Wednesday, 3 August 2011

An Interview with Anthony Price, Author of the David Audley Spy Novels, Part 2: Plotting, Characterization, Locations, Chessgame, and Writers and Writing

Photo Copyright © 2011 Rachel Day.
In the first part of my interview with spy fiction writer Anthony Price – which took place in July at Mr. Price's Oxfordshire home – we covered Price's early life, his career as a journalist and book reviewer, and the beginnings of his career as a novelist. Here, in the second and final part, we discuss how Price structured his books, how he conjured their plots, characters and locations, and what he thinks of Chessgame, the 1983 Granada Television adaptation of the early novels in the nineteen-book series, which starred Terence Stamp as Price's lead character, Dr. David Audley.

. . . . . 

NICK JONES: I suppose The Labyrinth Makers, your debut novel from 1970, is a kind of a mystery, a whodunnit...

ANTHONY PRICE: Yes, I wanted to write whodunnits in a way that wrapped them up in espionage. One of the later books I remember I wanted to, for instance, make the Americans nice, because they were always villains at the time. I remember, very unfashionably, having a homosexual was was a villain. Because, by that time, you couldn't do a thing like that. So I thought, "Damn this, I'll do it! They'll never believe him as being the traitor, because it isn't fashionable." So one could do naughty things like that. The problem was, as my accountant said: not enough sex and violence! But you can only write what you can write. 

The plots do seem quite complicated...

I think the plots are terribly simple! From outside a mystery, everything is complicated. It's only when you get to the end, and even then, you mustn't cross every "t"... Who did I meet who said that? Somebody quite brilliant, who said, "For God's sake, don't cross every 't' and dot every 'i'. Leave some things in the air at the end." 

Well that's something else I wanted to ask about actually: when you started out with the first book, did you think it would turn into a series?

Oh yes. I wanted to have a repertory company of characters. At the time I'd been reviewing the Playhouse and the New Theatre in Oxford. A repertory company's where you have one or two leads, and then one or two character actors who are in the back, and then one or two juveniles. I thought it would be fun to keep the repertory company, have one or two leads, but bring in other characters in turn, and the ones who stood up would be in other stories. Colonel Butler was Audley's subordinate in the beginning and his boss in the end. He developed. And I married Audley off so I didn't have to put sex in all the time.

I never wrote the twentieth book... 

[Here Price revealed a personal reason – in addition to those outlined in part one of this interview – for not writing the twentieth novel, which will have to remain private.]

Was Dr. David Audley, your ostensible lead in the novels, based on anyone?

No, he... Well, yes, there were one or two chaps that I had met over the years that I wanted to amalgamate – my company commander in the Army for one. But I made [Audley] big, clever and Cambridge because I was small, Oxford and not so clever. I thought, "Nobody will think he's writing about himself." 

But were you?

Well I don't know. The trouble is, other people know more about your books than you do. I know I'm loquacious now after a couple of glasses of wine, but really I didn't quite enjoy this side of being an author – the publicity side. 

Well it's not really a natural thing for an author to do, being such a solitary profession.

At Gollancz [the British publisher of Price's novels] they would tell me to do things, and at my paperback publishers, who were always very nice... My paperback publishers had lots of very nice young men and girls – very pretty girls – who wanted me to do publicity, but it's... it's not easy. 

So Livia, Victor Gollancz's daughter, was your editor at Gollancz?

Yes. She really let me have my head, I suppose you could say. 

What was your writing process? We're currently sitting in the study in which you wrote all of your books: when you sat down at this desk to write, would you start with characters, or plot, or would you...

Well, there's the setting; the setting and... something. I remember my third book [1972's Colonel Butler's Wolf] is set on Hadrian's Wall. The idea was there must have been many Roman soldiers who were on the Wall for almost their whole life. They never saw Rome, and they never saw who they were defending really, and they probably didn't like them anyway, but they were there, and the Wall had to be held. And in Western Europe in the '70s and the '80s the wall had to be held there, too. Because the logic of it, I always felt... In the sixteenth century, there were more books published about the Turkish menace than about the New World, just as in 1970 there were more books published about the Soviet menace than about space. The idea was that, if you had somebody you couldn't make war against, who was too strong, you had to resist them. And if they were bad, the contradictions of their own regime eventually would destroy them.

The dangerous moment was when they started to reform. I thought the dangerous moment would come when Communism started to fail. I was entirely wrong! It ended with a whimper, not a bang! But I was terrified it was going to end with a bang. 

I found a quote from you where you said ours is the second great age of treason – the first being the late sixteenth century.

That's the Elizabethan time, when you had religion, and that's a very interesting period for treason, treachery... and loyalty. I mean, to think that the man who commanded the fleet at the time of the Spanish Armada was a Catholic! Amazing! It's a contradiction. 

You talked about having a setting or a place to start your novels...

Well, some of the places were places I wanted to go to. 

For example, Hadrian's Wall in Colonel Butler's Wolf – did you do Jack Butler's walk along the Wall?

Oh yes. It is fun to do. A place will always tell you something that you didn't know. I wrote a jolly book, I thought, called The '44 Vintage [1978; the eighth novel in the series] about Audley when he was young in France in 1944. He has to cross the Loire at one point – quite a lot of the book occurs when he's crossing the Loire because the Loire is a very strange river. It isn't the Thames; it is quite different. It's a tenth of the Thames in summer and hundred times as strong in the winter. And by going to that exact spot, by walking across the Loire up to here [indicates chest], I had episodes for the book that I wouldn't have had otherwise.

But there were places that occurred in my books, I must confess, that I simply wanted to go on holiday to. Italy is a lovely place; the American Civil War is an interesting war. The books helped to finance my holidays! 

But there's also the idea that history informs the present...

Oh yes. I always felt that the past is lying in wait for the present. I'm not sure whether I'm right, ever since the Soviet Union collapsed in a way that I never expected. That was another thing that made me decide to retire, along with my health and other factors: it made me think that it was time to quit while I was ahead, because Audley was no longer as clever as he thought. 

Yes, he didn't see that coming.

But he could live on... His daughter said to him, in a book that I never wrote, "What did you do in the Cold War, Dad?" And he said, "I won it, my dear." Which is not true. 

I was interested in your second novel, 1971's The Alamut Ambush, as it's set in large part in my neck of the woods – in East Sussex, specifically Firle.

Oh yes. Well my wife comes from Eastbourne, and I love that area – it's a Kipling area, and I'm a Kipling admirer. 

Did you climb up Firle Beacon, as Hugh Roskill does in the novel?

All those places, yes, I walked them. Those are fun. That's the nice part about writing: the research. It's like the two tramps [a joke Price told in part one of this interview]; while you're researching you're writing a better book than you actually write. Research is always fun. 

Why did you choose Firle?

It's that whole area. Every area has nuances of its own, and that southern part, it's the Kipling part. Kipling loved it. Puck of Pook's Hill – a great children's book, wonderful children's book. 

And October Men, your fourth novel from 1973, is set largely in Italy.

Well I was exploring Italy at the time. The Italians are interesting people. Roman history is a hobby. It's a wonderful area there, beautiful. Much too good for them. 

I was also interested in Roskill, because he only really stars in the one book, The Alamut Ambush.

Yes, he didn't quite gel in my mind. He had his book, which I felt quite strongly about when I was writing it. He became... Some people become alive. My problem is I killed off the most beautiful girl, for which my daughter would never forgive me – Frances [Fitzgibbon, in Tomorrow's Ghost, 1979]. Again, one can fall in love with one's characters to some extent. I didn't plan that, to end that book like that, but it ended the way it wanted to end. It's not true that a book writes itself: a chap's always in charge and can do any stupid thing. But that came out of the blue. It wasn't planned. 

That's something else that has been remarked on regarding the series as a whole: that people grow old, people die...

Oh yes. It emerged Audley was perhaps not the son of his father. That happens with many people. Until DNA, it was a wise man who knew women love their children more than men, because they know that the children are theirs, whereas the men only think they're theirs. 

Something that's notable about the books is the long stretches of dialogue and how you reveal character through those conversations.

That's how you reveal character. You reveal character not by the author saying anything, but by the character saying something, or doing something. An actor I was talking to once said, "If you want people to think a man is a bastard, get him to kick a dog!"

But, yes, dialogue is... I always wanted to write a historical novel, a Roman novel, long before Lindsey Davis. In fact I've written a couple of Roman short stories for collections. However I always wanted to write a Roman story about a Roman intelligence service, which they must have had; there must have been a very good intelligence service in the first and second centuries. But I could never hear them talk. I could only hear people talking in my own age. 

Did you ever see Chessgame, the ITV adaptation of your first three novels? 

Dreadful! 

It's not available on DVD in the UK, so I haven't seen it, although I was surprised by the casting: Terence Stamp as Audley...?

You will understand, I was editor by then [of The Oxford Times], and we were having a lot of industrial trouble. It was before Wapping; the unions were tremendously strong and we were having terrible troubles. For instance, we printed The Oxford Times one time in Luxembourg. The Oxford Times! Not one of the great newspapers of the world! But we couldn't print it in England because we'd got industrial disputes up to here. I remember getting those papers through Customs – they couldn't believe that we'd printed 40,000 copies or whatever it was. They thought it was pornography or something!

It was terrible. And it was about this time that my agent phoned up and said, "Granada want to do the first three, possibly four of your books." I said, "I should really write those for television. They're not visual. The fifth one, Other Paths to Glory: yeah, you could do that one." But my agent said, "No, no, they want to do these. And they've got Terence Stamp to do them." I thought, "Christ, Terence Stamp..." Totally miscast! But then so was Alec Guinness [in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy].

So I said, "Well, what do you want me to do?" And my agent said, "Nothing. Don't do anything. Don't bother them, don't write to them. They know what they want. If you want the money..." I'd got three children going to university at the time, one of them going to law school, which was very expensive, and another one about to go to law school. So I needed the money. My agent said, "Write to them and say how delighted you are, say if they want any help you'll be delighted to provide it." So I got a call back saying, more or less: "Thank you very much. Go away." I thought to myself, "Well, Granada has done Brideshead." So I didn't do anything. In due course I was invited to the press show. But you haven't seen it, have you? 

No, no.

And you certainly won't. Can you imagine The Labyrinth Makers in which it isn't a Dakota, and it has nothing to do with the Schliemann treasure? 

Oh. So what was...?

Well I don't really know. I've only seen it one-and-a-half times. 

Things do change for TV or movie adaptations...

This was quite out of all proportion. I was so deeply wounded by it that I've never seen them again, since they were made. They bore only the faintest... Still, I took the money. 

And they put your kids through university.

Yes. But, yes, terrible. I have the videos here; I'm not going to lend them to you. I met Terence Stamp long afterwards, briefly. I said to him, "Why didn't you make other [books in the series] which could have been good? The first few, I agree, I never wrote them for television, so perhaps I got what I deserved, but other parts might have been good." And he said, "I hate television!" He said, "I had the most dreadful experiences making those and I never want to do television again." And I don't think he ever has done. Those were the only television he ever did. 

Do you look back at your books at all? Re-read them?

I have occasionally re-read bits of them. They're either much better than I thought or much worse! Some of them I thought needed some good editing. As you said, too much dialogue. 

Well, no, I actually don't think there is too much dialogue; those long stretches of dialogue are part of why I like them.

It's like re-reading the essays you once wrote: they were written by a much more intelligent person! It's only when I get the letters from fans that I think, "Oh, dear old Labyrinth." And I remember some books were easy to write and some books were difficult. The easy ones were so pleasant. I mean, The '44 Vintage, I wanted to do D-Day, I wanted to do the beaches there, I wanted to do Normandy, I wanted to do the Loire... 

You were producing a book a year, weren't you?

That's what, I think, an ordinary, workaday author does – not a great writer, who gets a huge breakthrough and can afford to wait a few years, and wait a few years. Most of us are like peasant women: they have one child a year, each must produce, or go to jail! It's what the publishers like, really. They lose money with some of the blockbusters they've bought for a million pounds; they never really get their million back, or they get it back in a very curious way. But the average run of guys who are paying the bills...

And you get a few more sales each year, and you get a good library take-up. I had ten years of the maximum for Public Lending Rights, for which, thank you very much. 

But even though you don't look back so much, are you pleased with the series as a whole?

I think desire always outruns performance. When I look at some of the really good books, some of the thrillers that have been written, the best bits of Le Carré – the best bits are pretty damn good. The best bits of a number of writers are enough to stop one writing. When I look at this historical novel... [Price hands me a book from his shelves, by Cecelia Holland.] The best Mediaeval novel ever written, by an American girl in her late twenties. A Hammer for Princes. [Published in the US as The Earl.] It's the best book she ever wrote, too. That's enough to stop me ever writing a historical novel.

Or C. S. Forester, when you think about those... I'm sending this one to a German friend of mine who hasn't read it. [Price pulls out another book, this time a paperback, The Sky and the Forest.] Have you read it? Write it down on your list. I mean, they talk about Hornblower, who's wonderful, but the other books that Forester wrote: The General, and this one, The Sky and the Forest... it's a marvellous book. I'm sorry I can't give it to you. I know he's middlebrow for everyone, but I should rather have written one of his books than taken Quebec! It's storytelling on a different plane, I think. And then you think about Kipling, and then you're in the ultimate plane. 

I see you have some Kingsley Amis on your shelf, who I'm a big fan of. Have you read him?

I love Kingsley, yes. Once upon a time when we'd not been here [at the cottage] very long, there was a ditch at the front there, which I later filled in. When it was wet it had six inches of water and six inches of mud in it. Kingsley fell in that ditch while drunk! He was a friend of Brian Aldiss's, not a friend of mine, but I met him a few times. So he came here one evening, got drunk, fell in the ditch, and wrote a beautiful letter of apology to [my wife] Ann. Great chap! 

Do you think you'll ever write again?

No, no. I still think about it. It'd be interesting to write about one's life, just for the grandchildren, not for publication. Because such a lot has happened! I saw the Graf Zeppelin fly over. Eighty years is a hell of a long time if you think about it. 

And it was an eventful century.

Yeah, a hell of a lot happened. And a hell of a lot has changed.

. . . . .

Here the interview ended, although our conversation continued over lunch in the dining room. As a former newspaperman, the News of the World phone hacking scandal – which was all over the media at the time – greatly interested Price, especially the underlying question of press censorship. But he and Ann also regaled us with tales of writers they knew and had known, including P. D. James ("Like an aunt to everyone," recalled Ann fondly), Gavin Lyall ("Good guy, but could be quite difficult," according to Price) and the creator of the Oxford-based Inspector Morse, Colin Dexter, whom Price hired many years ago to The Oxford Times to formulate the paper's crosswords ("I could never do them myself, though"). For my part, I informed Price that there was a new film adaptation of John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy on the way, which, considering the high regard Price holds the novel and the 1979 TV adaptation in, he was quite astonished to hear, although he was intrigued by the casting of Gary Oldman as George Smiley.

Talk of Le Carré prompted Price to recall the time he travelled by train to a literary awards ceremony (the winner was J. G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun – published by Gollancz – so most likely it was the 1984 Guardian Fiction Prize). "I was on the platform and a voice behind me called my name. I turned around and there was a tall chap there who I slightly recognised. He said, 'It's David – David Cornwell.' And so that was John le Carré. He was going to the same ceremony and said we should get the train together. I said, 'I'm afraid I'm in second class, whereas I expect you're in first.' He replied, 'We'll sit in the restaurant car and drink champagne.' And so we did, all the way to London. So by the time I got to the ceremony I was a little worse for wear."

Following lunch, I asked Price to sign my Gollancz first editions of The Labyrinth Makers and The Alamut Ambush, which he did, adding warm dedications to each. And then just before we parted company, as talk turned to an American pilot who used to live up the road from Price, he vanished off to his bookshelves once again and reappeared with a 1976 US Doubleday first edition of his sixth novel, Our Man in Camelot. Mentioning that the US editions of his novels had "interesting covers, ranging from the awful to the quite good", Price revealed the origins of the book, which was inspired by said American pilot. "I'm going to write a book about you lot," Price had told the US Air Force man, who replied incongruously, "I thought you wrote about King Arthur." So Price decided to write about both in the same book.

Having told me the this tale, unexpectedly Price then signed and inscribed his copy of Our Man in Camelot and presented it to me. It was a typically thoughtful and generous gesture from a man who, despite the fact that he hasn't written for more than two decades, still receives fan letters from admirers of his unique books, and who continues to concoct fiendishly complicated plots for his repertory company – David Audley, Jack Butler and the rest – to become embroiled in. That those stories will probably never be set down on paper is a great shame, but at least we have the novels Price did write – novels which will continue to thrill and confound readers, both old and new, for some time to come.


Interview Copyright © 2011 Nick Jones. Go here for an Anthony Price interview postscript.

19 comments:

Book Glutton said...

All through part 1 of the interview I was wondering if you were going to get him to sign your books. How nice of him to give you a copy from his personal collection. It sounds like he enjoyed the lunch and interview as much as you did. And as much as all of us reading about it.

BTW, how did you discover Anthony Price? I looked at some old posts and one day his name pops up as a discovery you made. Is there a story here or was is just dumb luck?

Louis XIV, 'The Sun King' (Nick Jones) said...

Glad you enjoyed it, BG. Needless to say, I'll be showing off those signed books in the very next post.

I'm not really sure how I stumbled upon Price. I did think it was Jeremy Duns who might have told me about him, but Jeremy believes not. I guess I must have just come across something online, but what or who it was that alerted me to him in the first place is mystery to me even.

OlmanFeelyus said...

"I know he's middlebrow for everyone, but I should rather have written one of his books than taken Quebec!"

That really cracked me up. He seems like a really nice guy and I loved all his old anecdotes. Great work, dude. This was a fascinating read with all kinds of great tidbits and a nice general look into the perspective of a true journeyman writer (and I mean that in the best sense of the word).

Louis XIV, 'The Sun King' (Nick Jones) said...

Ha. I did wonder if that line might chime with you! Thanks, Olman.

polecat said...

Many thanks for the interview. The best ever writer of spy fiction. That old liberal whiner John Le Carré is not fit to hold a candle to Anthony Price.

Louis XIV, 'The Sun King' (Nick Jones) said...

You're very welcome. I think Mr. Price would disagree with you there, but you may well have a point.

Tim Bowler said...

Dear Nick

Thank you once again for your interview with Anthony Price. I have been re-reading the entire series (for the nth time) and it is fascinating how the characters change over the 20 years of series. My own favourites as characters are Butler (who could not like the honourable Colonel Jack?) Hugh Roskill and even Oliver St John Latimer, as well as the under-achieving, average outwitted turncoat, but in-the-end honourable Captain Roche. I particularly loved Roche as he was so average! Paul Mitchell I find becomes fairly insufferable as the books go on - especially his homophobic rants which jarred even when The Old Vengeful came out in the early 80s. Still a great book though, and Mitchell is very uzeful as a historian - and killing people - as Latimer says!
It is a shame there was no 20th novel, but RSI, alcohol and Mr Price's personal reasons easily outweigh the desires of his public. Sigh.
I'd still like a short story from him - perhaps with Cathy Audley looking back at an aspect of her (late?) father's career. One can dream.
And Audley? He is hard to like, but easy to respect. For a man who occupies such a central role, he is one of hardest to really know - as each novel presents us with a slightly different facet of his character. But then, that is probably just like life. As 19 people to describe somebody, and you'll likely end up with 19 different descriptions.
Once again, many thanks to you, and to Anthony Price himself - he's a prince among thriller writers.
Best wishes, Tim

Mike Ripley said...

A wonderful interview with a great writer. When flying to the US for the first time in 1978 I found myself at Heathrow without a book for the plane. In the bookshop there, I bought THE ALAMUT AMBUSH simply on the basis of the cover, never having heard of the author. I finished it as the plane landed in Chicago and on returning to the UK, bought all Price titles in print and every subsequent new book.
In 1988, when my first crime novel was published,my debut appearance as an author in a bookshop was at a crime and thriller night at Hatchard's in Kensington. Top of the bill that night was Anthony Price and I could not have asked for a more generous and supportive mentor. He even signed a copy of his latest novel A PROSPECT OF VENGEANCE to prove we were "Comrades in Hatchards".
I still partly blame Anthony's books for my later mid-life crisis when I became an archaeologist!

Louis XIV, 'The Sun King' (Nick Jones) said...

Tim, thanks for the kind words, and your thoughts on the Audley series.

Mike, thank you for your reminiscences regarding Mr. Price. I've been meaning to delve into your Angel novels for a while now, so don't be surprised if you find yourself the subject of a post in the future!

Scott said...

What fabulous features on ANtony Price.

I bought The Labyrinth Makers reprint when it appeared in the Orion crime classics series about a decade ago, and slowly built up a collection of Price novels through second hand shops. reading (and rereading) his novels remains a pleasure.

I trust that some enterprising soul decides to reprint the others in the series. As with Sjowall and Wahloo's Martin Beck novels I suspect a proper series of reprints would find a new readership.

Thank you so much for the interviews and reviews

Louis XIV, 'The Sun King' (Nick Jones) said...

You're very welcome, Scott. Glad you enjoyed them!

Sextonblake said...

I've just finished reading OTHER PATHS TO GLORY. What a splendid book!Thanks for pointing me towards Price. It's great when you find a really terrific author that you hadn't previously known about.

Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

My pleasure, Sexton. Hope you enjoyed the interview. And I'll be posting a review of Other Paths to Glory sometime over the next few months...

Martyn Reynolds said...

Hi Nick,

Thoroughly enjoyed your your interview with Anthony Price which I discovered on the web. I'm a Brit who has lived in the State for the last nearly 40 years and of course is regularly going back and for to the UK. I started reading AP's work about 25 years ago, at that point collected all of his Audley works and was captivated. Moved house and took my books with me but very busy and forgot about them. Decided one day recently to get all the books in the house into some semblance of order (new marriage) and rediscovered my Anthony Price collection with five missing. No doubt lent to friends after alcoholic dinner parties but thanks to Abebooks have been able to fill in the gaps at minimal costs and can't wait to re-read the the series again.

Your interview has given me a tremendous insight into the series and the author and I can't wait till the Labyrinth Makers gets into my post box. I will keep a glass of red wine or scotch handy to help me on the way and drink a toast to the author.

Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

Thank you, Martyn. Nice to hear the interview shed a little light on the series. I've reviews of the first five novels dotted about EE – look for them using the search box, or by clicking on AP's tag; I'd welcome your thoughts on the books as you make your way through the series again, so do please, if you're inclined, leave comments on the relevant posts.

Margaret Donnelly said...

Your interviews with AP took place sometime ago - but better late than never. I followed Mr Price faithfully from The Labyrinth Makers onwards; I loved the thriller/spy aspect combined with the literary/historical aspects. I looked for the new novel every year. At the time of his last novel I was taken ill and when I recovered I looked in vain for the 20th novel; at the time I attributed the lack of the 20th novel to the fact that with the collapse of the Communists the series had reached a natural end. I continued to ask my local book shop if any more novels had appeared. In the end I accepted there would be no more Joint Research and returned to rereading the series on a regular basis. Like Anthony Price I was horrified by the TV adaptation, but the books themselves have been my delight for more years than I care to remember. Mr Price has my thanks for more pleasure than I can express. His 19 books are the ones I recommend BUT NEVER LEND best regards Margaret Donnelly m.donnelly770@btinternet.com

Louis XIV, "The Sun King" (Nick Jones) said...

The collapse of Communism did play a part in the series ceasing at nineteen books, Margaret, but as mentioned in the interview, AP did have other reasons for calling a halt, the main one of which perhaps he'll be comfortable sharing some day. But thank you for sharing your memories of the novels. If you ever feel so inclined, I'm sure AP would welcome a letter; you can always email me on existentialennui@gmail.com if you're not sure how to contact him.

Tehanu said...

Linked to here from the Wikipedia article about Price, who has always been my favorite thriller writer. Really a terrific interview. Do you know about Charles Stross's tribute to him, the third book of his "Laundry" series, The Fuller Memorandum? I was reading that and almost had a stroke when Hugh Roskill showed up! The whole book is a pastiche of Price and well worth a read.

Louis XIV, the Sun King (Nick Jones) said...

No, I've not encountered that, Tehanu. Thank you for the tip!