An interview with Jack Higgins
Sean Dillon is back. The hero of Eye of The Storm, Thunder Point and most recently The White House Connection, returns to fight Mafia frontman Jack Fox. Day of Reckoning is Dillon's eighth adventure, and by now the former IRA terrorist turned British Government enforcer is established as one of the great characters in modern fiction.
What's the secret of Dillon's appeal? Is it, as one eighty-eight year old reader once said to Jack, "he only shoots rotten people". Is it the fact that he's worked on both sides of the law but is willing to turn his knowledge of the wrong side over to those on the right? He's a rogue; but a reformed and likeable one. And he's prepared to risk everything - in London, Beirut and Ireland - to thwart the ambitions of Jack Fox.
We met Jack Higgins to find out more.
This is your seventh novel featuring Sean Dillon, former IRA terrorist turned Government enforcer. What's the secret of the character's success?
"Well, he's on the side of right, most of the time. And people have forgotten, because Dillon's become so successful, that in the first book, The Eye of the Storm, he was an absolute villain of the first order. He was the man who tried to mortar bomb 10 Downing Street, and I did the novel as a kind of Day of the Jackal -type novel where the main protagonist was this terrorist who was lining up this job, was going to takeout the British war Cabinet and so on. And you followed it step by step: how he organised it, how he treated people and, I mean, he killed a few people and he did behave pretty disgracefully.
"However, at the end of the book, the good guys pursued him to a French chateau where he was shot dead. When my wife read the final chapter, when I said, "hey, it's finished. What do you think?" she threw it back at me and said, "The readers will hate you because you've created this very unusual character: very strong, very interesting, full of humour and wit and Irishness and so on, and they're going to be angry with you". I said, "Well, what are you suggesting?" She said, "let him survive and just walk away in the snow in the night".
"So I went and rewrote the final chapter, so when he was shot he was wearing a titanium waistcoat, which, of course, stops rounds going through but knocks you out. He was lying on the floor unconscious, the good guys left him there for French intelligence to do the cleaning up and, of course, Dillon came to. And he walked away through the snow into the night. The result was, that when I was doing another book, I hadn't intended using Dillon: it was the book about Martin Bormann's U-Boat being found on the reef in the Virgin Islands. The U-Boat that Bormann had, supposedly, escaped him.
"Now Dillon, besides being a villain of the first water, also flies a plane and has done a lot of scuba diving, and speaks languages. So the brigadier running the Prime Minister's private army decided that what he needed was somebody to work for him who could be worse than the bad guys; and he sprung Dillon from jail and said, "I'll wipe your IRA slate clean but you work for me from now on." That book, Thunder Point, was extremely successful, and that was the beginning of the saga, really. Obviously, with Dillon now fighting for right, as it were, it's softened him, to a certain degree. As I say, as he was working on the side of right, maybe a lot of readers discovered him and found him acceptable.
"I was once at a signing session in London, in a large store, and there was a queue of people and this very old lady, who turned out to be eighty-eight, came up the side of the queue on sticks and one of the security men gave her a chair, and everybody let it happen, you know, and she said to me, "Are you Mr Higgins?" and I said, "Yes." And she said, "Is this book about Mr Dillon?" and I said, "Yes." She said, "That's good. I'll have three." She said, "I like Mr Dillon" and I said, "What's the secret? He shoots people in the kneecaps and he's very ruthless." And she said, "Oh, he only shoots rotten people." Maybe that's part of it."
Do you find that he takes on a life of his own, he dictates where the story goes?
"Yes, what I start with is simply an idea for the story happening; the plot grows out of that. And the, how does Dillon react to it? And how do other characters react? You see, for example, in one of the earlier books, by sheer chance - and this growth process happens in books - I invented the American, Blake Johnson, who runs the basement, downstairs in the White House. It's supposed to be a sort of General Affairs department, but is, in effect, the President's private Headquarters. I introduced this character, Blake Johnson, in the book, and there was great response, not only from the readers, but the publishers, particularly in America, and they said "he's too good a character to let go". Therefore, in the later books, her often joins forces with Dillon because they're different sides of the same coin.
"And there are after examples of people who grow: Harry Salter and his nephew, Billy, the ex-big London gangsters. They've grown in stature a lot, particularly Billy. Billy has become a very well liked character with the readers. The young gangster who is suddenly discovering himself and is capable of much more than he ever thought of; he worships Dillon because he has learned all this from Dillon."
You've tried a lot of different lines of work before you turned professional as a writer. Was it always in the back of your mind that you would write novels?
"Yes, because I'd been writing from my teenage years. It's just that it was years before I actually sold anything. Then when I was thirty I got published, and I spent ten or eleven years doing crime stories, detective stories, police stories. The major way in which I changed was this idea that one was laying plots out just like everybody else, really, and what was needed was something different. The Irish troubles, particularly, helped me a lot in the early seventies. Because as I came from Belfast and I knew the background and had been raised on it, and I was therefore able to see into the heart of it in a way a journalist just going to Northern Ireland missed.
"I went over to see how things were happening and I got this idea of a book in which a Dillon-like character, though he was English - a Paratroop Major called Vaughan who had been eased out of the army for killing terrorists in Malaya - ended up being given this job of going into Northern Ireland proposing to be a gun runner. His job was really was to hunt down a certain IRA leader. And it's a very atmospheric book and it detailed the really bad times that were happening in Ireland at this stage: flames in the street, burning vehicles, street battles with the soldiers. The interesting thing was that when that came out - before that, I don't suppose I'd sold more than about three thousand, three and a half thousand copies - it got in to the top ten, just at the lower end of the top ten. Before we knew where we were we had sold 12,000 copies of hardcover. That was a considerable move forward.
"That turned me into a serious player. I did one more Irish book, A Prayer For The Dying, which became a very controversial film with Bob Hoskins and Mickey Rourke, and then came The Eagle Has Landed. Well, of course, that's history and there's not much more that one can say about it except that when Collins brought it out it stayed in the Top Ten for 36 weeks and was an enormous bestseller, a huge bestseller in America. It was bought all over the world, in masses of languages. We reckon over the years that it's sold over fifty million copies worldwide."
Which writers have inspired you? "There are writers I've read, at a literary level, who write different kinds of books than me. I suppose that when I was trying to hone my skills, I very much admired Graham Greene. I admired classic writers, like F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was never a Hemingway fan. But, in terms of thriller writers I always admired Alistair Maclean at his best - HMS Ulysses, The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare. Years later when his health wasn't good, a few of the novels became shorter and thinner, but that was because at that stage he found it more convenient to write them as film scripts.
"He was very good to me because once I was coming out of the Collins offices and my name was shouted; I turned around and it was Maclean, and he'd been in the building and he'd asked the receptionist who I was. So he came out and called to me and insisted that we had a drink, and we sat in the pub. He simply said, "I've read your book and you've really got big potential. I think you're going to make it in a big way". Then we had a general chat about life and publishing, where he made a few points that I'll always remember: that he'd giving up reading reviews, that people will put you down because you're not writing a Booker Prize book, you're writing a thriller.
"And he said, "after all I have an MA in English Literature from Glasgow University." So he said, "I'm hardly a fool." He said to me, "What about you?" "Well yes, in fact, I'm a Senior Lecturer at a university." I saw him again quite a long time later, and he liked The Eagle Has Landed so much he gave us a great puff, which stayed on the cover for years. Nice man. His work at his best was definitely an inspiration."
So what's next for Sean Dillon? "I've done it. I'm just going through the first draft. Now I hope it's very good: a sensational villain, an English Earl from a very ancient medieval family, who through his mother who was an Earl's daughter, so he's the heir, and he becomes the Earl but his father was an Omani General, so he's half Arab, as are his sister and brother. They've got this tremendous pride in their family, going back to medieval times and having fought in Bosworth for Richard III and all that. But they're just as proud of being Bedu.
"They're very rich, so there's a lot of skulduggery in England, the usual incursion into Ireland. I have a nice Irish villain who's one of the few protestants in the IRA and who's now working as a mercenary. I have a very interesting attempt on the life of the President one weekend when he's down at his beach house. All the usual ingredients."