Wednesday, March 23, 2011


How one writer bases his thrillers on a core of fact –
then wraps it up in a contemporary setting

“I've never suffered from writer's block,” says James Becker. “To me one of the most alluring sights is the title of a book on my computer - centred, underlined and in bold type - from then on it's a new adventure.” Which is just as well given that he currently writes three novels a year: mediaeval thrillers as James Becker, Second World War thrillers as Max Adams and mainstream thrillers as James Barrington.

James has been writing thrillers from his home in Andorra since he left the Royal Navy in 1983. “For all the books I try to base the story on historical or current fact and build something around it,” he says. His next Max Adams book is called Right and Glory which is the motto of the Royal Engineers: his hero is a Corporal in the Royal Engineers. “That book was centred round a fort in Belgium called Eben Emael which it took the Belgians 8 years to build using German contractors,” he explains.

“The fort was designed to stop a German advance into Belgium and was an incredibly well defended fort with a garrison of some 1200 men, but the Germans took it in 20 minutes exactly. My guy Sapper Dawson is an explosive expert and he, with an officer, watches the German attack and realises the Germans must have a new type of explosive charge. So Dawson gets into the fort, steals a charge and there's a long race from Belgium to one of the Channel ports to deliver it, dodging the German army.”

James's interest in military matters comes from his time in the Royal Navy. “I was in the Fleet Air Arm for 21 years,” he says. “I joined as a pilot but I had a detached retina in my right eye which stopped me flying. So I ended up doing Air Traffic Control and other jobs.” Although it is his agent, Luigi Bonomi, who suggests what James should write about. “For Transworld, the Dan Brown type of thriller is the sort of thing I'm interested in anyway because at school I did mediaeval history,” James says. “With the Max Adams ones, Luigi was having lunch with my editor who was looking for someone to write Second World War thrillers, and Luigi said, 'oh James will do that, no problem!' So it's not something I had a burning desire to write but something I've always had an interest in.”

His readers tend to know a lot about their subjects, which means the historical background has to be highly accurate. “Without a doubt the mediaeval thrillers are the hardest to write, because there's so much involved working out the historical reality,” James says. “I have a friend who's a specialist researcher so I hand the manuscript over to him. He corrects where I've gone wrong and hopefully at the end it's historically accurate, even if the story is pure fiction.” James adds, “I use Google Earth a lot – you can get a snapshot of what the place looks like and it gives you the topography of the area so you can work out where things should happen. The detail is absolutely invaluable.”

James spends about a month researching a novel and working out the plot, and allows 3 months for the actual writing. When it comes to editing, his wife, Sally, comes in. “She tends to read the first draft with a large red pencil and will put a red line across a page and say Boring or Too Technical.” He laughs ruefully. “She's almost invariably right, so it's one of those things you put up with.” After those corrections, he prints it out again. “I find you see more mistakes on the printed page than you do on the computer screen. The other thing I find strangely helpful is to read it aloud; it's amazing how your ear hears things that your eye doesn't see.”

When it comes to his own literary taste, James tends to go for plot driven books. “The plot is the major part of the book though you need good characterisation. I particularly like good dialogue – for example Jeffrey Deaver – his dialogue is sharp and crisp and his characters are likeable. Nelson De Mille is another one who handle all aspects of the book really well. I tend to read the blurb on the back first and if the plot interests me I will buy it.”

James is under no illusions about his own books. “I make no claims that they are literary giants – I'm a jobbing author and I write straight commercial fiction. They are holiday reads designed for the masses. I hope the readers enjoy the story, I hope they empathise with the characters and I hope they like them enough to buy the next book. That's the bottom line.”

Given the content of his books, James has found feedback from readers tends to be very varied. “The Transworld mediaeval thrillers tend to completely polarise the readers – I either get one star or five stars on Amazon,” he says. “People who aren't very religious really love the books, and those who are religious really hate them. I always include an author's note saying which bit is fact and which is fiction and I try to justify what I've written. I'm not knocking Christianity, I'm saying what they are telling you is not correct - this is what actually happened in first century Judea.”

But he adds, “I get emails from people around the world saying how much they've enjoyed the books which is very gratifying. I reply to everyone because I think if they take the trouble to write to me then the least I can do is take the trouble to respond.”

Looking ahead, James has a busy workload. “I'm finishing The Nosferatu Scroll, set in Venice for Transworld. It's a slight departure from the other books as there's no historical setting - it's a mystery chase thriller with a vampire component. My next project is to come up with 6 synopses for the next Max Adams books and about 6 synopses for the next James Becker books for Transworld.” And as if that wasn't enough - “I also lecture on cruise ships so I'm preparing for two cruises in November and December this year.”

His schedule would make many writers shudder, but James clearly loves his work. “I can remember reading about a writer who was asked, 'do you find you can only write when the muse takes you?' and he said 'absolutely. I make sure the muse is right there over my shoulder at 9am every morning.' Writing is a job – you have to get on and do it.”

He pauses. “I love the freedom of writing. It's an addictive feeling to think – 'Well, what is he going to do now? Kill this guy?' And knowing I can make him do exactly what I want! It's a very exciting feeling.”

The Nosferatu Scroll by James Becker is published by Transworld, 2011
Right and Glory by Max Adams published by MacMillan, 2011
Manhunt by James Barrington published by MacMillan, 2011

No comments:

Post a Comment