May Author Interview: Paul Fraser Collard
Starting today, I will be interviewing an author on the 1st of each month, and I am absolutely delighted to say that my interviews begin this morning with Paul Fraser Collard, author of the excellent Jack Lark series.
A lover of history and the military, Paul debuted as an author with the superb ‘The Scarlet Thief’ in May of last year, and followed quickly upon that with a sequel ‘The Maharajah’s General’ in November. The Scarlet Thief made it into my top ten reads of 2013, and the sequel will probably do the same this year (read it in January.) Links of my reviews, purchase sites and more will follow at the end but for now it is my pleasure to pick Paul’s brain. Sit back and enjoy…
What inspired you to write historical fiction, and the eras you write in particular? Also what other authors’ works have influenced you?
I loved history as a child but it was not until I discovered the Sharpe novels by Bernard Cornwell that I really started to read historical fiction. The first one I read was Sharpe’s Honour and I simply devoured it. I cannot think of any other book that captured my imagination in the same way and from there I was inspired to find out more about these men who fought in the red coats. Around the same time I saw Zulu for first time and I was hooked.
I have read every book Bernard Cornwell has ever written and I still think he is head and shoulders above every other writer of historical fiction. The day when my agent, Dave Headley, told me that Bernard Cornwell had provided a quote for the cover of The Scarlet Thief is far and away the pinnacle of my writing career to date!
When I sat down to give writing a go there really was no other type of novel that I could even imagine starting. It just had to be redcoats. The Crimean War seemed to be rather an unknown series of events and it seemed ripe for a new writer and a character like Jack Lark to start their adventures.
Your protagonist in the first two novels, Jack Lark, is one of those loveable rogues, like Han Solo or Jack Sparrow, or Spike from Buffy. Those types of character are renowned as hard to write well, so that they are not dislikeable. How difficult was it keeping Jack in that narrow band between ‘safe’ and ‘dislikable’?
To be honest I didn’t worry too much about making Jack likeable or not. I had a firm idea of exactly who he was going to be and I was determined that he would be his own man. For better or worse, he was going to be Jack Lark and no one else!
I did know that if Jack was going to take centre stage in a long-running series of novels then he had to be an incredibly strong character. I spent an age working on him before I had even finalised the details of where he would start his adventures. I was certain that he had to capture my readers’ imagination enough to bring them back for more. I hope (I still hope!) that I can create each book in such a way that my readers can never be sure where Jack will turn up next and what challenges he will face when he gets there. As I am not tied to a regiment, a campaign or even to a single war, I can take Jack all over the Victorian world and, as he is a rogue, he can take on a role and a life that I could never have created if he was a more traditional fellow.
How do you research your books? I know people who make heavy use of reenactment, and people who walk every inch of their locations, and people who research deeper than any mainstream academic. And, of course, there are people who make things up, it all being fiction after all. All of these seem viable routes in their own way and for their own types of work.
You are right that these are all viable routes and I am a strong believer that in writing there is no “right” way of doing things; there is just “your” way.
I am definitely an armchair writer and for my research I rely heavily on books and on the Internet. I start any research by reading some very general overviews of the period or the event that I am covering so that I can work out the sequence of events and the main players involved. From there I try to find as many primary sources as I can and this is where the Internet is so fantastic. I doubt I would ever be able to find as many old publications had not so many of them been digitised. There is a great thrill in searching online and discovering a first hand account of the events I am writing about. It is the experiences of the people who were there that really add the detail about what it was really like; from what the weather was like, to what people were talking and thinking about.
I start to write all of this information into a story plan so that I know exactly what goes where. It is only then that I start to weave Jack into these events, plotting his story against the backdrop of the actual things that happened. All of this research finishes up as a 30-40,000-word story plan that I break down into rough chapters and sequences. Then all I have to do is work my way through, fleshing this outline plan out into the full story. Simples!
Given that your main character relies heavily upon deceit and subterfuge to survive and is now a past master at assumed identities, how difficult is it to find a new angle to attack his particular traits and tendencies without seeming stale? I wondered how a second book for Jack could possibly be anything other than a broad repeat of the first, and yet it was thoroughly fresh and different.
I decided early on that Jack would be an imposter. I was fascinated by the tale of Percy Toplis, a rogue and a charlatan who spent a lot of time masquerading as an officer during the First World War. It seemed such a fabulous way of taking a character on a rollercoaster of a journey that I knew I had to make it central to the plot.
However, I am very aware that if the series became just a procession of new identities that happen to be left lying around easily to hand just when Jack needs them, then it would not last very long as I imagine any readers would be put off by such a trite approach. So I have plans for Jack that will see him pulled in all sorts of directions but which do not rely on him simply stealing identity after identity. I will not reveal how I plan to do that. You will need to keep reading the series to find out!
If you could live in any time period and location, which would you choose? And as a counterpart to that, what historical character would you most like to meet and talk to?
I can think of a hundred periods that I would like to experience but only if I was rich! It seems to me that the best experiences in the past were only available to those born with a silver spoon in their mouths (something that the young Mr Lark finds so very frustrating too!) I know that my own ancestors were almost entirely farm labourers and as romantic as that occasionally sounds I am not sure I could handle working so hard!
If a reader asked me ‘Why should I buy Paul’s books? What’s different about them? What’s the hook?’ I know what I’d say. What would you say to that?
I would have to say that Jack sits at the very heart my books. No matter how well I tell the history, no matter which fascinating backdrop I set the story against, my series will live or die on the success of Jack as a character. I like to think he is unique and although I am sure he shares traits with many other fine protagonists I will try incredibly hard to make sure he is always his own man.
The other key feature of the Jack Lark series is that each book will be set against new events. I will never plod through a single campaign but will flit from country to country, even from continent to continent! I want readers to wonder where the next Jack Lark novel will be set and to be intrigued when they find out that he makes it to Persia, or to India or even to America.
Oh and then there are the battle scenes! I love writing battle sequences and I want them to really grab a reader by the throat. I promise that every book will be full of them!
* For reference, my own thoughts on this are that Paul’s novels are the perfect mix of action, humour, danger, history and intrigue. They hit the spot on numerous levels at once, while being set in little-used milieu, so that they feel refreshing. *
Time for the obvious question, I guess. If your books were ever optioned as a movie or series, who would you like to see play Jack Lark? I’m sure a name must have crossed your mind at some point.
I’m not very good at answering this question, as I cannot think of anyone who matches my mental picture of Jack. I do know I would like to find out! So if anyone reading this wants to make my books into a film or TV series then I will be ready to come to the casting to see who gets the part!
How would you describe your process as a writer? I know people who have every last crease in a supporting character’s face documented and his entire family back four generations to make sure they don’t miss anything. I know people who are intuitive writers and don’t truly know how the book will end until they get there. I know people who write carefully with lovely fountain pens on pads and then later transcribe and I know others, who hammer at the keyboard whenever their distractions leave them alone for a minute. How do you work?
Well, either fortunately, or unfortunately, I am still just a part-time writer. Working 50-60 hour weeks really cramps my writing time! So I have to work where and when I can and the vast majority of my writing is done on the train to and from work. Writing novels on a train can be a little challenging but it does make me very disciplined at simply sitting down and getting on with it and making the most of every single minute that I can find. I simply don’t have time to plan each session in great detail or to agonise over what I am going to write. I find a seat (not always easy!) and then hammer away. On a good day the writing gushes out of me but even on the days when every word feels like it is being ground out I still plough on knowing that I can always re-work and improve it later.
In movies, the creator often gets to release a director’s cut and tweak things after release. Authors get no such option. Have you ever written a scene that you wish you’d done another way? That you think was too violent, or too tense, or too languid (or of course not violent enough!)
This is definitely something that I refuse to let myself think about. I find it difficult to go back and read either The Scarlet Thief or The Maharajah’s General as I always see bits that I would now do differently. I try to accept that my writing ability and taste is changing as I go along and so I try to be proud of what I have done without agonising about how I could now do it so much better.
I would say there are bits from The Scarlet Thief that I wish hadn’t been cut! There are a few scenes still sitting quietly on my hard drive that I may just recycle at some point!
What are you reading at present?
I am currently reading all sorts of books about World War Two, from fiction to non-fiction. I love Ospreys (from any period) and have half-a-dozen on my desk at home waiting for me to dip in and out of in the coming weeks. I am also completely fascinated by the Forgotten Voices series that was put together by the Imperial War Museum and which record the stories of the men and women who fought in the Second World War. I think that these are utterly compelling reading and I find them nearly impossible to put down.
One of the downsides of being a writer is that I now don’t have a lot of time to read fiction. My to-be-read pile is now huge and I cannot wait for my next holiday so I can start to make a dent in it. I am also quite obsessed with apocalyptic fiction and my son and I are working our way through the entire series of The Walking Dead graphic novels. There is nothing better than a zombie apocalypse for a last thing at night read!
And finally, can you give us any clues or hints as to what your next project is? What we can hope to see on the shelves in the next few years?
I have so much that I want to do; there are just not enough hours in the day! I am working on more Jack Lark novels alongside some short stories set before The Scarlet Thief. I don’t want to jinx anything so I won’t reveal more about any of these for the moment but I hope to be able to soon! All I will say is that there are plenty more Jack Lark adventures to come.
I have also embarked on another series, this time one set in World War Two. The first novel is now on its second draft and the project has my agent’s backing which is incredibly exciting. I have quite a lot to do, including working through some fantastic suggestions from the brave souls happy to help me out by reading my work at the first draft stage (thank you Robin and Jamie!) I am having a blast writing it and I am really looking forward to seeing if this one will make it anywhere.
My huge thanks to Paul for taking the time to answer my questions and enlighten us as to what makes him tick as a writer. I cannot think of a better author to have kicked off the interviews. If you have not read his novels, I seriously urge you to go pick one up and get started. Shuffle it to the top of your list.
All that remains is to say once more a huge thank you to Paul Fraser Collard and to look forward to his next work. In the meantime, go buy, catch up and enjoy the adventures of Jack Lark.
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