Welcome to The Red Opera

The website about the work of Paul Hoffman

Italian magazine Interviewon

  1. Let’s start from the title: what are the last four things?
  2. The Catholic Church has always been obsessed by the personal death of its members (as a five-year-old I can remember being terrified when the nuns urged us to consider; What if you should die tonight?) But this is also part of the Catholic sense of the overall purpose of existence – the Day of Judgement when everything about your eternal salvation and damnation would be decided. To be prepared it was therefore essential to keep in mind always the last four things before that eternal moment: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell. I chose this as the title because it mixes the absurdity of such an obsession with not being and its horror. There are many countries (including England) where the book is published where the Redeemers are seen merely as a melodramatic invention of a fevered brain.

  3. In your previous novel, The left hand of God, we left the main character, Thomas Cale, with an extraordinary discover about himself, something that is going to change completely his destiny. What’s happening to him in this new novel? What do we have to expect from him?
  4. Many people think of the trilogy as a young Adult novel but this is completely wrong. Of great (and even good) writers in English only a very few (Shakespeare, Dickens and, perhaps, Golding) have realized that children are not people who are preparing to become dramatically interesting but that there lives may easily contain many of the great dramas of just being human. Many more books should be about children not for children. In The Left Hand of God Cale relies on his personal, immediate skills – essentially his talent for violence. In The Last Four Things he begins to understand that this isn’t enough, that he must plan his way out of the world around him – but he also learns that this is easier thought about than done. Even as he is forced to plan on a larger military scale he begins to realize that the problems he has to face not only multiply but seem to grow increasingly haphazard and impossible to plan for. No matter how cunning he is – and in The last four Things he shows just how clever he is – things keep going wrong no matter how carefully he plans things out.

  5. Cale seems to be, from the very beginning of this story, a very particular boy: he doesn’t seem to have human feelings, he’s closed and cold. How did you build his character? Were you inspired by someone you really know?
  6. I was brought up in a Catholic boarding school from the age of 10 in a place full of people (the boys and the priests) who were extremely violent personally and psychologically. In order to survive it was necessary to become cold and hard. One of the senior priests once said to my mother that I was someone who could look after himself. This was true – but it’s not really the point. A ten-year-old shouldn’t have to look after themselves, let alone become like a gangster in order to survive. Cale is in part autobiographical as a personality (often very cold and sure of himself) but he is also based on friends of mine who were physically very precocious. One of my friends, in particular, looked like a man by the time he was thirteen and was much stronger and much more capable of extreme violence than most adult men. The priests used violence to control us, mentally as well as physical but we were so inured to it by our mid-teens that almost nothing had an impact on us. I should stress that the priests who brought me up were in no way extreme by Catholic standards, there were many who were much harsher. This is a matter of record.

  7. Tell us something about the development of the other characters that surround Cale and that we met in the first book, like Bosco, Kliest, Henri…
  8. Kleist and Vague Henri are loosely based on friends of mine. But these are not normal friendships or very cosy. The relationships are based on the need to survive and shared experience. It takes time for Cale to respond to Vague Henri’s more human approach to the world and in this book I try to show how that friendship grows – but as is often the case with any type of relationship one does a lot more work than the other and knows it. Kleist is almost a mixture of the two of them – and in many ways more like me than either of the other two. I’m not as nice as Vague Henri and not as cold or violent as Cale.

  9. Who are the Antagonists and why are the Redeemers in war with them?
  10. The Antagonists are the Protestants to the Redeemer as Catholics. I’ve deliberately kept what they believe vague because we had no idea what Protestants believed as children (or adults for that matter) just that they were wrong in some profound but unspecified way that meant they were sure to go to hell – and that what they believed was utterly blasphemous whatever it was and could not be talked about.

  11. Reading The last four things, we never understand clearly where and when the action takes place and this is part of the appeal of the book, of course. Why did you decide not to tell everything to your readers? Maybe sometimes imagination works better…?
  12. To my surprise this question has bothered a great many readers (though not others). I started out with a very complete sense of where this was set and why it has the mix of familiar periods that many people have noted. I became ill before the Left Hand of God was published and didn’t have the time to set this out in a way that satisfied me. In the end I thought that I’d leave it without this complicated explanation – but perhaps in a future edition I’ll set it out in a way that readers would be amused by. I’m conscious that the books deal with pretty grim stuff but I maintain that making the reader laugh and take pleasure in what’s happening is central. They may deal with misery but they are not miserable books. I want to give people pleasure.

  13. There are fantasy novels that become, instead of a movie, successful videogames. How would you see a game from your books? Do you like playing with them, and if yes, which are your favourites?
  14. I have thought about this – but I’ve stayed away from videogames because I’m afraid once I started I might not stop. But in my mind – I don’t know if this would be possible – I see this as a game which would have a mixture of action and tactics – but the game would be programmed to throw in lots of haphazard things of the kind that never usually happen in films but that define life. Life itself is a mixture of action, tactics and bad and good luck – of arbitrariness. My videogame would mirror life itself: The Game of Life. I’m sure someone has thought of that title already.

  15. We know that The last four things is the second book of a fantasy trilogy. Would you suggest us to read The left hand of god first or do you think that is it possible to start from here with the story? What would you suggest to a new reader of you?
  16. It might be fun to read them out of order. This is how I came to one of my favourite trilogies, The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies. As to a new reader: forget the idea this is a fantasy novel or that it belongs to a particular genre with particular genre rules. As George Michael said: Listen Without Prejudice. I love genre fiction and I love mixing them up but the contrasts in the trilogy aren’t about doing this for the sake of it. Life itself is a chaotic mix of many different clashing realities. Realism doesn’t have what it takes to describe what’s real. Berlusconi and his bungabunga parties exist within walking distance of the Vatican. It’s my repeated contention that the two most realistic novels ever written are Alice In Wonderland and The Wizard Of Oz – and I’m not trying to be funny.

  17. What’s next? Could you anticipate something about the third book of this series? Are you working on something new right now?
  18. I’m well into the third book. It’s hard to say what happens without giving away book two but I can say we meet perhaps the most grotesque character of the entire series, the appalling Kevin Meatyard. He is, needless to say, based closely on someone I was at school with and he’s not in any way exaggerated.