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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Interview: Cliff Taylor talks about The Spanish Garden


Cliff Taylor is an author and journalist who has lived and worked in numerous places around the world. He has written for a variety of publications including UK daily The Independent, various newspapers in Africa, the Herald on Sunday and the Sunday Star-Times. He also worked as a journalist and producer for eight years at the BBC World Service in London and Africa. The Spanish Garden is his fourth novel. Cliff talks to NZ Booklovers.


Tell us a little about The Spanish Garden.

The book is set on a single day in 2016 in a garden overlooking the Kaipara Harbour, where Sidney King is reluctantly marking his 100th birthday. The narrative switches to Barcelona, where momentous events are occurring simultaneously, and back through the preceding century exploring key episodes from Sidney’s past, particularly during the Spanish Civil War. Gradually the strands are brought together, present and past, to weave an account of one man’s secrets, and those of the land upon which his garden has been created.

What inspired you to write this book?

I fell in love with Spain and its culture and history when I first visited the country aged 21 and I have travelled there many times. I owned an olive grove in Catalunya for a while – one of various impractical ventures I have pursued in my life. I also have a deep affection for the Kaipara district and its magnificent harbour. My parents have lived there for more than three decades and I owned a property there for several years. I’m fascinated by the idea of people from little-known backwaters who go out into the world and become involved in life-changing events, which often occurs in wartime. I knew I wanted to somehow tell a story drawing upon both Spain and Kaipara.


What research was involved?

I first became aware of Kaipara’s rich history via Dick Scott’s excellent book, Seven Lives On Salt River. Living in the district, one hears the apocryphal stories and rural myths of both Pākehā and Māori settlement – what I would categorise as ‘Kaipara gothic’.


I also researched the history of the Musket Wars in Northland, which dramatically shaped the region and - literally – ground the novel in its location.


For many years I have read everything I could lay my hands on related to the Spanish Civil War, both fiction and non-fiction, so I had a fairly good understanding of the complexities of the conflict and the role of international volunteers. Antony Beevor’s brilliant history, The Battle for Spain, assisted with the background and chronology of events. Also, having lived in Spain, I understand how the war still affects the country’s people and politics to this day.


However, I should add that when I left journalism in 2019 to write full time I had an entirely different book planned. I did a huge amount of research, but somehow just could not get started. I realised I needed the buy-in of certain people, which I could not obtain. In sheer frustration I sat down one day, and wrote a thousand words, inspired by a much older idea, which turned out to be The Spanish Garden. From that moment I never looked back.


What was your routine or process when writing this book?

The book was written during that strange year of 2020, much of it during lockdown. I had a caravan on a friend’s farm outside Matakana to which I would sneak off most mornings to write. It was at the caravan I wrote the aforementioned first thousand words, one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Shuttling between the caravan and another friend’s kitchen I got the job done, in about five months. Two thousand words is a good day. I try to avoid unnecessary fact-checking or rewriting until the session is finished, to avoid losing momentum. Momentum is everything. I develop a daily routine. Coffee first thing, tea from mid-morning onwards. Red wine after work. I have to treat writing as a job, one in which I sit down every morning and work steadily, without interruption. Being halfway through writing a book is, for me, a place of pure joy; I know exactly where I am and where I’m going. Nothing else compares.


If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

I listen to a lot of music when I’m writing, almost exclusively instrumental and/or classical. I find lyrics too distracting. I particularly enjoy film soundtracks, including The Road and The Proposition by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. They are both cinematic and propulsive, which usually lends itself perfectly to what I am writing. The works of Max Richter, Alberto Iglesias and Hans Zimmer perform the same function, and I also enjoy a bit of Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. So, not songs as such, but a soundtrack by one of these composers would be ideal.


If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

It would require probably three actors to play the lead character, Sidney King, as we see him at age 15, 20, in his 30s and onwards to the age of 100. For the more mature Sidney, I’ve always imagined Sam Neill in the role (although he’d need ageing for the oldest version).


The other main characters are both young women, aged about 19 or 20, one Māori and one Catalan. I have very strong images in my mind of what they look like, but it would be fascinating to see who a casting director would find to embody those roles.


What did you enjoy the most about writing The Spanish Garden?

As I’ve described earlier, nailing the first thousand words was a revelation. Everything flowed from that. Other writers have described the feeling of being led by the story, and by the characters, of not being fully in control and, without wanting to get too esoteric, that is how it was for me. The characters became absolutely real to me, and still are. At times I felt like I’d bitten off more than I could chew, with the somewhat ‘epic’ nature of the story, the different time zones, the historical detail, and the intensity of emotion experienced by the characters – and by myself. But I felt able to rise to each challenge, and reading the first draft back, I knew I had managed to produce something good.


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

Haha, probably had a little cry. Typing those last words The End, is always a big moment. I think I then announced it on Facebook, just to let people know I was still alive. I’m sure there were bubbles involved at some point.


What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

To be honest I barely read anything when I’m writing, apart from news. The most recent book I read was The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, from which I borrowed the epigraph which appears in The Spanish Garden. I had been circling around this book for years. I finally got around to ordering it from the library, and the same day found a free copy in a box of discarded books at a stall in Matakana. So, it found me really. Prior to that was Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which is daunting in its brilliance.


What’s next on the agenda for you?

While awaiting publication of The Spanish Garden I completed the first draft of a new novel, which has been sitting, patiently waiting, on my hard drive since the end of last winter. I can’t wait to get back to it.


Quentin Wilson Publishing


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