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Interview: September 5, 2008

September 5, 2008

Bestselling author Louis Bayard's most recent work of historical fiction, THE BLACK TOWER, poses a hypothetical "what if" surrounding members of the Royal Family in the tumultuous years following the French Revolution.

In this interview with's Kate Ayers, Bayard explains what sparked his interest in Eugène François Vidocq --- possibly the first modern private eye, who plays a central role in the book --- and discusses how he was able to accurately recreate Paris, circa 1818. He also weighs the benefits of writing historically-based novels over straightforward nonfiction, shares the most challenging aspect of his writing process and reveals what subject he plans to tackle in his next novel. THE BLACK TOWER is a story posing the question: What if the dauphin, child of Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI, didn't perish in the dark tower of the Temple Prison? You have imagined an intriguing plot that (not to spoil anything) your characters may or may not prove true. But then you weave a delicious murder into it. Do you feel that makes it a more exciting way to read about historical figures? Are you simply a mystery fan? Why the murder mystery approach?

Louis Bayard: I've always been a mystery fan --- ever since I was a kid, really --- so it was perfectly natural for me to write in that genre. At the same time, I do think there's something about the mystery-thriller format that sets characters in motion while also keeping the story in motion. There's nothing worse than a historical novel that forgets it's a novel.

BRC: In THE PALE BLUE EYE, I read that you got the idea by wondering what Edgar Allan Poe was doing at West Point. Was your inspiration for THE BLACK TOWER along the lines of what case the great detective Vidocq might have been involved in, or did you approach it from the direction of what if the dauphin had survived?

LB: No, I came at it through Vidocq. I figured I would have to give him a case as large as his personality. And what better case than the lost dauphin? If Louis XVII really had survived, it would have posed enormous political repercussions for the Bourbon dynasty.

BRC: As for Vidocq, what brought him to mind as a character to focus on? How did you learn of him?

LB: I'm embarrassed to say that, until two years ago, I didn't know who he was. Then I found an allusion to him in Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue." It was a rather grudging allusion, but what struck me was that he's never explicitly identified. Poe presumed that readers of his day would know who Vidocq was --- and indeed they would have. So I began to look into Vidocq's history, and the more I learned about him, the more I was hooked.

BRC: Did you make Dr. Hector Carpentier a venerologist because it shows him as a more comical, unique character? Or maybe it's your comedic side that couldn't resist.

LB: Well, poor Hector doesn't get a lot of action over the course of the book, so I thought this would be the next best thing. Venerealogy is also a discipline that cuts across social strata, which is what the book does, too.

BRC: Do you visit your settings in order to get the "feel" of them, the authenticity of the streets, the language, the smells? How do you research to be sure they are true to the 19th century?

LB: THE BLACK TOWER did give me a great excuse to go back to Paris. (I'll do anything for my art, right?) So I spent a few days just walking around and getting the lay of the land. But even though a lot of the old architecture remains, it's still very hard to "see" 19th-century Paris in today's city. (It's even harder in London.) So to really get the feel of it, you have to go to books. I read a lot of Hugo and Balzac and a lot of other primary sources. And when that failed, I just applied my imagination. That's why it's so much easier to be a historical novelist than a historian.

BRC: Was your focus in your formal studies on the 19th century, or does your writing center on it because of an intense curiosity about that time in history?

LB: I was, in fact, an English major, and my favorite writers were always the Victorians: Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, George Eliot. There's something about that period: it's far enough away to be exotic but close enough to be explicable. And nobody can come back and sue you.

BRC: How do you think your theater background plays into your success as a writer? And since Victor Hugo's inspiration for both Jean Valjean and Javert in Les Misérables came from Vidocq, hailed as the world's first detective, do you think that may have sparked an interest in him?

LB: I didn't even know he was Hugo's inspiration until I began researching him. But it makes sense. Vidocq hung out with a lot of writers, including Balzac and Dumas, and he was quite theatrical himself --- I believe he even acted in a play. As for my own very humble theater background, I think it does make it easier to write dialogue. I'll often use dialogue to block out a chapter.

BRC: I watched an interview in which you said that action was hard to write. How so? There seems to be a lot of good action in THE BLACK TOWER --- wonderful chase scenes, street fights, detective work.

LB: Well, I'm glad you think so. That's the stuff I work on the most. Action is hard because, if all you're going to write is "I ran down the street. He ran after me," then it's not going to be very vivid. You have to find a literary means of bringing the action alive so the reader doesn't just say: "I'll wait for the movie."

BRC: Where do you get your inspiration from?

LB: Um...the need to pay bills? It does kind of boil down to that. I find I can't really afford to wait around for inspiration; I have to coax it out as best I can. So I start throwing around some what-ifs and I see where they lead, and then the words start to come, and there you are. Lots of caffeine is involved. I wish I could make it sound more exalted than that.

BRC: Your novels are unique. Along with admirable writing skills, you have a humor at once subtle and bold. Do some of your ideas seem absurd to you as you begin to research and then become plausible as you advance?

LB: It's the research that often drives the absurdity. When I was writing MR. TIMOTHY, I learned that peacocks were often used as guard animals on British estates. If you've ever heard a peacock, it has an unearthly cry, and it's easily perturbed. So that little info-nugget ultimately led to a scene in which the hero and his young sidekick are menaced by a pack of peacocks.

BRC: I love your sense of humor. I mean, in MR. TIMOTHY, who but Louis Bayard would imagine a grown-up Tiny Tim living in a brothel in London? Are there any authors who you admire for their humor? For their writing ability? For their ideas?

LB: Oh, God, anyone who makes me laugh automatically ascends to my private pantheon. Dickens can be terribly funny. Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen, David Sedaris, George Saunders, Saki, Muriel Spark. Great comic writers are, almost by definition, great stylists because they have to be very precise with language. Theodore Dreiser could never have written a comedy. Poe's few stabs at humor are drastically unfunny.

BRC: What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?

LB: I'm planning to write about the School of Night, a cadre of Elizabethan intellectuals that included Walter Raleigh and Christopher Marlowe and that reportedly dabbled in dark arts. We don't actually know if there was a formal school, but for a fiction writer, that historical gap is heaven-sent because you can make things pretty much how you want them to be. As for when to expect it, I tend to take two years with every book, so...2010? Wish me luck.