Bradley Winterton is a British freelance writer and book-reviewer living in Asia. He’s the author of three travel guidebooks (to Bali, Thailand and Japan, the last as co-author), and two books on operas at Macau’s annual International Music Festival. He hasn’t been home to the UK since 1990. He started book-reviewing when he was living in Hong Kong where he established the South China Morning Post’s ‘100 Books for Christmas’ (writing it entirely by himself for several years), and continued reviewing books for the Taipei Times from 2000, shortly after the paper was set up. He has interviewed literary celebrities such as Iris Murdoch, John Bayley, Jan Morris and Alan Hollinghurst. He currently lives in Vietnam.
The Mystery Religions of Gladovia (2015) is his first novel. It’s largely set in an imaginary country in South America, and features a wide range of characters, almost all of them gay. The two leading figures are an English headmaster, Lily, and one of his former students, Matthew (Matt). They meet in Gladovia when an Italian enthusiast for sadomasochism arranges a group punishment session, but this is not until after they’ve both had numerous other adventures, Matt’s mostly one-night-stands (which he records carefully in a journal), Lily’s more deeply involving. The book contains scenes in Spain, France, Germany and the Netherlands, as well as Gladovia and some wild country to its south, and ends in the English Lake District.
What was the inspiration for your novel The Mystery Religions of Gladovia?
Shortly after I left school my headmaster was caught by a police sting operation in a public toilet, just as Lily is in the novel. He killed himself the same evening. I’d always thought he might have escaped somehow, and the novel gives him a subsequent life he never had. But I never knew him well, and as soon as he reaches Gladovia he becomes in many ways an extension of me. Both Lily and Matt, the book’s leading characters, are largely me really.
How long did it take to write?
There are passages in the book, plus aphorisms and stray thoughts, that date back a long time. But essentially I didn’t start to work on the later parts until early last year. You could say I didn’t take it seriously till then. It’s impossible to calculate how long the work on it all added up to.
Why did you choose to set it in a fictional country?
Gladovia is mostly based on Taiwan, but I didn’t want hordes of gay tourists descending on the place if the book was a major success so I created an imaginary country.
Will Taiwan readers be able to recognize any of the places and people?
The Royal Gardens in the novel are based on Taipei’s 2.28 Peace Park, and some of the minor characters are people I met there, suitably disguised and always with the names changed. The characters involved in the SM scenes, though, are all imaginary – not many Chinese seem drawn to this particular activity. The countries where it flourishes appear to be Japan, Germany and the UK, significantly among the world’s most belligerent nations historically. And of course you can find anything in the US, as the original of Lily once remarked in my hearing. The beach at the end of Chapter 6 is based on Danshui.
What does the book title, The Mystery Religions of Gladovia, refer to?
Firstly it refers to the religious festival up in the mountains that Lily and Matt visit in Chapter 14. But by extension it also refers to the country’s subterranean gay culture, and yet again to the much smaller gay SM culture four of the characters briefly create for themselves. The mountain religion is based on what’s known about the ancient Greek cult of Eleusis. But I’ve always been interested in mystery religions, i.e. religions whose doctrines are only disclosed to initiates. I learnt about some in Poland on my two visits in the 1980s. There they had an added political significance, of course, but understandably I never got close to any of them.
Can you tell us something about the painting on the cover?
It’s called Mythic Figure and is the work of an artist I know called Terence Roe. He’s enormously talented, and not only as a painter – he’s also written over a hundred songs of extraordinary beauty, which for some reason he’s reluctant to publicize. I bought the painting from him some time ago and thought it might form a suitably mysterious image for the cover, with the theme of someone peering into the conundrums of his own personality.
What are your writing habits?
Delay as long as possible, then write as much as I can at a sitting.
Writing about sex is notoriously difficult. How did you hone your skills (writing skills that is)?
It was largely a matter of memory, plus a smattering of holding back on the details at the last moment, except in certain high-profile instances. I have some sex diaries that helped me recall the details.
Is there a message in the book that you hope readers will come away with?
There’s no message. None of my favorite books has a message. Maybe their authors would have some practical advice for writers, such as to take it easy and watch lots of movies, but that’s another matter.
Did you study Latin when you were at school?
Yes. Along with French, it was compulsory, and also at the time essential for entry to Oxford and Cambridge, certainly in the humanities. But we only needed to have a fairly low-level qualification. I made Lily a classicist to distinguish him from Matt, who I assumed read English (though I don’t think this is ever mentioned). The original of “the man in the mac” in Chapter 7 was an English lecturer at Oxford, but I made him a classicist to fit in with Lily’s speciality.
What did you study at Oxford?
You recently bought a Kindle. How are you finding it?
Marvellous. I’d resisted it for a long time, but now I even prefer it to printed books. I can lie on my back on the sofa and read it in any light. It also allows me to compulsively re-read my own novel, which as you know is only available at present as an e-book.
You’ve been writing reviews for the Taipei Times for over fifteen years. What changes in fiction and non-fiction have you noticed in that time?
How did your passion for classical music come about?
It came naturally, I think. I’m not only interested in the classics – I’m a huge Beatles fan, for example. But my father took me to operas and concerts as a teenager, and at school we had “music appreciation” classes. Once I started living in London I went to operas as often as possible, and have now seen over fifty of them. Taipei was pretty good, too. Taiwan generally is the leading place for classical music in Asia. For many years, and maybe still, there were more Taiwanese in the Asian Youth Orchestra (an outfit that’s formed every summer for a six-week period) than from any other territory. Japan came second, with an almost equal number, but selected from five times the total population.
Can you tell us about your interest and involvement in the theatre?
When I was 33 I gave up being a literary academic and founded a small experimental theatre group. I’d previously been reviewing experimental theatre productions for Time Out, a London listings magazine, and quickly thought I could create more exciting and innovative shows than the ones I was attending. So I moved to Bristol, and we set up our company in that highly congenial city. During the summer I’d been in Paris and had briefly joined Robert Wilson’s New York theatre company, initially as an unpaid extra. The show was his early work, Deafman Glance, which was a largely wordless ritual staged round one of the company, an African-American boy aged 17, who’d lost his hearing at an early age. The hope was that he’d regain it during one of the performances, where in one scene his home situation was re-created. It never happened, but it made mesmerizing and highly original theatre. I ended up in a subsidiary show, performed in the afternoons, in which I was a naked corpse partially covered with white flowers. Those were the days!
What projects are you working on now?
I have quite extensive rough drafts for a memoir of sorts, with a loose structure capable of containing just about anything, but held together by my conception of myself as some kind of permanent adolescent. There’s also the possibility of a book of gay short stories.
You’ve been in Asia for decades. What attracts you to and keeps you in this region?
The Asians. I couldn’t endure going back to England and having to look at the English all the time.
Why did you move from Taiwan to Vietnam?
I fell in love with Vietnam the first time I saw it. It seemed to me to be Old Asia, whereas Taiwan, along with Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan, were New Asia. I wanted to experience this unchanged culture while it still lasted. There are disadvantages, of course. There isn’t a single shop in Saigon selling classical CDs, and very few English-language books on sale. We’ll have one Western opera a year if we’re lucky. But it’s always warm, the swimming-pools are open year-round, it’s extraordinarily cheap, and everywhere there are these amiable people, innocent and friendly despite all the horrors many of the older ones have endured. And last night I saw a classical ballet in the Opera House (built in 1899), Prokofiev’s Cinderella, danced as flawlessly and beautifully as it’s possible to imagine. You’d be lucky to find the equal of that anywhere else in the world.
Visit Bradley Winterton’s Facebook page for the novel to learn more.