T S Learner was born and raised in England and has lived in both Australia and the USA. She is well known in Australia as a playwright. Her first collection of short stories, Quiver, written as Tobsha Learner, has sold over 150 000 copies internationally.
Her third book – the bestselling The Witch of Cologne – was her first work of historical fiction and was followed by another collection of short stories, Tremble, and two more novels, Soul and Sphinx. T S Learner divides her time between London, Sydney and California.
Why did you decide to become an author? Is writing something that you have always been passionate about?
I actually began my career as a playwright (my original training was sculptor) so theatre, image making was something I was (and still am) passionate about – creating very visual, visceral prose excites me, stories my readers can breath, smell, journey through, writing excites me as long as I feel I am moving my audience.
You divide your time between Australia, America and England. How do you feel this influences your writing?
It gives me a very global perspective; it has also allowed me to join up disparate parts of my life. I feel more integrated in terms of my English/European background and also as an Australian who spend a lot of her adult life in Australia. I think also it gives me an objective edge, an outside eye in terms of the stories I chose to write about, on the negative I get very concerned about the big issues – no way do I ever get lost in suburbia!
You’re an author of many talents, writing historical fiction, thrillers and erotic short stories. Is there a particular genre that you enjoy writing the most?
Not really, the short stories provide a psychological balance for the intensity of the research that goes into the thrillers. I plan to write more historical fiction in the future, also some ‘straight’ short stories – more poignant than erotic!
Do you have any quirky habits when you’re writing?
Totally, I have a very ugly pale green hat with a Chelsea emblem on it I wear when it’s cold (I am a Chelsea fan!) There’s a saying my household – two hat weather – it’s a reference to the fact that I have been known to wear two hats (a beanie inside another) when it’s really cold. I get very fussy about body temperature – maybe it’s displacement activity, I also cannot listen to music with lyrics, classical is ok, silence when I’m in an intense dialogue with my imagination is even better. But I can write almost anywhere, although I try and time where I will be writing at what stage I will be in the development of the books. For example I like to do the polishing of late drafts in the courtyard of our Californian house – surrounded by my gardening (bliss) because I can afford a little distraction. Otherwise it will be the window in my writing studio in London that looks out onto a grey roof and pigeons, or my window in Sydney, which has a tree outside. I can’t write in front of anyone.
Where did the inspiration for your new novel, The Map, come from?
I’ve had a long-term fascination for both the International brigade and the Spanish Civil war, and I was looking for an epic political backdrop to set a thriller against, similar to my previous thriller SPHINX. I have a very close Basque friend who suggested I looked at the Basque experience under Franco, and at their fascinating pagan beliefs (the Basques were the last to be Christianized in Europe). I also discovered the fascinating fact that the Americans had trained up Basque nationalists with the idea of overthrowing Franco just after the war then had withdrawn their officers. A plot started to form - The Map is interesting because it actually fuses several strands from my other works – the Jewish psychic Shimon in the 17th century subplot of The Map is also a Sephardic Jew fleeing the Inquisition – just like the mother of the Ruth bat Saul in The Witch Of Cologne.
What can you tell us about August Winthrop, the protagonist of The Map?
He’s a blue-blood Bostonian who has studied Classics at Oxford University then has been recruited (like many of the bright young things of the late 1920s and 30’s) into the communist party and then sent to Spain to fight in 1937 with the Lincoln Brigade (the US squadron of the international brigade). When we meet him it is post war England 1953, grim, in the grip of rationing and unemployment and August is morally bereft, suffering from PSDT, womanizing and looking for meaning. He finds it in the form of a mission – to take a mysterious 17th chronicle back into Franco’s Spain and return it to the Basque family it belongs to – an incredibly dangerous undertaking for an ex-soldier with the international brigade.
What are you hoping that readers will take away from The Map?
I did a lot of real research for this book, so I’m hoping not only will it be a transporting ‘ride’, but also an informative insight into the suffering of both the Basques (and the Spanish left-wing) under Franco, an understanding of the many nationalities who fought (and died) fighting the growing tyranny of fascism (Franco, Hitler and Mussolini) long before war was actually declared against the Axis powers - including the Erich Thaelman brigade (The Germans who fought against Franco and Hitler) . The mystical element in the book also covers the cabbalistic Tree of life, so the reader will also learn quite a lot about both the cabbala and the spiritual meaning of sephirots – the spiritual stations of The Tree of Life. There is also a disturbing twist at the end of the book which throws up a lot of questions about the nature of belief.
Can we expect another novel in the future?
Naturally, my next book will be set in Zurich in 1982 and the Romany (gypsy) experience in the Holocaust will be the back-story. It will be a thriller around the notion of ethnic identity, the duplicity of the Swiss and a family dynasty of Watchmakers.
What have been some of your most memorable experiences as a writer?
My most memorable experiences would come in the form of the people and places I encounter – sometimes these are very personal and moving first-person accounts, sometimes it’s a revelation of an historical fact that has gone under the radar of main-stream belief. For example I was with a close German friend of mine who has been my research assistant both on The Witch of Cologne and on The Map. We were in Hamburg interviewing people who had lived through the British occupation in 1953 (post-war) but also researching the German resistance in the form of the Erich Thaelman brigade (the German communists who fought against Franco then Hitler). We were at the Erich Thaelman centre and were shown a map of the German concentration camps for Germans within Germany itself –these were the camps where Hitler sent the Germans who resisted the Nazis – from ordinary businessmen who vocalized their dissent to organized underground resistance. Both of us were surprised at the number of these detention camps – there were many clustered around cities, but my German friend (who’s over forty) was seriously shocked – he had no idea! It gave you a real sense of the internal tyranny of the regime.
Likewise the older Basques who were generous enough to share their experiences of both the civil war and living under Franco felt like a rare gift – I only hope I can do justice to such memories! At the other end of the spectrum some of the most memorable and gratifying experiences for me is feedback from my readers, I remember a young lad at the Adelaide festival (decades ago) coming up to have his copy of Quiver signed and telling me he found it very instructive in terms of losing his virginity! One of my prize possessions is a letter from an American reader saying how he had been totally gripped by The Witch of Cologne, particularly the account of the persecution the Inquisition imposed – his second paragraph begun ‘..as I write to you from behind the bars of this prison…’ it turned out he was under ‘the care’ of the Californian State penitentiary system! That was very moving
Do you have any advice that you’d like to offer to aspiring writers?
Write detailed treatments, these will save a lot of heartbreak and time later, also be prepared to rewrite and rewrite, be as self-critical as possible, strive to finish a first draft and don’t get stuck polishing and re-polishing your favorite paragraph before you’ve finished the whole manuscript. Never ever send a first draft to an agent or publisher, become an avid reader, and remember craft, living a full life and tenacity counts as much as talent – maybe more.
Comments are not allowed for this entry.