Here’s the latest Monthly Book interview (transcript below): Janette Turner Hospital talking about her new novel The Claimant.
It’s a book about spies and collaborators, about art and religion, and its focus is a fictional court case in the late 20th century over a family fortune and the search for a lost heir.
Its concern is the way our identities change, even in the simplest ways, depending on the stages of our lives, who we are with, what the expectations are of us – our class, our politics, our nationalities.
Told in an intricate and complex way, The Claimant is a hard novel to summarise. I should say, too, that it’s a mystery thriller, so I won’t give too much away and ruin your enjoyment once you get your hands on the book. It’s a feat of plotting, and I imagined Janette Turner Hospital holding all the plot points and identities like a huge hand of cards.
As Janette explains in our Monthly Book interview, she was intrigued by the 1870s case of the Tichborne Claimant, who was an Australian butcher claiming an entitlement to a title and estates in Victorian England. Roger Tichborne had been on a ship lost at sea off the coast of Brazil in 1854, and his distraught mother claimed she recognised the butcher as her long-lost son. The claimant was subsequently convicted for fraud. (If you’re interested in learning more about Tichborne Claimant, Robyn Annear, whose book The Man Who Lost Himself was one of Janette’s sources for The Claimant, recently wrote a piece on the case for the Monthly.)
Janette’s interest in the case led her to investigate the practices of a series of con artists and frauds, the subterfuges of international spies, and the courageous and noble sleights of hand necessary to resist vicious political systems.
Janette Turner Hospital’s interest in class was established very early:
“I didn’t realise that I was lower working class until I went to university. And that’s the nice thing, actually. If everyone around you has a beat-up old used car and every kid you know at school or at high school is roughly from the same background … I certainly never felt underprivileged or really knew anything about classes with more income until I went to university. And it was a fairly big culture shock to realise that my behaviour was considered uncouth and embarrassing … I had no idea how to eat at a restaurant or that you got to choose different dishes … I’d always been watchful, even from elementary school, because I grew up in an extremely cloistered religious family, so my first culture shock happened actually when I hit primary school, and everybody talked about the races and I can remember that when the Melbourne Cup was run even the teacher would bring a transistor radio onto the desk but everybody would make sixpenny bets on the horse. I didn’t know what the Melbourne Cup was.”
So how did she summon her descriptions of a titled French aristocrat’s chateau and the milieu of wealthy American families like the Vanderbilts and the Cabots?
“… having become very observant since primary school, I am a very observant watcher and listener, sort of a scavenger of the ways other people live. And I happened to have had the good luck to cross all the boundaries, like a stealth bomber.”
In 1978 Janette Turner Hospital published her first short story in the Atlantic Monthly. Her first novel, The Ivory Swing, won the Canadian Seal Award. Most of her books have been shortlisted for awards, and she’s won the Davitt Award for crime fiction, the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award and the Patrick White Award. She has an honorary doctorate from the University of Queensland, and for more than ten years she held an endowed chair as Carolina Distinguished Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. Now, as Carolina Distinguished Professor Emerita, she mentors students and teaches one course each year.
RAMONA KOVAL: Janette Turner Hospital, welcome to the Monthly Book.
JANETTE TURNER HOSPITAL: Thank you, Ramona. It’s good to see you again.
RK: It’s good to see you again, too. We’ve had conversations –
JTH: over many years –
RK: for years and years –
JTH: in many different places –
RK: many different books that you’ve written –
JTH: different studios (laughs).
RK: And with every book, you amaze me, because you take in so much – vast numbers of topics and deep research – and the way you put it together doesn’t show any of those stitchings at all. So you’re a master.
JTH: I’m relieved that’s what you think (laughs), but …
RK: No, I do think that. And this is a book that’s hard to talk about, because it’s an international conspiracy thriller, so I don’t want to change any of the … I don’t want to spoil any of the experience of the readers. So I don’t want to tell them how it ends, for example. But it’s concerned with the ways identities change. It’s a book about spies and collaborators, about art and religion, and it’s set up as a fictional court case in the late 20th century over a family fortune and the search for a lost heir. And part of it is based on the Tichborne Claimant, the case of the Tichborne Claimant, and I’ll ask you about that in a moment. But please read for us from The Claimant.
JTH: OK, this is very early on in the book, just setting up the confusing trial scene. The trial takes place in Manhattan, in New York.
The claimant was supposedly born in New York to one of the richest and most powerful Protestant families in America, but he was French and Catholic on his mother’s side and of aristocratic lineage, offspring of a line of erotic and sumptuous extramarital beddings that stretched back to Louis XIV. He grew up in a village in France – in the chateau that dominated a cluster of vineyards – and was fluent in French.
No. He was Australian and sounded Australian. When he opened his mouth, the muddy diphthongs of Crocodile Dundee oozed out, sluggish as the chocolate custard left behind by a river after floods.
No. He was a blue-collar American who enlisted in December 1968, just before Christmas, was promptly shipped off to basic training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, then to a short advanced training stint in California, and then to Vietnam, after which he was either killed, or was Missing in Action, or was protected by South Vietnamese villagers who became boat people and eventually made their way to Australia, or he was evacuated to the Philippines after the fall of Saigon in 1975, after which he made his way to Australia, perhaps with the dog tags and ID of a fallen Aussie soldier whom he may perhaps have tried to save or may have killed.
Of the few things known for certain, one was that at the time of being purportedly located by the Vanderbilt lawyers, the claimant was a cattleman and a butcher in a small town in Queensland, Australia. He had been there since the mid-seventies and was going by the name of Christy McLew, accepted by locals as prototypical Irish-Australian.
WOULD THE REAL CLAIMANT PLEASE STAND UP? ran the tabloid headlines. WHICH PERSONA IS THE ACTUAL FAKE?
Was it just possible, some op-ed writers surmised, that he was the genuine article, an authentic offshoot of the vast and branch Vanderbilt tree, so many of whose saplings sprouted from serial nuptials, rogue dalliances and dangerous forays into weed patches beyond the walls of family estates? When Vanderbilt sowers went forth to sow, they scattered their seed as lavishly as they scattered their fortunes. If even the family could not keep track, how could the lawyers?
In short: Would the jury award the claimant a lavish penthouse on Fifth Avenue with a view of Central Park, a mansion on Long Island (a mansion in need of repairs and under a certain degree of duress from several banks and a mortgage company), a lifetime annuity, title to the Vanderbilt widow’s chateau in the Loire Valley and legal entitlement to the name?
Or would they send the claimant to jail?
RK: Thank you. So you read a case called the Tichborne case, the case of the Tichborne Claimant, and that was set in the …
RK: 1890s. So you haven’t written an imagining of that story, because you’ve taken elements of that original case. But tell us just briefly about the Tichborne case and what it was when you read about it. What struck you and what were the elements that resonated with you?
JTH: When I first heard about it, it was given as an academic paper at a conference on Victorian literature in the US, and it was a paper by an American. And it was on the fear of fraud in Victorian England. All kinds of generalised fear of fraud – speculation, adulteration of milk and food – and this case of the Tichborne Claimant, about an Australian butcher who might have been heir to the Tichborne title and the Tichborne estates. And I was astonished that I had never heard of this. And it was a huge cause célèbre in both the British and Australian presses in the late 19 th century.
So I decided I needed to know something more about this, and I found that Text publishing house here in Melbourne had published a book by Robyn Annear. I think she won one of the Australian literary prizes for it, and it’s a very well written and very well researched, absolutely weirdly fascinating story. And he was found to be a fraud and spent a decade in jail in London. But it became a really hot button issue because the Australian press was outraged that those British snobs couldn’t possibly believe that a butcher from Wagga Wagga could be heir to a title and a fortune. And the British press, you know, [is saying] this overweight oaf obviously is a fraud.
But the crucial thing that kept the case going for so long is his [Roger Tichborne’s] mother, who was so distraught that he’d gone down in a sunken vessel off the coast of Brazil in 1857, I think it was, but there was a rumour that an Australian vessel had picked up some survivors and that he might be living in Australia. So she advertised in the Australian press, after the death of his father: if anybody knows of this young man – she describes him as of a slight build and a rather timid temperament – to please contact her, because he was heir to his father’s estates.
Well, the Claimant was an obese, overweight, oafish kind of person and yet [Roger Tichborne’s] mother claimed she recognised him instantly. Was this massive grief and denial? Was this a way to keep the estate in the family? Who knows what. But the thought that grabbed me and got me interested in it was [Roger Tichborne] had such a miserable time with both his mother and his father who held him in separate places, that he just wanted to get the hell out and ran away to sea, and picked a bad ship, ’cause it went down. But there were certain bits of evidence, which I hope some investigative journalist will push to DNA research, because a cousin did get the estate and he did have children, so DNA could settle this issue: was he the heir or wasn’t he? He probably wasn’t. He probably was a fraud. I think that’s what the odds are. But my idea was what if he was the heir and didn’t want to be and was doing everything possible to escape from this. So that was the crux of it for me.
But I knew I did not want to do a historical novel. I wanted to set something roughly in the present, which turned out to be probably in the long run more work than if I had just done a historical novel. For one thing, I realised if this really were a cause célèbre in the tabloids right now, people would be blogging and tweeting and Facebook posting about it. And I’m not exactly a Luddite, I have nothing against other people doing this, but I am a complete technophobe. I do not have a smartphone or a tablet. I have never posted on Facebook or even looked at Facebook. So I couldn’t do that. So the year I picked for the trial is 1996, and I did that very deliberately because that was the year that [Rupert] Murdoch bought into the American media and set up one of his sleaze (laughs) newspapers.
RK: So you could have all those tabloid headlines.
JTH: Right. Which Murdoch is so good at (laughs).
RK: (Laughs) So it’s a book about identity. In fact, there are four protagonists more or less, and each of these people goes through changes in the book, backwards and forwards in time. But their names change as well.
RK: And so the reader has to be astute about who it is that we’re talking about, but you make it clear that somebody will walk into a room with one name and then, because of some time shifts or something that’s happened, they present themselves as a different person.
JTH: Or someone else in the room will call them by the name that the reader thinks is not [their name].
RK: Exactly. But life is like that a little. I mean, women do it. In the olden days when you changed your name when you got married and you looked at the new name and you looked at the old name, and I don’t know if it was like that for you, but if you look at an old name of yours written on a schoolbook or something …
RK: You wonder, you think, “Who was that person?”
JTH: And I do find these old books that have “Jan Turner” written in them and I think, “Oh that’s right, there was a whole era when I forced people to call me ‘Jan’ and not ‘Janette’.” (Laughs) And then I began to force them to call me Janette again because I was publishing.
RK: And there was a case.
JTH: And there was an actual case. As I was beginning to think about how I would retell the Tichborne case in roughly the present, it was brought to my attention that there were articles in the New Yorker and Harper’s and various other magazines about a case dubbed by the press as “The Girl Who Conned the Ivy League”. And this was someone who changed her identity and name multiple times, but without any intention to be a con woman, to enrich herself, which is the usual reason people change their identity, for nefarious criminal reasons. But she did it to escape the self and the identity she’d been dealt by birth.
She was born one of eight or ten children in rural Montana to a not-very-with-it mother, and she had three different stepfathers and she just had a God-awful family life and she decided to flee it. And the first time she did, she actually stole a wallet of a friend of one of her siblings and went off to the west coast and used that driver’s licence and just began to be this other person. And she found it immensely freeing. Instead of being this depressed, much-abused child in this big, careless, negligent family, she became competent and she began to take courses and then she realised she needed to make sure – after the person whose driver’s licence she stole was around somewhere, was still living. She was very bright. I don’t know where she would have got that genetic inheritance from, given her family background, but she realised that – they used to publish lists of missing people. I don’t think they do it anymore, at least not with that kind of specificity of birth date and social security number and other identifying things.
RK: A gift! An absolute gift for anyone who wants to change identity.
JTH: Yes! And she was bright enough to pick the documentation of a missing person whose birth date was pretty close to hers. And first of all she would write to the registry of births. She would pick someone missing from a state far distant from where she was at the time. She would write and say that her birth certificate had been stolen or lost and she would get the birth certificate in this name, which shows how careless registries must have been because … Anyway, she would get this birth certificate and she would use it to get a driver’s licence. She became very adept at finding out which states were the least demanding in terms of documentation. And then eventually she got an American passport in the name, whichever name she was using at the time. But she had to change this several times because it would get risky and she would fear she was going to be caught. So she would do it again. And she had about five different identities.
The last one she picked, and the one which landed her currently in a South Carolina prison, was that of a young woman named Brooke Henson. The real name of this woman is Esther Reed. She picked the identity of Brooke Henson, who’d been missing for about a decade, presumed murdered by her boyfriend but no body and no evidence was ever found. So she does her usual routine and gets the driver’s licence and passport.
She was very bright and she took a couple of summer courses at Harvard University, did so well – and you can take summer courses just by paying for it without going through the whole admissions routine and producing –
JTH: Right. She did very well. So the professors were so impressed that they wrote her references and she got in to Princeton [Editor’s note: actually Columbia University] as Brooke Henson. Meanwhile, there was, however, a cop in South Carolina who refused to let this become a cold case. And he was always on the lookout. He always believed the boyfriend had murdered her …
RK: He sounds like he’s just out of central casting.
JTH: I know. And he knew the parents and knew that they always hoped that their daughter was still alive. So somehow or other he saw some passing reference to this name at Princeton. He called campus police and said, “There’s a Brooke Henson there. Is she the one who’s been missing from South Carolina?” Campus police call her. She immediate realises again the game is up. By the time the campus police get to her campus apartment, she’s gone, she’s out. For another year she had to really live on the run. On the street, practically. Staying in fleabag motels. And they finally caught her. And I was fascinated that she said her dominant emotion when she was caught was relief. It had just been so stressful, you know – always fearful of being caught. But she never did it for personal gain. She did it to escape herself.
RK: No. I was going to say, how did she profit?
JTH: She didn’t. Yeah. So those were the poles. I have two people who are criminals and con people, a con man and a con woman, and I have two people who end up, yes, there’s no way not to break the law if you’re stealing someone’s identity, but I wanted them to be good people, not after gain but just fleeing the lives they happened to have been dealt. So that’s how the novel came into being and I have these four people whose lives thread through each other.
RK: Well, of course, the Vanderbilts were, if there’s such a thing as class in America, I suppose, the ruling class.
JTH: In terms of sheer wealth, the Vanderbilts in the – actually in the same time as the Tichborne trial, Cornelius Vanderbilt was the first mega millionaire, sort of railroad robber baron steamship company, profited immensely from the Civil War by gun running in ships to the south. I read an equally fascinating book to Robyn Annear’s book by one of the Vanderbilt descendents called Fortune’s Children: The fall of the house of Vanderbilt. And unlike the old money in New England or unlike even the Rockefellers and other new money in New York the Vanderbilts were conspicuous consumers on an unbelievable scale. Sort of like The Great Gatsby. So although they’re by no means poor, they used to own about six mansions along Fifth Avenue, and now they own none of them, although they’re still quite well off. And it’s such a strange family saga, and they were constantly in litigation against one another: parent against child, sibling against sibling, spouse against ex. I mean, it’s a melodramatic, sordid drama. So of course it was irresistible to me (laughs).
RK: While I was reading it [the book] I was thinking, “I wonder how the Vanderbilts feel about this,” but then I Googled them and I thought, “My God.” I mean, they’ve got so much that actually really went on that I can’t think of them saying, in high dudgeon, “You’ve ruined our reputation,” because I think they’ve ruined themselves.
RK: They’ve ruined their reputation themselves. But just before I ask you about class, which is what I want to ask you about, Biltmore [in North Carolina] is this … Well, describe it for me because you write about Biltmore and I looked it up, too.
JTH: They called it Biltmore because Vanderbilt – they’re originally Dutch and Bilt was the little village in the Netherlands that I think the father of the founder of the fortune came from. So Biltmore was to honour the ancestral residents in the Netherlands and the name Vanderbilt. It was built by George Washington Vanderbilt, who was the grandson, the youngest of ten children of the youngest son of the founder. They had huge families back then. I suppose, way before birth control. And the very youngest son, he was actually the first one of the extensive Vanderbilt family who actually had class in the sense that we [think of it] – classy person and taste – and fell in love with antiques in Europe. And being obscenely rich he decided to build a kind of replica, a fusion of Chambord and Blois castles, both of which have a spiral staircase. The one at Chambord is a double spiral and was designed by da Vinci. Frances I had it built. And the one at Blois, I can’t remember which king had that built, but it has a single spiral staircase and George Washington Vanderbilt fell in love with these. And so Biltmore Castle is like a strange jigsaw puzzle.
RK: It sounds like Disneyland, sort of in the middle of the landscape.
JTH: In a way, except that it is very beautifully designed and furnished beautifully, and really the only thing that’s odd about it is the attempt to stick together like a jigsaw puzzle several beautiful chateaux, and it’s fabulously furnished. Well, eventually even he ran out of money, and after his early death his wife and daughter had to – it was originally an estate of about, I think, a couple of hundred thousand acres, it’s now down to 8000 acres because they had to sell off a lot of land. And the family, it’s still managed very adroitly by two grandsons and two great-granddaughters who have MBAs.
RK: And you can go stay there, apparently. And go riding or something.
JTH: You don’t stay in the chateau itself. They have…
RK: Did you stay there? Have you been?
JTH: Yes. I take Australian relatives and visitors to see it. The chateau itself is not any longer lived in. You tour it and it’s incredible. It’s got incredible tapestries, it’s looted the art of Europe to be there. This is the Disneyland part. They have built the Inn at Biltmore, which is a Disney-ish replica of the chateau, where you can stay on the estate. And it’s ludicrously expensive but I wanted the experience. We did spend what was called the Romantic Weekend package.
JTH: Which gave us three days and two nights and we did it for a wedding anniversary, and you’re greeted with champagne and taken in carriage rides around the estate. And so I thought because I’d been there and because I read this amazingly fascinating sordid family history that this is the perfect family to use in place of the Tichbornes.
RK: But you are interested in class, and all the way through the book there are elements, whether it’s set in a French village or in America, you’re interested in what people assume, I suppose, from what class you come from. And how when the classes get together, if they do, it might be at university, this is be the only time the classes will be up against each other. I mean, what happens. Tell me about your interest in class.
JTH: Well, I didn’t realise that I was lower working class until I went to university. And that’s the nice thing, actually. If everyone around you has a beat-up old used car and every kid you know at school or at high school is roughly from the same background … I certainly never felt underprivileged or really knew anything about classes with more income until I went to university. And it was a fairly big culture shock to realise that my behaviour was considered uncouth and embarrassing.
RK: What bits of your behaviour, might you think?
JTH: I had no idea how to eat at a restaurant or that you got to choose different dishes. I didn’t know how to choose any of these. But I began to have friends – and they’re still very dear friends, actually, one of them was there at the [Wheeler] Centre, the one who painted a portrait of me – who’d gone to elite private schools. And because I’d always been watchful, even from elementary school, because I grew up in an extremely cloistered religious family, so my first culture shock happened actually when I hit primary school, and everybody talked about the races and I can remember that when the Melbourne Cup was run even the teacher would bring a transistor radio onto the desk but everybody would make sixpenny bets on the horse. I didn’t know what the Melbourne Cup was.
RK: Did you think that was evil? Or that was betting and racing?
JTH: Well, when I went home and told my family about it, yes, I was told it was gambling, it was evil. But I didn’t even know what it was.
RK: They were Pentecostal Christians, weren’t they?
JTH: Mmm. Very tight strictures. We didn’t have a radio or a TV. I was 21 before I saw a movie. But it never felt repressive to me. Because it was a very loving family and we lived in this shambling wooden house on stilts with a mango tree that I loved to climb in the back, and a paddock at the back, it was in a creek behind the – so I had an idyllic childhood from my point of view, very connected to the earth, we had a banana clump in the backyard.
RK: Were you allowed to read what you wanted to read?
JTH: Luckily, yes. Many people in the church just were not interested in books. My dad, his father was headmaster of a Victorian school, in the state of Victoria. And books were important, and they were always important to Dad. And Dad grew up, he was an altar boy in the Anglican Church and a choirboy, but during the war he grew up, he didn’t finish high school because of the Depression and the war. During the war he signed up for the air force, for the RAAF, and out of anxiety he wandered into a little gospel hall and found God and felt empowered and safe. But he never lost his reverence for books. And one of the things I’m proudest of and happiest about is Dad always was interested in music, he played Bach on an old tinny upright piano as I was falling asleep, always had reverence for books and art and literature, which made us a very unusual fundamentalist family.
RK: So no banning of books in your family.
JTH: No, not in my family, although the church in general disapproved of that. And when I got a scholarship to go to university, all the elders in the church told Dad this was a terrible mistake: if you send a daughter to university, she’ll lose her faith.
RK: And were they right?
JTH: Yes (laughs). But I encouraged Dad, after he retired, he did a BA at UQ [the University of Queensland] in his late 60s and an MA in his 70s.
JTH: So I’m planning, in fact – to my astonishment, Dad left a modest amount of money, he died last year. So I’m going to use it to contribute to late-life learning in his name at the University of Queensland.
RK: Very fitting. So back to class. So it’s been a lived experience of yours.
JTH: Yes, and oddly enough, I really do know all the sections along the spectrum. My translator in France is part of the French aristocracy and I’ve stayed in what seemed to me to a chateau but it’s just what’s called in France une belle demeure, a fine country house, and been at dinner parties with French countesses and such. So of course having become very observant since primary school, I am a very observant watcher and listener, sort of a scavenger of the ways other people live. And I happened to have had the good luck to cross all the boundaries, like a stealth bomb (laughs).
RK: Yeah, like a stealth bomber. But is there a kind of Jan Turner inside who’s worried about fitting in?
JTH: No, I just accept it from early on – I’ll never fit in. Anywhere. So I don’t, I’m just an observer and I’m fascinated by all these – I don’t fit. I never fit in, you know. So that’s OK. I’m happier with solitude than in company, but I’ve learned how to fake it in many different kinds of company. But I guess I decided early on I’m someone who doesn’t fit in. So that’s not something I worry about. But I also know I’m going to be – in other words, I’m like some of the characters in my book. I’m well equipped to be a con woman if I decide (laughs) to be. In fact, I once read this wonderful – have you read stuff about John le Carré? His father was a petty criminal but when his father made lots of money, which he would do from time to time, he had John le Carré educated at a Jesuit school. And le Carré, which is a pen name, was going to be become a Jesuit. But in the summers he would live life under bridges with his father on the run with all these other petty criminals. And from time to time his father wouldn’t have enough money to pay the school fees, but the Jesuits thought so highly of him that they kept him on. And he said at one point, because he did work for MI … 5, was it, British intelligence, and he said, “My whole childhood was excellent training for espionage.” Because he lived this completely double life with the petty criminals and with the Jesuits and learnt to pass in both. I’ve always remembered that – he said he was always well equipped to go into espionage.
RK: Well, you talk about espionage and you write about espionage, and this is not the first time you’ve written about the world of espionage. What do you have to know to write about the world of espionage?
JTH: Well, because I really am politically highly conscious and activist and very left of centre, and during the ’60s in Boston at Harvard I became highly politically aware, everybody in the ’60s was very wary of the CIA and I read a lot about it, and I actually do know, came to know, came to have as adults, graduate students, people who had worked for the CIA, about which I’m fascinated.
RK: People who’d left the CIA and then came to school afterwards or …?
JTH: Yeah. These were people who were in their late 60s or 70s.
RK: And do they talk?
JTH: Well, they’re not allowed. They talk about certain things. In fact, this one student I had, who, I guess he was about 70 when he came into one of my graduate classes, and he lived in DC and it was a summer-school writing class that he came to and we were invited to see – he lived around the corner from Kissinger, and he said substance abuse in DC, because of the stress, is so widespread. And he had been an alcoholic from stress and was a member of AA. And he said there are people in DC who pretend to be alcoholics, because they’re outside the loop if they don’t go to AA meetings (laughs), which is the one place where anonymously you can feel free to say anything. I thought that was such a funny story.
RK: But do they? I wonder what they say? They use their first names, don’t they? “I’m Ramona and I’m an alcoholic” or something, and then they would tell anecdotes about their last fall off the wagon or something.
JTH: Which they might perhaps… I don’t know, you know, what they say, but I sort of imagine they say, “I was under such stress.” Well, he had been posted to Amman in Jordan. He did talk a fair bit about that, because he told me one of the reasons he became an alcoholic was that his very beautiful wife had an affair with the king of Jordan while he was there. So there were certain things – I imagine that’s the sort of thing …
RK: I imagine the king of Jordan does that quite a lot.
JTH: Yes, I suspect that, too. So I did learn a number of fascinating things from him, and I read a lot about books of – you’re not supposed to do it, of course they’re not supposed to it, they take an oath not to but there are former CIA agents like John le Carré, a former British intelligence agent, who do write about it. And I read with great fascination.
RK: Aren’t the CIA always supposed to vet it before it gets published?
JTH: Yes, although there’s not much they can do to someone who’s retired, although they try to. I understand the intimidation tactics are pretty alarming, actually, I think.
RK: And why WikiLeaks must have demented them.
JTH: Yes. So yes, I just happened to have a fascination with – also, I have come across, not in a way dangerous to me, but I have known a couple of con people. We had a neighbour a few doors away from us when we lived in Kingston, Ontario. It took us all quite a while to put it together. We were given to understand that she was from Anglo-Irish aristocracy and she had a very splendid house on the lake. But we began to gossip. It was a very communal neighbourhood and we all had to have turns to throw a party for everyone in the neighbourhood. And when you went to Brenda’s party, people said to me, “Have you noticed there’s nothing to drink? Don’t go early to Brenda’s party.” Because everyone would bring a bottle. And if you got there too early … (laughs).
RK: Until the first person got there.
JTH: That’s right. And she would manage to throw these parties with, as far as we could tell, spending nothing.
RK: Very little alcohol.
JTH: Yes. By the third time it happened, I woke up. She would invite me to lunch at some of the better restaurants in town and she would invite me but towards the end of the lunch she’d say, “Look I’m terribly sorry I’ve got to rush off to this appointment,” and I would pick up the tab for both of us. “Oh, you know, it’s not be a big deal.” Second time you think, “It’s a bit odd.” By the third time I thought, “OK, I’m not going to do this again – when I’m invited to lunch I’m going to be paying the tab.” So there were several incidents like that where you realised she’s a con woman. She lives by fleecing other people all the time but she was very good at what she did. And con people are incredibly good at what they do, you know. Their confidence …
RK: They con people!
JTH: They do.
RK: Because they’re professionals.
JTH: Always in a very convincing, in a very charming kind of way. They’re all charmers. So yeah, I’ve had a couple of close brushes that were not dangerous or painful but it made me aware of how they operate.
RK: You used a word before, which was “taste”, and I think this is an important weapon, too. I mean, what is beautiful, what is valuable, what is well executed as far as, say, a piece of art is concerned.
JTH: And that was the thing about Brenda’s house. She had these beautiful carpets and beautiful furniture. God knows how she acquired them. They’re very good at acquiring a camouflage and a patina that makes you believe that they buy very expensive clothing. In fact, that movie that Cate Blanchett was just in, the latest Woody Allen …
RK: Blue …
JTH: Yeah, Blue Jasmine.
RK: Blue Jasmine.
JTH: Where she is completely broke but she arrives with an Hermès bag
RK: And the little Chanel suit or something like that.
JTH: Right. Right. Having the accoutrements of good taste is one of the disarming camouflage outfits, devices, in their toolkit.
RK: Well, you’ve sent me to Google several times. Because I had to look up these paintings referred to in the book. Capucine is an art historian with a taste for rescuing people from human rights abuses, and I believe part of your research was doing some of your self-education in the great art of the world and how to interpret it.
JTH: You know, I’ve always loved art but not been well informed about it. So I’ve taken some art education courses, mainly through DVDs and learning about it. And I’ve learned a lot about how to look at a painting more intelligently than I used to. And that fed into the book, too.
RK: So I think people can understand that there are a lot of strands of interest here: in history and in art and in people who make escapes from their former lives. Just finally, you say that this book almost defeated you.
JTH: (Laughs) Yes. Yes, I thought it had become so labyrinthine that I felt I’d lost the thread to get out of it myself, and I did abandon it. I just thought that this can’t be done, it’s just too complicated. I’ve abandoned several books but they just refuse to be abandoned, you know. I’ve been obsessing about them for so long that I try to put it aside and chuck it and start something completely different and I can’t detach my mind, which keeps obsessing about these details. And so eventually I just have to figure out a way out of the labyrinth.
RK: So is it about a way of finding out the most important detail, and the detail that is going set off a whole lot of explosions in the minds of the reader, and deciding which other detail is something you know but you don’t necessarily need to tell me you know.
JTH: Yeah. That’s hard for me because I’m always so fascinated by the knowledge I acquire in these detours that it takes editors to say, “Look, that’s very interesting but it doesn’t belong in this book” and it’s hard for me to chuck those bits.
RK: But you’ll always have them, though, in your heart and in your mind.
JTH: Although at the rate my memory is failing, I’m not sure how long (laughs). I’m very nervous about – because both my parents, who lived into their 90s got, you know, they never had Alzheimer’s, but they were sort of in the hallway, which I often fear I am, too. But for as long as my mind holds up I’ll have all of these fascinating bits of trivia lurking in back corners.
RK: And they’ll grow into books.
JTH: Maybe. Right now I feel, “[Sighs] It was so crazy and I feel so depleted I’ll never write anything else,” but then Cliff [her husband] reminds me, “You say that after every book.”
RK: (Laughs) Well, Janette Turner Hospital, thanks for speaking with us on the Monthly Book.
JTH: Thank you, Ramona.