This month I had a little chat with authors Duncan Crowe (AKA Major Victor Cornwall) and James Peak (AKA Major Arthur St. John Trevelyan) co-authors of a brilliantly funny book I recently read, Scoundrels – an adventure packed story of espionage and outrageous tales (read my full review here).
I have given Duncan and James aliases as they took the unusual step of crediting their lead characters (Majors Cornwall and Trevelyan) as the authors of Scoundrels. I ask them why they did this, find out what it was like to co-author a book and delve into the inspiration behind the memorable Majors. Enjoy!
Hi Duncan and James! So, how do you guys know each other?
Duncan: We met at a start up TV company in about 2001, worked together on a few things and hit it off immediately.
James: He’s been following me around ever since, and I can’t afford an injunction. He says I make him feel special.
How long have you been writing?
D: This is our first foray into writing a book, although we occasionally have to write things for work. James is a Radio Producer and I make corporate films. I’m used to writing pitch documents, scripts or treatments, but never a book before.
J: We did write a couple of comedy scripts and pilots for TV, and I’m still proud of them, but in retrospect they were just useful for getting to know each other and experimenting with what we both find funny. We’ve never written a novel before Scoundrels.
When did you decide you wanted to be authors?
D: I’m not even sure we qualify as authors yet! But the success and enjoyment that has come from Scoundrels has certainly made us want to repeat the process – which we’re doing with Scoundrels: Volume Two.
J: I didn’t want to be an author so much as I wanted to be in the driving seat of a piece of content that could be completely, organically ‘ours’. By that I mean that if you’re creating content for a broadcaster or publisher, there comes a point when it ceases to be yours and you have to make compromises that make it less satisfying.
D: Scoundrels is totally ours, a singular vision.
J: Yeah, except shared by two people.
Why are the Majors the credited authors of Scoundrels, rather than yourselves?
D: A few reasons. We wanted to present the Majors’ memoirs as real – as ridiculous as that sounds. Not so people genuinely believed it, but so it breathed life into the two characters. We found it helped to write if we thought of them as still alive and a pain in our necks! Also, we needed a device to explain why the reader was looking at letters as well as memoirs, so we decided to include a ‘wraparound’ story – one which involved us being approached to publish their memoirs.
J: Yes, we struggled with that initially, but ultimately we needed a coherent reason why this scurrilous tale has ever seen the light of day; the conceit being that we set up Black Door Press to tell the stories of old spies and soldiers, and were sent this mysterious manuscript by motorcycle courier. Of course, after reading it we sent it back on the grounds of taste, decency, the possibility of being sued for libel and our general sense of unease, but unfortunately by signing with the motorcycle courier the Majors had finagled us into an unbreakable contract to publish their memoirs. Nightmare!
Do you remember the moment you had the idea for this book?
D: I do. As a joke, James sent me an insulting email. I replied with an equally insulting one, but wrote it as if I was some cantankerous old man who was writing a letter of complaint. I signed off with the name Major Crowe. James replied in a similar vein and at that point I thought we might be onto something.
Is this how the co-author process worked for you? You each took on the role of a Major?
D: Yes. We’d forward the story without the other person knowing what was going to happen. This resulted in some horrific revelations about each of our characters (see chapters 1 and 2…) but the joy of it was having to find a way to write yourself out of a situation the other character had put you in. Once we’d written the first draft we got together and changed things collaboratively and inevitably changed certain elements of the story.
J: I remember when Duncan put my character, Trevelyan, into a terrible pickle at the end of the Paris-Dakar rally, and for a long while I was totally stumped about how to get his character, Cornwall, back for it.
Where did inspiration for the Majors come from?
J: For me, I was trying to get at that very peculiar version of brutish Britishness that has its roots in The Empire of the 19th Century, you know, the idea that certain types of ‘well-bred’ chaps could quite literally conquer the world with nothing more than exquisite manners, cucumber sandwiches and the attitude that by being British they were better than everyone else. You still see a version of that will-do-at-all-costs attitude today – but in America! Flashman is probably the exemplar, right Duncan?
D: Yep. Our Majors are the embodiment of a version of Britishness that can be found all over popular culture, but particularly in historical representations like Blackadder, James Bond, Tom Brown’s School Days, and the films Zulu or Bridge Over the River Kwai.
Was there a lot of research involved?
J: The two Majors are essentially a pair of grotesques put in the worst possible situations we could think up. It was key for all the events we wrote them into to be very broadly plausible, so we would spend ages searching out the most ludicrous and eye-opening real-world tales of derring-do: adventure stories, expedition notes, Boy’s Own annuals, first hand accounts of the War.
D: Quite a lot of research. The book is set in the early part of the twentieth century so our references had to ring true. Plus the story involves some real characters from history. We play around with the events but there’s enough history for someone with a working knowledge of the period to recognise our manipulations.
You mentioned that you’re working on Scoundrels: Volume Two, what can we expect?
D: More ridiculous tales of derring-do and adventure! But also more story – a bigger narrative push that feeds into the Majors wider story of dealing with their nemesis Gruber Hansclapp. There may even be a bit of heart in this one too…
J: Yep, Volume Two is set from 1954 into the 1970s. Their world changes, and the Majors become entangled with characters who are far more emotionally meaningful for them, but without losing, we hope, the anarchic spirit and sense of the ridiculous that permeates Volume One.
Do you see these books as part of a longer series?
D: We see the Majors’ autobiography as a trilogy of novels first that simply covers their memoirs. But the Majors have had many adventures that we don’t reference – so they could be covered in depth after that. There’s also a few of the characters who have led interesting lives – Stephanie Summerville for instance. We find out more about her in Volume Two.
J: And Gruber Hansclapp, their nemesis. He’s a wrong ’un. We’re having a lot of fun with him.
Who are your favourite authors?
D: There are direct influences of Ian Fleming, P.G. Wodehouse and George Macdonald Fraser in Scoundrels.
J: Yes, and Kyril Bonfiglioli, who wrote Don’t Point That Thing At Me and All The Tea In China, which are really sensational comic novels. Also, I love Roald Dahl’s acerbic Tales of the Unexpected, many of which were originally based on his printed short stories.
What are you reading right now?
D: Just started reading Slow Horses by Mick Herron.
J: I’m reading The Nix by Nathan Hill, and I’m getting a very good feeling about it… it’s properly Dickensian. I also really enjoyed Me Cheeta by James Lever, which is a fantastic expose of the Hollywood system of the 1930s onwards, narrated by the chimp from the Tarzan films.
Lastly, do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
D: It doesn’t have to be right first time. Just get something down and then you can always go back and improve it later.
J: The moment you have an idea, get on with it! Stop agonising and just bang it out. Type first, and turn it into writing later.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, Duncan and James! You can find out more about the authors on their website or over on Twitter. Scoundrels is out now and Volume Two will be unleashed in 2018, so keep your eyes peeled!