Quick Fixes

Yes, I’ve always written.
I wrote plays at my South African preparatory school. The plays started as one-act affairs with a darkened room, a flashlight and only one or two actors, but soon expanded into three-act affairs with a dozen players. They were staged for the amusement and edification of my fellow boarders. They were probably terrible. No, not ‘probably’. They were terrible. I don’t think anyone was edified. I do know they evolved into thinly disguised, pro-British propaganda critical of the Afrikaners who then ruled the country and imposed the racist system we know as apartheid. In those days, not unnaturally, I had a naive and simplistic view of the British in Africa. They were the good guys, or so I thought then. I had much to learn.
Later, there were the usual short stories published in the school magazine, and around the age of 18 or 19, I had short stories published in a local newspaper.
Then I stopped writing fiction and there were two reasons. The first was that earning a living as a reporter provided me with the ‘quick fixes’ of seeing my stories in print and the second was that my father was a novelist of sorts, and I had no desire to give him the satisfaction of imagining that I was trying to emulate him. I wanted to be seen to cut my own furrow. Also, I belatedly started to grow up politically, a process both painful and exciting which has never really ended. Perhaps I’m just slow.
In 1983, after two years or so covering the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, I sat down and wrote a slim, non-fiction volume on the subject. It took six weeks to write on my Olivetti portable typewriter, then and now the best writing machine ever known to humankind. The paperback was intended as a guide for journalists and diplomats, and it was also designed to counter the nonsense being spouted in Washington about Soviet intentions. It tried to explain the divisive, destructive game Pakistani intelligence was playing in Afghanistan as well as splits within the ruling People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in Kabul - splits that had prompted Soviet military intervention. It tried to identify the most important guerrillas and their organisations. The Foreign Office must have liked it (though it doesn’t say much for the book): they bought 7,000 copies of the UK edition, presumably to hand out as freebies.
Shortly after joining Reuters in Hong Kong, I asked if I could write another non-fiction work, this time about the insurgency in the southern Philippines. No, I couldn't. Reuters bureaux had enough trouble as it was trying to survive the pressures of host governments, though it was fine if I wanted to write something innocuous. My boss suggested bee-keeping in the Himalayas.
The years went by. Then, confined to an editing desk in London, and affected by my experiences reporting the wars in Croatia and Bosnia, I hammered out my first novel. I thought I had written a war novel, but no, the publishers insisted, it was a crime novel. Wasn’t my main character a cop? Yes, but that was because only a police officer left high and dry by the Bosnian conflict could play the role I had carved out for him. No, John, you need the crime genre. Crime sells. Thus I became somewhat typecast and was told I needed to write more of the same. Crime. Thrillers. That was where the money was. So I did.
Except that I began to wonder who the criminals really were.
Now it’s your turn. What got you reading and writing? Which writers influenced you the most? How has your preferred style developed, as a reader or writer? Let’s hear your views and experiences.
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Published on September 01, 2018 04:59 Tags: crime, fiction, mystery, novels, thrillers
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