Monday, 13 April 2020

Who is Rufus T. Weeks?

Looking back on my career as a storyteller, I think Who is Rufus T. Weeks? was the first of my novels to have almost no conformity with Paul Gallico’s advice to only write about things one has experienced. Although it has any number of twists and turns, the plot has one significant and over-riding revelation. Keeping my reader guessing what this is, is the principal challenge running through the story. Happily, my early readers and critics confirmed that, irrespective of their personal backgrounds or experience, none of them guessed the answer to the question I pose in the title. This is important because the story that unfolds is essentially the journey followed by my hero, Markus Jenkyns, as he tries to discover the answer himself. To keep my reader as committed to the story I must keep him or her as puzzled as my hero.

Because this story has its genesis elsewhere than my experience, makes it more difficult to explain how it came to be written without revealing the plot. Having said that, like many of my generation, the imagery of Jesse Owens, the black American athlete who demolished Adolf Hitler’s wish that the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin would demonstrate the supremacy of his vaunted Aryan race is most vivid. The less well-known racial bigotry Owens faced when he returned to the USA sadly detracts from his achievements on the track in Berlin.

If they wish, creative storytellers can choose which of any bêtes-noirs they choose to cast as the ‘baddies’ in their stories. In Rufus T. Weeks my sights fell upon the American National Security Agency and the Roman Catholic Church although I stress that my novel is not a hobby-horse for any opinions, rather that both organisations seem inept at managing the responsibility that their strength and power gives them. They are by no means alone though it would be equally fair to note that it’s unlikely that Médicins Sans Frontières or Cancer Research are likely to appear in this role in future stories.

Finally, on a related topic, I do find that as I develop characters, especially strong ones, I sometimes find myself thinking of people I’ve known who share some of my characters’ admirable qualities or traits. In I’ll be the brightest star..., I found myself very drawn to the character of Alejandra who voices that line declaring her undying love for my hero. In this novel, as I was describing Quentin Salisbury, the ‘Old Africa Hand’ who plays a significant part in the unravelling of the puzzle, I often thought of a man who’s been a constant and loyal friend for some 60 years. Although my friend shares few of the specific experiences I credit to Quentin Salisbury, he does have the now-unfashionable sense of doing what is right regardless of personal risk. Not for nothing was he appointed to an honour he richly deserves and is one reason that I dedicate the novel to Lloyd Paxton, MBE.

A Small Injury

My first attempt to write a novel was transparently inspired by my qualification as a GA (General Aviation) pilot. Unfortunately, even after a serious re-write the work continued to feel like a flying manual rather than a thriller and it was only after several more heavy edits that the storytelling emerged from the flying background. All the while, in the real world Al Qaeda terrorists managed to take control of three or four American commercial flights and crash them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The knee-jerk reaction by the authorities, who were at least complicit in that they failed to prevent the initial hijacking from occurring, changed General Aviation overnight. It’s interesting to note that there has never been a detailed explanation of how the hijackers managed to get their weapons on board the aircraft and the likelihood remains that other terrorists were involved among the ground crews at the various airports who were never traced and brought to trial. Moreover, the terrorist pilots were not hobby pilots but had been trained at commercial pilot schools, mainly in the USA. That was where the terrorist pilots learned to fly multi-engined, commercial jet aircraft.

Despite this, the GA fraternity around the world was an easy target for the authorities desperate to be seen to be taking instant action, no matter how irrelevant. Regulations were changed immediately severely restricting the hobby enjoyed by GA pilots. For instance, infractions of rules like accidental entry into controlled airspace that for years had earned a strong letter of warning from the aviation authorities to the owner of the plane became overnight an instant and substantial fine. In some places, the authorities were even more extreme – like Chicago. For many years very small aircraft had flown in and out of Meigs Field, a short, private and convenient runway near Chicago’s waterfront. Overnight, the mayor of the city, with no sanction or right, ordered mechanical excavators to destroy the runway in an act of deplorable illegality that many would say could only be imagined let alone tolerated in a totalitarian state. 

The effect for me as a storyteller was that key parts of my tale that involved private flying became legally impossible to imagine. The only solution was for me to clearly set the story in a historical context before 9/11 had occurred. This solution seemed acceptable to my readers, not least because the detail of the flying involved was technically accurate and germane to the plausibility of the story.

Publication also gave me my first experience of titling a book, of writing a blurb for the back cover and the Amazon website, and of designing a cover image that would convey an accurate impression of the book and encourage people to buy it. Initially, I’d intended to call the story And a Woman Wept. This is the last line of the novel and refers to an important but incidental part of the story. I realised that it also gave the impression that the novel was more likely to fall into the ‘chick-lit’ genre rather than a mainstream thriller with an important element of adult family breakdown. I searched around and discovered a quotation from the scheming Italian, Machiavelli, Never Do Your Enemies A Small Injury. I liked the allusion to severe hurt – an important element in the story – but thought that just part of the quotation, A Small Injury, supported by the inclusion of the complete quote near the title page, would form an accurate yet intriguing title.

What I’d failed to understand was the way that Amazon’s filtering algorithm works. Even with the care I’d given to the title, when a user of the Amazon website searches for the novel by its title, the website returns, (as well as my novel), a range of books dealing with recommended ways to treat small, injured animals.

Finally, I made a firm decision not to leave the conclusion of this story open-ended or in any way available for the development of a sequel. Of course, sequels and series of books built around a constant theme or character are big business. Just think of the James Bond, Father Brown, Jason Bourne, Hercule Poirot or Jack Reacher franchises for example. Several of my helpful critics asked why I’d not structured this, my first story, so that such development could have been possible. The fact is there were two reasons. First I enjoyed telling the story for itself, not as if I was constructing a product. Second, the conclusion to A Small Injury embodies a crucial personal sacrifice which would have been lost had I structured the tale so as to produce a sequel. Even after four more novels, I remain of the same general mind though it is true that my more recent novels have included some characters and aspects that could be developed as a sort of franchise if I wished to do so in future. However, the fact remains that I enjoy writing stories rather than developing a literary soap opera.