A Q&A with Mark Mills

June 30, 2011

The new book from Mark Mills, bestselling author of The Savage Garden, is published this month and it is an absolutely thrilling read. House of the Hanged is set in the South of France in the mid 1930s, at a time when Europe is heading closer to another war. In this Q&A, Mark discusses House of the Hanged, the background to the novel and gives an insight into his the books he most enjoys reading.


What inspired you to write House of the Hanged?

Strangely, the book would never have been written if I hadn’t been robbed while backpacking through the south of France when I was seventeen. This is how I first came to know Le Rayol, where the story is set. Some friends of my travelling companion lived there, and they kindly put us up for a few dreamy days while we waited for my replacement traveller’s cheques to arrive. I was very struck by that stretch of coast, with its rocky headlands and its sandy coves of unnaturally white sand. In many ways, the novel is the coming together of this memory and a book I love: Jigsaw by Sybille Bedford, her biographical account of growing up near Toulon in the 1920s.

 House of the Hanged is set in the mid-1930s. What do you find most fascinating about this period in European history?

I didn’t know much about the 1930s before I began to research the book, but I was soon struck by the parallels with the world today. It was an unsettling time, what the historian Richard Overy has described as a ‘morbid age’. They, like us, had experienced a devastating financial crisis (in 1929) which they were still trying to come to terms with, and they were living in the shadow of military conflict. I chose to set the story in 1935 because it seemed to me that this was a limbo year. The threat to peace posed by Chancellor Hitler had yet to become manifest, and there was still a belief that another major European war could be avoided.

 How long do you spend researching your novels? Did this one involve a lengthy stay in Le Rayol?

I usually spend anywhere between six months and a year on research, although I’m also working on the characters and plotting the storyline during that time. I didn’t spend nearly as long in Le Rayol as I would have liked. One week of glorious October sunshine was great, though, and it was time enough to get everything I needed.

 What are you working on at the moment? Any plans to write a follow up to House of the Hanged?

This is the first time I’ve been tempted to write a follow up to a novel, if only because there are a number of characters in House of the Hanged whose company I’m not yet bored of! In fact, I could sense my interest in them continuing to grow as I neared the end of the book. This was a strange sensation, but very exciting, and I’ve been working on the plot of a sequel set a few years later, on the eve of the Second World War. In parallel with this, I’ve been toying with a mystery thriller set in the present day, which would mark a whole new departure for me.

What are you reading at the moment?

Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford.

Is there a book you wished you had written?

Any number of them, but up there near the top of the list would be Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

What are your top ten favourite books?

In no particular order:

  • To Kill a Mocking Bird – Harper Lee
    Racial injustice in the Deep South as seen through the eyes of a child. Remarkably, the only novel she ever published.
  • Lord of the Flies – William Golding
    Man’s savagery to man played out with children.
  • Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
    A sometimes harrowing account of Jude Fawley’s dogged pursuit of his dreams. Hardy at his toughest and best.
  • The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
    Contains one of my favourite lines (and themes) in literature: So we beat on, boats against the current, drawn back ceaselessly into the past.
  • Ethan Frome – Edith Wharton
    As bizarre a love story as you’re ever likely to read.
  • Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
    Heller’s darkly humorous take on war in Italy.
  • The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford
    Ford takes his scalpel to the loves and lies of two Edwardian couples.
  • A Bend in the River – V.S. Naipul
    An unsentimental study of post-colonial Africa. Read it, if only for the writing.
  • Disgrace – J.M. Coetzee
    How does he do it? An exquisite tension between the spare prose and the book’s massive themes.
  • Victory – Joseph Conrad
    As ever, with Conrad, Good and Evil do battle – this time, on a small island in the Malay Archipelago.

Which author has influenced you the most and why?

It’s probably easier for someone else to answer that question. It took someone else to point out to me that there are recurring themes of voyaging and displacement in all my books which reminded that person of Joseph Conrad (although I would never begin to compare myself to an author of his calibre!).

Aside from writing what do you like to do?

Anything that’s an antidote to the sedentary and solitary life of a writer. I’m mad for most sports, and still play football twice a week. Tennis is also a passion. So are motorcycles.

What advice would you give to people who want to write fiction?

Hard graft and perseverance. There are a happy few to whom writing comes quite naturally; the rest of us have to work at it, like any job.

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