Veteran’s Eye View – How it all Started

This month on Crime Files we're highlighting veterans of the crime-writing scene - our 'Serial Killers', if you will... To kick us off, here's the one and only Gerald Seymour on how he got his start as an author.

Posted on November 3, 2016 in Guest Author

I had a bit of an advantage, half a dozen paces down the track before the starter’s gun went.

My father was a bank manager, also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and after retirement became Chairman of the Poetry Society. My mother published more than 40 novels, edited an Arts magazine, was prominent in the Society of Women Writers and Journalists. I was brought up in a household where my father smoked his Woodbines in his office and composed his poems, and my mother sat downstairs with a succession of Persian cats on her lap and wrote in longhand … and I learned that the core skill of writing was to be found in concentration, getting on with the job, making the decisions oneself and not in a committee. I owe much to them both.

But as a young journalist, jumping on and off aircraft for ITN, I was rather too arrogant to consider that any other life might beckon … it did when I was 31 years old, and thanks to Frederick Forsyth. His Day of the Jackal just about saved my sanity on an awful flight down to Madrid, ferocious thunder storms over the Pyrenees, us bucking and rocking in the skies, and I’d his paperback. I clung to it, white knuckled, reread a few pages again and again – and survived, and thought it a heck of a good story, and it sowed a seed. I was going to Spain to cover the execution by the Franco regime of several political opponents, which made a break from my usual beat of Northern Ireland.

The next brick in the wall featured the Egyptian/Syrian attack via the Canal and the Golan Heights against the state of Israel. I had an energetic war and came home stinking and scruffy to be told by the Foreign Desk to take three weeks off … the kids were at school, my wife’s diary was pretty full: what was I going to do with all that time. I remember saying rather hesitantly that I thought I had an idea for a novel … from acorn beginnings a bit of a tree started to grow. She went down the local High Street, bought a small pine table in a second hand shop, put it up in our bedroom, and forbade me – under pain of death or worse – to smoke. I put the first blank sheet in my portable typewriter that went all around the world with me, and took a pretty big gulp of air.

Belfast was the city I knew best – more so than any in the Middle East or South East Asia.   Forsyth’s story reeked of reality, total mastery of fact, and had wrenched thriller writing away from the more fantasy areas of the Ian Fleming legacy. A thriller must, I felt, carry authenticity. As I remember, looking at that first sheet, I had the start of the action, a vague idea of the middle, and nothing at all about how it would all end up … it was a huge gulp.

I had no notes on characters or plot lines when I started, and launched ‘on a wing and a prayer’ … the next shed-load of gratitude goes to the late Yassir Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. I was sent to Beirut to interview him, except that he stayed away on his travels and was not seen in the Lebanese capital for more than a fortnight: staying in a 5* hotel I managed more than 4 chapters, and had room service to nudge me along, before I was recalled to London.

And came to the end. What to do? Would it be rejected out of hand? Was a little quip about ‘sticking with the day job’ going to be chucked at me? It sat in a box for a few weeks and then, rather timidly, I asked a colleague, Gordon Honeycombe – a published author – what was the next step. He suggested a visit to his agent.

I did, slapped it down on a desk. A few days later, Gordon went home from his newscaster stint and found a half dozen bottles of very passable champagne on his front door mat – and a note thanking him for the introduction. For me, a rather brilliant journey had started.

The final individual to whom I am sincerely grateful is Harry Brown – of course – who changed my life.

Gerald Seymour’s latest thriller, No Mortal Thing, is out now in paperback.

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