Roxelana talks to historian and crime writer Jason Webster about his latest book, The Spy With 29 Names, based on double agent Juan Pujol, his early writing inspirations and the upcoming release of Blood Med, the fourth in the Max Cámara series, which only took him two months to write…
What inspired you to write a book on Juan Pujol?
Firstly, it was because he’s Spanish. I have this long-standing love affair with Spain, so when I discovered that a Spaniard had played a crucial role in the success of D-Day and the Normandy campaign, I was immediately hooked. Then, as I read everything I could about him, I realised that his story was a) even more remarkable than most people knew, and b) had never really been properly told, not even by the man himself. That was when I decided to write a book about him myself.
What were the challenges (research, literary, psychological, and logistical) in bringing it to life?
I was keen not only to talk about Juan Pujol and his spectacular achievements, but also to fill out his story by bringing in the lives of people who had been directly affected by what he did – specifically soldiers on the battlegrounds of Normandy. They would not have known at the time about Pujol and the deception carried out to aid the Allied campaign in western Europe, but events on the ground were played out in large part according to stories woven and sent out from from a handful of offices around St James’s and fed to the Nazi intelligence machine.
One of the biggest challenges in the book, therefore, was finding tales of soldiers that I could use. The German SS man mentioned – Jochen Peiper – was fairly easy, but it took a while before I could latch on to a British officer on the other side. I spent months wading through memoirs before I stumbled on the right one.
What books have most influenced your life?
That’s a very difficult question to answer. When I was little I remember the Narnia books made a big impact on me, and I used to fantasise about them. Later, I’d say something like Iron and Silk, about a young westerner learning Chinese martial arts, which opened up a whole new way of looking at the world. Books and stories I came across when I was young often float back into my consciousness – the tales of King Arthur, Easop’s fables or Shakespeare’s plays.
Often I might be in a situation and find that it has echoes from, say, Hamlet or The Tempest. And that informs how I understand and perceive things. As a writer I think it’s no bad idea every so often to go back to Shakespeare and absorb his words. There’s so much there – in the ideas, the language, the story-telling and characterisation.
If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
If I could choose, it would be Sir Richard Burton. Not necessarily for his prose, which can be dense and obtuse. But for his freshness of ideas, his insights, his dedication, his brilliance. Burton had the gift of rarely, if ever, being blinkered by the assumptions of his time, and he was never afraid to pursue whatever goal he had set himself, even if it meant great danger to his person or reputation. That’s highly admirable, especially today in our increasingly herd-like, brow-beaten society.
What book are you reading now?
A book called La España de los herejes, fanáticos y exaltados by José Fernández-Mayoralas. It’s a study of some of the mystics and madmen that have so been a feature of Spanish life for many thousands of years.
Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
To be honest, I’m not often there keeping an eye on the new talent that’s appearing, mostly because there’s so much to read from writers who have already written and I’m barely keeping up. That said, in crime writing I’m a big fan of William Ryan’s novels set in Soviet Russia, while I always watch out for the latest Robert Twigger and Tahir Shah books.
Can you tell us a bit more about your upcoming book, Blood Med?
It’s the fourth in the Max Cámara series. Max is back in Valencia and has some tough decisions to make investigating the suicide of an ex- bank clerk and the brutal murder of a young American woman. Meanwhile, Spain is corrupt and on the brink of collapse: the king is ill, banks are closing, hospitals are in chaos, homes are being lost, demonstrators riot and rightwing thugs patrol the street.
This book feels more like a thriller than the previous three, (and secretly I’m hoping that it might be a bit of a page-turner.)
Do you have to travel much for your books?
I often have in the past, but less so in recent years because I have two small boys at home and they need a lot of looking after. For SPY I travelled to the invasion beaches of Normandy, as well as some of the locations in London and Germany associated with the story. The Max Cámara novels usually come out of time spent in Spain.
What was the hardest part of writing Blood Med?
I had a tight deadline and had to write it in two months. Which I did.