Author Jack Higgins first became a household name in 1975 when his wartime thriller The Eagle Has Landed became a huge best seller. In an exclusive interview, we asked him about his life, his writing career and his latest novel, The White House Connection, which was featured in January's volume of Condensed Books.
RD: Was there anything in your background that especially encouraged you to be a writer?
JH: Well, we were very poor. My mother was a single parent, a waitress, but a very clever one. She encouraged me to read from an early age, and somehow from being a reader I became interested in the idea of writing. When I was fourteen I started writing short stories and things. I regularly scribbled away.
RD: What was it that prompted you to write your first novel?
JH: To be honest with you, I think I was enamoured with the idea of making some money. I was twenty-one, just out of the army, and I rather liked the idea of being able to sell something. So I wrote a novel but then put it on one side. Later, when I went to college as a mature student and had some free time, I dug it out again. I thought it was like mock Ernest Hemingway! I fell about laughing at first but then I thought, it's not bad. So I re-read the first chapter and typed it out from memory. I worked through the whole book like that.
RD: Did you manage to find a publisher?
JH: Yes. I'd got a link with a literary agent, a famous one actually. He was Paul Scott, author of The Jewel in the Crown, a great series of books that was made into a wonderful TV drama. I sent my book to Paul and he got it published. It's called Sad Wind from the Sea, and it's still around. It was brought out in paperback only last year.
RD: As one of the most successful writers around today-you've had sixty-five books published to date-what advice would you give aspiring writers?
JH: You've got to suffer terribly. You've got to be prepared to put the hours in. You can't say, Hey, I'm working in an office all day, or teaching all day, and I don't have the time. If it means sitting up till two o'clock in the morning then you must be ready to do that. You also need a bit of luck and I suppose you could argue you need some talent, too. But luck always helps. As Napoleon always said when he appointed a new general, 'Don't tell me he's a good general, tell me he is lucky.' We all need a bit of luck in life.
RD: Do you find that writing novels becomes easier?
JH: No, I don't, but-I don't want this to sound arrogant-I don't suffer from writer's block. Things work for me, thank God, very well. I mean I've done three books in the last twelve months: The White House Connection, The Day of Reckoning, which will be published in February 2000, and a reworking of an old book I did in the sixties, set in Ireland, called Pay the Devil.
RD: That's very impressive. Some of your novels have been Second World War adventures, others, like The White House Connection, are set in the present day. Do you prefer to write one or the other?
JH: I have to do quite a lot of research for the Second World War stories. In Condensed Books recently you did my novel Flight of Eagles, about twin brothers, one in the Luftwaffe and one in the RAF, fighting each other in the Battle of Britain. Now that took a great deal of preparatory research. But if I do a Sean Dillon book, I'm dealing with a contemporary setting and I already know enough about politics, international terrorism, the Security Services and so on, which means I can concentrate on getting the story right.
RD: The subject of the Irish peace process comes into The White House Connection. Do you like your books to have topical themes?
JH: I like to write books that interest me. And I like my thrillers to deal with fairly important subjects: politics, the IRA, what's going on in the news. Some people might judge that what I write are 'just thrillers', but I think that they should, if possible, say something about our times. To me that gives the story a kind of backbone.
RD: Some of the most exciting scenes in The White House Connection take place on the Norfolk coast. Is that a part of the country you know well?
JH: Very well. It's somewhere I love and I used to spend a lot of time there before I moved to Jersey. Parts of The Eagle has Landed were set in the same area.
RD: And in The White House Connection, you return to some of your old, familiar characters, too, don't you-Brigadier Ferguson and Sean Dillon. Did you enjoy taking up their story again?
JH: Yes, I did. I wrote the first Dillon story, The Eye of the Storm, in 1991, and at that time he was really a pretty bad guy because he'd tried to mortar bomb John Major. So at the end of the novel I had the good guys catch up with him in France and shoot him. When I showed it to my wife, who used to be a literary agent, she threw it back at me and said that I was making a mistake because Dillon was so charismatic that readers wouldn't want him killed him off. Well, I said, he's been killing people left, right and centre. She pointed out that Richard the Third did the same, but people are still fascinated by him. So I went away and rewrote the last chapter and allowed Dillon to slip away into the night. My next book, Thunderpoint, needed someone like Dillon for the plot to work. So I had Ferguson save him from a Serbian firing squad and blackmail him into working for the British security services. That was eight books ago.
RD: Why do you think Dillon is so popular?
JH: I don't really know. It might be because he has his own code of honour. He's the ultimate hard man, but there are certain things he would not do. He's certainly been sensationally successful. Three of the eight books in which he features have been made into television mini-series, and there are two more in the pipeline.
RD: Have you ever met anyone like Jack Barry, the IRA hard man in The White House Connection?
JH: Oh, yes. I was raised in the Shankill area of Belfast, and I had Catholic relatives who were... well, let's just say a lot of them were the wrong sort of people. On Sundays I'd go round to the terraced house owned by my great-uncle-the original Jack Higgins-and before he went out I'd see him put on his overcoat and trilby, pick up a walking stick and then open a secret drawer under the stairs that was full of hand guns. He'd select one and put it in his overcoat pocket. That was the kind of world I was raised in. I knew many people like Jack Barry. Many people. His character is partly based on someone I knew who was involved with the IRA and, who, like Barry, was actually Protestant.
RD: What effect has that had on you, experiencing the violence in Northern Ireland at first hand?
JH: I was first blown up when I was six. Obviously, I survived! Then, when I was eleven, a tram I was in came under rifle fire and my mother pushed me down on the floor and laid on top of me. This was in Belfast, in 1939 for God's sake, with the war just coming up. I've had two cousins blown up, one of whom died, a fifty-two-year-old woman. It's bound to have an effect. And when you look at it, the pity of it, the waste of it, it's very difficult to believe in this peace process. I think the problems in Ireland are just too difficult to solve.
RD: If you hadn't been a writer, what would you have liked to have been?
JH: Well, I was a soldier at one time. I was in the infantry, then the Household Cavalry, then the Royal Horseguards, otherwise known as the Blues and Royals. In the Cold War I soldiered on the border with East Germany during the difficult times. And to be honest with you, I loved it. I suppose if hadn't become a writer, I would have liked to have remained a professional soldier.
RD: How do you relax when you're not writing.
JH: (Laughs) God, that's difficult.
RD: That's supposed to be the easy question!
JH: You've got to remember I'm seventy now. I'm nearly past my sell-by date! I don't have hobbies any more-I don't play golf or anything like that. But I've done everything at one time or another. I used to do a lot of athletics. A lot of running until quite recently. Now I have a more gentle routine here in Jersey. Every morning when I'm not actually working I get up and go down to a lovely hotel on a marvellous beach ten minutes away and I have a swim in the big indoor pool and a bit of a steam and that kind of thing. Then I read newspapers.
RD: I read somewhere that you took up scuba diving a few years ago?
JH: I did that to research Thunderpoint. It was far too risky. I did two hundred and seventeen dives and on the two hundred and seventeenth dive my ear exploded and I came up stone deaf on the left side. And that was five operations ago. One of the top ear-nose-and-throat surgeons in Britain struggled to give me back my hearing. He's restored about eighty per cent, but it's an example of how these rather hazardous things are sometimes more hazardous than you realise and you end up paying a price. I also used to be interested in martial arts like karate and aikido. And I was interested in Far Eastern philosophy-still am, in fact. I used to give lectures on philosophy at Leeds university.
RD: That's interesting. Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
JH: Only spiritual in the sense that I believe that there's a lot going on out there, if you know what I mean. By spiritual I don't mean that I consider myself to be a particularly good person. I've got as many faults as you or anybody else. I do find it very interesting, though, to consider philosophical attitudes to life, whether they be Christian, Buddhist or whatever.
RD: How do you see the future now that you've turned seventy?
JH: Well, I can't see me stopping writing. For some reason the books are roaring along. Obviously, although I expect to be paid for them, I'm no longer doing it for a big pay day. I've had many of those already. I live on my own at the moment, but I have a very nice family based back in the UK. They are all clever and have first class honours degrees and God knows what. We get on very well so I'm lucky that way. And they all seem to find me reasonably put-up-able-with.
RD: Do you think that wealth contributes to happiness?
JH: Money is essential to happiness on a very basic level. For example, I wouldn't want to have to stand at bus stops in the rain again. But great wealth is by no means essential to happiness. The point is-how much can you actually spend? After a certain point it doesn't really matter how big your fortune is. I remember, years ago I met Billy Butlin who created Butlin's holiday camps. It was around the time of my success withThe Eagle Has Landed, and he asked me what my plans were. I said, "I don't know. I just know I used to be a teacher; now my accountant says I'm a millionaire" He replied, "Well, you can buy a nice house, you could even buy a Rolls Royce, and you'll have plenty left over. But, remember, the rest of your money is just paper. It's only useful as a medium of exchange. If it's not being exchanged for anything, it's valueless". I've always remembered that. It's quite a profound remark.
RD: Thank you, Jack Higgins, for talking to us.