I read The Watchers by Jon Steele this week and it moved me more than I’m used to when I read a good book. You can read my review here. I was thrilled when Jon, an award winning cameraman and editor for ITN, agreed to answer my questions about his debut novel.
Please read the review first, but if you haven’t, a brief synopsis. Set in Lausanne, Switzerland, The Watchers follows a few days in the lives of three seemingly disconnected people: Jay Harper, a private detective with a thing for the History Channel, who wakes up without memories; Katherine Taylor, an expensive courtesan who discovers that her life is worth far less than she’d thought; Marc Rochat, the young man with a limp who guards the nine bells of Lausanne Cathedral, marshalling their efforts with his lantern, encouraging and admonishing, but always vigilant. And not only the bells, because Marc sees ghosts from past and present. For all three characters, nothing is what it seems in life. Figures outside their lives seek to manipulate their fate. Finally, it comes down to a battle between good and evil, with much more at risk than the lives of those seeking refuge within the cathedral. But all that is as nothing without the beauty and power of the words that breathe life into this remarkable and memorable novel.
I am grateful to Jon for the depth and honesty of his answers. This is an extraordinary novel, added to even more by what he reveals here of its background.
Kate: I know you’ve written the non-fiction War Junkie but it’s hard to believe that The Watchers is your first novel – the story (and characterisation) is so finely crafted and the prose is beautiful. Yet the shadows who devour souls are mercilessly brutal and frightening. The book is set in the present day but it really does feel timeless. The Watchers feels like a novel that took time to grow. Is that right? How long have you wanted to write it and how did it begin?
Jon: The day the Iraq war began I quit. The press was helping Bush and Blair lie the world into war and tens of thousands of innocent people were about to be killed. I wanted no part of it, put my camera on the ground in Bagdhad, said ‘adios’ and I was gone. After hiding out in France I moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, where I had a few friends. Coming from dinner one night, the cathedral bells sounded for eleven o’clock in the distance. My friend pointed to the belfry and the faint light moving around the lower balconies. He told me, ‘You will not see that anywhere else in the world.’ He told me it was the lantern of ‘le guet de lausanne’ the man who called the hour over Lausanne through the night.
‘He happened to know le guet and we drove to the cathedral and stood at the bottom of the tower and my friend called up. I saw this small shadow appear over the railings. The shadow waved, disappeared for a second, then came back and lowered a key to the tower on a very long string. My friend unlocked the door and the key went back up the tower. We wound our way up the tower and at the top of the steps, standing on a balcony with the most incredible view of Lausanne, the Alps, the lake with Evian on the far shore, was a little man in a black floppy hat and a lantern in his hand and a sparkle in his eye and he said, ‘hello.’
‘We had brought a couple of bottles of wine and went into the loge between Marie Madeleine and Clemence and we drank, and I listened to le guet tell me about the cathedral, and the bells, and his life. He struck me as very gentle and kind. He worked as a physical therapist with brain damaged and autistic children during the day. He supported a home in Rwanda for aids orphans. He could not believe the world was full of terrible cruelty. He took me for a tour of the bells, introducing each one and telling me their story, and the old timbers, and the stones. A few hours later we were on the roof of the tower, standing together, silently, for the longest time. Finally i said, ‘There’s a wonderful story here. I don’t know what it is yet, but it’s here.’ That led to another long silence with le guet finally reaching over and patting my hand and smiling with that same child-like sparkle in his eyes and saying, ‘Then it is your duty to write it.’
I continued to work on ‘saddamistan.’ (my war novel…as yet unpublished) and I moved to Jordan with my wife. I did other things on the edges of TV news, but refused to jump back in, despite many high paying offers. I said, ‘I’d rather starve.’ and I almost did. Luckily, my wife (a top producer) kept us going. I began to think about the ‘cathedral story.’ As things developed, I knew I had to return to Switzerland to write and decided to pay myself to write using my savings. After coming to Lausanne, a friend offered us a flat to live in ‘as long as we needed.’ The flat was above Montreux, on a cliff with a view that felt very much like being in the cathedral tower. And le guet managed to get the canton to give me my own key to the cathedral, including permission to spend my days writing in the loge.’
I went very slowly, as I wasn’t on any deadline. I took my time. I got to know every nook and cranny of the cathedral. I wrote about half, then realised I needed to make money. We went back to Jordan where my wife could work, and I became involved in an Iraq doco project, sending me back to Iraq to live with a combat unit for three months. That film ate the next eighteen months of my life. When it was over, we moved back to Lausanne, became legal residents and moved into a village above the lake, and I went seriously to work. I wrote twelve drafts of the book.
So the very long and not so short of it is, I’ve been working on it (whilst trying to earn money to eat) for six years. And the day it had been picked up by Transworld, I called le guet and told him the story would be published. He said, ‘I have people come to visit me many times. Many of them are writers and they all want to write a book about the cathedral. I am very happy you kept your word.’
Kate: Did your experiences as a war journalist have anything to do with your inspiration for this story of angels and shadows? Perhaps as a way of explaining what people can do to one another?
Jon: More like surviving twelve years of Catholic education with Franciscan nuns and priests (with a smattering of redemptorists). I’m the sort that wanted to believe in God and the saints and the rest of it. I would spend my lunch hour in church, on my knees before the cross and the statues of saints praying for a miracle. It never came. I also grew up in a family of mental and physical abuse. My own father was a warrior who had travelled the world from war to war. He was a most unhappy man and plagued by drunken demons. They only time he was sober, that I can remember, was when he was setting off on some mission. He always told me I was weak and a coward, and I’d never be anything. Not surprising that I followed suit, with a camera, and got closer to death than he ever did. My mother was a rather sad person whose life was littered with broken dreams. And beyond that, yes, my experiences affected the story. Sometimes I think it’s hard to reconcile the man who wrote War Junkie and The Watchers; and other times it makes perfect sense. The Watchers is a work of fiction – me explaining to myself, the world I witnessed in the non-fiction War Junkie.
There is a strong element of violence in The Watchers because the world I know as a cameraman is a place of unphatomnable violence. And now, it is as if the violence I had to travel to Kigali or Grozny to witness and attempt to capture with a camera, has broken through the fourth wall and is now available for viewing in people’s sitting rooms, at the click of mouse. To such a degree that people feel they are immune to the suffering of others, on an apocolyptical scale.
I think my experiences with genuine violence gives my writing in The Watchers a disturbing edge. But the killings in the book are no more than things I have actually seen in my life. I have seen them, I have smelled them (in the scene where Harper enters the room in Montreux to find the night clerk, I tried to inject the smell of the scene into the reader’s mind. The smell of human slaughter is an unforgettable thing… Read War Junkie and you’ll know what I mean. I also used my experiences to get across the element of fear, not the hollywood conception, but the very clear realisation that one can die as easy as the next breath. If you’re lucky, you die quickly…but more often, horribly and slow. In many ways, with my experiences, it seems I have no hope for humanity. True. In some ways I believe mankind to be a cancer on the planet. I still do, but I now think there is also an element of goodness in the world that is worth fighting for. This was shown me most importantly by my wife, who taught me the truest value of compassion and love; and by le guet, who re-aquainted me with a sense of mission and duty in the face of evil. something I lost when I quit television news. The two of them are my lanterns in the darkness.
Kate: Do you know how the Trilogy will end? Or do you allow the characters to develop ‘themselves’ as you write them?
Jon: Yes, I even know the last sentence of the trilogy. It was the same for The Watchers. I knew the last sentence before I knew the first sentence….so all I had to do was fill in the middle (very much as I would edit news pieces for ITN). I was not interested in writing an ‘action’ book. I was not interested in a plot that determined all else. So, though I knew the opening and last sentences, I had no other idea about the story. I let the characters tell me their stories. For me, The Watchers was an act of pure inspiration, and I think that’s what took so long. The characters were allowed to take the story wherever they wished with one condition; they were not allowed to change their fate. My wife, reading the end of the battle in the tower, threw the manuscript from her hands and screamed at me, ‘You fucking bastard, you can’t do this!’ I told her I had done nothing, it was the characters.
I don’t know what to say about Rochat. U suppose in many ways he was me; that young boy who spent his young lunch hour in the chapel, talking to statues and wanting to believe in miracles. And I suppose harper is the part of me that has too many memories of human slaughter that he is immune to emotions and feelings…until he, too, meets le guet de la cathedrale de Lausanne.
Kate: You mixed reality with fantasy very subtly (and gradually). It wasn’t clunky. Was that difficult to achieve?
Jon: I told you when I began it was just called, ‘the cathedral book.’ Le guet is a french word derived from ‘faire le guet’, to keep the watch. One day, I remembered my bible studies and the b=Book of Enoch. I didn’t know why it came to me, but I looked it up on the internet and discovered why. The angels, the 500 creatures God had sent to earth to protect the creation, were called ‘watchers’ in the Book of Enoch. But they took the forms of men and women as wives and began to breed their own race of beings in paradise. And in one fell swoop, I had my explanation for evil in the world and the eternal struggle to survive its presence amongst us. I am really grateful to the fantasy readers wo have taken to the novel before all others. I cannot tell you how grateful I am. But I must be honest, I didn’t write The Watchers as a fantasy novel. If I had any idea in mind, it was nothing more than ‘Raymond Chandler does the hunchback of Notre Dame.’ (Though one could argue Chandler’s ‘The Long Goodbye’ is almost mystical) and slowly, I realized the characters were taking me down a path. I did not intent to go there, but as I said, I did not write the story, the characters did. And in the end, I am very glad they did. They showed me the world as it is…there is no heaven, there is no hell, there is only this place…this is all that’s left of paradise. To me, that sums it up. Bill scott Kerr (Transworld, London) wrote my agent that he loved The Watchers but his biggest problem was, ‘How the hell do we market it?’ When people ask me what kind of book it is, I say, ‘Mystical noir thriller.’ I hope, in the end, people just call it: a well-told tale.
Kate: Finally, the Prologue is the most beautiful piece of writing I’ve read in such a long time (I get teary just thinking about it) and most certainly the finest prologue to a novel I’ve read in years. It’s a difficult question, but how on earth did you do that?!
Jon: My editor and friend at Transworld, Doug Young (the man who published War Junkie and a man who never stopped encouraging me to write) sent me a note after the novel had been picked up: ‘Just thinking. How about a prologue to give a feeling of something strange comes this way?’). The more I thought about it, the more I thought Doug was right. I scoured for the right thing. Something to give a feeling of impending violence, evil and general weirdness and wonder. There is a connection to the English poet and literary critic Edward Thomas about 3/4 into the story. It is very brief moment, like a flashback. And I put it in for the one poem Thomas wrote that Harper remembers, ‘Blessed are the dead, that the rain falls upon.’ As someone who had come through battles and seen innocent human beings slaughtered in their thousands, those words have always had the deepest effect on me.
I obtained all his works of poetry, a biography, the books by his wife and daughter written after his death, and I went to a haunted house in Portugal to tackle the idea. I had no idea it was haunted, that happened later. I did much research in the Battle of Arras and WW1, coming away that even with all I had seen and experienced in war, those of us today have no idea of the horror of the trenches.
I came up with the mysterious ‘Corporal Swain’ who appears on the battlefield during a lull in the battle (named after a great journo and mate who also encouraged me to write, Jon Swain… many characters in the novel are named after people who helped me along). The real trick was to inject the real Edward Thomas into the narrative and dialogue. When Edward Thomas was killed from an artillery blast the morning of Easter Monday 1917, his body was found without a mark on it. His pocket watch (held at Oxford) stopped at the exact moment of the blast. In his tunic, at his heart, was his war diary containing not only his observations of a soldier at the front (including many of the boring, mind-numbing sameness of waiting for war that I have experienced). As well as the last lines of poetry he had written.
I actually used lines from his diary as narrative in the book to give the passage a sensation of being inside the man’s head. (I credit his work at the end of The Watchers.) in the same way I had let Marc, Harper and Katherine tell me their stories, I had to let Edward Thomas tell me his. But as he was a real person, I needed to use his own words to tell me. In many ways it was much harder than the rest of the book, and took me two months to write.
I was in Paris when I finished. The next day I took a train to Arras, France. It was pissing with rain when I arrived. I went in search of the small, almost hidden war cemetery where Edward Thomas is buried. It took me three hours to find. I was soaked to the bone, and I wandered the headstones till I found this:
Just then the sun came out and I introduced myself and pulled the somewhat damp manuscript from my coat and I read it to him. When I finished, it was very, very quiet. And I stood there, motionless. And I felt him calling me, calling my eyes to the bottom of the headstone and the almost hidden word…’poet.’ Then the rain came again, and I began to cry.