Deep down I always wanted to write but never managed to convince myself to get on with it. Now having reached a certain age, I thought it was about time to do something about this ambition that has dogged me for so long.
I remember when I was bitten by the bug and under quite surreal circumstances. It was in the early 1970s when I was studying for a degree in economics at North East London Polytechnic in Barking. It was a depressing
era, I seem to recall, filled with social unrest, strikes, demonstrations, student occupations, and, of course, a terrible dress sense.
I lived in a freezing bedsit with only a two-bar electric fire to keep me warm. Every night one of the tenants would play Home on the Range performed on all things a Hawaiian steel guitar. Over and over, he played this damn record, only stopping when the meter ran out.
To reduce my exposure to the tenant’s nocturnal habit, I decided to go to an evening class on creative writing at the poly. It had been set up by a visiting professor from the US. Anything would be better than listening to the Hawaiian steel guitar.
I waited in the class with a few other students for a Dr. Rod Whitaker to turn up. He arrived 20 minutes late, looking very dapper in a three piece suit. He was around 40, slim, and heavily suntanned. To say he looked out of place compared with our scruffy lecturers and Trotskyist students in jeans and Afghans would have been an understatement.
His opening line caught our attention immediately. “Sorry, I’m late, but I’ve just been on the phone to Clint Eastwood.”
Had I heard that correctly? Yes, I had. It transpired that Dr Whitaker taught at the Department of Radio, Television and Film at the Austin School of Communications in Texas. It also transpired that he’d written a blockbuster thriller called “The Eiger Sanction” and he’d sold it to Clint.
Being a big Clint Eastwood fan, I was captivated by the story of his
first book becoming an international best seller and being turned
into a film by the big daddy of them all.
So he began to explain to us why he’d embarked on writing a
thriller. He despised dumb spy novels and James Bond films and
decided to lampoon the genre. His book was written tongue-in-cheek and he thought by naming the protagonist Dr Jonathan Hemlock and having characters called Jemima Brown and Felicity Arce (pronounced arse) the publisher might have cottoned on. But no one saw through it and when he realised there was genuine interest in his MS, he started to re-write it into a more considered piece. It was an immediate success though people were mystified by the pseudonym on the cover, prompting all sorts of conspiracy theories and myths among fans about the true identity of the writer.
He wrote under the name of Trevanian and went to great lengths to keep his real name a secret, although never thinking twice about divulging it to us in Barking. Perhaps he thought we lived in the back of beyond and would never leave the neighbourhood to spill the beans. Whitaker also wrote in a wide variety of genres and under five different names. Despite achieving best-seller status he avoided interviews and publishers promotions that would reveal his true identity. Sometimes he would send imposters to represent him at interviews, just for fun.
Rumours circulated that he worked for the CIA. I don’t know whether that was true, but he did serve in the US Navy during the Korean War. However, he did mention to us that there was an objection to the word “sanction” being used to mean an “assassination”. He’d run it by someone in the CIA and couldn’t believe that the term was being questioned when he knew for certain it was used at the agency.
In 1979 he publicly revealed his true identity and his various pseudonyms in an interview with the New York Times Book Review. He scotched a long-running rumour that Trevanian was actually the thriller writer Robert Ludlum. But what readers may not have realised was that the pseudonyms he chose to write under were like character actors to him. By inventing the right character to write the book, he felt he could tell the story.
His writing classes were sometimes unorthodox, digressing occasionally into method acting exercises, but he did manage to get us to write short stories. And one evening I read my short story to the class and to my surprise all the girls around me loved it. I got the bug to write, there and then.
After graduating, my interest fell more in the direction of making films. I made some short films with moderate success. One 30 minute film I scripted was distributed in the cinema and another short I wrote and directed was sold to Central Television. I started writing feature length scripts, one of which formed the basis of HIDER/SEEKER. It had another title and was genuinely awful, but the BBC saw something and invited me to discuss it. Nothing happened and I decided it was time to put away my toys and turn my attention to raising a family.
The memories of Rod Whitaker drifting into our dreary lives in
Barking still remained strong however, and like many people, I
made attempts to write a book, usually the day after a
significant birthday milestone.
Then a turning point came just over ten years ago when I
decided I’d teach myself to write a thriller for the sheer hell of
it. By reading books such as Stephen King’s On Writing and by
sending my work for professional critique, I gradually improved. Two unpublished books later, I decided to take another look at the film script I’d sent to the BBC. I re-worked it into HIDER/SEEKER and I hope you will enjoy it.
Out of curiosity, I wondered what had happened to Rod Whitaker over the years. I Googled him and sadly discovered he’d died of an illness in the West Country of England in 2005, aged 74. I had no idea he’d been living in the UK as I’d read long ago he’d bought a house in the Basque region of France. According to his agent, Michael V. Carlise, Whitaker preferred the intellectual climate of England rather more than that of America under Presidents Reagan and Bush.
Over his life time his 10 published books sold more than 5m copies and he was heralded as the only writer of airport paperbacks to be compared to Zola, Ian Fleming, Poe and Chaucer.
This elusive author who’d baffled so many in his lifetime has left a lasting impression on me and I guess on many others too. He also gave me the bug to write all those years ago. Thank you.
Is writing hard work?
When I was a full-time journalist, I probably wrote on average around 250,000 words a year and probably up to 500,000 annually in my younger days. That’s a lot of words. The average thriller is around 100,000 or more words. So if you are a journalist you can see how much one’s workload rises if you decide to write a book in your spare time.
But it is so enjoyable to write outside the usual journalistic constraints that you forget about the tiredness. The only problem about writing a book part time is keeping the continuity of thought. It’s all stop-start. There’s a huge difference in having the freedom to write a novel full time as it allows you to keep the ball and run.
Why do you like genre writing?
Thrillers are the most widely read genre and probably the most competitive to write. Take a look at the Amazon list and you are overwhelmed by the number of books dedicated to the genre. I read that mystery-writing is enjoying a golden age and long may that last.
To me this type of writing has an innate set of rules, each one of them like a child’s building brick. When you start writing a thriller it’s like tossing a box of those bricks onto the floor and building something new each time that will always be recognisable to lovers of thrillers.
There are so many sub-categories of thrillers, ranging from soft-boiled to hard-boiled. I don’t like thrillers about cops and prefer stories about a Mr Average who finds himself in a deadly predicament. Harry Bridger in HIDER/SEEKER is not a Mr Average though, but he certainly doesn’t bargain for all the grief caused by his client.
Where possible, I like to add humour to my characters because it makes them look real and also helps to bring greater contrast when things go wrong for them. I also think there should be some romance in a story because that is how real life is. I know this is all a bit cross-genre, but hopefully it makes my writing more interesting.
Which thriller writers do you most admire?
My favourite top 10: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M Cain, Patricia Highsmith, Len Deighton, Elmore Leonard, Jo Nesbo, Olen Steinhauer, Martin Cruz Smith and John Le Carré.
"The Eiger Sanction”
“Trevanian went to great lengths to keep his real name a secret”
“His pseudonyms were like character actors”
“… the only writer of airport paperbacks to be compared to Zola, Ian Fleming, Poe and Chaucer”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tom Claver is a freelance journalist who has worked in print and television, and was formerly a director of a publishing company.
He was brought up in London and currently lives in Dorset with his wife.