At the same time, and it doesn't give away the plot because you pretty much do it on the first pages, but you kill your main character – it seems to me precisely because he fails to act morally?
I'm not sure that he's killed for that reason. (hesitates)…
He has no way out. It goes back to this thing that we can't escape ourselves. All the way through the novel it's clear, Jim cannot change who he is – and at the same time he doesn't want to be who he is. To use that word again, it's an existential sentence rather than a moral sentence. He can't change, he is who he is, but he's rejected that at the same time. He's in Naples, on a one way track to oblivion, existential oblivion – but what he wants out of that is one last intense moment with Louisa, to get Giovanna out of there, and then his work is done as it were. He's chosen a path, that you know isn't going to lead anywhere, but is going to tell him something about himself. But you're right, it could seem like a heavy sentence – he helps Giovanna, has sex with his friend's wife – and gets killed – yeah, it's quite tough! (laughs).
There's a heavy sense of fate hanging over the book – do you believe in fate?
Well, I do believe from my own experience that you can be trapped by yourself. Philosophically I believe we choose our fate. It's that dilemma, isn't it? The things we choose for ourselves. When talking of fate, I've never really understood exactly what that means, and I still wrestle with how we organise our lives. I've a constant argument with a close friend where he argues that he can't change the person he is, if he could he would, but he can't. And from there you get into these incredibly circular, tautological arguments and you know Philosophy hasn't answered these arguments, Psychology certainly hasn't answered them, Nurture/Nature hasn't – so I don't know. I know in the novel he's very much someone who's trying to make his own choices in a world where he doesn't have that power.
Were you worried about stereotyping – particularly with the Italian characters?
One has to trust an act of imagination. I believe in national stereotypes in a sense anyway. It's hard to get around them. I'm not a great believer in research – I believe in fiction and the power of imagination. It's not for me to judge though at the end.
Your next novel is set in Italy as well?
It's basically set in Italy, in the world of art crime. There's a big business in art crime in Italy, and moving stuff in and out of the country, but it's just one of the themes of the book. It's primarily about an Englishman again, trying to find himself some glory. There was a Carravagio altarpiece that was stolen from a Sicilian oratory in 1967, that's supposedly been used as a bargaining chip between organised crime families – and it's reached kind of mythic proportions – people claiming it's been destroyed, people who claim they've seen it. So basically it's set around this.
It's interesting, that you've got some of the same elements – crime, Italy, an Englishman. One of the things with Betrayal in Naples is that it seems at the outset to be a crime novel, but it doesn't really sit in the genre. What genre would you describe it?
I think it's a “Literary Novel” that just happens to have a really strong story. It's being positioned as a literary thriller, which is fair enough I suppose, but I think that someone reading it just as a thriller will come away a bit disappointed – I think it's a more thoughtful book than crime thrillers often are. All violence for example happens off stage, it's not a crime novel in that sense.
What makes a good novelist?
Oh God! Well, I think it's about distance, and getting to a stage where you're not trying to express yourself. Someone once said to me, in one of those kind of phrases of the year way “Freedom from expression” and I've subscribed to that ever since. I think great writing is about people who've gotten past that point where they're trying to express themselves and actually what they do is they are creating/writing something which is a problem solving process and through that you can't help but reveal yourself. It's all about acts of the imagination and distance from yourself. There's nothing worse than smelling a writer within a novel. That's why I think Betrayal in Naples works, because it's actually my third novel, though my first published, and I think I got rid of most of that stuff before.
Do you think you need to write a couple of novels before publishing your first then?
I wouldn't have said so six years ago (laughs) There's that thing like with music, it's easy to write a great first album because you spend 15 years on it, and then you have little time to right the second album, and those who manage to produce great second albums… In some ways you have to get that stuff out that's too close to you, and then afterwards you can write something that will be close to other people.
It's interesting, because your blog is intensely personal – like you use it to get that personal stuff out of your system. It's fascinating, talking about the difficulties in publishing, marketing a novel – all the things you don't hear about. What do you think of the blog format?
The blog started as a bet, with a mate, that if I started a blog and wrote every week that I'd sell over 100 copies! But as soon as I started I realised straight away that it's an interesting forum in which to reveal yourself. My agent and editor are slightly concerned about the vulnerability and insecurity that I show, that I reveal too much, they want me to be more positive. I don't know – I have things that are difficult – a difficult job, two young kids, and sometimes I'm negative. But it's a place to explore. It's an interesting forum – and I think you're right, that's the place to express myself as a human being, while the novel writing is something greater.