The Story Behind the Story


My father was private about his work. Although he had been writing for many years, he'd never let me see a completed manuscript. It was all rather mystic.

A photo taken the night I opened the box of my father's
manuscripts, along with a set of photos and slides

A couple of years ago, my stepmother Maggie decided to retire in Scotland - and the Southport house had to be cleared. Among the stuff was a box of papers belonging to Dad. She'd always meant to do something with them, but was daunted by the task. Understandable. She asked if I wanted the manuscripts, and I agreed, but I have to admit to being rather overwhelmed by the responsibility. I'd always been close to my father, but his books were unknown.

Father and daughter in Lord Street Gardens,
Southport around 1960 when I was around
three. He'd just landed a job in town and was
celebrating not having to commute. Note the pipe.
 

A large, cardboard box arrived a few weeks later. It took me nearly six months to pluck up the courage to open it. Fortified by a rather large glass of wine, I attacked the sticky tape with the kitchen scissors. Inside were the papers relating to around three books, a short story, a thick envelope of photos and literally hundreds of photographs taken by my grandfather (but that's another story in itself). I scanned the first few pages and realised I simply had to get to try and get something published.

Doubts began to creep in. When I first got into publishing myself, I had to learn how to edit my own copy. That was tough enough. Before I started on my father’s book, I was apprehensive. What about continuity, spelling, repetition ... all those pitfalls? 

In fact, the toughest bit was decoding the scanned text. Dad’s typewriter was pretty erratic and at first, it looked like gobbledy-gook. Each chapter came out as a solid block of words, manic punctuation and no paragraph marks whatsoever. For instance, fl1APfER,EIGHT, could be decoded as Chapter Eight. Whole pages were just as corrupted. It was gruelling, but the story was so thrilling, I imagined I was just reading the book, a chapter at a time. So, I tackled them one by one, going through each word, sentence and paragraph, with the printed page at one side. The chapters finally turned into a complete digital manuscript, which I then edited in the usual way.

After that, though, the only ‘corrections’ I made were to his Spanish. Sorry, Dad. 

I sent the book to Crooked Cat. I’ve despatched manuscripts to publishers before, in my own name, but waiting to hear about this particular title was agonising. I wept and cried when it was accepted for publication. My stepmother Maggie and I are still both convinced we’ve imagined it.

It's hard seeing my father's photo on the cover and in the Crooked Cat catalogue. It's even harder that he can't bask in his success. However, I know he wouldn't have approved of being maudlin, so we've all decided that the occasion of his book seeing the light of day should be a celebration.

It's also a bloody good novel.


...

During the process, I came to a fuller understanding of my father’s unique take on life, love and politics. You can tell that my father was something of a left-wing intellectual with modern, liberal views. He loathed the regime in Spain – and repression of any kind. The characters are so real you can see evidence of his passion for anthropology and psychology. His passion for geography oozes out in the descriptions of southern Spain, making the place come alive.

...

In the 1960s, Dad took us off to southern Spain on one of the first ‘package deals’. Two weeks £35 each. He relished the continental lifestyle and became a bon viveur overnight. He also fell in love with Spain – the language, the culture, the people. It inspired his first book, written during the latter years of the Cold War, when the country was on the brink of a post-Franco era. I also got the Spanish bug and ended up doing a couple of degrees in Spanish and translation work. As I read the book, I had an extraordinary feeling of déjà vu. Many scenes are based on that trip; the bars and cafés, the pot-holed roads, the lack of suspension in the cheap SEAT, the empty beaches, the fence around the naval base. I even recognise our favourite waiter (Juan, of course) in the role of Félix.

...

I loved reading Not With a Whimper because it’s written in a laconic Chandleresque style with a world-weary humour that anyone who knew my father will recognise. The dialogue is so tight, it’s positively clenched. I never realised my father was such a powerful author. His protagonist is an appealing blend: a crumpled middle-aged chap with a rock solid integrity that makes him utterly compelling. He smokes too much. He drinks too much. He cares too much. I loved my father dearly, but he had his demons. It was so autobiographical that it was almost eerie to read and edit. Strangest of all, I even appear myself, in the guise of his 17-year-old daughter who worries too much and works too hard (!). 


...

My father’s study was packed with books – thrillers mostly. Chandler and Damon Runyon figured heavily, but he enjoyed adventures by the likes of John Buchan and Rider Haggard. I raided his shelves often, and these authors are still among my favourites. His other passions, apart from golf, of course, were film noir and spy movies. No wonder the book reads like a screen-play. It’s only recently that I’ve realised how much his tastes influenced me, as a reader and a writer.

...

At first, my father combined a full-time job with writing, but in the mid-1970s, he opted for early retirement. Thanks to Maggie, he spent his later years embroiled in his novels by day, and keeping up with golf, rugby, politics, crosswords and all manner of subjects by night.

... 

I hadn’t read Dad’s books when I was writing Tomorrow’s Anecdote. This is a ‘retro’ mystery thriller set in the 1980s and surprisingly autobiographical. Is it a coincidence that my father’s favoured style was also in the first-person, a world-weary type who has a crisis and rebels against convention? I suspect a disdain for authority runs in the family. I know my daughter would agree.

By Pamela Kelt



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