June 24, 2009 / 11:14 AM / 10 years ago

Book Talk: Journey back in time with Jake Arnott

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Homosexual gangsters, movie directors and glam rock stars are all characters that best-selling writer Jake Arnott has used to dazzling affect in his books.

Taking the reader to a bygone era and blurring the lines between fact and fiction, has won Arnott many plaudits and several television adaptations.

His latest novel “The Devil’s Paintbrush” has a plot that includes both distinguished British Empire hero Sir Hector Macdonald and occultist Aleister Crowley.

London-based Arnott, who counts David Bowie as a fan, spoke to Reuters about legal dangers, future projects and his disappointing acting career.

Q: Your novels are often a mix of fiction and history. How did you choose the subjects for The Devils Paintbrush? A: When you start to write a novel, you don’t quite know whether it’s achievable. I always feel like I’m going off on some sort of fishing trip and seeing what will turn up. It’s not an academic project, as I don’t have to stick to any kind of brief. With Devils Paintbrush...I was interested in looking at high Empire and the contradictions, particularly around sexuality and the emotional life of the great empire men. It is strangely untouched. For the past 10 years, the idea of writing about this period has developed in my head. But finding a character (Hector McDonald), who has sort of been forgotten with huge gaps in what we know about him, that to me called out.

Q: Your novel “Johnny Come Home” about a 1970s glam rock star had to be withdrawn due to legal issues. Has this experience made you more cautious?

A: One of the things about Devils Paintbrush is because you can’t libel the dead, no one is going to come after me! With Johnny Come Home, I feel it was like poetic justice because I had sailed close to the wind previously. It was completely unintentional and by accident. I happened to give the name of this character, the name of somebody who is still around in the music business and could have had grounds to sue me. It’s a fair cop but what aren’t fair, are the libel laws in this country. We withdrew the book and eventually got very little change out of 25,000 pounds...it was quite a business, and I wouldn’t recommend it. But it’s iron in the soul - you survive that and go onto the next thing.”

Q: “The Long Firm” is a 1960s based crime story loosely based on infamous London gangsters, the Kray twins. Did you get any unwelcome attention from the underworld, after its publication?

A: Not really. It’s often the other extreme. A lot of people in that world, they quite enjoy the attention sometimes. I had someone approach me at a party, who is still around and quite a serious London gangster but very intelligent and cultivated. He wanted to know if I knew anyone at Channel Four because he wanted a (television) network! They’ve all got their own book deals and projects. That was what I was looking at in (third novel) “truecrime,” a sort of satire on that.

Q: The Long Firm was made into a BBC drama starring Hollywood actor Mark Strong, while “He Kills Coppers” has also been adapted for the small screen. Any similar plans?

A: No plans at the moment. Because of the way things are (economically), television drama and films in this country are not having such a happy time. It was BBC with Long Firm and it worked really well. Very, very good casting. Mark Strong was fantastic - he hasn’t got a contemporary who has such a wide range. Mark has a fantastic way of summoning up melancholy and deep, deep romantic despair! He brought something I wasn’t expecting. He Kills Coppers was a very different experience, it happened very quickly...and had a very different feel to it.

Q: Are we likely to see gangster Harry Stark, who features in your first three novels, appear in print again?

A: That’s it really. There is always a danger of diminishing returns. I did decide to write a trilogy of books that would burn all the boats on the beach so I can’t go back. I like the idea of things to link my work but I don’t want to get stuck. In the Long Firm he gets a fair old crack of the whip. He is different things to different people.

Q: Any other books currently in the pipeline?

A: I’m chewing over something in my head at the moment. It’ll be 20th century again and it’ll be vaguely historical. It will look at the notions of utopia and dystopia in the 20th century, both in the popular imagination and what happened. There is something very interesting going on in literature, as well as anything else, in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Imagining new worlds. It’s something that takes up from some of what I leave off in the Devil’s Paintbrush - the notion of what is coming in the century. Q: You had a small part in the movie “The Mummy.” Any more acting roles on the horizon?

A: It was the utter zenith of my career! I had to do a lot of (horse) riding in a rubber suit and that’s about as good as I can get. I did have a very chequered and unsuccessful acting career. I’d love to be an actor and would much prefer to be an actor than a writer but I can’t, that’s the problem! But being a bad actor and finding out I was a bad actor, sort of helped me to be a better writer. Because when you looking at characters as a writer, it’s the opposite of how you look at a character as an actor. I wish I could do it, I really do.

Reporting by Michael Taylor; editing by Paul Casciato

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