Welcome to The Red Opera

The website about the work of Paul Hoffman

Interview for Nautilus

  1. Hallo Mr. Hoffman. Could you please tell us a litte bit about becoming an author after so many other jobs you did – and how you finally end up writing a fantasy-book like “The Left Hand of God”?
  2. I didn’t start writing until I was in my mid-thirties really as a response to the collective pressure of experience. It became a way of ordering the past and making sense of it – nothing original in that except that I delayed far longer than most writers and hence one of the central concerns of my first two novels is the world of work, something novelists massively neglect because they don’t have much experience of working beyond quite junior posts. The Left Hand of God was simply a change of direction after I felt I’d said all I had to say about the way the modern world worked in The Wisdom of Crocodiles and The Golden Age of Censorship. It simply felt right to go back to the first twenty years of my life and write a story based on the unmodern world in which I was brought up.

  3. Would you call “The Left Hand of God“ a typical fantasy book, after all? (To be honest, I would not. It has a really fresh and modern touch, people and actions are more in focus and important than names and places and maps, you know what I mean?)
  4. Even the author of the Janet and John books must have thought they were unique (Consider the dazzling simplicity of the prose! the direct purity of the narrative!). That being said it seems to me fair to stress that The Left Hand of God is unique in its tone, characterization and style. Despite apparently being an obvious fantasy novel it’s harshly realistic – no magic, no elves or wizards – the prose style is the exact opposite of the bombast and declamatory psycho pomp of the genre. The characters are complex, full of mixed motives and tricky allegiances – and yet the events in the story drive them forward relentlessly without giving them the time to grasp what’s really happening to them or in the world around them. This applies both to the adult and the adolescent characters. The wise old men in The Left Hand (in ‘fantasy’ fiction usually pious Obi Wan Kenobis of total wisdom and vacuous truisms or Darth Vaders of motiveless malignity) are people with something genuinely interesting to say but who have only partial understanding and who have other responsibilities than loyalty to the hero. The narrative seems to be a simple one but it takes place in a world bristling with complexity that the hero barely ever grasps – and nor does anyone else. Here an adolescent is seen as a fundamental part of the human drama – his problems and personality are not seen as something that takes place prior to his becoming part of the truly adult, truly complex real world. This is a world where children are actors in the tragedy of life from the very start. Cale’s dramas, personal and public, are everyone’s dramas whether of a reader who is fourteen or in late middle-age. That’s why this is not a children’s book – it’s meant to be the fourteen year-old as Everyman (or woman).

  5. In the beginning, the book has more from Umberto Eco than from Tolkien …
  6. No criticism of Tolkien but this is almost the direct opposite. Tolkien is High Fantasy, wheras this is a form of dirty realism based on my own upbringing in a Catholic boarding school run very much like The Sanctuary. Granted they couldn’t kill us but it was both physically and psychologically brutal – a place run by people who deeply believed in an imaginary world of hell, heaven and damnation. This was a real experience not Gothic invention. To me the book is barely fantasy at all.

  7. Have you purposely written such a modern, fast, palatable non-classical fantasy-book? Or was that coming just along while you wrote the first chapters in the abbey?

    Nearly all the events in the book are rooted quite deliberately in real events. My life has been very like a realistic fairy tale or bad Hollywood film: 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’). He held the German altitude record for several years. 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.

  8. Your focus is on characters, interaction and dialoge. Very concentrated on people, not on the world. How deep and rich is your world-draft, though?
  9. Not sure I understand this one, I’m afraid. Perhaps the other answers might help.

  10. Worldly Innocent monks and a deaf-mute – are such characters from special interest for an author, because they deliver fresh perspectives?

    I’m interested in the way critics talk about melodrama when what it mostly means is that they’ve never done anything much but sit in their rooms. Is Afghanistan melodrama, 9/11, the absurdity of the great financial crash of 2008, the recent mass shootings in a quiet English country town? The world is a weird place full of weird people and weird events. Realism doesn’t have what it takes to describe the real. But I also like taking types from familiar stories and twisting them so that they surprise the reader. I think this sense from the reader that’ I know this kind of character what are you going to do that’s different’ is a great pleasure for the kind of reader I’m interested in.

  11. >The novel was sold in over 20 countries for translation soon after its publication on the english speaking market. Did you ever expected that success – and how do you explain?
  12. As the great William Goldman said about Hollywood ‘Nobody knows anything’. For the six months before Penguin UK bought the book a dozen publishers had turned it down because they thought it was uncommercial.

  13. What inspired you to the Story of Cale and his friends, maybe-friends and enemys?

    See above but Cale is an amalgam of me and some of the people I was brought up with. I was a pretty tough kid but some of the people I was friends with were physically formidable in an extreme way. It would be a mistake to think that he’s much exaggerated in the way of his physical strength. Again, all institutions consist of warring groups and individuals struggling for power at different levels. The Italian renaissance court, the Bundesbank, the White House, the school staff room and the school playground are all places where these great struggles play out endlessy and always will.

  14. I think we have to ask: What’s your relationship to the [catholic] church? What’s your opinion on all that history and present they – no doubt – have?

    My position is one of implacable opposition to the Church. My own children are the first generation of my family as far back as we can go not to have been beaten by priests and nuns as a matter of course. As important is the enormous psychological pressure brought to bear by threats of damnation to small children. Like many others I would lay awake as a six year-old thinking about what would happen to me if I died in the night. This is in some ways quite a separate matter from the question of sexual abuse. Beatings and the threat of damnation, the inculcation of shame and guilt are part and parcel of Catholicism. It is only the widespread rise of the human rights movement to include children that has forced the Church away from the more obvious brutalities towards children that were until very recently quite normal. None of it has happened because the Church has spontaneously reformed itself, quite the contrary. It is perfectly clear that Pope Benedict and the Catholic hierarchy in general want to roll back Vatican 11 and re-assert the authority of the Church. What alarms me is that only the most persistent legal pursuit concerning the most grotesque crimes against children have succeeded in becoming public in the teeth of opposition from the Church in general and this Pope in particular. The depth of the failure of the Catholic Church cannot be measured in whether or not a significant number of children in its care have been raped. If these things had never happened then the Church still stands accused of multiple crimes against children. In seven years I and my friends (and my brother) were in a Catholic institution there was only one such abusive priest and he was dealt with in, by the standards of the time, an exemplary manner. Does the fact that his superiors stopped one of their members from abusing children sexually as soon as they knew what was happening mean that they should be congratulated? Hardly. What kind of standard would that be as a measure of child care? The non-sexually abusing priests who brought us up left hideous scars on all of us associated with them. Even the best of them fell well below the standards we might expect of a perfectly ordinary human being. This is the depth of the failure of the Catholic Church. Sexual abuse is the tip of a very tall pyramid of moral failure.

  15. Violence from priests and even sexual aussalts in abbeys and the catholic church have been in the spotlight recently, again. It is a very hot debated topic in Germany and europe at the moment …
  16. Esspecially the beginning of your novel could be understanded and taken as really up-to-date critic, or?

  17. Was from begin on clear that you will write a trilogy?
  18. For some reason I always thought it would take three books.

  19. What can the reader expect from the next books about your angel of death?
  20. That Cale has no choice but to emerge from his personal struggle into a political and military one. He has to engage the wider world but dragging himself along as he does, trying to make sense of the public and private world as he does so. The same ghastly task as the rest of us writ large.

Thank you for your interest!