You have written a history of the Ottoman Empire, Lords of the Horizons, as well as a travelogue of your journeys in Istanbul, On Foot to the Golden Horn. Was a historical mystery the next logical step? What inspired you to move now into the realm of fiction?
For years I was scared of writing fiction: it looked to me like skating on very thin ice.What if imagination failed? What if the plot began to sag? I wrote books that clung to facts and observations like a safety rail. When I started to write The Janissary Tree I had nothing more than a central character and a period in Ottoman history that had always intrigued me. I wrote for the fun of it—and it turned out not to be like going out on the ice. It was more like flying. I saw that fiction could go to places that other forms shunned. Writing is about creating patterns: sentence by sentence you select the words, and page by page, chapter by chapter, you search for rhythms and echoes. A travelogue says: here, this is the place. A history tries to explain why it’s like nowhere else. But in fiction your characters, their motives, and their settings link in to a more perfect and revealing pattern. The mystery genre is wide open, I think. It’s a very accommodating form, and it locks in the element of suspense that’s essential to all good writing. It can be travelogue: Istanbul, for instance, is almost a character in its own right in my books. It can throw light on the way a society works in greater detail than a simple history book. History favors the winners: fiction gives the noncombatants, bystanders, and the overlooked their voice, too.
The Bellini Card is your third investigator Yashim mystery. What is it like to return to Yashim, and how has he changed as you have written about him over the course of multiple books?
I think he has more fun than he used to. Perhaps he’s more relaxed now about who he is. Maybe I’ve got to know him better myself. He’s a lonely man who battles against bitterness, and who has found a degree of consolation in friendship. The valide is alone; his friend Palewski is alone. But what they have discovered is trust.
Talk a little about your research for The Bellini Card. What did you discover about the period and setting that you had not known before? Are there any interesting tidbits that did not make it into the book?
I knew the Ottoman background very well; I knew about the Bellini portrait, too—or so I thought. It’s evidence of a rare cultural interchange between East and West—but when you look into it, those divisions begin to look forced. The Bellini family, all painters, may well have been the court painters of the Byzantine emperors—so Mehmed the Conqueror was emphasizing continuity—and legitimacy—by getting Gentile to do his portrait. Or was he chosen by the Venetians—for the same reason? The bizarre tale of the rediscovery of the portrait is told in the epilogue, but not its subsequent career. Its condition—overpainted, slipped from wood to canvas, all that—means that scholars now refuse to say that it is painted by Bellini: “attributed to” is their best shot. The rank of the portrait in the canon of art has been downgraded, which is why it isn’t on permanent display in London—you have to look at it on Wednesday afternoons, in a basement crammed with minor and dubious works. But just as it’s being downgraded at that level, its significance as a poster boy for East-West relations has rocketed. It regularly turns up in exhibitions—and when it reached Istanbul in the early years of this century, the lines went around the block. It’s the only real portrait of an Ottoman sultan.
Why the change of location this time, to Venice?
Well, why not? Venice is Istanbul’s alter ego in the Mediterranean. Venice grew up under Byzantine control. Later, in 1204, the Venetians captured Constantinople themselves. The loot from the sack of the city made Venice what she is today—the Horses in St. Mark’s, the treasures in the cathedral. The two cities are reflections of each other. Venice may be more Byzantine than Istanbul. That said, I simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to write about Venice in the doldrums. So much has been written about Venice, it’s hard to find another thing to say, but this is the period everyone skips. The old republic had been disbanded, trade had moved away. Under foreign occupation, Venice was a slimy, stinking, moldering slum, mired in mud and poverty. My kind of town. Now we imagine Venice to have been always beautiful and alluring: but in 1840 only a very young Ruskin seemed to have noticed what we nowadays take for granted.
Yashim is a most unusual detective—in a field where toughness and masculinity typically rule the day, he is a eunuch, a chef, an intellectual, and often has a light touch. Was this a conscious effort on your part to go against genre conventions? Talk a bit about what inspired the creation of Yashim.
At one level, Yashim simply emerged as the best candidate for the job: in Istanbul in the 1830s, only a eunuch could plausibly talk to the women secluded in their harems, attend the palace, mix with life on the street. Maybe there are too many detectives who like food, but in Yashim’s case it was an obvious talent—it’s a sensual world to match the one he’s lost (sort of ), and it’s also a way of signaling to readers the kind of world we’re in. We’re food savvy, and the very mention of eggplant or garlic comes freighted with the spice of the eastern Mediterranean. It’s also a question of motive. Yashim belongs to his world, but he’s at a tangent to it: he watches the human comedy with a certain detachment. That’s something he shares with some of the classic detectives, like Sherlock Holmes, or Philip Marlowe, or Poirot. Actually, they’re eunuchs, too: it’s just not acceptable to say so in 1940s LA or Victorian London. Funnily enough, I invented Palewski just because I realized on the job that detectives need friends in order to speak their minds. And Palewski’s much more the classic detective himself, in some ways. He’s a loner, he drinks too much, he has a sardonic take on the world.
When writing a mystery, do you know the end before you start and plot backward from it, or does the solution reveal itself to you along the way?
I think at the speed I write. I begin with a shadowy sort of idea, an area for scrutiny, and a vague notion of the people involved, and I let the story emerge as I write. I can’t always quite tell who the villain is. A lot of my plotting is derived from the Scooby-Doo school of “let’s find out who he really is!” and I have sleepless nights knitting the whole thing together. But if I knew the whole plot, and the characters beforehand—and many crime writers insist on having this—then why would I write?
Talk a little about the writing life—how long does it take to craft and develop the story, and do you rely on any tricks to get the imagination going?
My nonfiction books took two, three, four years to research and write. If you’re writing a series, publishers and booksellers and readers want a book a year. That’s the time frame, do with it what you will. Which means, get on with it. Dig the garden, run the children to school, wash up, whatever—and then plunge in. Keeping focused is the main challenge. I dream of writer’s retreats, or of a small hotel in northern France where you can have a huge sloping room and meals thrown in for a few dollars. I never get there, of course. The stories develop out of my reading. Traveler’s tales, guidebooks, memoirs; for An Evil Eye I’ve been reading a lot about magic—and also some fascinating and very rare memoirs of harem life. At low moments I’ll read a few pages of Dan Brown to remind me that it’s the story that counts.
What are your favorite mysteries or crime novels?
Graham Greene’s The Confidential Agent is wreathed with atmosphere and menace, and so is Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Samuel Whiskers: it’s a genuinely terrifying story, beautifully told (and you get the pictures, too). Raymond Chandler’s plots may flounder a bit, but I don’t mind. He creates a complete world that you are forced to believe in; the dialogue is razor sharp.
Have you committed any crimes yourself ?
None that would earn me jail time in a liberal democracy. That doesn’t stop me waking up in the night and thinking about something I really wish I hadn’t done.