Happy Launch Day! Michael Jecks talks Templar’s Acre, the Royal Literary Fund, Indie publishing and his new series
MJ: Well, thanks for that. I always had a slight hankering to get back to his beginnings, because the story of his early exposure to the Templars in the Holy Land was such a key element in Baldwin’s makeup. Without that, he would never have joined the Order, as I made clear in many of the books. I wanted to look at him afresh, and show how he grew to be such a fascinating man: dedicated to preventing injustice but content to impose his own order on people; deeply religious, but suspicious of the Church and Pope; aware of his vows to his King, but loathing the King’s household. He was a strange mixture of conflicting passions and emotions.
For all that, I did find it easy to write him as a young man. I found the idea of a Devon-born, rural son of a knight easy to work with. He would be suspicious of foreigners and foreign things, deeply unsure of his place in the world from the first moments under attack, and then overwhelmed by the grace and elegance of a city like Acre. I imagined myself in his shoes, a runaway boy, and imagined how he would have felt in strange surroundings, and it all really flowed from there.
The immediate future is going to be moving aside slightly. I’m moving on to write about the Hundred Years War, and Fields of Blood next year will be about a small platoon, or vintaine as it would have been called, on the long slog to Crécy. But that doesn’t mean I won’t write more about Baldwin and Simon. I have three main plots I’m playing with just now: the middle years from Acre to the trial of the Templars with Baldwin’s perspective; the end of Edward II’s reign and his release from prison, leading to his escape to Italy; and the arrival of the Plague in Devon. That last would probably be the logical end to the series, of course, but it would be a book worth writing.
RL: How did you research the background of Acre? What were the ‘must include’ details?
MJ: Researching the town was surprisingly easy, once I’d tracked down the main books about the battle. There are so many people who have been fascinated by the Templars that there are innumerable sources, from contemporary writers to the more recent by historians like John J Robinson.
The most the essential point about research doesn’t change: it’s not what you put in, it’s what you leave out. For me, it was essential to make mention of the colours and the freshness, rather like a vast fishing port but with more flags and fabric shelters against the sun. Then I was fortunate to have a number of books with photographs of the city’s stone work from the period, and could describe the colour of the stone. But from there, it was a series of images that mattered. The location of the great church, the sight of the Temple, the streets and how the inhabitants lived. I was lucky enough to go to Mombasa when I was in my teens (a very long time ago now) and saw how an ancient city could have various quarters, each of which discrete and defined by the people who lived in them. Acre was defined in large part by the sections in which the Genoese lived, where the Venetians lived, where the military orders lived – all had their own feel, and I tried to put some of this in the book without over stressing it.
I have to admit, after so much work on the city, I feel I could walk about it now blindfolded!
But there was another aspect. Scenes I’ve used were stolen from other battles in other times. I am firmly convinced that whether you look at the methods or fighting or the reactions of people, they are similar in all periods of history. So much of my work was done reading about the sieges of Coventry or Bristol, or looking at accounts of the Thirty Years War. The savagery, horror, courage and glory in such battles are consistent through the centuries, I believe.
RL: Is Templar’s Acre still a mystery? Or is it more military hf? If the latter, how have you enjoyed the changing genre?
MJ: It’s not really a mystery – or if it is, it’s a spy mystery – it is much more military. That was, naturally, a deliberate move on my part, and I’ve been delighted with it. I wanted to be able to look at the battle from both sides, the Mamluk and Christian, and see how the city behaved. For me it was really rewarding looking at the different characters in the English army sent to support the city, but it was fascinating reading accounts that looked at the behaviour of the people, especially the contrast between the military commanders.
Did I enjoy it? As a process of inventive writing, it was damn hard work. I was much more constrained than before by the strict chronology of the events, because I will not lie about the history if I can possibly help it. However, there was plenty of scope to imagine how circumstances would affect people at all levels of society, and that made the process fascinating and much more involving.
RL: I enjoyed reading your own reviews of your books on Goodreads: great idea, and I’m sure makes you very approachable to your readership. What made you think of doing that? Which of your own books have you most enjoyed re-reading?
MJ: Oh, it’s a terrible thing, a writer commenting on his own books – as Disraeli commented. I know that there are plenty of authors who look on it as a hideous indulgence and, frankly, cheating. They say that if they were to look at a book, and see a bunch of five star ratings all by the author concerned, they’d not consider that writer.
Personally, I think that’s bunk. It’s like the politician who loses an election without a single vote – what, not even he himself cast a vote in his favour? Daft! I took the view that people would likely be interested in my views of the books, whether there was something interesting happening as I wrote the novel, whether there were specific scenes that caught my attention as I was writing them. After all, my books have had a definite impact on some people’s lives. One man was only able to talk to his wife about his experiences during the Vietnam War after reading one of my books, in which I imagined a horrific friendly fire incident. Books affect people, and what leads to the book having that effect can sometimes be as interesting as the words on the page themselves. I know that I would want to read such a commentary from other authors if I had the chance.
In terms of the books that I enjoyed most – I can’t really comment. I will say that The Last Templar is the book which I now love to avoid. It was a first book, and it shows. Oddly, I did enjoy it much more after the first few pages. I think I overwrote the first scenes far too much, and I would rewrite the whole of that if I could. I’m much more confident about cutting out adjectives, lengthy descriptions and other twaddle than I was! But after that, I can happily state that I have really enjoyed going back and reading my earlier works. The stand up well even after nearly (God help us) twenty years.
RL: I gather you’re doing other wage-earning stuff as well as writing now?
MJ: It was a while back that I heard of the great work done by the Royal Literary Fund, and was hugely impressed. About five years ago I offered to help them, and I’ve just completed my first year with them.
The RLF was created hundreds of years ago to support struggling authors, and it’s done a fabulous job over the years, saving many writers from penury, such as Mervyn Peake, James Joyce, DH Lawrence, Joseph Conrad and Chateaubriand. They would give money to any writer to help them, regardless of race, religion or nationality. A truly inspiring institution.
However, it has suffered from being little known. One of their jobs has been, recently, to introduce themselves to new generations, and one way they do this is to hire working authors and pay them to visit universities to give one-on-one tuition and support to students who are having difficulties with their work. It’s entirely free to the student, and utterly confidential. I started at Exeter University last year, and I’ve had enormous fun with the students there. I’ve seen students develop wonderfully in the space of a couple of hours of work. There is no other similar resource available to them, after all.
I’m also involved in creating a new Literary Festival just now, in Evesham. It’s a new concept for a festival – rather than having a large number of people over a short period, we’re working with some of the country’s best performers to arrange workshops and talks about writing, and setting it over six weeks, with one author per week. It’s been huge fun to try to organise, and we have high hopes for it!
Finances for all authors have been tough in the last few years, so there is always a need for writers to look at new ideas. I’m always thinking of the next grand scheme. Some may work, many will fail, but as a businessman, I have to keep pushing the boundary and trying to develop in new, challenging directions. Some are big, exciting projects, others are smaller, but more fun.
For example, I’m writing a diary weekly for Cult Pens, down in Tiverton in which I go through the trials and tribulations of that week’s efforts, but in which I’m also giving, I hope, a feel for the sort of things an author has to do. It includes the launches, the late nights writing pieces for newspapers, and even the initial stages or scribbling down ideas for a new novel through to seeing the final copy on a bookshelf. Hopefully it’ll inspire some people to grab a typewriter, computer, or even a pen, and start a new book.
RL: I see you have put a toe in the Indie publishing world – with a short story collection, and a new thriller. How is that going?
MJ: Two collections of short stories, if you don’t mind! All the shorts in the two collections have been published, and last year I realised that all were sitting doing nothing, just at the time that I was thinking of testing the water with my own electronic books. So I worked on the two collections, one of the Baldwin/Simon Puttock series, called For the Love of Old Bones, and one for all my other short stories, No One Can Hear You Scream, and put them out just to see how they were received. I have to admit, I was delighted with the result. They have been very well reviewed, and the sales have been very pleasing.
I’ve also written and published my own modern spy thriller, Act of Vengeance, as you say. That was a long time in the writing: at least four years. It really stemmed from my rage at the way that the British government threw out hundreds of years of due process, including Magna Carta, and began arresting and incarcerating men and women without even letting them know why they were imprisoned.
It was a disgrace that the cause of this was a terrorist attack in a foreign country. We had survived for decades with massive bombs destroying large parts of the City of London without imposing such draconian laws. I wanted to investigate that and the growth of the security services under Blair, and from that came my book. It was an immediate success, I’m glad to say, and while I don’t have my first million yet, it’s doing really well.
RL: You always seem so full of plans. What’s next?
MJ: As I said, I have a few irons in the fire. The Literary Festival next year, two novels I’m working on just now, one about the Hundred Years War, one a modern police procedural; then there is a new concept for a film I’m working on with a friend I met in the Royal Literary Fund. A few years ago I worked with Martin Jarvis on an idea for a radio play that was sadly not accepted, but there’s still potential for that. I’d dearly like to write a play for the stage, too. That is the trouble, really, there are so many things I want to try!
RL: What advice do you give to the new writers you meet – about the work and the career?
MJ: First, if they want to write and get published, the most important thing is, to write and keep on writing. There is no excuse for an author not to scribble every day. Writer’s block doesn’t exist – it is an attitude of mind. Write as though your life depended on it, and when you have finished, start to work, because writing is rewriting. There is no short cut. You have to take apart every sentence you have written and rework it until it says exactly what you want, and no more. Take out any unnecessary adjectives, and cut the text to the bone. It should be spare, clean, and concise if you want people to read your work. And if they’re paying £10 for a book, even though it’s incredibly cheap when you think it’ll occupy a reader for many more hours than, say, a film, they still deserve your very best efforts.
And don’t expect to earn a living wage (not a good wage, a living wage) within five years. It was what my first agent used to tell me, and she was correct. That is how long it takes for the profits to start to seep down towards the author if he or she is successful. It’s not the easiest business.
Posted by Richard Lee