What’s in a name…?

How we almost hit the big time & lived to tell the tale!

 

When Susan Brown and I decided to adapt The Mad Hacker, our first co-authored book, for television, we realized we would have to come with a name that was perhaps a little less indicative of an axe murderer, and more in keeping with a pair of adventurous twelve-year-olds.

Amber Mitchell and Liz Elliot had been best friends forever and were, shall we say, chips off their creators’ old blocks…

The plotline revolved around the sabotage of their grade-eight computer projects. Rather progressive, we thought (and still do) given that we wrote the first chapter of The Mad Hacker in 1985 using typewriters. Neither of us actually owned a personal computer at the time. Our kids were in primary school; they had the access and we had the story.

Several years later…The Mad Hacker had sold over 75,000 copies in book form in Canada, New Zealand and Australia, Something’s Fishy at Ash Lake, our second book featuring the girls and their friends at Ash Grove Junior High, had by then been sold to Scholastic Canada, and negotiations were underway with a Toronto production company.

We decided it was time to “rebrand” the series. Scholastic had billed the first two books as Ash Grove High Mysteries, but we wanted something new and a little less cumbersome. So we culled our collective memories as well as the current TV pages, listing show titles that worked, especially mysteries, right back to the early days of television.

Nine times out of 10, the most successful series had titles which were either situation-specific or simply used the main character, or characters’ names, to sell the show.

Our characters weren’t that well-known, but they were memorable, especially when they played off each other like that other famous pair of detectives: Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. After all, Amber had been heard to address Liz as “my dear Elliot” more than once in both books.

So, Amber & Elliot, it became.

We liked the cadence. We liked the way Liz’s surname gave the team more weight. But most of all we liked the fact that it didn’t sound, as “Amber and Liz” would have, like two little girls going to a birthday party.

Amber & Elliot may not have made it to the big time (the pilot aired on The Family Channel and CTV), but we felt like we did – if only for a short time. And, among many lessons learned, we came to appreciate just how important titles (and hanging onto your rights) can be!

 

Something’s Fishy at Ash Lake is available on AmazonKobo & iTunes as An Amber & Elliot Mystery!

The Goddess of Single Women

 

When Susan Brown and I were working on Outbid by the Boss, our first co-authored romance, we had no idea our heroine would suddenly invoke the Goddess of Single Women.  In fact, we didn’t even know there was one until Samantha Redfern found herself in dire straits…although to be fair to the Goddess, it was Sam who made the decision to blow off her trip to New York.

But to get caught by one’s boss at an estate sale north of London…now that’s just asking for trouble!

We like to think the Goddess would approve!

 

Chapter One, Scene Three:

Clutching the candlestick to her chest, Sam hurried for the exit. She had a plane to catch. And now, she realized with a frisson of panic, she not only had to nip back to her flat, she also had to stop at the bank. It would take all her savings and half her rent money to replace the firm’s cash, but her purchase was worth every penny.

As she dashed through the open doorway, Sam remembered thinking how nice it was that the morning rain had given way to a sun-filled afternoon and then…

Woof!

She ran smack into a wall of solid masculinity, gasping as the base of the candlestick dug into her ribcage.

She staggered backwards. A pair of strong hands grabbed her upper arms to steady her, holding her fast as she regained her balance.

And then he spoke.

The “thank-you” Sam was about to utter caught in her throat.

“In a hurry, are we?” The voice was well-bred, well-schooled and awfully familiar.

She squeezed her eyes shut.

And began to mentally chant.

Please, please, please…anybody but Chas bloody Porter. Please, please, please…

 “Anytime…” the voice said, rudely interrupting her pleas to the goddess of single women caught in compromising positions.

Stupid woman must be on a lunch break, thought Sam.

Her lids fluttered open and she followed the buttons of the beautifully-stitched, pale-blue oxford-cloth shirt he wore beneath his soft leather jacket to the button at the base of his neck. It was open. Revealing enough of the man to make one feel that every inch of him would be just as enticing as the dark stubble on his chin, the slightly battered but still patrician nose and…the steel-blue eyes washing over her like an icy Arctic wind.

“Miss Redfern, isn’t it?” Chas Porter said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “I could have sworn you were representing us in New York this week. You do remember the two-day sale at Sotheby’s? Previews in….what?” He removed his left hand and checked his watch. “Twenty-four hours?”

“Which, allowing for the time change,” replied Sam choking back an urge to flee “gives me twenty-nine hours…

“Now, if you don’t mind…” She pointedly eyed the hand grasping her left bicep, an amazing feat given the fact that her knees had turned to water and her brain was sending high-pitched alarm signals to every nerve in her body.

Chas dropped his hand and stepped back, his eyes resting on the candlestick nestled protectively between her breasts. “Very nice workmanship. Get it for a good price, did you?”

Sam flushed and like a child caught with her hand in the cookie jar, whipped the candlestick behind her back. Which of course thrust her chest forward.

She raised her chin defiantly.

Chas Porter gazed down at her, his eyes slightly hooded, impossible to read.

She stared back at him. The candlestick was hers. Or was it? She felt an unexpected stab of fear. Had he seen her use her expense money to pay for it?

A young couple coming up the steps dropped hands and gave them a wide berth. “We are blocking the entrance,” hissed Sam. “And, as you so rightly pointed out, I have a plane to catch.”

“Not today, you don’t,” Chas shot back. He crooked his finger and abruptly turned away leaving her little choice but to follow him down the steps and around the side of the building.

For an instant, Sam rebelled. Who did Chas Porter think he was, calling her to task as though she were a lowly serf. He was her boss, she reassured herself as she hurried to catch up, not some feudal lord who expected her to do his bidding. Perhaps she should just tug her forelock and be done with it.

 

 

Colin Wilson: A Literary Outsider

 

During my first-ever trip to England, my husband and I travelled to Cornwall to see Colin Wilson, one of the country’s most reclusive writers.  Known for his often tumultuous relationship with the press, I wasn’t sure of our reception, but once we were there, what began as an exclusive interview for The Ottawa Citizen quickly turned into the following full-page feature!

 

He was an extraordinary man living what had become, in many ways, the most ordinary existence on the coast of Cornwall with his wife of 40 years, their two dogs and an aging parrot. If it weren’t for the 30,000 books, tapes and records covering every available surface and the Japanese interviewers in the living-room, one might easily assume that the couple in question had merely settled down for a lengthy retirement in this tiny coastal town…

 

But this is Colin Wilson, one of Britain’s pre-eminent “angry young men” who first rose to prominence in the 1950s, taking on both the establishment and the scions of the literary press at the age of 24 with The Outsider, a bold and challenging look at the way we perceive human consciousness. One hundred books later, Wilson still annoys and confounds the critics with his “obsessive quest for something grander than normality” that all began with his own feeling of isolation on Christmas Day, 1954.

Joy, who at that time was still his girlfriend and not yet his wife, was at home with her parents, and Wilson, who had neither the money nor the inclination to spend the holidays with his, was living in a room in Brockley, a South London suburb. Amidst this self-imposed isolation – and a Christmas dinner of canned tomatoes and bacon – he felt both cut off from the rest of society and at one with some of his favorite fictional heroes, like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, Camus’s Meursault and Sartre’s Roquentin. The notes he compiled that Christmas Day in his journal became the starting point for his most famous book, and the catalyst for both his “overnight success” and his subsequent fall from grace.

What makes Wilson’s story so interesting is that, unlike the other “angry young men” of the decade – writers such as John Osborne, John Braine and Kingsley Amis – Wilson had no formal education. And the critics found that offensive. The novelty soon wore off, and the darling of the previous year became the literary pariah of the next. Wilson claims that his own sense of self-worth and belief in his theories of human consciousness are what sustained him. For, as he wrote in the 1967 edition of The Outsider, he held “the final card.” He was used to working in a vacuum, which meant that he could go on writing longer than his critics could “go on sneering.”

And sneer they did. Book after book after book. Especially in England, where the publication of his first novel, Ritual in the Dark, was met with derision and the praise that had been heaped upon the young Wilson the year before was taken back. The “boy genius” was a charlatan, and when Joy’s father came to London with a horsewhip to rescue his unwed daughter from the man he considered a sexual pervert, the press had a field day. Colin and Joy fled London and the gossip that dogged their heels as they travelled throughout Devon, Ireland and Wales.

It’s a story Wilson enjoys telling, and one can tell by the inflections in his voice that it’s one he’s told many times before to visitors like myself who are curious about the man who has ostracized himself from the mainstream, continuing to work away year after year, proving his own theories on human consciousness and compiling one of the most impressive bibliographies that this century has to offer.

Although sitting in his living-room in Cornwall, eating smoked salmon and drinking a glass of white wine, I find it hard to reconcile such a “literary outsider” with the 67-year-old Wilson before me.

He is above all, one of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met. When he heard Richard and I would be in England on a working holiday he immediately invited us to join him and his wife for dinner and drinks. Drinks at 5:00 are part of their regular routine, he explained, an oasis in a day that starts at 5 a.m. and goes steadily until 4:00 in the afternoon when he breaks to walk the dogs and reflect on the progress of the day.

It was foggy the night we arrived in Gorran Haven, the fishing hamlet on the coast of Cornwell where Colin and Joy have lived since 1958, and although we weren’t officially expected until the next evening, they insisted we come round for “drinks” when we called to say that we’d arrived.

The bed-and-breakfast we were staying in was just up the road, so we agreed, but given the weather and the steep, narrow roadway that to my Canadian eyes appeared to be little more than an asphalt bike path, we decided to drive the half-mile to the Wilsons’. With Richard at the wheel, we cautiously wove our way downhill in second gear, peering through the mist for the small sign marking the entrance to “Tetherdown.”

The laneway to the Wilson’s house is like a tunnel to the unknown, with its overhanging trees and shrubbery left untrimmed to discourage unwanted visitors. The house itself, a rambling bungalow built into the slope of the hill, looks and feels like the hideaway it is meant to be, for Colin Wilson has no interest in establishing relationships with his neighbours. They may be quite nice but he wants to avoid the type of “obligatory dinner parties” that seem to be the norm for many of the retirees living in the frost-free regions of southwestern England. He does, however, maintain a vast network of friends around the world, communicating by phone and fax, regular post and email, with colleagues in such far-flung places as Japan, Australia, the United States, Russia and Spain, many of whom have followed his career since The Outsider was first published.

It was already gone 5:00 when we returned to Tetherdown the next day to find Joy, wearing her rain gear, heading at a pretty fair clip in the opposite direction. Richard stopped the car beneath the sodden bushes and rolled down his window. There had been a fire, Joy said. In her bedroom. Lightning had hit the telephone line at the outside junction and burned out the modem attached to the computer in her room, setting the bed on fire and destroying her books.

But not to worry, she was on her way to use the telephone at the old folks’ home across the way. The fire department had already been and she had to get on to the insurance people right away. As for cancelling the evening, Joy would hear nothing of it. They had to eat, she said, and scurried off down the laneway, leaving us dumbfounded at the casual way she was handling what to us, was an incredible disaster.

It was the relief, you see, explained Colin once we were settled inside, that nothing more had happened. Another minute and the fire would have spread throughout the house, and in their location, with the nearest fire brigade stationed miles away and nearly a score of other fires needing their attention that afternoon, they were lucky to receive any help at all – the usual method of dealing with a fire in the area was to let it burn itself out and then call the insurance man. Luckily, he and Joy had been able to contain the fire with buckets of water and a garden hose until help arrived.

It’s this attitude that, for me, typifies Wilson’s approach to life. The sheer wonder of what is, and the clarity that comes with an epiphany, that moment in time when everything is suddenly pristine and joyous.

It is a theory Wilson happened upon when he was a young man. He’d been hitch-hiking to Peterborough, near Oxford, depressed and anxious about his lot in life, when a truck driver stopped and offered him a ride. After a mile or so, a knock developed in the gear box, and the driver let Wilson out while he went in search of a garage. Wilson stuck his thumb back out, and a second trucker stopped and picked him up. Several minutes later, he too developed a knock in his engine. And Wilson, who hadn’t wanted to make the trip in the first place, suddenly found himself wanting to get there so badly that when the driver discovered that the knocking would stop if they kept their speed below 20 m.p.h., he was overjoyed.

Wilson’s feelings of relief were so overwhelming, and so absurd given his earlier attitude, that he realized he had stumbled upon what was to be his first important observation as a philosopher – “that man’s moments of freedom tend to come under crisis or challenge, and that when things are going well, he tends to allow his grip on life to slacken.” He refers to this phenomenon as the “St. Neot margin” after the town they were driving through at the time. And, half a lifetime later, he’s as fascinated by this heightened state of consciousness as he was then, still exploring ways to recapture the St. Neot margin at will and use it to his advantage.

The difference between Colin Wilson’s attitude as a “new existentialist” and the romantics of the previous century is that unlike the romantics, who found everyday life miserable and dispiriting, Wilson has always been an optimist. For him, “moments of vision” in which everything is marvelous and exciting, are reason to celebrate, to look beyond what is known, a theme he has continually explored in all his works, and one of the reasons he ventured into another realm of the unknown in 1971 with The Occult, his controversial look at ways to extend the boundaries of human consciousness and further develop our capabilities.

Wilson’s unique way of approaching a subject keeps him in print year after year, and keeps his publishers ever anxious for the next Colin Wilson. Even the gestation of his books, the where and how behind his ideas and the way they manifest themselves on the page makes for fascinating reading. Written in Blood, his encyclopedic tome on the evolution of forensic detection is a case in point.

Wilson was at a reception in Tokyo in 1986 when someone introduced him to Soji Yamazaki, the executive editor of the Mainichi News. In his younger days as a crime reporter, Yamazaki had covered the criminal findings of Japan’s real-life Sherlock Holmes, an inspector by the name of Asaka Fukuda. Fukuda had apparently developed his reputation through his ability to differentiate between what looked like a suicide and what was, in reality, a murder. Wilson was intrigued, and when he got a call from his publisher on his return home, asking him whether or not he would be interested in writing a history of criminal detection, he was hooked. The result is one of the most comprehensive histories of the way modern scientific application and dogged investigative procedures have changed our lives.

Wilson’s strength is in “connecting the dots”, in interpreting what others have found and looking for the “universality” in their discoveries – a method that led to his most recent book, From Atlantis to the Sphinx. His “own part in the quest” began nearly 20 years ago when, in July 1979, he received a review copy of a book called Serpent in the Sky, by John Anthony West.

“It was basically a study of the work of a maverick Egyptologist called Rene Schwaller de Lubicz,” writes Wilson, “and its central argument was that Egyptian civilization – and the Sphinx in particular – was thousands of years older than historians believe.”

Schwaller de Lubicz’s theory was that it was water, and not wind and sand as is generally accepted, that caused the erosion of the body of the Great Sphinx at Giza. Wilson says that, if proven correct, Schwaller’s theory would not only “change all accepted chronologies of the history of civilization; it would force a drastic re-evaluation of the assumption of progress.”

The possibility that a sea-faring civilization existed before the Egyptian dynasties – indeed, before the Ice Age – a civilization that operated on a knowledge system based on instinct rather than information, intrigued Wilson. He felt, as did Schwaller, that the ancients must have had a heightened consciousness that allowed them to perform technological feats beyond our understanding, and that this holistic approach to understanding the universe was passed on through their descendants to other parts of the world, allowing them to develop in parallel fashion.

Working with ancient sea maps, called portolans, researchers concluded that when Antarctica was free of ice, it was at the centre of a worldwide maritime civilization, a possible Atlantis that flourished until about 10,500 B.C.   After a series of catastrophes, the earth’s crust shifted and Antarctica drifted towards the pole, leaving its survivors with their navigational skills and their ability to work as “a collective” to spread their culture to the land masses to the east and west. Hence the similarities between, for example, the Aztec temples in Central America and the Great Pyramids of Egypt an ocean away.

Interest is so high in this field that the Discovery Channel in the U.K. commissioned a documentary based on Wilson’s book and Schwaller’s theories. The Flood, which recently aired in North America, is hosted by Wilson and in the rough cut we saw, he proves to be extremely effective on camera, giving an air of learnedness that is both comfortable and vaguely reminiscent of an Attenborough or a Carl Sagan. In measured tones, Wilson walks the viewer through his theories and those of his colleagues, Robert Bauval, Charles Hapgood and Graham Hancock, with the assuredness of a host who knows his subject.

Quick-tempered, profane, brilliant, warm, loving – these words all describe the Colin Wilson we saw during the time we spent with him, and his wife. His children visit frequently, as they did the weekend we were there. A self-described “domestic animal,” Colin was enormously proud of his new grandchild and extremely affectionate, not afraid to show emotion in front of guests, hugging his adult son and calling him “baby.” It’s a life that is both orderly and chaotic, open to visitors yet closed to the immediate neighbours.

Involvement in the local community is left to Joy – she wrote two local histories some years ago and is currently at work on another – while Colin does the weekly drive to either Truro or St. Austell for groceries and any other household needs not readily available in Gorran Haven.

Nestled at the base of a cliff, and continually buffeted by storms and high waves rolling in from the English Channel, Gorran Haven is an odd collection of fishing boats and skiffs, very different from the quaint shops and tourist spots found in other areas of Cornwall yet able to draw its own share of the sightseeing crowd with tales of smuggling and spectacular scenery. The local pub plays host to the usual mix of regulars and holiday-makers with its low ceilings and brass-railed bar, and in a rare show of public support – somewhat self-serving, red wine drinker that he is – Colin Wilson cut the ribbon at the Llawnroc Hotel when the town repealed its temperance laws and the pub was allowed to open.

As with everything Wilson does, there’s controversy. Even now, in the age of electronic debate, a website devoted entirely to his writing is rife with discussion, pro and con, about Wilson and his work; whether or not his current theories on evolution and consciousness are consistent with his earlier findings, and whether or not he is still a force as we approach the millennium. The general consensus online is that Wilson remains one of the most important writers and thinkers of the day, high accolades for a man who has spent his life working from an academic distance of time and geography – without the restrictions of a particular school of thought or the pressure to protect his “tenure” by presenting his findings in any of the accepted versions.

For Wilson is a consummate academic. Though self-taught – he dropped out of school at the age of 16 to work in a Leicester factory like his father – he has encyclopedic knowledge and can quote at will from the likes of Shaw, Graham Greene, Blake, Eliot and Rilke, Nietzsche and Jung.

In his 1990 biography, Colin Wilson: the Man & His Mind, Dosser reinforces the claim that Wilson’s lack of formal education is one of the prime reasons critics take such exception to his theories and view him as a threat to modern philosophy. And he is convinced that, in the next century, critics will be puzzled by the lack of attention bestowed upon Wilson by his contemporaries and give him his rightful due. Given the amount of attention Wilson already receives from other parts of the world, Dossor’s probably right.

Wilson’s books on the occult, on crime, on human sexuality and on the evolution of mankind have been translated into Spanish, French, Swedish, Dutch, Japanese, German, Italian, Portuguese, Danish, Norwegian and Hebrew.

Not bad  for a working-class boy who defied both the odds and the critics to become one of the most talked about, and read, philosophers of our time.

 

Colin Wilson died, aged 82, on the 5th of December, 2013, but his legacy lives on at the University of Nottingham where, in July, 2016, the university’s Manuscripts & Special Collections department hosted The First Colin Wilson International Conference; a second is planned for 2018.

 

 

 

 

The Nottingham Connection…

 

When I first met Charlie Resnick, John Harvey’s jazz-loving detective inspector, on the page in 1991, I was thrilled.  Here was a new series from a British crimewriter I hadn’t read before.  Three books in, and I was hooked — on Harvey’s award-winning command of the genre, and on his Nottingham-based copper.  For Resnick is the classic loner, weighed down by too many memories and not enough of a personal life.  My kind of guy.

By the time Easy Meat came out, the eighth in the series, I was reviewing crime fiction for the Ottawa Citizen, writing mysteries of my own, and about to teach a one-day workshop.

I called it How to get away with murder…in print! 

All I had to do was put together a suitable outline knowing that, on the day, I should expect the unexpected.  And sure enough, there was this guy, sitting at the back of the room taking notes, and asking questions like “have you ever been in a police station?”.  I mumbled something about being in the back of a cruiser once, and next thing I knew he was asking me out to lunch…and taking my fingerprints.  As one does on a first date when the officer-in-charge is a detective inspector with the Ottawa Police.

But what happened next is total happenstance.  Richard (the aforementioned detective inspector) told me he’d spent his early years with the City of Nottingham.  I told him about John Harvey, and then fact and fiction merged.  Not only had Richard worked out of the same Canning Circus police station as John Harvey’s fictional detective, they also shared a connection to the Polish Club, Nottingham’s gathering place for the vast numbers of Poles who had remained after World War II.  There was nothing for it, but to go to Nottingham, meet the relatives (Richard and I were definitely an item by then) and walk the beat.  We made it a working trip, connecting with John when we went back down to London.

It was brilliant.  We met at Waterstones in Piccadilly Circus, grabbed a coffee, and talked shop, about crime writing and about the amazing coincidences between Richard’s and Resnick’s backgrounds.  Even their take on Nottingham was the same “a gritty mining town famous for Players’ cigarettes, Raleigh bicycles and lace factories,” tempered by D.H. Lawrence and the legend of Robin Hood.

When we returned home, Richard wrote a piece for the Ottawa Citizen about “following Charlie” through Nottingham’s dark alleyways and back streets, remembering the thieves and soccer hooligans, and the first prostitute he’d ever set eyes on.  “She was young, no older than I was (19 at the time) and when I turned my flashlight on her in that narrow, dark alley, she pulled her skirt over her head because she didn’t want to be recognized.”

He ended the article by suggesting he had a “great idea for a book that brings Resnick to Canada.”  It didn’t quite happen that way, but in Darkness, Darkness, John’s twelfth and “final” Resnick published in 2014, he gave a nod to Richard in Chapter 49,

“Resnick had known an inspector in the Notts force who’d gone out to Canada…Brzozowski.  Polish descent like himself.  Good policeman, good detective.  Resnick had liked him.  Would have bet good money he’d more often then not got his man, too.”

Or, in this case, woman!

Outside Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho, 2016

Over the years, twenty as of this writing, we’ve met up with John whenever possible, sometimes in Nottingham, where lunch at the Warsaw Diner was always a favorite, or in London at Foyles on the Charing Cross Road.  Last autumn it was Soho with John bringing us up-to-date on his most recent project:  his adaptation of Darkness, Darkness which had just finished its premiere run at the Nottingham Playhouse .

Unfortunately, our timing was off, but with a little luck we’ll be back in England for an early spring, and the release of Body & Soul, John’s fifth “Frank Elder” novel.  Totally different series (although Elder is ex-Nottingham, of course!) from a very prolific, and engaging, writer.

Lonely Hearts, John’s first Charlie Resnick novel, was named by the London Times as one of the “100 Best Crime Novels of the Century.”  And in 2007, he was awarded the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement.

Body & Soul will be published in hardcover by William Heinemann on April 18th.

John Harvey’s website is:  http://www.mellotone.co.uk