Aly Monroe - The Maze of Cadiz Q & A

WHEN AND HOW DID YOU START WRITING?

It’s something that has evolved naturally as I’ve got older. I’ve always been a collector of voices: a phrase, a particular tone, sometimes complete with a facial expression – little snippets of memory that have stayed with me.

Some years ago, we began taking increasingly frequent trips from Spain, where we lived for a long time, to Edinburgh. I think the change of viewpoint stimulated my mind. Things seemed to move over and leave space, and I found these voices beginning to evolve – particularly just before I went to sleep at night. 

At that point I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with them. What I did know was that I was at a different stage in my life and wanted a new challenge. I’ve never been a great believer in gender and genre so I thought it would be interesting to write about a subject traditionally associated with male fiction, and to bring to it my viewpoint as a woman. 

HOW DID THE IDEA FOR PETER COTTON COME TO YOU?

Well, I’ve been mulling over the Cotton series for so long that it is difficult for me now to pick out exactly when he started.  I knew from the beginning that he was born and partly brought up abroad - a kind of half-son of Empire, something of an outsider in the UK, or at least, someone who had seen other viewpoints.

I’ve always been struck that people can end up doing extraordinary things because of happenstance. For the young men of Cotton’s generation, World War II was a huge, prolonged happenstance that had a profound effect on the way their lives were played out. Young men – by today’s standards incredibly young - found themselves in extreme circumstances having to take responsibility in unexpected situations - often with little in the way of equipment, information or instructions. For those that survived, this made them something they would never have been.

I thought it would be interesting to show the path of one of these young men as, over a number of books, we follow him to different countries during the dismantling British colonial power. I didn’t want a traditional, ready-made, derring-do hero. I was much more interested in showing how he becomes what he will be.

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO SEND PETER COTTON TO CADIZ FOR HIS FIRST MISSION?

For Cotton’s apprenticeship mission I thought it would be interesting to send him away from the main political stage of World War II to carry out an apparently simple task – which, behind the scenes, turns into something much more complex and, potentially, of tremendous political significance. The remoteness and isolation of Cadiz at that time provides an ideal setting for showing him learning to evaluate situations and people, to trust himself, and to make decisions.

I also decided to set the book in Spain because I felt more confident writing this first book on familiar ground. I first went to Spain shortly before Franco died, and lived there with my family, on and off, for over twenty years. As foreigners in Spain at that time, a lot of people, rich and poor, left and right, told us things – sometimes horrible, cruel things – that had happened to them or their families, things that they would not dare to speak of to other Spaniards. So we had an extraordinarily privileged view of the people and the society and I was able to draw on this to inform the atmosphere and the setting.

WHAT WAS THE STARTING POINT FOR THE MAZE OF CADIZ?

I think it dates back to a long time ago – not long before Franco died – and it has its root in one of those remembered snippets. On our first Christmas Eve in Cadiz, I was walking past a wasteland near the block of flats where we lived when I heard barking dogs and voices. I walked over and joined the small crowd that was gathering. The Grises (Greys), one of the Spanish national police forces commonly known as the Gristapo, had moved in with the riot squad to clear out the people who lived in the shacks there –  including several women with small babies. They were standing in a shrunken huddle, surrounded by guns and dogs. One of the men stood in front of the group and began to protest, but he was herded into line with the barrel of a gun.  

That was the first time that I saw the local Clark Gable look-alike – he provided the original voice that evolved into the local police chief, Ramírez, who is Cotton’s unlikely ally in The Maze of Cadiz. He was complaining to the Grises about the timing of the eviction and the fact that nobody had consulted him. I heard the man speaking, not the uniform. I remember the frightened eyes of the people, but most of all I remember this man’s voice. It has stayed with me over the years.

ARE MANY OF THE CHARACTERS TAKEN FROM REAL PEOPLE?

The police chief Ramírez and the rest of the cast are all fictional characters in a real historical setting. The Clark Gable aspect, and that ‘man through the uniform’ voice were just the starting point from which Ramírez grew. Something similar happened with the phrase “He’s no good in bed, I’m the hot one” (originally spoken with an indignant, Morningside Edinburgh accent). This was - rather gleefully, I must admit - stored up from a real person I met in Cadiz about twenty years ago, and evolved into Nora Simpson and her husband Bill.

 I know a lot of writers start with an image, but I definitely hear things before I see them. Allowing voices to grow into people complete with their quirks and absurdities, and then having them interact with one another is one of the things I enjoyed most about the whole process of writing this book. To a great extent I do believe that character is plot.

WOULD YOU SAY, THEN, THAT THE STORY EVOLVED FROM THE CHARACTERS?

Partly, yes. There is the story of intrigue as Cotton works out the tremendous implications of what is happening and what he must do, but the characters are the motor of the story.  The relationship between Ramírez and Cotton is the backbone, and the anguished voice of the antiquarian is the central hinge to the plot. 

Navigating his way through the characters while grappling with the nuances of a foreign language, working out who and what he can trust and what he is capable of as he finds his way through the streets of the old city – these are all part of Cotton’s maze in Cadiz. 

YOU MENTION A LOT OF SQUARES, STREETS AND PLACES. ARE THESE REAL?

Oh, yes. I remember Cadiz very well as it was just before Franco died and how it changed throughout the following twenty years, but I spent a lot of time checking dates of events and making sure that the Cadiz I described was as it was in 1944. Some things changed during the Franco years – not that much. Today, of course, Cadiz looks very different - brighter and more prosperous. There’s been a lot of new building and gentrification of slum areas; the long abandoned Roman amphitheatre has at long last been given attention – and far too much cement. But most of the places, streets and squares and parks, mentioned in the book – the Plaza de Mina, the Plaza de España, the Parque Genovés, Canalejas, the Calle Ancha, the Alameda, the Caleta and so on – are all still there. As is Cotton’s hotel – although I changed the name in the book, and the building is no longer a hotel.

THE HORROR OF THE AFTERMATH OF THE CIVIL WAR IS VERY PRESENT AS A BACKGROUND TO THE STORY. ARE ANY OF THE ANECDOTES BASED ON REAL EVENTS?

In chapter 9, Ramírez tells Cotton about a military trial of a civilian that had been held just before Cotton’s arrival. The prosecution had recommended clemency because no evidence whatsoever could be found of the crime he was supposed to have committed, but  the military tribunal considered rumour to be sufficient proof and condemned the man to death and twenty years’ imprisonment. This was a real case. The man, whose name was Juan Pérez Domínguez, popularly know as ‘Juan Trabas’, was executed, and the following twenty years’ imprisonment meant that his family could not claim the body. In fact, his body has only just been exhumed from the cemetery in Cadiz and taken to his village for burial. There were thousands of similar cases.  I wanted to include this in the story, but mentioned in passing, as part of the setting.  While these things were happening, people were also trying to get on with the mundane, humble practicalities of surviving and I wanted to give this over.

But the main focus of The Maze of Cadiz is how Cotton works out what is happening and deals with the situation he finds himself in. The background is grim, but there is also some humour. I wrote the book as an entertainment – to entertain myself and, I hope, others.

WHERE WILL COTTON GO NEXT?

In the next book, which will be called WASHINGTON SHADOW, Cotton is part of the delegation that goes to the USA in 1945 to ask for help in staving off British bankruptcy and, again by accident, finds a career path set for him. This path involves the winding up of the British Empire and will take him around the world. For example, in another book he will be in Malaya at the end of 1954 during the so-called Emergency there.

The possibilities in the change of setting, the variety of characters and cultures, intrigue me. I hope they will intrigue my readers.