Peter Crawley

About Writing

I was an awkward student, I admit it! In class, I didn’t pay attention. At sports I didn’t put in the practice. And, generally, I just plain didn’t get the bigger picture of why I should have to be incarcerated in such a strange, yet dull institution when there existed a far more exciting, colourful and visceral world beyond the school gate. I was, though, fortunate enough to be taught by a number of patient and gifted teachers who put up with my predilection for distraction and did their level best to engage the wilful imp of my intellect. My father, an extremely intelligent man, had not the chance to enjoy the level of education he granted me and was, therefore, suitably dismayed when his son was found to be spending his revision periods in one of the two cinemas in Guildford. For sure, all these years later, it seems easy to excuse my underachievement by painting education as Scylla, the monster with many heads, and school as Charybdis, the whirlpool, but my own head was, throughout much of that period, securely lodged where the sun doesn’t shine. And, as a result, there was very little likelihood I was ever going to recognise either the knowledge or the way ahead, provided and illuminated, as they both were, by the light I was being lent.

So, why?                                                                                                                         

I’m not sure that I can explain why I started writing in words of one syllable. It may be easy to understand why young sportsmen and women aspire to emulate their heroes. After all, who wouldn’t want the wages of a Premiership footballer, or the accolades accorded an Olympic Heptathlon Champion, or the seat in the pantheon of sporting gods afforded one by kicking the winning drop goal of the Rugby World Cup? And, in writing, who wouldn’t want the bank balance of J K Rowling or be admired for possessing an intellectual quotient similar to that of Richard Dawkins? But, for me, it wasn’t like that. So, why did I start writing? I suppose school has as much to do with it as anything. I think now, looking back, what I found attractive was the escape books promised that first drew me to them; the facility to escape to an alternative world in which writers enjoyed the power to manipulate endings, offer their own conclusions and tailor climaxes to their stories. When I was young, youth seemed infinitesimal and I perceived no point in the future at which I would be able to exert any real influence over my own story. It was as though I was constantly being swept up and herded off towards the gulag of adulthood; a forced march with a cast of thousands and in which I was merely one of the extras. I felt constrained by the crowd. In fiction there are no such constraints.

And how?

Before I began writing Mazzeri, I read a number of books on writing. Amongst others, Stephen King’s On Writing was both entertaining as a read, but also choc full of interesting hints, observations and cautions. But then I realised that I was looking at the picture from the wrong angle. What I was studying was the mechanics of writing; if you like, reading the instructions on the box. What I wasn’t doing was employing all the tremendous equipment and material I already had at my disposal. Summer months in Corsica, winter months in the Alps and, later, studying in Germany and working in France, all contributed to the foothills of my resources. The walk up these foothills soon led me to the mountain of my various employments; labouring on the pig farm and the building site, working behind the bars of local pubs, a brief period with the army patrolling the East/West German border, working the gin palaces of the Mediterranean, an apprenticeship preparing cars for showrooms, a progression to salesman and a very natural extension through to a business of my own dealing in contemporary and classic Mercedes Benz; a wonderful twenty-seven years of motor trading during which time I met a host of larger-than-life characters, some genuine, some not and a few others just downright dishonest. So, why did I need to read books on how to write, when surely, to use a sporting metaphor, if I wanted to play tennis, all I had to do was pick up the racket? And that’s it! I suddenly understood that there are times when you have to forget the advice everyone so readily supplies. The first rule of writing is simple: 'pick up the pen'. Don't talk about it or read about it, just pick up the pen!

And when?

I wrote at school; house magazines, odd publications, some poetry. The pieces were generally fairly dark; school was, to me, confusing and my writing style and subject matter were influenced by the absence of light in my head. Upon leaving school I wrote my first novel, The Field of Ares. The recipe for the novel included all the usual suspects: the eponymous anti-hero, a damsel in distress, a handful of spies, and a pinch of mafia, and it featured a cast of cardboard characters plucked directly from the countless movies that had usurped my revision. The cauldron into which I poured these ingredients was Cannes on the Côte d’Azur, where I had recently passed a summer season working the boats. My sister committed much of her spare time to typing it all up into manuscript form, all the while editing and encouraging me to persevere.  Sadly, the agents I submitted the manuscript to were not so taken with my imaginings. They, the writings not the agents, now gather dust, along with many other half-completed manuscripts and short stories, on my book shelf: novels including Midnight set in Central America, The Poacher's Option set in the Surrey Hills, and an extensive trans-Atlantic novel for which I never settled on a title, but which will probably form the basis for the third novel in the trilogy that has begun with Mazzeri and Ontreto. I wrote while I sat at the front counter of the Shere Potter’s shop. I had a bed in Chris Otway's office; it was my home. I paid the rent by selling his wares, earned petrol money working at the pub and taught French and Algebra in return for a bath, an evening meal and a haircut. It was a fertile and productive period in terms of writing. Then life charged straight out of left field and, in order to front up to it, I needed not only a job that paid, but a job that paid well. My priorities very suddenly underwent a seismic shift. Getting caught up in the Brixton riots in thirty-five quids' worth of left hand drive 2CV Citroen proved a humbling experience. The rioters took pity on me, deciding that if the antediluvian jalopy was the all I could afford, then clearly I deserved some luck, so they passed us by. I remember feeling relieved that they had spared us any physical injury, but also vaguely offended that they had deemed us not worth the trouble. And, little money and a bed in the office of a shop made courting Carol something of a challenge to say the least. There was nothing for it and I don't regret it one bit, I had to drop the pen for a while.

Now, I am pleased to say, the pen is once more restored to the hand.

But if I am inspired, who inspires me?

Reading Biggles by W E Johns is one of my earlier memories, and, later, Tolkien for fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs for science fiction and Tolstoy for history. My reading tastes were and still are extremely eclectic. I read a lot of what some unkindly call pulp, but then I counterbalance my diet by reading a lot of heavyweights too; heavyweights the like of Hugo and Pasternak and Stendhal.  My favourite authors run from Ernest K Gann, through James Jones to F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, Robert Ruark and Stephen E Ambrose; all, curiously American. But I think Bernhard Schlink is a genius, so too Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Andrea Levy, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Joseph Conrad and the venerable Axel Munthe. But, every now and then I am moved to return to the authors of my teens; Gavin Lyall, Marvin H Albert, Ted Allbeury and Brian Lecomber. I like history, but I love the stories of the people who have made it.

But, why are so many of my favourite authors, American?

I believe it is because so many of the golden age of writers were unfettered by literary history. They suffered not the hangover of any particular perceived legacy; either that of the originality of Shakespeare or the aspect of Oscar Wilde. They owed nothing to social or historical mores. They were, and are, part of a young process of thought and a free form of writing. They were and are unconstrained.

We are, in spite of our parents designs and our critical aspirations, little more than a product of our times and therefore we can only hope to chronicle them adequately and accurately.

As with the Mazzeri, we are not, though we find it more comfortable to assume otherwise, the masters of our own providence.