The Silence, the third novel in my Viennese Mysteries series, continues to earn kudos from reviewers. Library Journal, in a starred review, just called it an “intricately plotted, gracefully written, and totally immersive read,” while Kirkus Reviews, in its Februrary 1, 2012, edition, noted: “Jones’ measured, stately prose is perfectly in tune with his period setting and his hero’s intense intellectual curiosity. … His intricate plot unfolds with suspense and style.” My publishers have just contracted for the fourth in the series, due out next year.
Sorry for the horn-tooting, but to celebrate, I post here some of the unused portions of an extensive interview I did with Big Thrill contributor and author Gary Kriss:
Your novels can be seen as “place paradigms.” Can you explain the difference, if any, between setting and place? Further, could you explain the “place of place” in novels and, particularly, in thriller novels.
Well, the classic distinction is that setting is bigger than mere place or location; in addition, it includes time in its broadest and narrowest senses, and even the weather. My Vienna novels are certainly heavily dependent on setting. It’s not just Vienna that is at the center of things, but that amazing, bubbling, schizophrenic place (at once revolutionary and stodgy) that is Vienna 1900. And the “place of place” or of setting in my fiction–absolutely central. From years of living in the city and from further years of researching the turn of the twentieth century in Vienna, I attempt a bit of time travel in each of the novels. I am in the time and place. I surround myself with visuals of Vienna 1900, listen to its music while I write, read the words of fiction and nonfiction writers of the time, keep a timeline of historical happenings handy. I personally like thrillers where the spirit of place is at work, as with Alan Furst. But the best of Le Carre depends on his pitch-perfect dialogue and very fallible characters. Lots of ways to skin that cat.
Speaking again of place, does it deserve equal billing with character and plot or does it function in a more secondary manner—accidental rather than essential, if you will– as one of several components that define character and plot?
For me setting and place take almost equal billing. Setting is often the starting point not only for plot, but also character in my work. Sometimes it is impossible for me to separate these elements. If you’re writing a contemporary setting, there’s so much that can just be taken for granted. I mean, you’re not going to describe in detail how to open a car door, get into the driver’s seat, insert the key in the ignition… We know these things. We live them every day. With a historical setting, all bets are off as to what folks know or don’t know. Now, all the writing experts are going to advise against going all travelogue in historicals. They say to just get on with things with a modicum of background detail. Well, they’re the experts not the writers. For me, the trick is to give the reader a page-turner at the same time as I build characters who will go the long haul of a long series, and as I also fill in the historical background of the period, the manners, the dress, the food. I am nosey; I assume my readers are, too.
Do you distinguish between mysteries and thrillers? Do either, or both, in their own ways attempt to rein in language so that it conforms the famous restriction at the end of the Tractatus?
I absolutely distinguish between the two genres and attempt the blend them in each of my books. The Viennese Mysteries begin as a mystery, a whodunit or what happened and why. But this morphs into thriller later in the book, as the mystery leads to something large and sinister that must be stopped from happening, the classic thriller trope. And as regards the second part of that question, I cannot speak for mysteries or thrillers in general, but for mine there is often the lose thread, the undiscovered perpetrator, the unsolved minor mystery that lingers like Wittgenstein’s silence.
You’ve spoken before of how Wittgenstein, and in particular how his uber-positivistic Tractatus, profoundly affected you, as it has certain other select writers. Has this influence found its way into your writing and, if so, how?
In its message. My interpretation is that Wittgenstein knowingly starts things off in the Tractatus with one of those phrases that should be left unsaid: “The world is all that is the case.” Now there is a metaphysical statement for you in the guise of simple positivist fact. And from that point, he goes on to construct all sorts of marvelous deductions. But then he concludes: “He who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)” It’s a classic case of misdirection or red herring. Or of good things coming from wrong assumptions. I’ve somewhat perverted this into my own mantra each time I sit in front of the keyboard: “Just get started. It’s not going to be perfect. Doesn’t need to be at first. Just get the words down and something good will happen.”
Which writers past and present do you think best convey place in their work.
Lawrence Durrell comes immediately to mind, and the Alexandria he recreated in his unfairly maligned quartet. A college student when I first read those books, I was stunned that words could really work like that. And on a totally different level of, his younger brother Gerald makes Corfu shine under noontime sun with novels that have no pretense to being literary. Let’s talk series writers, and you’ve got to marvel at James Lee Burke. Donna Leon’s Venice always makes me want to hop the next jet. And the afore-mentioned Furst and his interwar Central and Eastern Europe. Don’t get me started!