We recently caught up with Jake Arnott, author of The Long Firm and The Fatal Tree to talk more about his books and his writing.
1: You create a mesmerising time and place in your novels, how do you research different time periods?
Well, that does depend on the period. For ‘The Fatal Tree’ I had lots of primary sources: court reports, criminal narratives, pamphlets, slang dictionaries as well as modern histories of the period. It’s always good to start with what has been written at the time – it doesn’t just give you the hard facts, it gives you the language and intonation, maybe even how people spoke. So it’s always good to look at the fiction of the era you’re working on too, you sort of enter into a conversation with the authors of that time, they keep you company. I was lucky to have Daniel Defoe and John Gay as companions.
2: Where has your interest in the light and shade of the underworld, and criminality come from?
The ‘underworld’ is merely a shadow of what lies on the surface. I’m interested in how a ‘legitimate’ world is so often rife with corruption. Jonathan Wild sets himself up as ‘Thief-Taker General’ whilst operating a massive criminal racket. This contradiction happens all the time in history it’s worth bearing in mind when we look at our own times.
3: What is your earliest memory of reading and the feeling it evoked in you?
Letters and words fascinated me from a very early age. They appeared to be alive for me. I remember first seeing the letter ‘g’ and thinking how much the shape of it looked like a goose. In many ways I was a lonely child and words kept me company. They still do. When I read ‘Treasure Island’ as a boy it felt like the best game of pirates and one that I could play on my own.
My writing habits change all the time. Each book determines its own routine, as it were. It’s just got more and more complicated, I’m afraid. If I look back at my at ‘The Long Firm’ there’s a single notebook, with clear clues of how the novel came into being. Now I have box files of stuff I don’t know what to do with.
5: What did it feel like to see characters from your mind end up on the screen?
Immensely privileged. I’ve been lucky enough to have great actors embody my characters. Mark Strong did amazing things with Harry Starks -he found a deep sadness I merely hinted at. Rafe Spall played Frank, the corrupt detective in ‘He Kills Coppers’, with such astonishing range –going from a cocky, ambitious 20-year-old to a cynical, world-weary middle-aged man.
6: You use real life figures in your novels, such as the fascinating Jack Sheppard from ‘The Fatal Tree‘, do you already have a time period in mind and find the characters, or do you know them already?
I knew about Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild as they’ve been written about and fictionalised many times, most notably in John Gay’s The Beggars Opera. Then I found Elizabeth Lyon, Jack’s mistress, the notorious Edgworth Bess. I had a story that hadn’t been told before and an intriguing one. Jack said of her: ‘a more wicked, deceitful and lascivious wretch is not known in England’ -so here was a 18th century femme fatale, or so it seemed. But when I found out more about her and what little remains of her testimony in court reports I discovered a more complex and sympathetic story. This is what led to ‘The Fatal Tree’.
I’d love to sit on a meeting between William Shakespeare and Jorge Luis Borges. Somewhere quiet where I could earwig their conversation and maybe ask a few questions.
8: If you could travel in person to one moment in time, when would it be, and what is it about that moment that resonates with you?
That moment when humanoids came out of the trees and started to walk on two legs, just to try and see what drove us to make such a risky move. And maybe pick up a few tips about posture.