I am both blessed and delighted to count myself among Urbane Publications’ talented collection of writers. Regular followers of all or some of us on Twitter will be used to the phrase ‘Urbane Family’ being given many an airing, but it is never meant at all flippantly. A new member of the family is the spectacularly talented Luke Waterson. Luke is a fellow Slovakophile and has most kindly agreed to write the post below, giving some insight into his motivations for his forthcoming debut novel, Roebuck – Tales of an Admirable Adventurer. You can check out Luke’s website Here. While you’re at it, follow him on Twitter too: @Britinslovakia
Over to you Luke….
Why my Forthcoming Novel Owes a Debt to Slovakia
I was sitting in the klub spisovatel’ov (writer’s club) in Bratislava, notebook in front of me, biting my pen. I often bite my pen when I am thinking (if there’s one around). It was an indeterminate hour of the day in the summer of 2012 (let’s call it afternoon, because I distinctly remember I was drinking). Other than me, the only other people there were the couple of girls charged with running the joint, absorbed in their smartphones to the extent that they’d over-estimated on the measure of slivovica they’d poured me. I’d only just moved to the city at that point and I was wanting to get my fill of defining experiences, of which hanging out in the writer’s club with a glass or two of potent Slovak spirit was certainly one.
It did indeed feel – ah, how shall I phrase it – very Central European. The pictures of the old former patrons (who I imagined had all written great seminal works, moody national identity-defining poetry, treatises on true source of the Danube or somesuch), the trams rattling outside, that mix of terracotta roofs and battered Brutalist tower blocks that only a city like Bratislava can pull off with such bashful charm.
But the esoteric Slovak-ness of it all wasn’t why I picked up my pen (or pulled it out of my mouth) at that moment and started writing the first sentences of Roebuck. It was more the fact that I was slowly coming to realise this – this city, and bars or cafes like klub spisovatel’ov within it – was becoming my life. What I did day in and day out. And that I was OK with it. Peace, or something similar, is how you could term the sensation. And peace I had not experienced in some time.
It’s funny; you travel around, say, South America (as I regularly do); you drink in umpteen surreal bars in umpteen countries and come way with a colourful anecdote or three from each. But that alone, if you are a writer wishing to write something, is not enough. The anecdotes are all well and good. But you need peace to make sense of them all and put the result to paper.
For me, Bratislava came to represent that peace – or, to say it another way, the space I needed, between the hectic research trips I made as a travel writer to Latin America and other parts of Europe, to pause for thought and to collect my thoughts. And in klub spisovatel’ov, generously-proportioned slivovica in hand, girls on their smartphones, sombre faces of former clientele gazing down at me, I jotted down the first couple of paragraphs of the book that would become my debut novel. They always say the first words you write of a book change or get deleted at a later stage but not in this case: the first sentence, They hanged him in the hottest part of the afternoon, and we stood on the deck and watched, that has not been altered since that summer afternoon in 2012.
For a book that is so focussed around the sea (the premise of the story is that a 16th-century gentleman adventurer named Anthony Knivet, determined to win the respect of his father, gets a passage on board the ship of Sir Thomas Cavendish, the explorer who a few years previously become the first man to circumnavigate the globe intentionally, and winds up on the somewhat hostile coast of Brazil) it is surprising, perhaps, that a lot of the inspiration comes from Slovakia, a landlocked country further from the sea than any other European nation.
But one thing Slovakia does have are forests: gorgeous, and rarely trammelled forests (I’d often go out for a walk, soon-to-be-chewed pen and paper in hand, to sit on a treestump somewhere out in the trees in the Malé Karpaty or Biele Karpaty, and come back with a chapter fully worked out in my head). Thus I devised no end of scenes in the novel: those set in Knivet’s childhood home, the boar chase, much of our protagonist’s time alone in the wilderness. Forests feature almost as heavily in Roebuck as oceans, in fact. Knivet is a sailor but he is a sailor that needs to go into hiding for various reasons – hiding from the Portuguese colonists that he has incensed, hiding from the cannibals that would (very literally) eat him for breakfast. So the forest – or rather, the jungle – provides Knivet with that refuge, and turns him into the man he needs to be for the task he becomes convinced he is placed on this Earth to complete…
I’m not going to pretend it was only Slovakia that spurred me on to write Roebuck. That would be just a little too perfect, right? Especially given the blog I keep, someone would probably accuse me of being bribed by the Slovak Tourist Board into waxing lyrical about the country being the fount of artistic inspiration… No, a chanced-upon article in the Economist, six months’ of painstaking research in the British Library, several years of travel through different swathes of the Amazon jungle in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Brazil, London’s Greenwich Maritime Museum, a pavilion full of pensioners on Southend seafront and (don’t laugh) Plymouth all had their part to play in how and why Roebuck got written in the first place.
But Slovakia gave me the space I required to combine everything into a narrative. However many other countries I live in in the future, and however many other books I might be lucky enough to have published, I’ll never forget that.
Luke Waterson’s debut novel, Roebuck – Tales of an Admirable Adventurer is published in December 2015 with Urbane Publications. He lives in Slovakia, where he runs the main in-English online resource about Slovak travel and culture, Englishmaninslovakia and works as a writer/journalist for such publications as the BBC, the Independent, the Telegraph and Lonely Planet.