Updated: February 14, 2013 6:28AM
Simon Tolkien, grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien, has written his fourth thriller, “Orders From Berlin” (Minotaur, $25.99). Tolkien, 53, published his first novel, “Final Witness,” in 2002. He spoke with USA Today about his novels and his memories of his famous grandfather, author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.”
Q. “Orders From Berlin” centers on a plot to assassinate Winston Churchill in 1940. Where did that idea come from?
A. I started reading about that time in 1940 when Britain faced invasion from Germany. I also started to read about what was happening within the British political establishment during that period. [Prime Minister] Neville Chamberlain and the foreign secretary Lord Halifax strongly favored trying to make a negotiated peace with Germany. It was Churchill who absolutely opposed this and said we must fight to the death even if they invade. It seemed to me if Churchill was removed from the equation, it would completely change the course of the war.
Q. What was it like mixing your fictional characters with historical figures?
A. Herman Wouk did it beautifully in “The Winds of War,” particularly with Roosevelt and Churchill. I wanted to try it myself. All the history books are, why did Hitler do this? Why did Churchill do that? Not what it was actually like to be in the same room as them, to try and find small details about what they were like, what the places they lived in were like, which is what actually makes them real. Grandiloquent speeches don’t have that effect. Hitler’s shyness about wearing his glasses, the fact he really liked cake, his hatred of meat. All these very small details you can take and build up a picture.
Q. Did your grandfather, who died when you were a teenager, influence your writing?
A. He believed, I think, that you have to tell a story which people want to keep reading. The idea of the page-turner. What I think is great is writing a book that’s a page-turner which doesn’t make people feel, at the end, like they’ve binged at McDonald’s, that there’s a bit of quality and a depth of character.
Q. How old were you when you first read “The Lord of the Rings”?
A. I think I was around 7 or 8. I wasn’t some kind of infant genius, but I grew up alone in a small Oxfordshire village, and there was not much TV in those days, so I just read.
Q. Did you talk with your grandfather about the trilogy?
A. Yes, and I think it must have been hell, hell on earth, because I wouldn’t leave him alone. “The Lord of the Rings” is full of allusions to other histories and other countries and other lands, and I wanted to know what was going on in all these other places. I was asking him constant questions.
Q. Do you have a favorite character in “The Lord of the Rings”?
A. I think the most amazing character is Sauron, because I think it is unique in the history of literature to create a presence and a person of which one has such an unbelievable sense yet you never see or hear. Yet his presence completely overarches the book, which is why the book has the right title. Sauron is the lord of the rings.
Q. How do you feel about Peter Jackson stretching “The Hobbit” (Part 1 is in theaters now) into a film trilogy?
A. Stretching. That’s the operative word, isn’t it? You don’t know what’s going to happen until you actually see it. “The Hobbit” is a short book my grandfather wrote for his children in the 1930s. The only way it’s going to work, in a certain sense, is if Jackson makes his own film, his own script and his own story. I personally think films work best if they’re not enslaved to the books from which they come.
Gannett News Service