Updated on May 19, 2015
An interview with Colin Fisher
Colin Fisher is a Scottish writer, living and working in Madrid. After reading my review of Ryu Murakami’s alternative history, From the Fatherland with Love, Colin sent me his own alternative history: A Republic of Wolves, A City of Ghosts. The novel is set during the Spanish civil war and follows Maria, a woman living right next to the front line in Madrid, who gets increasingly drawn into the war as the Republic manages to hold out until the spring of 1940. It’s a hugely enjoyable read with a gutsy main character, and I was delighted when Colin agreed to an interview.
The book is an alternative history set during the Spanish Civil War. What made you choose this particular period of history?
Well, not to be too simplistic, but I really chose that setting because it’s where I was. I’m a primary school teacher and I was working in Scotland, but I wanted a change of scene. I saw the advert for a position as a teacher in an English school in Madrid and I got it, and I’ve been here for 10 years. So now my working life is much the same – I’m basically teaching the same curriculum – but now my personal life is in Spanish and I’m quite fluent in the language.
Anyway, it was quite clear that I would write about that period of history, because I would walk around the city and see the bullet holes in the walls. They couldn’t afford to build everything again new, so they just reused the bricks and they had bullet holes in them. There are whole trenches, pretty much, that you can still walk through.
Are there any alternative histories which particularly inspired you to write your own?
Yes, I suppose they were always around when I was growing up. I remember my mother reading Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and I did a history degree so I also read alternative histories during my studies. There was The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick and SS-GB by Len Deighton, in which it’s 1940 and Britain has just fallen to the Nazis.
I have quite a few connections to alternative histories so it was very natural that this is the form I would write. My mother said, probably about 20 years ago, that if I wanted to be a writer I should write about what I know, so here I was in Madrid and it made sense to write about the civil war.
Of course, Republic of Wolves doesn’t say that the Republicans definitely win the civil war. There are a lot of ifs there: it’s saying if the troops had pulled back when the generals wanted them to, if the Americans had helped them, maybe things would be different.
The novel’s protagonist is Maria, a widow and mother. Did you encounter any challenges in writing a female lead?
I chose to write with a female lead because it was just a lot more interesting to me. I don’t claim to have any great insight into being a woman at this time, but I wanted an unusual lead. I suppose you could say that having a woman as a lead in a Spanish Civil War novel is unusual anyway, but she’s also an unusual character in herself.
She’s quite a strange character; she’s very stubborn and awkward. Sometimes I would go back and rewrite sections and that would usually make her more awkward, so that really shows what she’s like as a character. And I never wanted to leave Maria’s point of view; I wanted to keep it all on a very local level.
It struck me that naivety plays a big role in the book. Maria often sees the soldiers as little boys, filled with blind idealism. Was this something you particularly wanted to address?
That’s an interesting idea. That wasn’t something I really set out to do deliberately; she wasn’t designed to be the person that is criticising the war. It was just very clear to me from the beginning that she was this stubborn woman. For instance, she won’t move out of her home on the front line because that’s where she is free and she doesn’t want to let go of that.
I think all the characters are very idealistic. They’re all quite unusual and it isn’t until Maria meets Sergeant Izaguirre that she forms a real friendship for the first time. But there’s also Ignaz who’s left everything in Austria, and there’s Maria’s idealistic son who she meets on the front line. I really wanted to show that this is all about individuals, rather than big movements and governments and ideologies. It’s all in the interest of writing, I hope, an interesting story.
There are some great scenes in the novel that really stay with the reader, like the attack on the train, and the library van near the front line.
A lot of people who read the book have picked up on the library van. I’m 96.3% certain that they had things like that, because for the Republic it wasn’t just about winning the war but improving things along the way, including education.
I’m glad that you mentioned the train scene too, because it’s a scene I enjoyed writing and that I still enjoy reading. Having ridden in trains around Spain I know that the country is either completely mountainous or incredibly flat; there’s really nothing in between. So you do feel sort of dizzy, travelling over all that flat land and I tried to bring that to the scene.
This is quite a long novel – did you have the plot planned out before you started writing, or did it develop more organically?
Yes, it was planned out pretty much beforehand. I always knew it would be a novel of two halves, starting with Maria in her home in Madrid, and then going on to her joining the army and the things she does with them. Originally, though, I had a different ending planned. I was going to have a sort of Dirty Dozen ending, with the team storming into Granada to avenge the poet Lorca, but it became clear that that wouldn’t happen, so instead there’s the more quixotic mission to get into the city and rescue Lorca’s lost work.
And, whilst the last mission of the book is quixotic, it’s also necessary. They’re all going to have to pay a big price, some with their lives, but they’re doing it because Lorca is important to Spanish culture as a whole. That also shows that this isn’t just about big ideologies (although of course they are involved), but about real people trying to do something important.
Was this your first novel and are you working on any more?
Republic of Wolves is really the first novel I completed. The novel is a long, scary form and I had the usual excuses – I’d come home from work and I was tired – but with this book something just happened that made me want to write more.
I’m working on a second novel at the moment – different characters and different places, although still set in Spain – but people have asked me if there will be more of Republic of Wolves. I think that could happen and, yes, I think it’s likely that Maria will make a comeback.