|Photo Copyright © 2011 Rachel Day.|
. . . . .
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...
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?
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.
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.
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?
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.