Martin Walker’s Bruno, the French police chief at the heart of his best-selling Perigord mystery series, is everyone’s ideal cop – as well as the town’s most eligible bachelor and a talented host with an international award-winning cook book in his name . . . .
Hi there, I’m your host Jenny Wheeler and today Martin Walker talks about French charm, his passion for the Perigord, and his years as a diplomatic correspondent in Gorbachev’s Moscow and Clinton’s Washington.
Six things you’ll learn from this Joys of Binge Reading episode:
- Why Martin’s wife Julia is his most important asset
- The freedom of writing novels
- Hob nobbing with world leaders
- Bruno’s passion for good food
- Charmed by cave dweller sensibilities
- Perigord food and wine ambassador
Where to find Martin Walker:
What follows is a “near as” transcript of our conversation, not word for word but pretty close to it, with links to important mentions.
Jenny: But now, here’s Martin. Hello there Martin and welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us.
Martin: Hello Jenny. I don’t think I’ve ever had an interview from such a long distance before!
Jenny: Yes. It’s wonderful what modern technology can do. You’re in Washington DC and I’m an Auckland New Zealand, and that’s really fun. You’ve had a distinguished career as a journalist with top newspapers, including as diplomatic correspondence for The Guardian in London. What made you switch to fiction?
Martin: When we were based in Brussels, my wife decided that we’d been foreign correspondents for all of our lives and our children needed a place to be rooted. She decided we should get a house in the Perigord, which we’d visited from time to time because we have some friends who were there.
Remarkable prehistoric caves
I became increasingly fascinated by the Perigord, particularly by the prehistory, the prehistoric caves, like Lascaux. I remember the shock when I first saw it and thought, my God, these people were in no sense primitive. We’ve been quite wrong about this. I mean, the artistic sensibility, it was like our own.
And so I began researching, interviewing the archeologists and reading books and visiting all the caves. And I wrote my novel, The Caves of Perigord, which is still in print, I’m proud to say, which is really about what kind of human society that could have produced at Lascaux.
Before that, my books were pretty conventionally journalistic – a history of the cold war, a book about Gorbachev in Peristroika. A book about modern America and the history of America and so on and a book about the National Front in England. So the sense of liberation in writing this novel about the Perigord, got me even more locked into the fascination with this part of France.
Moving into Bruno mysteries
Jenny: That’s fantastic. So you moved on to the mystery genre and a French police chief called Bruno. How did you make the choice of genre? You’ve explained the setting, but why did you go to mysteries?
Martin: Well, because in our village in France, I became friends with a local neighbor who took me down to the tennis club and rugby club. And I began playing on Friday mornings when I was there, in a little foursome of three local people and me. Of course, it was a very gentle game of tennis from about 10 30 till about midday.
And then we went into the tennis club, which being France has a wonderful kitchen, and we made ourselves a pretty spectacular lunch. And one of the four people I played with was a man who have been in the French army for 10 years and spend his spare time teaching the local kids to play tennis and rugby. He was a hunter, a very keen cook and our village policeman. And I thought this was a splendid individual, a very fine man who tried never to wear a gun, and who’d lost the keys to his handcuffs.
Five paragraphs, for five books
I thought, what a fabulous character. And I’ve got this lovely region of the Perigord – all I need to do now is work out how to write a crime story, because if it’s going to be the policeman, it’s going to have to be a mystery of some kind. And so that’s really how it started.
Then my wife Julia, who had worked in publishing and in journalism and cooking, my wife said, “well, you know, publishers are always more interested if they think there might be a series coming rather than just a one off. So go away and write five short paragraphs on the next five books in the series,” – which is what I did.
My agent came back to me and said can sell, these in America, Canada, Holland, Germany, and so on. So that’s how it all got going, and I had to then sit down and write the next five.
The secret of Bruno’s charm
Jenny: That’s fantastic. And that’s great advice for a writer, to do that. Like write a paragraph. I’m starting on Book Seven in a series now, and I’ve got totally bogged down with too much detail, so I need to do that. Put it into one paragraph.
Bruno is an incredibly likable character. The reviews you read online, everybody just falls in love with him. He’s actually got his own web site as well, hasn’t he? He was wounded, both physically and romantically, while he was serving in the French peace keeping force in Bosnia and I’m wondering if is there something about his vulnerabilities that helps make him so likable to readers.
Martin: I think that that might be part of it. I think the first thing is that all of us have this sense that our police ought to be our neighbors, we ought to be able to trust them, to like them. And in fact increasingly these days, particularly in the US where police are armed, that’s less and less the case, given the kind of social problems that are being thrown up that the police have to handle.
Honorable, decent and brave
But I think all of us have an ideal cop, someone who is honorable, decent, and brave and who realizes that in a sense, his work is as much a social worker as being any kind of agent of state repression. So I had this idealistic image, of what a policeman could be, from what I’d seen of my friend in France.
And so I think possibly part of the appeal is the idea of a really nice guy as a cop, but also, as you say, it’s the vulnerability which balances out all the other skills he has in cooking and so on.. The fact that is he’s constantly living with the prospect of a broken heart.
Jenny: Yes, he’s around about 40 so he’s at an interesting stage of his life. He is regarded as the town’s most eligible bachelor. He’s still unmarried, but there’s that sense that state might change sometime soon. And I’m wondering how interesting this for you as the writer to negotiate that transition, if it’s going to happen. Is he going to have the same appeal if you’ve married off?
A mind of his own
Martin: Well my wife, whose views I always take with great seriousness, says with the moment I marry Bruno off, I lose half my readers. So I to have to bear that in mind. He hasn’t found the right woman yet. I mean, he hasn’t told me yet. The thing is, Bruno has become a hugely realistic person in my head, as has the whole of St Denis, the people who live there and so on. I mean, they are as real for me as are my real neighbors. I
I remember once when I was writing one of the books, The Devil’s Cave, and in that, I had a dangerously attractive woman who was quite a baddie. She was determined to seduce Bruno for her own purposes. And my plan for the book, I mean, I’d thought, well, of course. Bruno is just a guy. He will fall for her subtle seductive ways.
But as I was trying to write this chapter, it was like a force field came out of my desk, and my gut was saying, “I am not ready to drop my trousers for this woman”. It was like he had a mind of his own, this character in my head. And so I’m waiting for him to tell me, what he is you going to do next?
Journalist posing as novelist
Jenny: That’s absolutely wonderful. I love it when the characters become so real that they really do have an identity like that for their creator. The latest book we should mention is called The Body In The Castle Well, and it’s got a wonderful subplot, which reflects your journalistic skills in a little side story about a Perigord tribute concert to the black American singer, Josephine Baker, a superstar in France in the 1920s. That was a lovely part of the story, and I think in quite a few of your books, you draw on the real stuff that happened in that area in the past, don’t you?
Martin: Well I do, because in a way, I’m a bit of a fraud. I’m not really a novelist. For most of my life I was a journalist, and so I do depend upon research and being reality based. And I’m so fascinated by history, which is what I studied at university.
Extraordinary Josephine Baker
Whether it’s about the French Resistance or about the prehistoric Caves or whatever, I want to make sure that I get it right. You know, I was fascinated by Josephine Baker because not only was she the world’s superstar in the 1920s but when she moved to France and got this chateau in the Dordogne Valley, a chateau that I know quite well. I’ve visited it several times, which now, as I say in the book, (The Body In The Castle Well) has got this special exhibition of raptors or Peregrine Falcons and Hawks and so on, and you can see them going hunting these birds.
It’s an extraordinary thing. I was fascinated by Josephine Baker herself and the fact that not only was she a real heroine who would smuggle out Resistance documents in her underwear – she was and was decorated by Charles de Gaulle for it – but she was also determined to raise this family as an example of anti-racism.
Baker’s Rainbow Tribe
She adopted nine children, each one from a different part of the world, to raise them together as part of her family and when Martin Luther King was shot – and remember that Josephine Baker had been at his side at the Great March on Washington in 1963 where he gave his speech, “I have a dream” and she then led the crowd in We Shall Overcome. When he was shot, Coretta King, Martin Luther King’s widow, asked Josephine Baker to take over the leadership of the Civil Rights movement and Josephine said no, I can’t abandon these children I’ve adopted.
Jenny: Oh gosh. Really? That’s fascinating. I didn’t know that. Bruno also has his own cookbooks that have done remarkably well. You’ve won international awards for one of them – The Best Cookbook in French Cuisine, – and I think you have your wife Julia, partly to credit it for that, don’t you?
Bruno cookbooks something special
Martin: Oh, hugely to credit for that. I mean, every recipe that one finds in a Bruno novel, I have cooked myself, but with Julia standing at my shoulder and Julia, who was also a journalist and wrote for Gourmet magazine and the Washington Post and so on about food, she is an extraordinarily good cook.
And so, when my publisher said, you must do a Bruno cookbook, I turned helplessly to my wife and said, “you’ve got to come in on this.” And, so yes, without Julia, I believe we probably wouldn’t have been in the Perigord, I wouldn’t have been writing a Bruno series, and I certainly wouldn’t have produced a cookbook. So it’s really all down to her.
Jenny: And I think you’ve got a second one, is it due out soon?
Martin: It came out, we launched it at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. It’s called Bruno’s Garden Cookbook. It’s a lot more about our garden and the way we’ve become increasingly green. We’re not vegetarians, not at all, but we’re increasingly delighted by the idea of living on our garden, from our garden.
Perigord gourmet delights
Jenny: That’s lovely. I should warn people that are listening that a lot of reviewers say that they get very hungry while they’re reading Bruno novels.
Martin: Well, my wife says with every novel comes two more kilos…
Jenny: You’ve enjoyed a very strong following in Germany. There is a French-German TV series being made on the Bruno series and some of your works are published first in Germany. How did that link come about?
Martin: Well, I’ve got this absolutely stupendously good German publishe,r Diogenes, and when they first decided that they would take on my novels, I was invited to dinner with the founder of the company, an old man called Daniel Keel. His son Phillip has now taken over, and Daniel at dinner said, well, Martin, we’re going to be behind you, but you have to be behind us. And that means I’d like you to promise me this evening, you will do at least two weeks book tour every year in Germany. And I said, well, okay, but why is that so important?
Five hundred readings in German
He said, because in Germany, they don’t just want to read, they want to see, they want to smell it and want to really feel what an author is like. And it turns out that in Germany, there is this huge tradition of author’s readings. And partly because they have fixed prices on all book sales, every small town in Germany has its own bookstore, and it acts like a kind of a cultural settlement.
It brings in authors on a regular basis for readings. And so this last tour I did in October, I actually did my 500th reading in German language countries, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and we’ve worked out something like over 40,000 people have actually attended these live events and that an extraordinary kind of loyalty base.
I rather enjoy it, partly because I believe we should all have fun. So sometimes I will sing and so on and try and make a bit of a show of it for them. I mean, whenever there’s a song taking place in the book, I will sing the song.
A TV series in the offing
Jenny: That’s wonderful Do you do these readings in English or German?
Martin: My German is a lot better than it was. I always start off giving a talk in German and then there’ll always be a German actor to do the German bits. I will read in English. Then we’ll do Q and A in German. I’ve learned more about Germany, thanks to Bruno, in these last few years, and indeed I’ve seen more Germany than most Germans.
Jenny: That’s fantastic. Going back to the TV series. How far along is that and are we likely to ever see one in English?
Martin: I don’t know. There’s a meeting set up at the Cannes Film Festival in which the French and German people are going to be talking to one of the big American groups about whether they whether they can work together on this. We will see, I don’t know. I’m just so ignorant of this entire world. I leave these matters to my excellent literary agent. If it comes about, it all comes about. If it doesn’t, well “C’est la vie”.
Bruno is proving long-lived
Jenny: Yes. Did you have any idea when you wrote the first Bruno’s that you’d still be writing Bruno 10 years later, nearly 10 years later.
Martin: No, no. It’s more than 10 years. I really didn’t. The first one came out in 2008, so I didn’t have any idea it would go like this – not even when Julia made me write these five paragraphs about the first ones in the series. I think I’ve been very, very lucky, in that I think I was the first person to try and make the Perigord itself and its history and its prehistory and its food and its wines, into a character. And then because it’s very much about this region. And so people very much responded to this sense of place that the Perigord gives to the novels.
Jenny: Yes. And I think you’re a member of one of the gourmet groups there. You’ve been very much honored as a member of the community these days haven’t you?.
A Perigord food ambassador
Martin: They’ve been terribly nice to me and very welcoming to me and to the family, and to our basset hound.. Yes. I was elected a Grand Consul de la Vinee de Bergerac, set up back in near 1254 to uphold the quality of Bergerac wines. And I’m also a Chevalier du Foie Gras by the Confrerie du Paté de Périgord. Things like that. They couldn’t have been nicer to me.
Jenny: That’s lovely. Moving on to your wider career. Some of the books you’ve written sound fascinating and they reflect your career as a foreign correspondent. You’ve covered the end of Communism in Moscow. You covered Clinton’s Washington and the unhappy story of the EU and Brussels. What would you say that were the most interesting things that stand out for you now. And would you have predicted Brexit back then?
Chilling out with Gorbachev
Martin: Well, there are a number of events that stand out. One of them was, I got to know Margaret Thatcher quite well when I was in Moscow, because she’d read my book about Gorbachev and Perestroika, which came out very early, in 1986 and she liked it.
And she would make a point whenever she was in Moscow of having a. a quiet private chat with me. And then I would go and see her after she was no longer became Prime Minister. I never voted for her, but I admired the hell out of her, as a woman, as a human being. So being with her in Moscow and sitting outside the room in the Kremlin where she and Gorbachev were talking and hearing gales of laughter coming from inside.
And then at the summit in Malta 1980 when George Bush met Gorbachev for the first time, they were planning to meet in ships in the harbor, and there was a huge storm came up. George Bush was trapped on his American battleship. Gorbachev was on a Russian cruise ship and I was with him. I suddenly found myself with Gorbachev and Edward Shevardnadze the Foreign Minister at the bar, having coffee, because there was nothing else to do, cause Bush couldn’t leave his boat.
Hob nobbing with Clinton
And so having this impromptu chat with Gorbachev and Shevardnadze was great fun. And then after Moscow, The Guardian moved me to Washington. And I went down to see Bill Clinton in Arkansas, who I’d known from university days in Oxford. And he said, well, what are you up to now?
And I said, well, as well as doing The Guardian stuff in Washington. I’m working on a book on the history of the Cold War. And he said, you know, Martin, all of our lives, great power relations have been about missiles and arms controls summits, and we’re heading into a new world.
You won’t be geo-politics anymore. It’s going to be geo-economics. Instead of missiles. it’s going to be your trade figures, and instead of arms controls summits, it’s going to be economic and trade summits. I thought, you’re absolutely right. We’re going from the geo-politics, to the geo-economics. That was an extraordinary insight from a man I still think of very, very highly. So yes, you have this access to people who are in the hot seat making decisions, and it’s fascinating.
The Brexit mess
What I remember from Brussels in particular was that I was one of the group of journalists who latched onto a story about corruption in the European Commission, which led eventually to the mass resignation of the entire group, all 13 members at the time of the European Commission, which had never happened before, and it was a real breakthrough moment, which helped shift the balance of power from the Commission towards the Parliament.
I remember thinking then that unless they really cleaned up this mess in Brussels, it was going to be very, very hard to get people to carry on supporting it, and sadly, they haven’t been willing to do it.
Jenny: Yes, I haven’t followed it at all closely, but sitting on the other side of the world, it sounds as if the pro Brexit people in Britain at the time of the referendum, just did a very poor job of representing what the full significance of the change was, but they’ve got themselves into a real hole now, haven’t they? How do you think it’s going to end?
‘The best lack all conviction’
Martin: Well I think you’re actually right. They didn’t campaign well, and they were up against a big lie from Boris Johnson and the Brexiteers about how much money would be coming back to England if we left the EU. There’s a poem, by the Irish poet WB Yeats, Easter 1916, when he says, “The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
And in Brexit, those who were in support of staying – we lacked all conviction because we had our own critiques of the European Union. When I think of the Fisheries Policy it’s is an economic crime, and I think every agricultural policy of the EU has been a disaster. However, saying all that, on the balance, I think we just stay together and fix it.
The secret of Martin’s success
By contrast, the people who hated Europe, who wanted to be out, they have this passionate intensity, and that’s a very powerful tool in politics. So whether we can at the last minute, save ourselves from what will be a really grim economic future if we’re out there without a deal, we will have to see.
Jenny: Yes. Switching back to your writing and career, is there one thing you’ve done perhaps more than any other, that you see as the secret of your success as a fiction author particularly.
Martin: I think one thing is always been prepared to go and do these readings, not just in Germany and Switzerland, but elsewhere. And I’ve done that. Literally. I’ve done a lot in England. Every year. I’ll do a couple of tours in the US so, I think that’s been something. And then secondly , I think everybody in the world has a soft spot for the French way of life.
However much we want to criticize France as a country or French politicians, there is something about the whole way of life, from the scent of warm croissants to the “Ooh la la” – something about the whole French approach to life which we all find extremely seductive.
The Joys of Binge reading
And so I think I’ve been very, very lucky. And in writing about La Belle France and finding that I’m in a part of France which is absolutely unique and magical, I’m still delighted being in the Perigord.
Jenny: You split your time now I think between Washington and the Perigord?
Martin: I guess about three months of the year I’m on the road doing bookstores and promotion events and so on, but about half the year I’m in the Perigord and the rest in Washington, or indeed in London. I’ll be in London for Christmas, for example, for the usual family event.
Jenny: Turning to Martin as reader, because this is called The Joys of Binge Reading. I don’t know if you’ve ever really have much time for binge reading, but are there people that read for your entertainment, not for your research, and have you any recommendations for listeners?
Writers to admire. . .
Martin: Oh, yes. My classic binge read is a man called Patrick O’Brien, who wrote a series – The Master and Commander series about Jack Aubrey, a swash-buckling English Naval officer in the Napoleonic Wars and his great friend Stephen Maturin. I’ve read them throughout at least three times, which are probably came about because as a boy I was fascinated by C S Forester’s Hornblower series. I’ve always loved Sherlock Holmes, who I think is a master, but I’ve also enjoyed the other books of Conan Doyle in particular, his historical novels.
Stories like The White Company, (1989) ) about the Hundred Years War which meant that I knew an awful lot about the Hundred Years War before I actually came to the Perigord. And then I do enjoy a lot of science fiction, a lot of speculative fiction, which explores alternative ways in which the human race will respond to its environment. So I always love the novels of Steven Baxter. I think Robert Heinlein is an absolute classic. His novella The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress is an absolute jewel of its kind, in which he tries to imagine what an entirely free market society might be like.
A taste for speculative fiction
And then there’s the Kim Stanley Robinson trilogy, Red Mars, Green Mars which I think are just terrific. And whenever I’m short for something, I just reach for other Maigret.
Jenny: And do you read a digitally now?
Martin: I read E-books when traveling, because when you’re on a month-long book tour, it’s a bit of a problem. But I much prefer the feel of a book in my hand.
Jenny: Yes. We’re coming to the end of our time together. So circling around, looking back over your writing life at the stage of your career, if you were doing it all again, is there anything that you would change? And if so, what.
Martin: Well I’d endeavor to meet my wife earlier and have been married to her for longer, I guess. Other than that, no, not really. I just think that like so many people of my generation who were born in World War II, we saw extraordinary economic growth.
The blessing of a happy marriage
We enjoyed public free education and in Britain free healthcare. I mean we were so lucky in all of that. And then in my career, being in Moscow for years at the end of the Cold War and then in Washington, I am just so lucky with all the things I’ve been through. I think if I have to put anything on my gravestone, it will be, “He didn’t miss much.”
Jenny: So what stage did you and Julia get together?
Martin: Oh, well, we actually met, I can tell you the date. It was the 26th of February 19, 1977 and we got married in May of the following year, and we’ve been together ever since. So it’s 41 years. And we’ve got two wonderful daughters, and Julia has been with me all the way. Moscow, and then in Washington and in Brussels, and . . . I don’t know. She’s an extraordinary woman and will never understand her. I admire her and go along with the flow.
What’s next for Martin?
Jenny: !t’s a wonderful tribute for a husband to make, that they wish they’d met their wife earlier. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody say that before. So what is next for Martin the writer? Are you a big goal setter? When you look over the next 12 months, what are you working on?
Martin: Well, I’m working on a book about the Perigord itself, on its history and traditions and culture. I’m close to being finished. The next Bruno that will come out next year, which is going to be called The Shooting At Chateau Rock is already written and with my publisher. And I’m now writing the one for 2021 and I’ve also got an idea I’m toying with, for an entirely different set of historical novels or speculative historical novels, which has nothing to do with Bruno at all.
So I have all of these things. And then of course, I write a column about wine every month for a British paper and for a German magazine. I do keep busy, which is the best thing that can happen to anybody at this age.
Jenny: Yes. Absolutely. Obviously you have a lot of personal interaction with your readers, with the tours that you do, and from the fact that you’re willing to do, be out there and do things like sing songs, you obviously enjoy that rapport with them. Do you also interact online and if so, where can people find you?
Meeting up with readers
Martin: I do to a degree. We have the Bruno chief of police website, there’s a blog and there’s a lot about the Perigord and the Bruno and so on and about food. That’s probably the best place. I’m on Facebook, but I’m getting to the point apparently where I’m not going to be able to have any more Facebook friends cause there’s a limit to how many you can have. So the website is probably the best way.
Jenny: That’s wonderful. And have you got any tours coming up?
Martin: Yes, I do. I’ve just finished one and I’ve just done some in the States, but we’re planning now the tour in May in Germany of next year, and the big tour in the States in June. At the end of January and early February, I’ll be doing another little tour in Florida, then I’ve got some literary festivals in France to attend. There’s no rest for the wicked.
More French mysteries to enjoy
Jenny: It sounds like it! Look, it’s been wonderful to talk and thank you so much for your time with all the other things you’ve got on I really appreciate you making yourself available.
Martin: Well, thank you very much. It’s always a pleasure to talk about books and to address readers even if it’s second hand.
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