One of the things I love about my adopted home in the South West of England is the large number of writers who live down here, and the level of networking and support that provides. This month, I’m chatting to Paul Toolan, another member of the new group, West of England Authors. Paul writes detective fiction.
Hello Paul; thank you for taking the time to chat to me. Can you start by telling me what was your favourite subject at school — and which was the lesson you always wanted to avoid?
Predictably perhaps, it was English. They say that if you get three good subject teachers in three consecutive years, then you’re made. I had that experience – and the final teacher, Mr Phillips, inspired me to do an English Literature degree which is a handy thing in a writer. But I was also forced to do Ancient Greek, Latin and French – all in the same year [which is precisely how long I lasted!]. I got so confused I can remember writing ‘il respondebat’ in my French homework.
Where is your favourite place on earth — and why?
I always want to go back to Greece – especially the island of Crete. I only like the quieter spots – save me from those over-touristy places. There’s a wonderful, relaxed scruffiness to many Greek villages, set against an often stunning natural backdrop of mountains and sea. Xenophilia does still exist. The true Greek people have a dignity you can only respect. And Greece was producing world-class sculpture, architecture, literature and drama when in England we were still painting ourselves with woad.
How do you relax?
It seems to change with circumstance. I used to play guitar a lot, till osteoarthritis made it difficult. I’ve substituted a ukulele – much easier on the hands. Before the compulsory heart-attack it was gardening and a bit of amateur garden design. Fishing and watching Somerset play cricket [and occasionally win] still attracts. Now I’m retired, it’s heading abroad for some sun – especially in the English winters which I’ve never come to terms with!
If you could change one law, what would it be?
Borrowing from Harry Patch, the WW1 West Country veteran who died recently, I’d make it compulsory for any MP who voted in favour of a dubious war, to be instantly issued with a rifle and dropped into the appropriate battle zone. If he or she came back alive they would be offered a chance to vote again. If they still voted for war, they’d be shipped out a second time. But now without the rifle, to learn what it’s like to be an unprotected civilian surrounded by war.
If you could change one thing about yourself or your life so far, what would it be?
I’d give myself a natural skill in music. I’m a self-taught copyist, but I’d love to have the ear and easy dexterity of a true musician. When involved with writing musicals, I did the book and lyrics. Enough said.
Describe your ideal menu — and where would you like to eat it?
Now this is difficult because I do enjoy going to restaurants and trying different foods – steaks like dustbin-lids in Chicago, street food in Bangkok and simple grilled fish straight from the Cretan sea, washed down with wine lovingly made by the family who owned the taverna. But if pressed, I’d simplify and settle for a hot bacon and egg sandwich on crusty white bread, with a touch of HP sauce. It would be served at a pop-up cafe on the beach of my desert island and washed down with a cold Mythos [a delicious Greek beer]. When I’d finished, the cafe would vanish into thin air and I’d resume writing, in peace, my sun-bed shaded by an umbrella made from re-cycled banana leaves.
If you were a car, what type would you be — and why?
I’m so unfussed about cars I drive a Ford Focus – and so does the detective in my crime novels. What sort of car holds fishing/walking gear and friends, isn’t flash and doesn’t quit? I’d be one of those.
Watch a film, go to the theatre, read a book or talk to friends — which would you prefer?
When it comes to movies, I tend to wait two years for it to be ‘on the telly’. Black and white films still catch my eye though. Ice Cold in Alex is still one of my favourites, just for the way the desert light hits you. I worked in Performing Arts education for quite a while, and still occasionally direct amateur productions [if I can’t find a good enough excuse], so theatre can sometimes feel like a bus man’s holiday. But then you see something like Benedict Cumberbatch as the Monster in Frankenstein, or Mathew Bourne’s Swan Lake. I saw the NT’s interpretation of Miller’s Death of a Saleman in the 1970s and it’s still fresh in my mind today. People just didn’t leave at the end. Many were weeping in their seats, for fathers, for family – such a moving experience and a real illustration of the power of the Arts.
Writing should never interfere with reading, but it certainly slows it down. I read far less than I did, and am edging more towards travel writing and away from crime – perhaps that’s a good thing?
But to finally answer the question: films and theatre and books all need to be talked about, and you do that with family and friends.
What would you have printed on the front of your T-shirt?
It would say, ‘He fed the birds’. It could go on my tombstone, too.
Can you explain where your books come from?
No, I can’t! Well, only incoherently. The first one arrived when my walking group trudged up a Somerset bump called Burrow Hill – which is now on the front cover of A Killing Tree. The second book emerged from looking at old photos of cider-orchard ‘Wassails’ – and indeed at YouTube videos of more modern versions. Because I’ve chosen to write crime fiction – having enjoyed reading lots of it in the past – it’s a case of then asking ‘where would the body be?’
This morning though, on the train back from London, with a real pen and one of those lovely little Moleskine notebooks, I wrote 3000 words of draft chapters and ideas for Book 4 in the series. I had too much caffeine last night at a family ‘do’ and lay half-awake in my Premier hotel’s famously comfortable bed [as Sir Lenny Henry claims in the TV advert – in fact it’s true]. Within an hour, Book 4 ‘arose’ from the depths – or the psyche, the unconscious, daydreams, detritus etc – triggered by a local Somerset tradition that a friend told me about some months ago and which must have been swimming around in my mind-soup. Soon, I had ‘a body’, some characters and an opening scene. The structure’s internal logic then took over, and rational questions arrived: who, why, motives, settings, outcomes?
But what you need to know is that Book 2 is only just getting into print as I write this, and my head is barely clear of it. And though I’ve begun Book 4, I haven’t actually written Book 3 yet [well, 5,000 words of snippets, but that’s all]. I can’t explain why, but Book 4 will now be Book 3, and the original Book 3 may never even happen!
So, can I explain where my books come from? Not fully, no. But I don’t care!
Elizabeth Ducie was a successful international manufacturing consultant, when she decided to give it all up and start telling lies for a living instead.
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