An interview with Nick Fletcher

When did you decide you were going to be a writer?

I was about 16 when I began to think of becoming a journalist, probably influenced by seeing too many B-movies at my local cinema. In the movies, the tough reporter seemed to have an exciting time and usually got the girl, so not having any other career ambitions, I started to look for a job as a trainee reporter. At that stage the writing element was secondary to the glamorous image!

Working as a journalist meant I was always too busy (or too tired!) to find time to write a novel, and so it was more than 20 years before my first book was published, and even then it was not a novel but a book on collecting antiques. I had been interested in antiques for some years and had started to write newspapers articles on the subject, so it was logical to do a book. I submitted it to a major publisher, Ward Lock, and to my surprise it was immediately accepted, and published in hardback with colour illustrations. It was another 10 years before I published any fiction.

Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories sparked my imagination as a child, and I also read Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Jules Verne and H.G.Wells.

 • Which writers and poets have inspired and influenced you most?

Raymond Chandler is my biggest influence – his direct style and acute observation of human nature made a big impression on me. Chandler wrote many short stories but only seven novels, all featuring his world-weary private eye Philip Marlowe. My own private detective, Max Slater shares one characteristic with Marlowe – they will both bend the rules to ensure justice is done.

I also admire Ian Fleming for the detailed research, expansive imagination and precise writing style of his James Bond thrillers. Another author whose study of the human condition hallmarks his writing is H.E.Bates – The Darling Buds Of May and the rest of the Larkin series are among my favourite books. And William Boyd is a remarkable author whose novels are beautifully written.

As for poetry, when younger I read Leonard Cohen, Robert Bly and – sad confession – Rod McKuen. Today, I enjoy reading Carol Ann Duffy, Derek Walcott and Amy Lowell.

You left your family home in rural Shropshire when you were just 16 to live in Wolverhampton and work for a news agency supplying stories to tabloid newspapers. How did you cope with being out on your own at that age? Did you miss your family and friends? Were you well equipped to live on your own?

I was keen to get on with life, so opted to miss A-levels and get a job, though I did study psychology part-time at Bilston College and continued to be an avid reader. I had a good relationship with my parents and sister but I was not perturbed about the prospect of moving away and living on my own. I have always liked my own space. I rented a cheap bed-sit (mentioned in my poem Crossroad!) and looked forward to becoming a reporter. It seemed an exciting leap into the unknown, but I felt ready for it.

• How did you get the job in the first place?

I saw a classified advertisement in a local newspaper headed Reporter Wanted, telephoned for details and found it was not for a job on the local paper but at a freelance news agency serving mainly the national Press. I was asked a few questions on the phone, and given an interview appointment for the coming Saturday. I went along and after being kept waiting for almost two hours by the news editor David Potts, was rather bluntly interviewed for about ten minutes, none of my answers appearing to impress him. Then he stood up and said: “OK, you’ve got the job.”

I thanked him and said: “What time do you want me to start on Monday?” Potts glanced at his watch. “Monday?” he said. “You start now!” One hour later I was covering a Wolves reserve football match – on my own. It was definitely in at the deep end.

Did it provide a sound journalistic training?

It provided the key element – the nose for news. As freelances, we worked on a tiny salary but got commission on published stories. If you didn’t develop a nose for news, you didn’t earn enough to eat. There was no formal training, no typing lessons (I still use just two fingers) and no shorthand either. I and the other cub reporters just muddled through. In interviews, if someone spoke too quickly, you just made up the bits you’d missed!

You’ve had a wide ranging career as a news reporter, news editor, features writer and features editor for a variety of newspapers and magazines but in the 70s you took a long break from journalism to be an antiques dealer. Why did you do this and which career did you enjoy most?

I got into antiques by chance. An aunt left me some porcelain, silverware and bric-a-brac and when I sold it, I was surprised by how much it fetched – so I invested the money in more antiques and collectables, and started to sell those. Not having much experience, I made mistakes but also some big profits, so I decided to take a break from journalism to see if I could make a living buying and selling. That break turned out to be eight years! During that time, I had an antiques shop, and worked as an auctioneer. I also used the time to write newspaper and magazine features on antiques and collecting and a several books, and also appeared on radio and television. It was an enjoyable and lucrative period but I always missed journalism, and returned to it in the 1980s, though I continued to write about antiques.

• I believe you didn’t begin to write fiction for publication until a comparatively late stage in life. Why was this?

Although my first non-fiction book was published when I was 39, it was to be another ten years before I began writing fiction. I was about to go on holiday, and while looking for a book to take with me, I came across a short story collection by William Boyd – The Destiny of Nathalie ‘X’. It was superbly written and immediately sparked my interest in writing a short story, something I had never previously considered.

I entered two of my stories in national competitions, and I was amazed when one won a prize and the other was short-listed. Suitably inspired, I wrote a short story collection, Escaping The Rain, published in 2000.

• The ‘hero’ of your novels and new short story collections is private detective Max Slater. Is he based on anyone you know? How would you describe him?

Max is an ex-journalist turned private eye. He tries to avoid taking on routine cases, preferring more of a challenge. He has a very strong sense of justice, so has no issues with bending or even breaking the law if he feels it is the only way to achieve a fair result. That element of him is, in effect, a homage to Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s iconic private eye whose sense of honour and truth dominated his investigations. The rest of Max Slater’s character is loosely based on me – though Max is better looking and far more witty!

Do you have theories about life that you try to get across to readers as part of the theme of a book? If so, can you tell us what they are? What is your philosophy and approach to life? Has it changed as you’ve got older?

How we view life does change as we get older, as we learn from experience and become more reflective. I feel it is important in life to be positive, optimistic and persevering because that attitude can really make a difference. Many things in life appear to just happen, to be outside of our control, but I believe being positive and hopeful can in some situations alter the outcome. Your attitude can directly or even subconsciously influence everything around you, put you in a different place in the scenario of life or at least present you with more options. I don’t particularly theme my books in this way, but I like to think Max triumphs over adversity because he has those same qualities.

 • You’ve recently completed a collection of love poems which by all accounts are romantic, moving and reverberate with emotion. Why did you write them? What inspired you? Do you find it easy to write poetry?

Sir Bob Geldof said recently that he has always found poetry more useful in life than maths, and I agree. Poetry can prise open the cracks in our heart and soul and give us a new and often clearer perspective. Poetry can be inspiring and certainly more healing in a way that novels and films cannot. Poetry connects directly to our deepest emotions and can help us deal with the inevitable ups and downs of relationships.

The difficult part of writing poetry is getting the idea, the aspect you are trying to highlight, the point you want the poem to make. Once I have that, I find I can jot down the basic framework in just a few minutes. After that, it is just a matter of honing and polishing.

• Finally, how do you write? Do you have rituals that you stick to or are you the sort of writer who can pick up pen and paper or laptop wherever you are and just start writing?

I once spent a day with Roald Dahl at his home in Buckinghamshire, discussing his writing, and one thing he said to me really struck home – having the right place to write is very important. Roald had a beautiful country house with many rooms and lovely views, but he chose to write in a small shed in his garden, because that was where he felt most at ease and most inspired. Some people can write a best-seller on their kitchen table between cooking a meal and caring for their children, and I very much admire them. But I prefer quiet and solitude. Most of my books have been written – in first draft form – while taking a solo holiday in a country cottage or a Spanish villa, and not answering the telephone. I find the change of location and absence of domestic routine frees the imagination and boosts creative energy. But every writer will have their own ideal situation for writing. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as they are happy with it.

Nick Fletcher was interviewed by Eve Kerswill