I don’t know about you, but it’s not every day that I find myself drinking in a Glasgow pub with a man who used to get hold of tactical nuclear weapons systems for a living. Though that, says Gordon Ferris, was just a sideline.
“A sideline?” I screech inwardly, Lady Bracknall-like. What was his real job? Planning malware cyber-attacks on Iranian centrifuges? Sabotaging North Korea’s long-range missile tests? But no: back in the early Eighties, Gordon Ferris’s main job was working as a civil servant for the Ministry of Defence checking up that the Blowpipe shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile project was running to budget. Procuring the “Honest John” tactical nuclear weapons system to take out any invading Red Army tank divisions only took a couple of meetings a year in Luxembourg. Not the sort of thing you lead off with on the CV.
These days, what Ferris should put there is altogether different. A quote from Val McDermid about him being “the natural heir to Buchan and Stevenson” perhaps. Maybe his record-breaking e-book sales for The Hanging Shed – 150,000 in six months, making it, in 2011, Britain’s first Kindle bestseller. Or perhaps something about his latest novel, Pilgrim Soul, out next week and already Waterstone’s Scottish Book of the Month for April.
Yet the fact that Ferris is a successful writer is – to me anyway – the least interesting thing about him What is more interesting is how he got to be one. There’s a story there too. You probably think you know how it goes already. Scottish author lands major book deal for writing crime series set in Glasgow in 1946. Because of new technology, for a while his books sell round the world faster than Dickens’s. Publishers delighted, new career launched, end of story. If you don’t know anything about publishing, that’s probably how you imagine it always happens.
Why? Because that’s the kind of story we’re always reading, the one with a headline saying something like “Unknown Author Wins Million-Pound Book Deal”. The kind that hundreds of thousands of us read and think to ourselves: “Yes, I could do that. I was always quite good at composition at school. All I need is the time.”
Unfortunately, the odds against unknown authors winning million-pound book deal are remarkably similar to those against unknown punter buying a million-pound lottery ticket. What none of those stories tell is the disappointment of the hundreds of thousands of other would-be writers whose work – a small fraction of it actually quite good – never makes it past the publishers’ slush pile. They don’t reveal the waste of time and money on self-published novels that no-one apart from friends and family want to read. The feelings of diminishment and depression induced by so many letters of rejection from agents and publishers. The sheer waste of a life where ambition points straight to a cul de sac.
So let’s look again at Gordon Ferris’s success. And this time, dig a bit deeper. Were there any special factors? How long did it take? And first of all, what was it about his choice of subject that caught people’s imagination?
Remember that old adage about “write what you know”? Is it even true? If so, where is the Gordon Ferris thriller about a tactical nuclear weapons system going walkabout? Where’s the rogue trader novel from the man who – once he’d stopped working for the Ministry of Defence – became a partner in Price Waterhouse, running its investment banking consultancy group at the time of Big Bang? The high-end technology thriller from a man who’s spent his whole working lifetime using computers? Where’s the novel about business chicanery from a man who then went on to be in charge of 600 people running a multi-national data warehousing operation?
In theory, they could all have happened after 2000. That’s when Ferris decided not to take a high-paying job in America and to take “a slug of money” in redundancy instead. That was when he decided to give writing a go. Success took more than a decade. Whatever it is, the novel-writing business isn’t for dilettantes.
Ferris is an affable, eloquent conversationalist, yet even as we talk I can sense a steely determination about his approach to writing. There had to be. “I was clearing out some papers at the weekend,” he says, “and I came across rejection letters by the score from agents and publishers. I remember one of them came back so quickly I asked the agent why he was so easily persuaded. ‘Anyone can run for the bus,’ he wrote back, ‘but very few make it to the Olympics 100 metres final. You’ll never make a writer.
“You don’t make partner in Price Waterhouse in seven years without a certain bloody-mindedness, pig-headedness if you like. But when I look back, I’m not sure how I had the tenacity.”
Oddly, perhaps, in view of his former jobs, he completely disregarded the statistical likelihood of bestsellerdom. “I’d always had such an inflated idea of the likelihood of success. I didn’t even want to hear the odds against it. It was like stepping off the balloon 20 miles high and just hoping. It had to be tried.” It took him all of ten novels – a million words – before he found his “voice” with The Hanging Shed.
His first book, a narrative sequel to Casablanca, was sent off by his agent to Time Warner, who subsequently commissioned one written by someone else (“a coincidence, I’m sure”). The next novel was an IRA thriller drawing on his accounting and computing experience. No-one wanted to know. He had written half a dozen books before a small crime publisher took him on in 2007. Seven years, then, and even when he was finally published, his first two books hardly sold. His publisher went out of business soon afterwards.
But at least Ferris was edging closer towards a style that seemed to work for him. “One day I started out on a Raymond Chandler-type opening. I knew it was pastiche, but I went back to it and toned it down and that was the poised voice I had been looking for. I had an image in my head of a crummy attic in London on New Year’s Eve at the start of 1946 and there’s this would-be private eye ex-soldier called Danny McCrae wondering who this sharply dressed woman in a pillbox hat could be and what she wants from him. And the voice was there, the sense of humour was there …”
And so, he could add, was the sense of period. Because although his first two novels were set in London, when he started The Hanging Shed and made his protagonist Douglas Brodie, a Glasgow crime reporter with a glittering war record, he still kept the immediate post-war setting.
“I still can’t believe my luck that so few contemporary writers set their novels in the last five years of the 1940s. I’m surprised, because you could hardly think of a more chaotic time, it’s such a time of social upheaval. And even though it didn’t take long for society’s rigidity to start dissolving, it’s the lack of equivocation back then that I enjoy writing about, that gives my characters such a clear stance on things.”
There may, he concedes, be a sociological reason for the success of his books. Writing about that vanished world of the 1940s, he says, interests baby boomers “because their parents are dying out and there’s this feeling of wanting to grab hold of the past before it disappears completely”.
There’s certainly a technological explanation too. Christmas 2010 was when sales of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader took off. That year, his publisher (Nic Cheetham at Corvus) had the bright idea of pitching 12 of his titles for a “Twelve Days of Christmas” promotion, with each of them on offer at just £1 each.
All of this – the million-word, ten-novel apprenticeship, choice of a setting not already dominated by other writers, a bright piece of marketing – does not, of course, guarantee bestsellerdom. Nothing does, although this at least gives the book some attention. What adds the publishers’ Holy Grail – word-of-mouth recommendation – is altogether less easy to define. A reader mustn’t feel let down by the novel’s fictional universe: it should be strongly enough imagined to bear the weight of expectation. It has to be credible; it has to be felt; it helps if it seems based on lived experience.
For Ferris, writing about Brodie, “sometimes feels as though I have excised the last 40 years on which I’ve been working in London” (his Kilmarnock accent must have been a relatively early casualty; his current one is silkily smooth, southern-inflected Scots) and I’m back writing about what I know, because to all extents and purposes 1950s Kilmarnock wasn’t much different from 1940s Glasgow.”
His parents – father a paratrooper in the war and a sanitary inspector after it, mother a hairdresser – started their married life in a one-room flat in a tenement in Kilmarnock. “That was sub-let from the woman who had the front room, although by the time I came along they were renting that room too. So we had two rooms and a scullery between the four of us, with cold water taps, an outside toilet and gas mantle lighting. It didn’t feel like poverty but that’s what it was.”
Pilgrim Soul is set during the horrendous winter of 1946-7, when the demand for coal became so great in Scotland that a coal train was actually hijacked for its contents in Lanarkshire. “I never knew that,” I mention. “Ah well,” grins Ferris, “that’s probably because I made it up.” And the grave-diggers who lit a fire to thaw the ground every foot they dug? “Er, that too.”
The rest of the book, however, seems authentic enough, as though Ferris has been able to roll up the M8 and restore Glasgow’s smog, slums and ships. Although in his previous book, Bitter Water, his hero had already struck up a friendship with a Jewish Glaswegian tailor, in Pilgrim Soul, Brodie finds out a lot more about the city’s Jewish community.
“At first, when I did my research, I didn’t realise the strength of the Jewish community in the Gorbals in post-war Glasgow. And I started thinking, what if they were infiltrated? And then I came up with the idea of a ratlines for escaping Nazis running through the city. There’s no historical record of one, but there’s no plausible reason why there couldn’t have been a northern escape route from occupied Germany leading onto North America, just as there was a southern one leading through Spain and Italy to South America.”
In those mean streets, in that mean time – the century’s coldest winter – Douglas Brodie will set out to do battle with the baddest of the bad. His creator needed a city to place him in, as well as a decade in which he didn’t have too many competitors. Kilmarnock would have been too small a place – and in any case, Willie McIlvanney, that other alumnus of Kilmarnock Academy, had already turned it into Graithnock.
There could only be one place. “Writing about Glasgow is in many ways me coming home to the west of Scotland,” says Ferris. “I needed a big city, and in the 1940s so much is happening there. Let Ian Rankin keep Edinburgh. I’d like to have Glasgow, please.”
• Pilgrim Soul is published next week by Corvus, price £14.99. Gordon Ferris will be talking about it and signing copies on 3 April at Waterstones Newton Mearns (7-8:30pm) and on 4 April at Waterstones East Kilbride (6:30-8pm).