First of all, Stuart, it’s a real thrill for me to do the interview. Thanks very much for arranging this home stop on the Book Tour.
You’re welcome. And maybe you could start by telling us how you developed the story for Assassins? I’d never heard about the background before.
OK, so it’s 1938, and Spain is in the grip of the civil war that had started two years earlier after an attempted military coup by General Francisco Franco. The story of the Spanish Civil War has been covered from lots of angles but I came across the previously untold fact that, in the middle of ’38, with the outcome still in the balance, Franco had not only set up an alternative government but had established a Tourist Department – and then circulated brochures around all of Europe’s travel agents, inviting tourists to visit his recently won battlefields. Extraordinary! An incredible propaganda exercise. But it worked. Something like 20,000 travellers took part in the tours over the following seven years and, of course, carried away Franco’s side of the complex conflict. So I thought: What if one or more of the people on the tour bus didn’t believe the propaganda? What if one or more of them had hidden agendas? What if a batch of unforeseen disasters befell these eccentric travellers? I hope readers will think it’s an original way to find out about this still relevant piece of European history.
I did some digging of my own on this, and found that a lot of the characters who feature in this story are real people. Far more than I’d imagined. Did that create problems?
Actually, I don’t think anybody else has spotted that. The characters who make up the bus-load of travellers are all fictional – though even some of them are based on real people. But the rest are mostly factual. As Franco’s armies slowly occupied each area of Spain, they replaced all the democratically-elected representatives with their own stooges, either from the military, or from the extreme Right-wing and fascist Falange Party. It still exists, by the way. And these were the people largely responsible for rounding up tens of thousands of socialists, communists, trade union leaders, poets and artists, and murdering them in what historian Paul Preston has quite rightly called “the Spanish holocaust”. So the tours would have met a lot of these people and I wanted – within reason – to get inside them a little. And, actually, there’s an astonishing amount of information available. So no, it didn’t create a problem. Though I’m always conscious that it might become so. The book’s selling reasonably well in Spain, even in English, so naturally there’s always a chance that the family of one of those people may pick up Assassins and not be happy about the portrayal.
I also realised that both Assassins and your previous novel, The Jacobites’ Apprentice, feature lots of stuff about spies. Is this a subject that intrigues you?
D’you know, I hadn’t thought about that before. Jacobites is set in 1745, mainly based in Lancashire and deals with the Manchester merchants who supported Bonnie Prince Charlie in his rebellion. But, yes, its anti-hero is based on the real-life spy, Dudley Bradstreet, who was almost single-handedly responsible for preventing the rebellion’s success. The Jacobite army managed to travel all the way south to beyond Derby, with not much more than 100 miles before they reached London. And there was nobody to stop them. But Bradstreet, posing as a scout for Bonnie Prince Charlie, told him a load of nonsense about English armies waiting to intercept them. The Jacobites lost their bottle, went back to Scotland, and the rest is, of course, history. In Assassins, I became fascinated by the dozens of attempts on Franco’s life – sometimes by professional spies and hit-men, sometimes by rank amateurs. And there was a whole espionage story about the British covert operations that may have helped Franco launch his fascist coup in the first place. But there’s no spying in the third novel. Honest!
Ah, the third book? What’s that about?
It’s set during the second half of the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879. In a nutshell, it picks up the story where Michael Caine and the film, Zulu, left off. It’s told largely from a Zulu perspective and the title is The Kraals of Ulundi, due to be published in April-May.
And you write under a pen name. Can you tell us why?
When I started writing, I soon began to run into problems. There are some quite evil moments in Jacobites and I found it quite hard, personally, to delve inside those darker sides of human nature as myself. So I needed to develop an alter ego. And then I realised that this wasn’t hugely different from my earlier “day job.” I think most of us are different people in work than we are at home with our families. Then, of course, I began to realise exactly how many of my own favourite authors have written under pen names, and I imagine that some of them must have similar reasons for doing so - C.S. Forester, Daniel Defoe, Ellis Peters, George Orwell, J.K. Rowling, John Le Carré, Lewis Carroll, Patrick O’Brian, Stendhal and dozens of others. Apart from all that, when I finally started thinking about marketing, I realised that “Dave McCall” simply doesn’t sound like the name of a historical fiction writer. Well, not to me it doesn’t! So the “David Ebsworth” brand was born. Ebsworth is a grandfather’s name so it feels right. Then, when I shut my workroom door each morning, I get straight into this alter ego and start to write.
You have a writing routine, then? How do you fit that into your day job?
I officially retired in 2008 so haven’t really got a “day job” any more. I do some voluntary work still but, mainly, I write. I start around 7.00am by word processing the most recent hand-written stuff that I’d worked on during the previous day. That’s important for me since it gets me straight back into the story without risking writers’ block. By the time I’ve finished this word processing, I’m “in the groove” and carry on with new word count until maybe 9.30am. Then I print out the morning’s work and take myself off to the swimming pool, do my lengths and mull over what I’ve done. An hour later usually sees me in Caffè Nero, making corrections and then hand-writing the next block of text. That’s the text that I put away until the following morning. During the afternoon and evening, I catch up with my marketing and any research that I need for the next section of the book.
When you say “marketing”, can you say a bit more about that?
Sure. It had never occurred to me that there’d be so much marketing if you want your books to sell. That sounds daft, but I genuinely hadn’t thought about it. When I was writing Jacobites, I never thought about anything except getting to The End. I just assumed that “somebody” would do the marketing for me if it even got published. But that “somebody” doesn’t exist and, by the way, it’s really no different for authors who are “traditionally” published. Though I caught on quickly, I think. I developed a marketing calendar with all the things I needed to do before publication (developing and regularly updating a website, arranging launch events, building a social media profile on Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, Pinterest, etc); at publication (press releases and interviews, arranging book reviews); and post-publication (getting myself invited to author events, month by month, sometimes in bookstores but, more productively, doing lively presentations about the story backgrounds). Then it’s a matter of juggling all these plates and many more besides. But my main bit of marketing is the production of a monthly e-newsletter that goes out to family, friends, supporters and readers – whose e-mail addresses I’ve been painstakingly accumulating over the past three years, since Jacobites was published. I’ve never really found time for regular blogging – and the newsletter is a great substitute.
That’s a good tip. Can you give any aspiring writers just one more?
Yes. To keep writing. I think we have to be hugely talented or extremely lucky to sell huge quantities of books at our first attempt. But if you build up some readership with your first book, do some basic marketing, then go on and write a second, then a third, and so on, that readership will grow incrementally and irrevocably. I’m certain that there must be a mathematical formula for this. I just don’t know what it is! The main thing is to keep writing books – doing it well, naturally – and getting them published, even if you can only manage eBook editions. Write them and they will come! In today’s market, I think it’s both quality and quantity of our output that spells success.
You said right at the beginning that today’s interview is part of a Virtual Book Tour. So how long does that last and where do you go next?
It’s another marketing tool, of course – helping to raise the book’s profile. But I hope it’s also good entertainment for bloggers’ readers too. I decided to run this one over two weeks and I was really lucky that so many of you were interested in Assassins. Here’s the link to my web page with all the details...
...but, basically, I’ve got stops with UK bloggers in London, Bristol, Devon and Essex, US bloggers in Ohio, Colorado, Texas and Wisconsin, and a Canadian blogger in Manitoba.
Tomorrow I’ve got a stop with Tori Turner (Lily Loves Indie) here...
...as well as Elaine (Novel Pastimes) in Ohio...
If anybody’s interested in receiving Dave’s e-newsletter, you can contact him through the comments below, or though his website (here’s the page with his most recent newsletter: http://www.davidebsworth.com/page4.html), or by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org.