Saturday, September 19, 2015

Q&A with Jonathan Weisman

Jonathan Weisman, photo by Gabriella Demczu
Jonathan Weisman is the author of the new novel No. 4 Imperial Lane. He is a reporter for The New York Times, and has worked for other publications including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today. He is based in Washington, D.C.

Q: Why did you decide to set your novel in the late 1980s, with flashbacks to 15-20 years earlier?

A: This goes to what is true and what is fiction. I really did study abroad my junior year and really did take a year off, ending up caring for a fallen-aristocrat-turned quadriplegic. His sister, Joanna, had indeed eloped with a Portuguese doctor and somehow ended up in Angola, where the revolution swept her off to South Africa.

That was the framework for the fictional backstory. But it worked for what I wanted to do. Thatcher's Britain was an exhausted former empire trying to remake itself, to get off of its knees. Portugal's collapse in the early ‘70s was the end of the old-style colonial empire. They were perfect bookends for the story I was trying to tell. 

Q: How did you choose the book’s title, and what role do you see imperialism playing in the novel?

A: The working title of the novel was actually "Empires End," no punctuation, just a statement. Imperialism and its inevitable demise is the central historical theme of the novel.

In real life, my experience with Wolf and Joanna Aylward (not Hans and Elizabeth Bromwell) took place on Sudeley Street, not Imperial Lane. The name of the street evokes the theme of the book.

It was actually my agent, Rayhane Sanders, who suggested the title "No. 4 Imperial Lane." She felt it was more accessible, more domestic, and I never question Rayhane's judgment on such matters.

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing, or did you make many changes as you went along?

A: Good question. In fact, I made a lot of significant changes in the drafting and redrafting. David's unwillingness to face his past and go home was always to be central to the plot, but the first draft did not have a compelling reason why he was so afraid to look inward, hence his sister, a late addition.

There still was not enough development in his story. So much of the book was dependent on Elizabeth's journey. So I added the love story at its conclusion. The idea was to get David somewhere, to show his development and emotional opening.

Q: Are you working on another book?

A: Yes, a first draft is done, but it has a ways to go. It focuses on two young missionaries who go to live with a highland tribe of former headhunters in the Philippines but are swept along by geopolitical forces they are wholly unaware of.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I still hold out hopes that Ralph Fiennes and/or Emma Thompson will fall in love with No. 4 Imperial Lane and take it on as a vanity project. I would love nothing more than to write fiction full time.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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