyond which Guzmán sees only violence as a credible response.
And now, he’s reached that limit. He must choose self respect or leave and live a quiet life.
July 21, 2015
Book 2 seemed to me to be already written. In fact it was, I had copious research notes, character plans, and a plot which seemed so cunning and complex it could hardly fail. Then I read the result. It failed. When it's hard for an author to recognise their own characters, you know you're in trouble. Enter long dark night of the soul, stage left. Lots of them.
And in the middle of those cold nights, I realised with horror I was making things worse. Which was good. Instead of ploughing ahead with a 200,000 word train wreck, I pulled back and got back to basics. Once I remembered what the basics are.
Firstly, the plot. Complex plots are good but not if they're complex in ways that preclude the reader from following them. If you can't summarise the plot sufficiently to tell a stranger on a train what happens, something's wrong. Being able to summarise the plot also ensures the author knows what's happening. True Detective Series 2 is an example of such a rogue plot (so far at least).
The characters in a series should be recognisable throughout. I had my main character raging throughout. He raged at waiters, passing nuns, subordinates, superiors and walk on, walk off characters whose role was not to be raged at. 'Calm down dear' as Michael Winner used to say on those TV adverts for insurance.
This isn't to say characters shouldn't change over time but if they become someone else, it doesn't make for a positive reading experience.
The protagonist needs to be the star. In rewriting, I made sure the main characters in the two time periods became the focal point of the tale. They initiated things, solved things, addressed issues and moved the plot. Others helped or hindered naturally but the two main characters now get most airtime.
The biggest change I made, and the most beneficial, was to address the setting: The wild, wide, rugged Basque Countryside. My characters had to drive everywhere. And when they did, they talked. My, how they talked. The only thing they never said was 'are we there yet?'
They should have. By slashing travelling times and cutting the travelogue descriptions, the whole thing started to move along much faster - and it made more sense.
For anyone experiencing this(very common, apparently) 'Second Album' effect, I thoroughly recommend taking the time to analyse what the story's about, the roles and importance of your characters and the arc of the story in terms of things becoming progressively more dificult until they reach a point where things go wrong, provoking a climatic event which ends well, or badly.(As a Sheffield Wednesday Fan, I'm used to that concept- a series of events usually ending in disaster and producing a targic climax at the end of the season).
Of course, this wasn't as pleasant,but now I have half the third book written,I realise just how much I've benefited from it. 'What doesn't kill us makes us stronger,' as Nietszche put it. Think how much worse it would be for a sculptor.
May 29, 2014
Most people (those who knew or cared about it anyway) had one take on the Spanish Civil War: a slightly exotic but doomed attempt to stem the tide of fascism already moving Europe (and later the US) toward the second world war. In Spain, the bad guys won, the good guys lost. This was a point of view I had long subscribed to, in over thirty years of visiting and working in Spain. But during those thirty years, it also became clear that for many people, the War had been something welcome, a means of restoring stability to a country that was drifting into chaos. I didn’t sympathise with such pro-Francoist arguments, but the truth is, a large proportion of the population were in favour of the Military uprising and viewed the war as a necessary and proportional response to the political situation in Spain. That didn’t make it right but it does suggest that the war can’t just be divided into good and bad.
Two Old Ladies, Two Different Wars
When I came to start writing Sentinel, it was the nuanced perspectives I’d encountered in conversations about the Civil War that influenced the way the book was put together. One example in particular sums up those conversations . On a morning in Pamplona, I was talking to an elderly Spanish lady. We looked down from her balcony at the busy street below and began talking about the way the city was changing, the new developments, the expensive shops that were opening. She turned to me and said, ‘you know, people often forget all the good Franco did.’ I was quite surprised by this since to me Franco was a mediocrity with a keen instinct for survival, a cautious, arrogant and spiteful little man whose every move seemed to be made with a view to career development or self-aggrandisement. The old lady remembered the day war broke out – it wasn’t a surprise, it had been anticipated for a while. Crowds of men marched around the Plaza del Castillo, the main square before Pamplona, signing up to fight. Crowds watched them proudly, applauding. It was an exciting time. Later that afternoon, the first executions began.
Following that conversation in Pamplona, I talked to another old lady who lived about a quarter of a mile away. She too remembered the day war broke out. She heard shouts and banging out in the street as the Civil Guard kicked in doors and took away trade unionists, communists and anyone else judged not to be on the side of the ‘true’ Spain.
That day, she remembered her husband running up their steps, stuffing a few things into a bag and climbing out the window with only a muttered goodbye as he fled. He had been a member of a workers’ association of such limited political ambition that it is hard to believe now how anyone would consider him a threat. But they did, and had he stayed in Pamplona, he would have joined hundreds of similar unfortunates who were lined up and shot without a second thought.
For that old lady, there were long years of hardship ahead. Spurned and abused by neighbours as a ‘Red,’ she found it hard to get rations because shopkeepers didn’t want to deal with her or left her until last when serving. The Guardia Civil would visit regularly to try to find the whereabouts of her husband (he had reached France) and, if she missed Mass, the Guardia would call, demanding to know why. Twelve years later, her husband came back, pardoned in an amnesty although he still was put in prison for a while. Even so, they survived the war and they survived the peace, though things never went easy for them and the old lady was teaching English to supplement her income almost until the day she died. She deserves to be remembered. It was for that reason I decided to use her name for one of my characters: Alicia Martinez.
In a way, Alicia and her husband were lucky. Thousands died, not in battle but shot for their beliefs (or sometimes lack of belief). Franco signed death warrants whilst having dinner, differentiating between those who ‘deserved’ to be garroted rather than shot and frequently ensuring any pleas for mercy didn’t reach him until after the person in question had been killed. In 1939, in response to the killing of a Guardia Civil Captain, 57 people were shot in reprisal. The dead included thirteen young women, seven of whom were under the age of 21 who had belonged to a young socialists’ organisation and who had been imprisoned before the killing took place. The young women had all written appeals for clemency to Franco. The governor of the women’s prison in Madrid kept the appeals on her desk, not wanting to bother Franco with the onerous task of reconsidering their fate.
Blurring the Boundaries
To return to the question I began with, then: why choose to write a novel from the perspective of someone working for a regime as reprehensible as Franco’s? Surely the most appropriate approach would be to clearly delineate the dividing lines between good and evil, right and wrong, freedom and repression? I think not. Nothing in Sentinel is supportive of Franco or his dictatorship. By telling – as Roberto Bolaño put it – the ‘secret story’ – the illustration of generalities through a focus on the particular and specific, a narrative can become both entertaining and subversive. Instead of heroes wearing white hats and villains black, there were much more fluid boundaries in Spain’s long years of dictatorship. Complexity is always more interesting than simplicity and storytelling more gripping than proselytizing.
Playing with History?
The Sentinel is not a history book: it’s an attempt to work issues and events from Spanish history into a story, and a complex one at that. But the intent is to entertain not to educate. Nor – despite my disdain for Franco – is it an attempt to transmit that disdain to readers. Directly anyway.
The basic premise of SENTINEL is the relationship between two Spains: the first is the Spain in 1953, still recovering from the Civil War and the second, Spain today.
In 1953, we meet Comandante Guzmán, a Civil War hero, now head of a secret police unit, a man without pity who is utterly ruthless in the execution of his duty and both cynical and corrupt. Unquestioning loyalty to the regime brings rewards for Guzmán and his men. As a result, Guzmán’s life is comfortable and he likes it that way. So when things start to go wrong, Guzmán must take action to prevent his position being threatened. And action, for Guzmán, inevitably involves violence.
In contrast, the sections of the book set contemporary Spain relate to someone who is the exact opposite of Guzmán: Dr. Ana María Galindez, a forensic scientist still in her first year of working for the Guardia Civil. Galindez’s father was a Guardia teniente killed in a terrorist bombing in 1992. Like many young Spaniards, Galindez couldn’t care less about the Civil War – it’s ancient history to her. She has her own problems: being a gay woman in a paramilitary organisation is far from easy and Galindez was left traumatised when, aged 8, she witnessed the car bombing that killed her father. She remembers nothing before that fatal explosion.
When she comes across the site of an atrocity thought to be the work of Guzmán’s unit, Galindez becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Guzmán. But her attempts to investigate events during the fifties have consequences in the present day: As she investigates, Galindez begins disturb secrets and ghosts of the past that many would prefer to remain secret. Themes of history, memory and forgetting, obscure Guzmán’s trail strewing it with false clues and pitfalls as she doggedly pursues Guzman. The relationship between today’s Spain and its violent past becomes a battleground as Galindez unwittingly awakens the dark memories and hatred that lie beneath the surface of Spanish society.
October 8, 2013
We kick off with Mark Oldfield author of The Sentinel
Who or what inspired you to write? Did you always want to be a writer?
Yes, I wanted to be a writer since my mid-teens and when I was twenty, took off to live in Paris and Spain, armed only with a typewriter, three reams of paper and a battered Frederick Forsyth novel.
In my teens, I’d worked my way through a large number of books by Zola and had every intention of turning out a vast body of work myself. Until I found out how cheap drink was in Franco’s Spain.
Naturally, life got on the way and thank God it did, because experience provides the lifeblood of my writing. Back then in the seventies, I was an eclectic reader but a seminal moment came in 1977 when I was travelling from Spain to Paris by rail. I got on the train two hours early, since Hendaye Station wasn’t much fun at ten at night, and found an English copy of 100 Years of Solitude under the seat. I read that book all the way to Paris and when we got there about 6.30 in the morning, I went and sat in a park to finish it off.
That book inspired me in so many ways but inspiration also came from people I met along the way. Travelling to Spain and being a frequent visitor over a long period of time, I became fascinated by the Spanish Civil War, by the terrible injustice of it and the institutional malice of Franco’s regime.
Learning more about the experiences of people I met, talking to those who’d lived through those times, was an eye opener. It also taught me that practically everyone has a story to tell, and that they may have a story that someone else can tell as well.
How attached do you get to the characters in your novels? Do you find it hard to kill characters off? What kind of characters do you most enjoy writing?
I feel a great attachment to my characters. Even though I had a good idea of who was going to die in The Sentinel right from the beginning, the story took me by surprise at the end when one character died who I’d imagined surviving. I think the important thing in killing a character is to make sure their death is meaningful: that they die believing something or trying to do something so that the manner of their death makes a statement about them, the killer or the plot. Attaching significance to their loss has an impact on the reader.
I love writing villains. They get the best lines (in my work at least), they can take liberties and they are relentlessly provocative. Yet they also act according to their own internal logic: their actions aren’t random or atypical, they are credible and make sense within the character’s personality. When I can get that right, the most villainous character can behave outrageously and the reader will still empathise with them. That said, some of my nicer characters are pretty flawed as people. I think it’s important not to make any of them boring.
Ian Fleming said that to make a good thriller ‘one just has to turn the page’ – do you agree?
Of course, you need the reader to want more, and to make them keep turning the page. To do that I think, involves working on storytelling: creating a world which is credible and in which the actions of the characters make sense. Each time the reader turns that page, I want them to find something new and surprising or at least entertaining.
When there’s action, I want it to be for a purpose, not just to fill some space. Drawing the reader into the author’s created world is key. And to do that effectively, the author has to be there first, to know and own that world.
How has the thriller genre changed in the post 9/11 world?
9/11 highlighted the potential for unleashing terror and disaster using means which horrified us, shocked us to the core. It was a spectacle that was so big and unexpected it shocked a society well used to spectacular things.
For writers, the stakes were upped, because when something so traumatic happens, there is naturally an impulse to use it, to embrace that destructive innovation and quite possibly, to surpass it.
There are also implications for characters as well. Villains usually have a motive for what they do. A nihilistic terrorist is harder to do convincingly than describing a corrupt policeman I think.
No matter what period one writes in, the key is to use the means and objects that were available at the time and to deploy those in a convincing and immersing story.
What is the strangest thing a fan has ever said to you / your strangest signing experience?
When the Sentinel came out, it got a lot of support from a website called books4spain. As part of their promotion of the book, the website held a raffle with the prize being a hardback copy of the book.
The prize was won by a Swedish bloke who I’d known for years from the Fiesta of San Fermin in Pamplona. I wrote him a fulsome message in the book and for fun, turned the a’s and o’s into faux Swedish characters – ö å and so on.
Having spent a long time ending the dedication with a few Swedish phrases gleaned from an online translator, I posted the book. For weeks after, the Swede lambasted me for not sending the book and for weeks I protested that I had sent it and maybe it would arrive soon. It did not.
We now fast forward to June of this year when I took my mother up to Scotland to see relatives and to celebrate her 90th birthday. My Goddaughter’s husband had been a keen Sentinel fan and encouraged several of his friends to buy the book. He rolled up at the house with an armful of books which I was pleased to sign. The last one, he explained, belonged to a friend who was something of a cheapskate and had bought the book on EBay. I opened the book ready to sign it and was confronted by the cod Swedish message I had written about 8 months before and which had disappeared somewhere between Tunbridge Wells and Gothenburg.
Currently, the case of the purloined Swedish Sentinel remains open. The Swedish prize-winner denies putting the book on ebay and the Scottish purchaser is now doubly happy to have a signed copy and to possess a book at the heart of an enigma. Only the author is unhappy since the Swede now threatens to send him a tin of fermented herring (no, not red) by post, a threat so vile it may have to be included in a plot at some stage.
What is your favourite pastime when you are not writing?
I play guitar, mainly jazz these days although I used to play in a C&W band a long time ago, playing Country and Western nights in pubs in the South Yorkshire pit villages during the miners’ strike. Imagine explaining why you’re wearing a Stetson and spurs to a group of coppers who are scouring the countryside for flying pickets and you’ll see why I switched to playing jazz.