03 November 2013

Author Interview: John Issitt

This week, we're pleased to welcome one of our newest contributors, author John Issitt, whose latest novel, AGENTS OF REASON, is set in the 18th century. The author will offer a free copy of Agents of Reason to a lucky blog visitor; please leave your email in the comments to be included in the . Here's the blurb:

Jeremiah was a London radical. He and his associates gave themselves to the cause - a cause that was always dangerous and compromised. This is his story. Whilst his efforts received no dividend in his lifetime today we are in his debt - we enjoy the freedoms for which he risked his life.
When the Bastille fell in 1789 English radicals like Jeremiah saw the promise of freedom but by early 1793 the French Revolution had turned into madness as Robespierre and the guillotine produced a blood bath of self destruction. In England the fear that the revolution might spread across the channel provoked reactionary responses and the years of William Pitt’s terror began. Radicals were hunted down. Some found themselves in Botany Bay, others charged with sedition or treason, languished in Newgate and the Tower.

**Q&A with John Issitt**

What led you to write Agents of Reason?

It’s been a strange journey and one I certainly didn’t plan. A number of themes and events seem to gather and project me down a path - out popped Agents of Reason. I have studied the politics of 1780- 1820 for a long time and my doctorate concerned the main hero – Jeremiah Joyce who was a political radical in London in that period so I knew a lot about him and his milieu. One of the main problems was the lack of record and there were good reasons for that – it was quite simply dangerous for radicals of the period to leave any evidence of their meetings – such evidence could see them hang or transported to Botany Bay. So all that was left were scratchings and suggestions that merely hinted at his endeavors. This was both frustrating and intriguing. It did though compel me to try to tell his story which I did in my thesis and in an academic book, but the constraints of academic history left so many gaps and failed to generate a real sense of his life and the compromises of his situation.  I needed to tell his story and recover the man.

The book seems to bridge fact and fiction. How did you decide on its style?

The questions of ‘what is an historical fact’ and ‘how far can you stray from them?’ bedevils the business of historical, if not all, writing. I had to find a mechanism that allowed me to keep as close to what is known to have happened – I use several primary sources in the text itself and I keep as tight as possible to the known sequence of events. Where I have ‘facts’ I use them but where I don’t I draw on what I know about the period and my own resources. I put myself in Jeremiah’s position and try to think through what I would have thought/done/been frightened of.  So the style is a compromise of factors. I find that most readers settle – or not - to the style after three or four pages.

Why ‘Agents’ and why ‘Reason’?

‘I came across the title because the main characters do act as agents on the direction of others – both people and forces. Jeremiah is to some extent a puppet enacting the will of more respectable intellectuals who weren’t prepared to get their hands dirty and take risks. The compromises which dictate Jeremiah’s actions are both personal and thematic and there is a strong sense in which he and his fellow radicals saw themselves as acting on behalf of a greater interest. The theme of reason reflects the classic Enlightenment claim of scientific reason as the justification for everything. Sadly, as the story shows, reason is inherently limited and insufficient in the face of human interests.

Did you enjoy the process of writing it?

By and large yes. I wrote it over four summers in my caravan – a static holiday home – in south west Scotland where I escaped from money earning endeavors for as long as I could. My caravan looks out over the sea and I watch the tide and the wind so I can go windsurfing. The light on the west coast of Scotland is delightful – you can almost taste it. I tried to write 2000 words a day from which I would normally get 800 good words the next day when I edited down and brushed the text. The final version is approximately 83,000 words but I think I must have written over 500,000 overall, had four false starts and went down a number of blind alleys. It was all a rich learning experience and felt, on balance, good.

What is your next project?

‘Tom and Edmund’ after Tom Paine and Edmund Burke. The story is structured by their parallel biographies, friendship, and then opposition. It follows their individual legacies in the realm of ideas, which set the markers for right/left democrat/republican politics. The underlying theme is reason and its fortunes in the world of human strife. 

Agents of Reason is available on Amazon as paper and ebook http://www.amazon.co.uk/Agents-Reason-John-Issitt/dp/095737710X 

John Issitt just about to talk about Agents of Reason at Conway Hall - one London's historical centres of ethics, humanism and religious dissent.