I’m a rather reluctant writer. Not for me a rush of blood when confronted with a sheet of blank paper. So I was surprised when I found myself embarking on an epic historical novel that would take me more than five years to complete. At the outset I rated my chances of success as slim. After all, I was in my mid-fifties, and I guessed that publishers wouldn’t be falling over themselves to buy a 250,000-word debut novel.
It turned out that Hawk Quest was the book I’d been waiting most of my life to write. A falconer since boyhood, I’d long been intrigued by accounts of birds of prey being used as ransom payments in the Middle Ages. That was the germ of the idea which sprouted into the tale of three adventurers who set off to the ends of the earth in search of four rare gyrfalcons demanded as ransom for a Norman knight held captive in Anatolia. Although set in the 11th centry, the story gave me scope to explore many elements of personal interest – not just falconry, but also travel in wild places, battles with the elements and a whole host of enemies, the forging of friendships, the way characters develop under hostile circumstances. I even found room for two love stories and a major sub-plot.
When I’d written about 60,000 words, I showed the typescript to my agent, Anthony Goff of David Higham Associates. ‘Int-er-est-ing,’ he said very slowly, then made me beef up the action and get rid of some irrelevant characters. When he saw the revised version, he encouraged me to go on writing, saying that the more complete the book, the better his chances of selling it.
So I wrote another 80,000 words and showed it to Anthony again. This time he told me that since I was so close to the end (in fact I had another 100,000 words to go), I might as well finish it.
I wrote Hawk Quest in three stages, researching and revising in the morning, writing new material in late afternoon and evening, when I find the words flow more freely. During the long interludes when I wasn’t working on the book, I scraped a living any way I could. I drove trucks and taxis, worked in a warehouse, took a stall at antique fairs, flogged stuff on eBay, taught Creative Writing at an Adult Education Centre … I even found myself hired to re-write a thriller by a multi-millionaire tax exile. That enterprise came to an end when the Australian authorities launched a criminal investigation into his business affairs.
I finished the book in early 2010 and my agent promptly made me re-write the ending. He was quite right. I don’t usually have difficulties with openings, rarely struggle during those difficult middle sections, but I often find myself stumbling awkwardly over the finishing line. It took me three months to complete the revisions, and when Anthony read the final version, he said, ‘If we don’t sell it, you can console yourself with the thought that you’ll never write a better book.’ A great compliment, but by now I was broke and my wife and I agreed that if I didn’t get a sale, we’d have to sell our house.
Well, Anthony did sell it. Three publishers bid for it at auction, and it was finally bought by Sphere, who have done a terrific job steering it to publication. My editor, Daniel Mallory, has consulted me at every stage, responding to feedback about editorial changes, maps, cover design and copy. Hawk Quest couldn’t have found a better home.
Soon after the UK deal, I got my first foreign sales; to date the rights have been bought by nine overseas publishers, including Orbit in the United States. That’s something I’m particularly pleased with, because Orbit specialises in Fantasy and Sci-Fi, and Hawk Quest will be their first historical novel.
So what were the successful ingredients? Good luck, of course, coupled with an ability to string words together, perseverance, excellent agents and editors. Above all, though, I think I was fortunate in coming up with a good story, by which I mean a compelling and original narrative peopled with interesting characters motivated by complex (sometimes secret) reasons for achieving a near-impossible goal. It sounds so simple, but in practice it isn’t. I should know. I’m now writing the sequel to Hawk Quest. This time my adventurers are off on a diplomatic (and not so diplomatic) mission from Constantinople to Song China. In some ways working with established characters makes the task easier, yet still there are days when it feels like every word has to be hacked from stone. And there is always the nagging fear that, however hard I try, the sequel won’t measure up to the original. Fortunately these doubts never quite overmaster the pleasure of creating something that maybe, some day, someone will read and say, ‘I enjoyed that.’