Director, producer, and screenwriter Jeff Dowson, has added novelist to his string of titles recently and has launched his second series of books set in Bristol. His first is based around Detective Jack Shepherd and is set in the current time.
One Fight at a Time (2018) is the beginning of Dowson’s new series, set in the 1950s and starring Ed Grover. It was a time when Bristol was a broken city and was going broke. Well, Bristol is going broke now too so the latest book feels particularly apt but why start a new series?
“I decided a change of style was needed for One Fight At A Time. I wanted to write in the third person — Jack Shepherd belongs to a first-person tradition where the reader learns no more than the lead character discovers — and I wanted to sprawl a bit. Use a different writing style altogether.
“I looked around for an historical setting that would give me lots of scope. Ed is an American, in England with the Eagle Squadron long before the US enters the war, who transfers to the infantry before D Day. He battles his way across Europe from Omaha Beach to help win the war, spends another four years in West Berlin trying to win the peace, before being sent home. Just before his repatriation, Ed ends up in Bristol visiting a family he knows, and from there the front story begins.
“I grew up in the 1950s,” Dowson says. “As a kid, I didn’t realise just how bad times were – I was protected from that by my parents who struggled physically and psychologically to get through the years following World War II. It’s only during the last 10 or 15 years that I’ve looked back at that time.
“The early 1950s is a rich vein to mine – the recovery from a world war, rationing, the black market, extortion, corruption, capital punishment, the terrors of being homosexual, racism faced by the actual ‘Windrush Generation’, soldiers coming home from leave with Lugers taken from dead Germans, the infamous underworld of 1950s club land, the growth of organised crime… the material just keeps on giving.
“Bristol influences my writing to a huge extent. I was born in Blaydon on Tyne, lived in the Northeast until I went university, then moved to Bristol at the close of the 1970s. I’ve lived here ever since. Like Jack Shepherd I know the place. I want the city to be another character in the stories – like Edinburgh is to Rebus, Northumberland is to Vera, Shetland is to Jimmy Perez, LA is to Jim Rockford. I hope I’m doing that successfully.”
Dowson comes to the Bristol-novel scene with a wealth of experience and I ask him about the difference between screenplays and writing fiction in story form.
“Actually the skillsets merge much more than they used to, thanks to the advent of studio theatres and live multi-tasking technology. But the basic difference is still there. For the theatre you write in words and sentences. For the screen you write in pictures and moments. And you have at your disposal BIG close ups, in which you can see your characters thinking. Just take a look at Douglas Henshall playing Jimmy Perez and watch him thinking… Terrific.
When I started to write Closing the Distance, it was the first lonely thing I had done. Plays and films are collaborative efforts – sometimes involving hundreds of people. What was liberating with the book was discovering the joy of writing sentences again. But there I was, channelling Elmore Leonard, until my agent said, ‘Why is Jack Shepherd doing that?’
‘It’s obvious,’ I said.
‘No, it isn’t,’ she said.
I realised I was making transitions between sequences, visualising them in my head, but not getting them down onto the page. That problem took some serious work to solve.
I’m over it now. The stuff is still lean and fast paced, but it’s much improved.”
Seeing as he is going on to write his fourth book in the Jack Shepherd series and the second in his Ed Grover one, I had to ask for his advice to writers.
“Advice for other authors, oh God… Just write. Whatever else you do. However crappy it reads on the page. Write every day, however good or bad you feel about yourself, or the material… And in time you’ll find something you want to say and the way to say it.”
I ask him if he imagines his stories as screenplays and it’s more out of curiosity about the difference between the two mediums. I imagine that sticking to ‘showing’ what is happening rather than ‘telling’ must be great practice in writing.
“No, I don’t imagine my stories as screenplays; although there is a great deal of the screenwriter in me always. And I think it helps, because as a screenwriter, you have to get to the point. You can’t meander off into side roads or unnecessary thinking. Again, if I can call upon Elmore Leonard… I try not to write the stuff that the reader skips over.
I haven’t the patience or the concentration level to read long books. So I don’t write them. I believe that if you can’t say what you have to say in a riveting story over 350 pages you shouldn’t be in the trade. Books, all books, should be page turners. But no writer should give any reader too many pages to turn.”
Bristol again feels like it’s going broke and due to the cuts foisted on the council by the Conservative Government, crime writing and thrillers feel like ever-more prominent echoes of reality. While looking through his website I spot a particularly great quotation from famed Screenwriter Cannell and it easily applies to our city too.
“One of my heroes, Stephen J Cannell, said about writing crime stories… ‘All the way through, keep asking yourself – what is the bad guy doing?’”
One Fight at a Time is out now.