The Sunday Conversation: Simon Tolkien

Simon Tolkien's new thriller, "The Inheritance," draws on the author's own as a former British criminal barrister and grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien. The murder mystery, his second, is set in 1950s Oxford and turns on the desperate pursuit of a jewel-encrusted relic of the original cross. Tolkien, 51, moved to Santa Barbara a year ago with his American-born wife, Tracy, and their two children.

So what were your earliest memories of your grandfather?

I think I remember most after he went to Bournemouth. Bournemouth is like a tiny English version of Florida. There are hotels and the beach and a lot of old people. I think he hated it. But I think he felt it was due to my grandmother, that she'd put up with Oxford, and Oxford was, particularly in those days a very misogynistic place.

The Inklings were C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien [and others], and they'd all sit around in the pub and they'd read each other their writings, and I don't think there was a woman in sight unless she brought them their beer. I think that was hard for her. And I think she really enjoyed Bournemouth.

We played lots of word games with my grandfather. His favorite one was Constantinople. You remember things, and they're not necessarily the most interesting things. When people ask me about my grandfather, they want me to remember him telling me who Sauron really was. I haven't got the gospel up my sleeve, but I have these idiotic memories.

Who was he writing for? Children or adults?

Adults. I think he thought his books were suitable for adults, although I think he thought kids could get a lot out of it. "The Hobbit" is more of a kid's book. The funny part was that was what he'd actually been doing since 1916, the first writing was in the trenches in the first World War. He'd been writing "The Silmarillion." When "The Hobbit" was a success, he went to the publishers and they said, "What else have you got?" So he produced part of "The Silmarillion," high and mighty tales from the First Age [which led to the "Rings" trilogy]. And they took a look at it, and they said, "No. We want 'Hobbit.' " And out of that was born "The Lord of the Rings."

Your father Christopher edited "The Silmarillion." So he was keeper of the literary flame, because that was published posthumously, right?

I think my grandfather was sad at the end, because what he really wanted was to have "The Silmarillion" published. Because that was really his life's work. He started working on it in 1916 and then he carried on. "The Lord of the Rings" came along and interrupted everything, so he went back to the beginning and wrote again. So there were endless versions of the same story, and by the late '60s he couldn't work out which the right version was. It was chaos. So I think in the end he was unhappy.

It must have been daunting to become a writer yourself when you're the grandson of a global literary figure.

It's weird looking back that I was so certain I couldn't write. Not fiction. At the time that I had that view, in my 20s and 30s, I didn't think that it was because I was the grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien, although I think now that that was the reason. I don't know what's changed. I think it's possibly confidence.

But I think underlying that and maybe why I was self-conscious and why I didn't write was because, who was I to write? How were we going to be able to do something like that when you're the grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien? And I think eventually I got sick of being the grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien and wanted to be me.

The coming of the Jackson movies made me feel like that was a critical point. Because up until then being the grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien was a phenomenon, but it wasn't overwhelming. And suddenly with the Jackson movies, rightly or wrongly, it moved into the entirety of the world. You just couldn't turn on the TV or go outside your door without it being "The Lord of the Rings." And I wanted then to feel, yeah you're going to do something in your own right. I don't think it was any coincidence that it was around the time the first movie came out that I started writing.

What did you think of "The Lord of the Rings" films?

I liked the first one and I thought they got progressively worse. A lot of people disagree with me. What was really important was to preserve character. The big temptation is to have massive special effects. The Tower of Barad-dûr exploding all over the screen is terribly tempting, but a lot of the strength of the book is what it doesn't show as well as what it does show.

Why did you leave the law?

I didn't to begin with. I started doing both at the same time, and it became impossible. And then there was writing "The Inheritance." "The Inheritance" is a whodunit and also there's the historical perspective, which I didn't have with "Final Witness" and which I'm really pleased about and have gone for in a big way with the next book coming out in April. It's called "The King of Diamonds."

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