The Ten Thousand Things is the story of a Chinese artist in the 14th century. That was a turbulent century all over the world, but especially in China, where the Mongol conquerors were gradually losing their grip. Religious sects started rebellions, groups of bandits turned into armies commanded by warlords. Eventually one warlord defeated all the others, drove out the Mongols and became the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. The background to the novel is as accurate to the facts as I could make it. The artist’s life in the foreground is mostly my own invention.
Please tell us about Wang Meng.
He was a real person, one of the greatest Chinese artists, the youngest of ‘The Four Masters of the Yüan Dynasty’, though he was not generally recognized until two hundred years after his death. Wang Meng worked as a minor official for the Mongols (the Yüan Dynasty) and as a magistrate under the new Ming Dynasty. But after his retirement, when the new Emperor became paranoiac about conspiracies, Wang was arrested and died of starvation in prison in his 78th year. His powerful paintings, mostly of mountains, survive in various museums in China, Taiwan and the United States, but unfortunately, so far as I know, there are none in Britain.
Please tell us about your research process into fourteenth century China.
The novel took me eleven years to research and write, with many false starts. I had to inform myself of China’s whole history up to the Ming Dynasty, especially its cultural history, since Chinese artists from Wang Meng’s grandfather’s time on were as much scholars and connoisseurs as they were artists. I couldn’t of course make any reference to Western history or culture, not even in similes or metaphors, but I was constantly trying to escape from this constraint into a less realistic world. It never worked. I was like a bee, buzzing angrily as it tries to get through a window-pane, until at last it flies sideways and out through an open door. But I did also write five plays and another novel during those eleven years at the window-pane.
Please tell us about your previous novels The Ragged End, After Zenda and A Book of Liszts.
The Ragged End, published in 1989, was my first attempt at a novel. The title meant the ragged end of the scarf of history, the part still being knitted, where we are now or were then in the 1980s. Some of it was autobiographical: the characters included a BBC radio announcer (I was one from 1963-66), an art critic (I was the New Statesman’s art critic from 1976-88) and three who had worked in Africa (I was born in Kenya and had a brief job helping to run a UN plebiscite in the West Africa). There was also a beautiful TV Newsreader – she was invented, but I took her face from a famous 18th-century actress/courtesan painted by Reynolds. The story, ending with the Falklands War, unfolded as I wrote it. I had no plan in advance, but like my early plays it had many narrative strands. One strand was a reversal of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: it was the unhappy man in love with the beautiful newsreader who threw himself under a train.
After Zenda, published in 1995, was my mid-term break from the Chinese novel. It was a thriller, quite humorous, told in the first person by a cynical young English lay about who turns out to be the heir to the throne of Ruritania, a central European state recently released from the Soviet Union. Again, I found the plot as I wrote it, but the initial idea came from Anthony Hope, the inventor of Ruritania in his famous thriller The Prisoner of Zenda, set a hundred years earlier.
A Book of Liszts, published in 2011, the bicentenary of the great composer Franz Liszt’s birth, was the result of my sudden and quite unexpected passion for Liszt’s music as well as for the charm and generosity of the man himself. The novel is based on his extraordinary and romantic life, in a series of self-contained chapters, each from a different viewpoint and in a different style, some of it invention, some biographical. The chapters are like variations on a theme or like one of Liszt’s own collections of piano pieces in a work such as his Years of Pilgrimage.
You are also a playwright, so how much is this and novel writing interchangeable?
They’re very different disciplines. A play is a story in dialogue which has to be given detail and brought to life by other people – actors, director, designer and finally an audience. A novel is a far more detailed story which the writer alone brings to life, with the help finally of a single reader. Writing my first novel in my early fifties gave me a sense of great freedom and scope, but at the same time a kind of agoraphobia – too much space, too little knowledge of this multitudinous world which I was presuming, all by myself, to create. Both plays and novels depend on the writer finding the shortest or most scenic route to the destination, but the playwright turning novelist has to learn all over again what to leave out and what to put in. However, the big advantage for a novelist who has been a playwright is that the dialogue passages are, or should be, easy and fluent.
You live between London and Greece, so what is the appeal of Greece for you?
I studied Latin, Greek and Ancient History at school. My grandfather, J.C.Stobart, wrote a popular cultural history, The Glory That Was Greece , published in 1911 and remaining in print throughout the 20th century. I was always fascinated by Ancient Greece, its ruined monuments, its sculpture, its plays and poetry, its gods and heroes, its philosophy, its politics. I visited Greece for the first time in 1959 and loved everything about it, the light, the sea, the mountains, the people, above all the sense of the ancient still present in the modern. Driving from Athens past Corinth, Mycenae and Argos into Arcadia – those legendary names which are also places in a real landscape – thrills me still.
You are married to the biographer Hilary Spurling- so how much do you help each other as part of your writing process?
We read each other’s writings, chapter by chapter, scene by scene, article by article and sometimes, very gingerly, suggest improvements. But otherwise we go our own different ways. I couldn’t conceivably write a biography, not at any rate to the rare standard set by Hilary. She pretends that she couldn’t write plays or novels, but I don’t altogether believe her.
What is next for you?
I’ve already written my next book, Arcadian Nights, a re-telling of some of the Ancient Greek myths. It starts from my sitting on the terrace of our house in a Greek village, looking over the Gulf of Argos and thinking that if we’d been there some 3000 years earlier we could have seen Agamemnon’s fleet leaving for the Trojan War.
I’m working now on the diaries and letters of a great-uncle who went to India as an administrator in 1910 and stayed there for the rest of his life. I wanted to make a novel out of it, but I think it will have to be straightforward fact.