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Saturday 3 April 2021

Interview with Alan Veale


Lizzie Sirett in conversation with Alan Veale

Alan Veale was born in 1952 in Manchester. Encouraged by his sister, who was a great reader, and following his parents’ habit of listening to the radio, Alan found an interest in writing and wrote short pieces that made his friends laugh.
His subsequent passion for the theatre led him to take a more serious interest in character development and plot construction.  For many years he concentrated almost entirely on theatre scripts – some specifically for performance, others for writing competitions. It was not until 2010, a year after enforced early retirement from the civil service, that he considered taking on the BIG challenge: to write a novel.
The eventual result was
The Murder Tree, first published in October 2013. Just over four years later he released a more personal story onto the public A Kangaroo In My Sideboard. This was about his parents and their experience of emigrating in 1949. Now he has returned to fiction, and to the mystery surrounding the sinking of the Titanic.

Lizzie: Alan, you have just published your second crime fiction book The Titanic Document.   In August 2018 you emailed me that you were 26,000 words into Sisters a follow-up to your mystery thriller The Murder Tree. So, is this a new standalone novel, or new title for Sisters?

Alan: Sisters was my working title for thriller Number Two. I must have got to around 70,000 words before I made the reluctant decision to change it. There were at least three good reasons to stick with Sisters; one being a unique relationship between twin girls, and another relating to the sister ships of Titanic and Olympic, which govern the source of the story. The third reason would serve as a plot spoiler, so I won’t go there! Ultimately, I felt the central theme to my novel was dominated by the existence of documentary evidence that provoked life-changing events. The tragic fate of Titanic served as the catalyst for all that followed – and while it may be shamefully commercial, inclusion of that word in the title was likely to generate better sales than Sisters!


Lizzie: Your first book The Murder Tree, although set in current times, delves back into the 1800’. With The Titanic Document, it seems you are again relating back to the past?
That’s true. A psychologist would probably read something very deep into that. Maybe I secretly yearn to re-live my teenage years? (shudders) Seriously, I was pleasantly surprised by the success of The Murder Tree, which was my way of adding a contemporary theme to a fascinating historical crime. If I was to write a second story to satisfy those same readers, then again I needed an episode from history with a connection to the present day. I already had a central character of a librarian with a huge catalogue of potential mysteries on the shelves. What might influence his actions? I’ll bet many writers will identify with my answer: current events in the media.

Early in 2016 we were faced with the prospect of a referendum on remaining in the European Union. Then came the controversial cancellation of Operation Midland by the Metropolitan Police. This was an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse and homicide by high-profile figures, including several politicians. Around the same time, I was researching books relating to Titanic as a potential historical event to interest my librarian character. Again, powerful politicians and high-profile figures had been steering events in their favour, and I found several parallels around a hundred years apart. So, Novel Number Two became a political thriller with a historical base.


Lizzie: You say that your experience in the theatre led you to take a serious interest in character development and plot construction, which in turn influenced the scripts you write for the stage. Are both script writing and writing a novel equally absorbing, or is one more challenging than the other?
There are challenges to both disciplines, and I’ve learned that I’m still a learner in each! When I started out in theatre, I soaked up knowledge from my peers like a sponge. I did the same when I applied my attention to the craft of writing a book. Listening to others at my writing groups has been invaluable – and conversely my stage experience came in useful straight away. Here’s a true story for you: around ten years ago I joined a group with three other unpublished writers. One of them had started to write a script for the stage about a punk girl with an obsession for the golfer Seve Ballasteros. It had a lot of promise, some fascinating characters and neat touches of humour. It also had multiple changes of set, actors hitting actual golf balls offstage, and other impractical elements where (for example) there was no allowance of time for an actor to change costume or appearance between connecting scenes. This writer had a great imagination, but no practical theatre experience. After receiving my critique, he quickly reworked his stage script into a screenplay. For me, the challenges of each writing medium are totally different, and yet related. Theatre is all about the visual impact for a live audience, requiring a dynamic that should be easily absorbed for short-term gain. Writing prose for a reader demands something deeper, tending to stimulate imagination while provoking thoughts that affect for a longer period. Yet both demand the writer to paint a picture that holds attention. Both require strong characters, believable dialogue, and the framework of a beginning, middle, and a satisfying end (even if we sometimes break rules along the way)

Lizzie:                     I understand you’re a family man. How do you balance your writing with family commitments? Do they influence your work in any way?
I’m very fortunate. My wife and I are both retired, the same age, and we manage to find ways to pursue our individual interests while taking time to share things we enjoy together, like walking or holidays – and reading. Each of us value our personal space and time within our daily routines, although government restrictions on social life have impacted in recent months. I also have a man-shed that serves me well!

My adult children from an earlier marriage are very supportive about my writing. They even personally contributed to The Titanic Document. Daughter Mollie once had an apartment at Salford Quays, and I used that specific address for a major event in my story. My son Matt was a bartender at the former All Star Lanes in Manchester – another location I adopted, and for this one Matt became a character in the book! They do say “write about what you know”, so I’ve taken that literally, and I should add that the locations used throughout The Titanic Document are all actual places. Having started life in Manchester, then grown up in Lancashire, it seemed good practice to set much of the story in areas familiar to me.


Lizzie: While on the subject of family, after the publication of The Murder Tree you took time out to write about your parents and their experience of emigrating to Australia in 1949. You say that A Kangaroo in My Sideboard is based on the letters your mother wrote during this period.  Was that just letters or did you have other sources to dip into?
Dad was a keen photographer and he’d captured quite a few moments from the year-long adventure, plus they brought back newspapers, magazines, receipts and even menu cards from the ships. But then there were also personal anecdotes, from the aunt my mum had written to, and also from my elder sister. While she was only four-years-old when they returned from Australia, Susan did recall certain images – like a frightening thunderstorm, and the occasion our dad nearly set fire to their rented house! I also found it interesting that one reason our father wanted to go to Australia was an expectation that the climate would benefit his asthma – yet he still smoked. Susan couldn’t remember him ever doing that, but in her first letter sent during the outward voyage, mum observed “Players’ cigarettes – 2/6d for 50!” That might have been for the benefit of her brother, who I remember as a smoker, but I suspect it more likely that our dad had bought some for his personal use. No-one appreciated the dangers then, and yet mum never smoked. For me, while the letters have great personal significance, the real value in publishing them was to serve as a social document for that era. They tell the story of “The Ten Pound Poms” in a world unfamiliar to anyone young enough to touch-type on a smartphone.

 Lizzie: As you were born in Manchester in 1952 your parents clearly returned to the UK within three years?  Did reading a first-hand experience fester any desire to visit there yourself?
Alan: So far as I can recall, I’ve always had a desire to explore my personal connection to Australia, which I
finally achieved last year. I kept a daily journal of our month-long trip and turned it into a blog after returning to a life in lockdown in April 2020. Then I made that into an eBook
(Three Bears and a Jackaroo!) which can be freely downloaded from my website. Following parental footsteps seventy years later was a hugely spiritual experience, and it felt curiously appropriate to find ourselves stranded in Australia after international restrictions forced the cancellation of our return flight. I could personally relate to the anguish faced by my parents, seemingly trapped on the far side of the world with their dreams of a new life in tatters.

Years before the letters came into my hands, mum did tell me something of their adventure. I remember being in my last year at primary school and my teacher presenting me with a boomerang she’d brought back from a holiday – because I’d told her about mum and dad, and how I’d almost been born an Aussie! I was thrilled to bits, but never properly got the hang of throwing that strangely-shaped stick…

 Lizzie: You mention that when young you used to write short pieces to make your friends laugh.  Have you considered comic crime fiction?  I ask as I love it.  L C Tyler is one of my favourite writers.  But I am told it’s not a popular part of the genre. Have you considered it?
Funny you should ask, Lizzie. I consider humour to be an essential part of ALL my writing. Most of us tend to include it in our general conversations, and how bleak our lives would be without a smile? It was while looking to improve my social standing as a teenager (especially with the girls!) that I tried making people laugh. It worked – but my academic success suffered proportionately. Ho-hum. What you gain on the swings…

As for comic crime fiction, I have read and enjoyed a few examples but never felt a desire to go in that direction. BUT I’m willing to try! Thanks for the recommendation of L C Tyler. Not having heard the name before, I just Googled him and was fascinated to see a knowledge panel describing him as 121 years old. Now there’s a mystery that needs investigating?!

Lizzie: Whether you are writing a script or a book, are you a disciplined writer i.e. do you write for a certain number of hours each day, or set yourself a target of x amount of words?

Alan: Ah, there’s the rub, as they say. Totally undisciplined, I’m sorry to admit. Or am I? Well, put it this way: I’m growing more rebellious about discipline as I get older. I hate being tied down to specifics, although I will set myself a deadline. That way I can move the goalposts without getting into trouble. I have come to realise I could never sign a contract with a traditional publisher, as I’m accustomed to retaining control over my own creations. Why, at my present dotage, would I want to be told by some distant, faceless executive when to deliver my manuscript, tailored to suit their conveyor-belt commercial-mindedness, and for the pittance they’re prepared to pay?

Sorry. Rant over – but yes, Lizzie – I’m fiercely independent, and prefer going at my own pace. To me, the key thing about writing is that I need to enjoy it. I’ve heard too many horror stories from fellow writers to give up something I find pleasurable in return for a practice akin to my old JOB (Just Over Broke). I’m sure I’m not alone in that view.

Lizzie: So far, we have talked about writing but you started as an amateur actor in 1973.  Do you do much acting now?  If not, would you like to?
Lizzie, these questions have been amazing! You’ve now covered just about all I’ve tried to highlight on my website. I hope my answers have provided a personal insight more tailored to the newsletter readership? Or have I come across as a drama queen?

Well, I’m still at it. (Acting, that is.) Or I was.

This time last year I was about to embark on a professional tour of the North West in a play by John Godber called Men of the World. There were just three of us, each playing the part of a coach driver while also acting in multiple roles as their passengers. Great fun, but like so many other theatrical ventures at that time, our run was cancelled because of Covid. My company (JAPE Productions) have resorted to using Zoom to record the occasional podcast from material written by Yours Truly and my long-standing friend Peter Franksson. There’s a page on my website describing our activities in the name of The Red Rose Tattoo.

Would I like to do more? Yes, if only because I need the exercise getting up off the settee to stand at a
microphone… (When permitted!)

Lizzie: So, what’s next?
I love that question. It suggests that this wonderful, creative period in my life still has a future. To date I’ve published two thrillers, a memoir and a travelogue, so I’m already fairly diverse. At the moment I’m about to embark on an online course writing for television. It may suit. It may not. On the other hand, as there’s still little prospect of taking theatre scripts on to live performance, I may take the hint from you, Lizzie. Perhaps comic crime fiction is the way to go…

Then again, I’ve still to see how The Titanic Document goes down (no pun intended). If the reception warrants it, I may just have to find another mystery for my librarian character to solve.

Thanks for this, Lizzie. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview.
Thank you Alan for giving us the time to talk about your writing. Good luck with the new book. 

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