Anthony Quinn, author of critically acclaimed debut novel Disappeared, returns with his new novel, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, the first in a series of three historical novels set in Ireland during WWI and the War of Independence. Here he talks to LifeOfCri.me about the nuances of using fact to create fiction.
I’m very much a believer in writing first and researching later. The danger of writing historical fiction is that as a writer you run the risk of disappearing down a wormhole into another era, never making it back with a clear-cut, compelling tale to relate. I’ve been obsessed with WB Yeats and the Sligo setting for years, and in writing The Blood Dimmed Tide the temptation was to succumb to excess and include a rich tapestry of historical minutia.
However, writing historical fiction, especially a mystery story, should be like steering a boat with a leak in high seas. Many loved items have to be chucked overboard with every page you write. Amusing anecdotes and fascinating details that don’t animate your principal characters and move the plot along have to be discarded with impunity.
For this reason, I resorted to thumbing through Yeats’ biographies only when there was a gap in the plot that desperately needed filling, or a scene that required fleshing out with something concrete. That sense of urgency which comes with keeping the literary boat from capsizing at all costs is a protection against procrastination and getting lost in the past.
Another great challenge in writing The Blood Dimmed Tide was remaining faithful to the historical record of Yeats and his life-long muse Maud Gonne. I was uneasy with the idea that I was possibly doing them a great disservice by entangling them in a plot involving occult societies, spies, smugglers and corrupt policemen.
However, Yeats has been much derided for his ‘creepy’ obsession with the supernatural, and his interest in the magical powers that might be acquired through esoteric knowledge has alarmed many literary critics over the years. It eased my conscience to think that I was at least portraying this side of his character sympathetically. This was what I promised WB Yeats at the start of writing The Blood Dimmed Tide. Whether or not I delivered is another matter.
I hope I am saved by the fact that many of Yeats’ friends found him unknowable. Irish writer Sean O’Faolain famously said of him: “There was no Yeats. I watched him invent himself.” In that sense, he is impossible to capture within the covers of a biography, which is a great problem for his biographers, but a golden opportunity for a novelist.
Yeats will always remain an enigma. He was one of a group of extraordinary and mesmerising figures that made London at the turn of the century an emporium of exotic cults and psychic societies. He was the closest thing we have to a supernatural sleuth, always seeking answers, always probing the evidence before him, always odd and unpredictable in his behaviour – which I hope makes him the perfect hero for a mystery story, especially one that involves ghosts, spies, smugglers and corrupt policemen.