Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed thriller writer Alec Marsh about his latest Drabble and Harris novel, Ghosts Of The West, his career so far, and what inspires him.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I’m a novelist and journalist. History has been a life-long passion, as well as telling stories, and so a few years ago I began writing the first of what would become my Drabble and Harris series of historic thrillers, presently set in the late 1930s.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I must have been about 20. That’s when I began writing novels. Before that I’d written several plays when I was university. I’m now 46 and I haven’t stopped since.
When did you take a step to start writing?
I was working as a reporter on the Western Morning News in Cornwall. I was just out of university, in my first job as a journalist, and began writing a novel about – you guessed it – a young journalist in his first job in Cornwall. The book was very good. I then moved to London to work for the Daily Telegraph and started writing a book about a young journalist working in London… it wasn’t very good either.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
I came up with the idea for my protagonists Drabble and Harris in about 2003. Ernest Drabble – a historian and amateur mountaineer – and his rather untrustworthy old school friend Percy Harris, who is a gossip columnist in London, emerged at around the same time as the central idea for what would become Rule Britannia – my first novel, which was published in 2018. So it took a long time to get published but it’s been well worth the wait.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
About 15 months. The idea for Ghosts of the West came to me on a boat trip down the Thames in late summer 2019 – we passed the Mayflower pub in Rotherhithe where some of the earliest pilgrims who travelled to America in the early 1600s departed… and the idea for the first scene popped into my head. I then threw myself into the research, knowing the third book had to be delivered for January 2021. It’s amazing how a deadline focuses the mind!
Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write Ghosts Of The West?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Westerns – call it a guilty pleasure. Perhaps it was all that time I spent watching VHS recordings of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood films as a boy. It was also discovering that an Indian chief named Flying Hawk – who had fought at Custer’s Last Stand, or the Battle of Little Bighorn as it’s known in 1876 – was travelling the world in 1930 with a Wild West Show. That made me realise that my protagonists, Drabble and Harris, could plausibly meet him and thereby we could have a direct link to the old West and Custer.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Ghosts Of The West?
The research. I have to admit to knowing very little – Westerns notwithstanding – about this period of history so I really had to start at the beginning. And that was a massive process. I really pray that I’ve not got anything really important wrong, because actually, I believe it’s essential that writers of historical fiction are historically accurate.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
That’s difficult. Drabble and Harris are composites. Some of their traits are mine – not the good ones, of course – and some belong to people I know…. Ultimately they are also a sort of mash-up of Indiana Jones and Jeeves and Wooster. If that makes sense.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
Now that would be telling.
What is the inciting incident of Ghosts Of The West?
A suspected grave robbery in Gravesend in Kent. It’s September 1937. Then something happens at the British Museum…
What is the main conflict of Ghosts Of The West?
As usual Harris is fighting his limitations; Drabble is saving the world.
Did you plot Ghosts Of The West in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
A bit of both: I can’t begin without first knowing what the essential plot or mystery is, but the path to, the detail of what it is, and the resolution all emerge as a I go along.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Ghosts Of The West need?
As the writer I’m the first editor and I’ll keep reading the book and fixing any speedbumps I meet until I’ve fixed all the speedbumps. That’ll usually take four or five attempts. Then it goes to my editor, who I should say is wonderful, and then the book bounces back and forth four or five times between us as he spots things that don’t make sense – new speedbumps if you will – and asks me to fix them.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Martin Amis once told me simply: ‘Keep writing.’ It’s good advice and I’ve followed it. I would add: ‘Keep reading.’
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
Yes —I’ve already begun the fourth Drabble and Harris book which will be set in Turkey. I’ll say no more, other than I’m incredibly excited about it.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Absolutely. ‘Ghosts of the West’ came out today and I’ve been smiling all day. It’s like a birthday. But of course, the real pleasure was in the writing of it.
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