Interview: Robert Newman on latest novel The Trade Secret
Writer also known for stand-up comedy publishes new novel set in 17th Century
Writer Robert Newman – who is perhaps better known for his stand-up comedy - publishes his latest novel The Trade Secret this week. Published in hardback by Cargo, and also available in ebook format by Cargo Crate, Newman’s eagerly awaited book will take you on an adventure to the end of the world and back again.
Set just before the start of the seventeenth century, the book follows young servant Nat Bramble, who faces certain death after losing his master Sir Anthony Sherley’s money. Hoping to turn his fate around, Nat enlists the help of lovesick poet Darius Nouredini to travel to the Temple of Mithras, in hope of finding the rumoured oil wells said to lie beneath it. However, the venture sparks a dangerous flame beneath Nat’s feet that leads him back to England and leaves him trapped between kings, spies and pirates.
We spoke to Robert about history, stand-up and oil.
Like many people, I know you better as a comedian than as an author. What made you take the time from comedy to write this book?
In 2005 I did over 100 gigs, and so I felt like a sit-down. But the main reason for switching from comedy to writing The Trade Secret was when, by great serendipity, I stumbled upon this wonderful story in the British Library Rare Books & Music Room. I’d spent years hoping for just such a find.
As someone who isn’t too hot on their history, I found the book's basis in historical events fascinating. What was it about this particular period that interested you?
The great gift of history – and perhaps of historical novels too – is to show that there is nothing inevitable about how we live now. This is especially important to hang onto in days like these, when we are told that the present economic system is a law of nature. All is flux. And if flux is what you’re after in your history then the beginning of the seventeenth century is the time for you: it’s a time when things can really swing one way or another. It’s a moment of great change, when cracks open in a rigidly hierarchical society, and all kinds of unexpected things happen.
Did you write the book with the fans of your stand-up show A History of Oil in mind?
No, but the popularity of History of Oil encouraged me to explore these early years of oil.
I loved the relationship between the two main characters – for me it was the driving force of the book. What inspired the relationship between Nat and Darius?
The heart of the story is this friendship – though I can't for the life of me remember where the idea came from. Probably from having tried twenty other things first that didn’t work! That’s usually the case.
How much of Sir Anthony Sherley’s character did you have to speculate about?
Almost none. The historical record is pretty rich. Rich and unvisited. Sir Anthony Sherley is such an extraordinary figure that I don't know why he's not more famous. He used to be. Sir Anthony is a cousin of both the Earl of Essex and, on his mother's side, Shakespeare's favourite comedian, Will Kemp. He also claimed to be a cousin of King James. He and his brothers were crucial allies of James VI and I. Swindler, mercenary and warmonger; Sir Anthony becomes Iran's ambassador to Europe. Talking of which, some of the Anthony scenes that people will think I invented, actually happened. For example, the punch-up with the other Persian ambassador during their civic reception into Rome to meet the Pope really happened.
You’ve got a number of appearances coming up in Scotland this month, with the Gutter Launch and Aye Write! Festival, and then back in the summer for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. What has been your favourite show in Scotland so far?
I really loved doing the Bongo Club in Edinburgh in 2005. Less fun was Theatre Royal in Glasgow where I was chased round by uniformed security guards. I’d sold the place out, but they didn’t know me from Adam and were convinced I’d broken in. I was nervous, and I didn’t do what I should have done when they came running, which would have been to calmly introduce myself. What I did instead was to start running. The chase went on for ages: up and down stairs, along corridors. At last my tour manager Bobby radioed to ask them if they’d seen me anywhere because it was show time and for some reason I wasn’t in my dressing room. ‘What’s he wearing?’ they asked. And then they twigged.
Have you made plans to write any other novels in future?
I’m not thinking further ahead than the new stand up show Robert Newman’s New Theory of Evolution. Besides which, Cargo have booked me to do readings of The Trade Secret for the rest of my life.
The Trade Secret is out now.