DAVID Whiteman has been finalising his second novel, Black Hand, in Prague’s palatial National Library. The Edinburgh-based author has been an official writer-in-residence in the Czech capital since the start of the year, invited there as part of its City of Literature programme,

His second book views the First World War from the Habsburg home front, and at moments from Gavrilo Princip’s prison cell in Bohemia, its main protagonist being the son of Princip’s jailor. Whiteman has been finding his voice writing about the Serb notorious for sparking global conflict by shooting Habsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Over a Pilsner, Whiteman spoke to Rosamund Johnston about Edinburgh and Prague as Cities of Literature, and nationalism in the Balkans and beyond.

Where did the idea of your current novel come from?

I was writing something else; a screenplay about Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald in 1925, the year that they met. It’s about the lost generation and the fallout from the First World War, which is why these writers are in Paris. And I actually had a dream about the assassination. Very briefly, I just thought, “I wonder if I could tag on a tiny little prologue at the start?” And “What if you just did a quick, minute and a half of the assassination with the archduke and the blood running out into the river in Sarajevo and then you pan out and get the blood running through Europe?”… Which probably would have been awful! But that got me looking at Wikipedia, and Gavrilo Princip’s page, which at the time was very short. There were barely 100 words. Now looking back, I know that most of it was wrong.

So, did it become your intention to right the record about Gavrilo Princip?

Well, you don’t have to write things historically correctly, because it is a novel. You can do whatever you want. But I’ve been sucked into the real story, because the real story is relatively unknown. One of my characters is documenting Gavrilo Princip, and I’m looking to do that as accurately as I can. That’s the ambition anyway.

You are currently finishing the manuscript. Would you say that your ambitions for Black Hand have been fulfilled?

I knew I wanted to tell the story of Princip, and the story of Princip is largely the story of why the Serbs felt the way they felt at the time. As soon as you’re into it, it becomes a maze, an absolute maze. He was Bosnian – he was a Bosnian Serb. What’s the difference between a Bosnian Serb and a Serb? I found traveling in the Balkans that the answer depends on which side of the border you inquire. So there is no absolute truth about him. But I’m pleasantly surprised by how the book has gone.


Somewhere along the line I found what I really knew was my voice. So I’m pleased in that respect. And I didn’t realise how hard it was going to be to understand his story. It’s a subject that really attracts conspiracy theorists. But it is not really my intention to disseminate the reasons for the First World War. The interesting thing when you read it is that it was a suicide mission conducted by a 19-year-old boy. That’s quite a contemporary story.

You focus on the time Gavrilo Princip spent here in Bohemia. How did he end up here, and why did this interest you?

AFTER the assassination he was jailed near to Prague in the Terezín fortress. There were riots on his way here. I think he was sent here because it was as far as possible from any front – east or west – once the war had broken out, and far away from the Serbs. It was like an oubliette; he was put somewhere where he could be forgotten – which he wasn’t!

Why did you focus on his jailor’s son, rather than on Princip himself?

I didn’t want to put words into Princip’s mouth. I didn’t want him to be somebody that he wasn’t. So I tried to preserve him as he was presented to me through history. Also, Princip’s story is interesting in itself and it should be documented, but everybody knows what he did. Every book is going to end in the same way: he’s still going to shoot the archduke! Most important are the consequences; not what he did, but the consequences of what he did.

It is quite easy to get swept up in the First World War; the sheer numbers involved, the sheer devastation, the countries involved, and how it changed the world. But it is very hard to empathise with all that as a reader. What it is easier to do is empathise with a single person. So I thought, “Well that’s what I want to do. I want to write as good and complete and rounded a character as I can, and we’ll just follow him.”

So my protagonist is a 19-year-old; a similar kind of person to Princip in build and age. He has a very nice life here in Prague. And we just watch what happens to him. He doesn’t have a bad relationship to Princip, he’s just quite removed from the war. He’s not a nationalist. He’s just someone who wants to have their slice of the cake. He just wants to get on with his life but, because of what Princip did, he can’t.

Our current location, Prague, and your adoptive home, Edinburgh, are both Unesco Cities of Literature. Have you found this to be anything more than a marketing slogan?

When I moved to Edinburgh I was really, really surprised by the size of the arts scene and the importance that it seemed to play in the city. We moved there in August, so the festival was in full swing. It was quite odd turning up and thinking, “Well what’s festival, and what’s Edinburgh?” People were saying, “Don’t worry, it’ll calm down after a while,” and I thought, “I don’t mind this! I really like it!” I love living in Edinburgh with all the tourists.

A lot of this tourism is literary, with people visiting the cafes in which JK Rowling wrote, for example. For the benefit of visiting fans, what are your favourite places to work in Edinburgh?

I like writing outside, which is not much of an option in Edinburgh! I was worried when I moved to Scotland that I’d have to bite the bullet and buy some astronomically costly textbooks. But no, I’ve signed up to the National Library of Scotland, and they’ve got everything I need. So, if they want to put up a blue plaque …

In Black Hand you are focusing on a time of extreme fragmentary nationalism. Are there lessons in there for Scottish nationalism today?

There are of course. The First World War didn’t come out of nowhere, it had been building up for years and years. If people aren’t being treated in a way they feel is fair, then they are going to revolt, aren’t they? Princip came from a small town in the Grahovo valley where they lived in destitute poverty; they were just scratching a living from the ground. And this was a revolt for that to stop.

But the First World War is not often told as a story of social justice achieved. Rather it is one of tragedy, and of needless death. So was Princip’s nationalism worth all that?

Princip’s only stated goal was that he wanted a state or a republic for the South Slavs. He didn’t care what form it took. And Yugoslavia just means “land of the South Slavs”. So he got it, in a roundabout way. Now, if you’d said to him, “Okay, go and do what you want to do and it will come about. The only caveat is that your beloved Serbia is going to lose 20 per cent of its population in the bloodiest war humanity has ever seen,” would he have said, “Okay, it’s worth it”? I don’t know! If he had, then I’d feel a lot more comfortable saying, “Well, then you’re an absolute psychopath! And I have to write you that way!” But that is all hindsight.

We don’t live in that world anymore. But one common thing I read on the breakup of Yugoslavia was that every Bosnian, every Serb, every Croat said: “If you’d have asked somebody before, was that civil war possible? They would have all said no. That couldn’t happen.” And we would all say that couldn’t possibly happen to us. And I would still say that, but only an idiot is going to predict the future in that way.

David Whiteman’s first novel A Cure For Solitude is available in bookstores. His follow-up, Black Hand, is due for release in April