Welcome to The Red Opera

The website about the work of Paul Hoffman

An interview with Maria Prokopiou

  1. How did you decide to write “The Left Hand of God”?
  2. My first novel The Wisdom of Crocodiles had taken thirteen years to write and my second nearly four years. They are both about people doing complex jobs in a complex modern world and reflected my life over the last thirty years or so. But my life until I was nearly twenty was entirely different – like a very a realistic fairy tale or bad Hollywood film.  I wanted to reflect that often harsh but strange experience of life in a story.  I was born in a house without water or electricity by the light of a paraffin lamp. My father was perhaps the great pioneer of European free fall parachuting and thought to be the first man to jump from a plane and take his hand off the ripcord (until then it was believed that if you let go air pressure would prevent you from getting your hand back and you would ’die screaming all the way to the ground’). I saw my first violent death when I was four when the parachute of a friend of my father’s failed to open. When my father, a soldier, was sent abroad I went at a very early age into a particularly brutal Catholic boarding school (the basis for The Sanctuary in this novel). All the theology of the Redeemers in the book is based on what I was taught there. I didn’t learn much else. By the time the school closed down when I was sixteen (the local authority insisted they teach girls, something that was an abomination to the priests) I had no academic qualifications of any kind – not even enough to get an apprenticeship at the local car factory. Then – this is the bad Hollywood film part – I met a teacher who despite my incredible hostility persevered in trying to get me to learn something. Eventually she succeeded (a weird side curiosity of this story is that the teacher, Faith Tolkien, was the daughter-in-law of the author of The Lord of the Rings).  Although I had (mostly) cleaned up my act my academic record was so terrible that no university would even interview me. The exception was Oxford University which, at the time, held its own private entrance exam. The idea was to screen out all but the most exceptional but it gave me my one chance. It was Oxford or nowhere. Of course the credits rolled over a happy ending.

    My experience of Oxford was like that of someone arriving in Harvard from seven years in a Pakistani Madrassa and is the origin of Cale’s experience of Memphis in the novel and his complete inability to understand it – or it to understand him.

    In short, throughout the novel I have tried to root what happens in real experience. Even the moment when Cale nearly knocks over the ‘princess’ inside the ancient walls of Memphis is based on a bizarre incident when I nearly knocked over Queen Elizabeth 11 during a visit to my college. I know this sounds improbable but when I said my life was like a weird fairy tale I’m not exaggerating.  The novel is embedded in my view that the fantastic in life happens all the time but in the real world it happens in a real way and not a far-fetched way.  This is, perhaps, the keystone of the novel. It may take place in an alternative world but everything in it is drawn from either personal experience or historical events and all of them rendered in a strictly realistic manner. This is not to say that ‘realism’ is all that useful a notion:  the collapse of the world financial system – something I predicted in detail in my novel The Wisdom of Crocodiles – is an eloquent argument to support my view that the two most realistic novels of the last 150 years are Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz. Realism just doesn’t have what it takes to describe the real.

  3. How long did it take you to finish writing the book?
  4. About fourteen months. I made a strong effort to write very quickly as if I were telling the story to an impatient audience.

  5. How would you describe Cale, the main character of the book?
  6. Cale is struggling to find his way out a terrible paradox – how to endure terrible suffering without being blighted by it to the point where it destroys him. This is not really being couched as a moral problem so much as a problem of psychological survival as the first great imperative. Given his extraordinary abilities his psychological collapse will have terrible consequences for the world around him. This, it seems to me, is the origin of evil in a truly dynamic sense. Anti-heroes are usually conventional heroes in modern dress – Dirty Harry is never going to rob a bank or rape a woman. He transgresses against the moral code only by beating up baddies not goodies. Jack Bauer does bad things for noble reasons. Cale is not like this – he is exhausted by the struggle to maintain some kind of human shape in the face of intense inner rage and the cruelty and indifference of the outside world. But he can’t indulge himself with Gandhi-esque fantasies of inner peace. He has no choice but to keep fighting while also trying to preserve himself from the corrosive effects of doing so – all of it while still being a child, confused, ignorant and inexperienced. Though, of course, we’re all confused, ignorant and inexperienced. That’s why I see him as a universal figure.

  7. Do you believe that the readers will easily identify with Cale?
  8. He is not as obviously sympathetic as Vague Henri or Idris Pukke but I think they are able identify with his actions – they understand them but also stand back from them. He feels and expresses ugly emotions that all of us have felt – even if we don’t, as he does, put them into action. And he may be ruthless and violent but he is not a bully or a sadist and he’s capable of kindness and heroism also.

  9. I have read that “The Left Hand of God” is the first part of a Trilogy, is this true? Can you give us some clues about the forthcoming books?
  10. The second book will be ready early next year and the third, and final part, the year after.

  11. The book’s story could definitely stand as a movie as well, do you have any proposals about bringing “The Left Hand of God” to the cinemas? And if not, how would you feel about such a proposal?
  12. I worked as a scriptwriter for fifteen and have had three films made, each one worse than the last. The film-making process is a machine for generating grief. There are good films around and I might consider it under the right circumstances but I will be a distant observer of the process.

  13. 7. Some descriptions in the book and particularly some violent scenes are very realistic and vivid, were you concerned about the readers and how would they “receive” them? (in a negative or positive way)
  14. My upbringing was full of violence and you either learnt to defend yourself or you went under. I wanted to be straight with people about violence, neither to glorify it unreasonably nor be pious about what a terrible thing it is. It’s a given of human existence – and we nearly all think it is admirable to be able to stand up for yourself both physically and psychologically. All three boys go to considerable lengths to avoid fighting because they understand the consequences but I think it is very clear that when such extreme violence comes at you at such a tender age then the ability to ‘stand up for yourself’  comes at a terrible price.

  15. What was your purpose in writing “The Left Hand of God”, what kind of messages do you wish to pass to the reader?
  16. There should always be a kind of compulsion about any story you want to tell. One of the most famous poems in the English language starts with a strange man who stops a guest at a wedding and magically takes away his ability to move until he finishes telling him his life story. Clearly a gift any novelist would envy.

  17. How easy was it for you to write such a mysterious and intriguing story like “The Left Hand of God”?
  18. We all mythologise our past – I just tried to do it honestly, the ugly and bad as well as the good.

  19. This book is quite different from your previous ones. Did you do this on purpose, did you want to change a bit your writing?
  20. I think I dealt with this in my overlong answer to question 1.

  21. What is the source of your inspiration generally?
  22. If you watch a child playing in a sand-pit that’s pretty much what I do.

  23. Who are the authors that you admire and what kind of books do you like to read?
  24. As a former English teacher of course Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare but particularly John Webster. The Greek myths always had a grip on me even as a schoolboy. My father was a soldier and one of the pioneers of free fall parachuting. I saw one of his friends fall to his death when I was six and my father come very close on many occasions. When I first read The Iliad at sixteen I thought: I know these people. I referred to it frequently when I was writing the violent sequences in the The Left Hand of God. I’m reading a good deal of Greek history at the moment  because I’m stealing as much as I can for the second book. I find ancient Greece fascinating because of the compelling mixture of intelligence and violence –  Aeschylus was an experienced soldier after all. The question of aggression and order is central to the times in which we live – but artistically we continue to ignore it except in popular fiction.

  25. Do you usually pass some of your own characteristics to the heroes of your books?
  26. Always. It’s the easiest way to bring them to life. What’s important, again, is that those characteristics reflect all of you – good, bad and ugly. Nothing in your own character should ever go to waste. It’s been said of the Chinese that when it comes to cooking a pig they can make use everything except the arsehole. That’s what a novelist should be like when it comes to his own personality –  except a writer should be able to find a use for the arsehole.

  27. Apart from writing what other interests do you have?
  28. Sleeping , food, day-dreaming, reading. I used to take part in a great deal of sport until a bad back injury brought that to a close. I miss that aspect of my life a great deal.

  29. Are you preparing another book at the moment? If yes when will we be able to read it?
  30. See above.

  31. Would you like to say something to your Greek readers and admirers?
  32. The English have always had a fascination for Greek culture – this is why we stole so much of it. There is a particular pleasure for me about being translated into Greek – it’s sentimental of me, like an actress telling a foreign audience that she loves their beautiful country, but as I child there was a famous book of Greek myths I used to endlessly re-read collected by Rex Warner and there’s no question that it had a huge influence on me – at the time, in the sixties, there were a huge number of films based on Greek myths. Even though they were as corny as hell they were endlessly fascinating to me. My father was a soldier and as a family we went around Europe where we all lived in tents and so did all the other competitors, also soldiers. When I first read The Iliad at 16 it was a moment of recognition: I know these people. I re-read it again while I was writing The Left Hand Of God trying to steal, in particular, the way Homer writes action and violence – I’m always robbing other (dead) writers where I can – but also the sheer intelligence of the way he writes about human nature. Granted I know much less about modern Greek culture but I have become fascinated by the Klephts and the comic disparity between the way they saw the world and the despairing attempts by 19th century English romantics to turn them into their very sentimentalized notion of Ancient Greek heroes. My next book (The Last Four Things) draws heavily on the Klephts and also their profound opposites the Spartans – though I promise there will be nothing like 300 on offer. I’m afraid when it comes to ransacking Greek literature and history I’m as bad, almost, as Lord Elgin.