Author2Author: Edwin Thomas & C.C. Humphreys

When St. Martin’s sent me two historical adventure novels, Treason’s River by Edwin Thomas and Jack Absolute by C.C. Humphreys, I thought teaming the two authors up for a chat was a natural. Turns out they were way ahead of me: Thomas and Humphreys have been friendly for years. That set a great tone for their conversation here.

edwin-thomas.jpgEdwin Thomas: Most historical authors (certainly including me) start with a historical period or person, and then fictionalise it. You’ve gone the opposite way and ‘historicalised’ a fictional character (Jack Absolute was originally a character in Sheridan’s The Rivals). Does that alter the process of writing the books?

cc-humphreys.jpgC.C. Humphreys: Writing Jack is a bit different, I suppose, than writing my other novels where it all comes purely from my head. I did have something to go on with Jack Absolute, both Sheridan’s play and, especially, my performance in the role twenty years ago. So part of the fun of writing him—and he is huge fun to write!—is taking some of the situations that Sheridan’s Jack, my acting Jack and indeed, Sheridan himself would have encountered and inventing whole new stories around them. To take a couple of examples: the love of theatre and of theatricality; the duelling (Sheridan fought a famous one, I’ve fought dozens). His family: one of my favourite characters, who appears in the second and third novels is Jack’s father, Sir James (the play’s Sir Anthony) Absolute, and my ‘Mad Jamie’ is every bit as bellicose as the play’s Sir… only more so!

So fun, yes, to use some of the play’s ideas as springboards—but they are only that. The joy is to take them to realms as yet uncharted—and then the novel writing process returns to normal: invent something, then the next something, then join them together!

When you first conceived your novels, did you have a character in mind and then seek a period to place him in? Or were you determined to write about the Napoleonic naval era and found a character to fit?

Edwin Thomas: I’d been wanting (and trying) to write about Nelson’s navy for a number of years. In fact, most of my early attempts focussed on a character not a million miles away from Jack Absolute: a doughty, dashing, unstoppable hero who thrived on adventure, Errol Flynn and James Bond and Horatio Hornblower all rolled into one. He was meant to be extreme, to affectionately send up the heroic conventions of the genre, but he only really worked in an extreme (and extremely unrealistic) context. As I decided I wanted to be more historically faithful in the stories I told, I found he didn’t really fit my needs any more. So I jettisoned him, and went to the other extreme of the heroic spectrum: Martin Jerrold.

Edwin Thomas: When I’m writing, I sometimes find myself speaking the lines I’m writing (which amuses my wife no end), and I’ve often thought that there’s something of the performer in the writer. I think of Woody Allen’s line—’a suicide is just an introverted murderer’—and wonder if an author’s just an introverted actor. Do you feel a link between your work as an actor and as a writer?

C.C. Humphreys: Absolutely! And not only with Jack; acting informs all my writing. I don’t consciously act all the roles, but I know I create good roles for my ‘actors’, my characters, to play. Put them in dramatic situations, with a scenic backdrop, and then give them good dialogue to speak! Which is another thing I love. I started out as a playwright, and in all my novels I always try to move the action forward, where appropriate, in dialogue. The comment most people make first to me about the books is that ‘they can see the film.’ I like that (and heartily wish I could see it too!).

Did you do a Rowling and detailedly plot seven books? Or did you crack out the first and hope someone would buy it?

Edwin Thomas: It was actually more slapdash than that. I wrote the first chapter and assumed that was it. I’d just chucked in my job to pursue the dream of writing, and I saw an advert for a crime writing competition that wanted a first chapter and synopsis. I thought it would be a great practice run to give me a bit of form and focus in those anxious first weeks. So I wrote the first chapter and a vaguely plausible synopsis and sent them off—and two months later found out that I’d actually come runner up in the competition (the CWA Debut Dagger).

That stirred up a bit of interest in the story: I had publishers and agents writing to me asking to see the rest of the book, which of course I didn’t have. I locked myself away and spent three months frantically writing the novel, desperate not to miss the opportunity, and managed to produce the book, which was then bought by Transworld. Since then, Jerrold’s resisted all attempts at long term planning, which I suppose is in keeping with his character. Every time I think I know where he’s going in the next book, something gets in the way and sends me in a completely different direction.

How much do you get inspired by real events? Do you ever find yourself twisting a story just because you want to fit in some gem you really want to write about?

C.C. Humphreys: Two questions really, you cad! Answers ‘yes’ and ‘yes… sort of.’ There’s nothing like stumbling across an arcane fact that makes you gasp, laugh, or wince. But do I twist the story to use it? (Hmm!) I find that a good fact will somehow present itself in my mind as usuable in the story as I see it. I always tell people that a good historical fact will often act as a springboard for whole areas of plot. Example: While researching Jack Absolute I learned that the woods in New York State teemed with rattlesnakes. That’s a good way to kill someone, I thought. Is that twisting?

How do you deal with Flashman Syndrome—a character who is at the centre of every important battle for fifty years or more? Do you care, relishing the biggest canvas? Or do you prefer the miniature and seek more obscure actions?

Edwin Thomas: I’ve always loved the bigger canvas, but it does pose certain problems with Martin Jerrold. There’s the practical difficulty I’ve made for myself by starting the series just after the battle of Trafalgar, in that that’s the last big naval engagement of that generation—the last fleet battle, in fact, until Jutland in 1916. There’s also a dramatic problem, in that the bigger the event, the more certain the outcome, and the less one man can do to influence it. If that man happens to be Martin Jerrold, who would never consciously do anything that might help win a battle, it’s even more difficult to find a dramatically satisfying role for him.

So I tend to end up with obscure historical episodes with potentially vast repercussions, of which the (true) conspiracy in Treason’s River is a perfect example. There’s a solid historical foundation, plenty of space for Jerrold to work in, and a genuine risk that things might fail.

What’s next for you?

C.C. Humphreys: Well! I was going to be writing ‘Jack 4′. But then my English editor, Jon Wood, and I had an old fashioned publishing lunch at Blacks and drank a little…(God! Everyone will think that’s all I do: go to Blacks and get pissed!) Anyway, it was very productive because we came up with an idea which I went and developed enough for them to give me some money to write it. I will return to Jack next year. But first I am going to write… and this might be an exclusive for Beatrice because I don’t think its been announced yet… a novel about the real Dracula. Vlad the Impaler. And you?

Edwin Thomas: Like you, I’m resting my series for a bit to have a crack at something new—in this case, a post-World War II thriller involving archaeologists, secret agents, ex-Nazis and lethal partisans chasing around the Mediterranean looking for lost treasure. It’s heavily inspired by Indiana Jones, with a good dose of King Solomon’s Mines, The Da Vinci Code and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian in its DNA. It’s already proving a lot of fun to research and write; hopefully it’ll be a lot of fun to read as well. My last book, under my Tom Harper pseudonym, was a pretty dark story. I wanted to do something light again that would just put a smile on people’s faces.

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26 February 2007 | author2author |