Gerald Seymour was a reporter at ITN for fifteen years and covered events in Vietnam, Borneo, Aden, the Munich Olympics, Israel and Northern Ireland. He has been a full-time writer since 1978.
Gerald’s first novel was the acclaimed thriller Harry's Game, set in Belfast, and since then six of his thrillers have been filmed for television in the UK and US. The Dealer and the Dead is Seymour's latest novel and is based in a small Croatian war where he explores how surviving a war can be harder than dying during it. The scars and bitterness of the survivors is entwined with the world of arms dealing, hitmen and the UK judicial service to culminate in a way that changes people’s lives and perspectives forever.
I caught up with Gerald recently to talk about him, The Dealer and the Dead and his motivation for characters and writing.
To start, tell me about Gerald Seymour.
I'm getting used to being called a veteran! I was born in the dark days of WW2 in Surrey. Both my parents were professional writers: my mother a prolific novelist and my father was a poet and essayist and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. I went to Kelly College, Tavistock as a boarder, then to University College London for a degree in Modern History, then joined ITN as a trainee reporter. With ITN I filled three passports in fifteen years but also had the itch to follow my father and mother and write. My first novel was Harry's Game, set in Northern Ireland, published in 1975 and I've been a full time writer for the last 32 years. With my wife, Gillian, I live in the Thames Valley. We have two sons, two labradors and a large and independent cat ...!
I hope to carry on writing for many years to come, and as long as there are some dark corners that need light shone on them.
You have written a lot of books over the years and remain one of the more prolific writers with a book a year. Do you ever find it hard to produce a new story?
It certainly does not get easier! But would it not be boring if it did? Yes, I feel the cliff I am trying to climb gets steeper and the the rock I am trying to carry up gets heavier. I do not - thank Heavens - have a formula for telling stories and try to think that each novel is fresh and a new story, and that nothing I have done before counts for anything. I look to stretch myself every time I start typing ... and it's important for a writer not to take himself/herself too seriously, and to enjoy it. Yes, it's hard work, but something I'd hate to be without.
Who do you read yourself and what were the last two books you read?
I usually read non fiction, both for relaxation and to learn about a subject I'm targeting. Sorry, but I'm not usually comfortable with other writers' thrillers: modern contemporary lives and recent history are my favourites. I've just read 'Harold Larwood' by Duncan Hamilton, and thought it brilliant, and really enjoyed Andrew Meier's 'Black Earth - Russia After the Fall'
Your research of the subject matter is clearly very thorough – or are you using knowledge gained whilst working as a correspondent?
I learned a great deal from my ITN work as a 'fire brigade' reporter. The most important legacy left with me was the feeling that I could kick down a door and get access to an individual or a place that I needed to know about. A TV reporter has to be where the story is and not marooned back in the rear on a hotel roof ... I try to go where I am setting a story and I try to meet people who can brief me on the experiences and anecdotes of their work.
Having a strong sense of place helps me when I'm writing ... I suppose that, above all, I amtrying to ferry the reader to the locations of my stories, and hope that he will share my excitement and feel the tensions and dilemmas.
Well you certainly manage that. How do you choose the subject matter of a book and does it write itself from there or do you need to then choose specific characters?
I've never learned how the stories form themselves in my mind. They materialise, pop up when least expected, and then lodge like a leech, and won't be shifted. I reckon that a moral issue appears first, then a place, and finally the characters appear on the scene. They are hugely important and I learn more about them each month of the year that it takes to write a story, and when they leave my office than there is an awful emptiness.
Before we talk about The Dealer and the Dead specifically, are your characters and their traits based on people you have met during the years and without mentioning any names, can you give me an example?
No, my characters are only very rarely people that I have met - they are more likely to be combinations of those I have come across on my travels. I am a novelist, not a non-fiction commentator, and I enjoy building characters from my imagination.
That reminds me of that fact that there was, apparently, a mercenary in Bosnia who would tell anyone who bought him a drink that a character in The Heart of Danger was based on him. I only heard this after he'd been killed and - sadly - I had never met or heard of him.
Tell me how The Dealer and the Dead came about?
The trigger for writing Dealer was when I read of the jailing of an arms dealer in London and I realised that I knew next to nothing of that trade. It's usual for me to want to go on a 'journey of discovery', and search out an area I'm in ignorance of. I thought it would offer me a terrific and interesting story line.
You were right it did make an excellent story line and moral tone, although there was no preaching. I also felt at times that I was almost reading a series of true life events because this situation could have happened. Are any of the facts based on what you have seen in your life or is it a translation of what could have occurred when looking at the end result?
I would hope that any story of mine is pretty close to real life - maybe an unpleasant aspect of society but one that is there is you drag the curtain aside. Most of the story is based on what I have learned from where I've been and the people who are kind enough to brief me.
As I said above, whilst there is a moral tone, there is no ‘answer’. For example, Harvey Gillott is the ‘villain’ or is he? Where did he come from?
He comes out of my imagination, and also is a composite of what people tell me about the arms trade.
He (Harvey) is not portrayed as being either a sympathetic or non sympathetic character within the way he is written, until the end and the final walk. During that your perception of him has to change and I am unsure whether or not I wanted him to live. Did you intend people to feel a certain way about him or do you prefer to make people think?
I felt it would be challenging to create a central character who is no more 'sympathetic' or 'unsympathetic' than the man next door. It is easy in our world to underestimate the intelligence of readers and I prefer to let them make up their own minds as to whether they would want to share a table in the local pub with Harvey Gillot: if, by the end, of the story the reader is still interested in Gillot's fate then I think I have done well.
But, I am not writing scripts for a Bond film and don't have to deal only in blacks and whites. (He smiles).
No – that is a very good point and brings me onto the point that in the majority of books, there is the good side, the bad side and some shade of grey in the middle, but essentially each character is defined (even if they switch sides) in this way. In the same way that Harvey is not the archetypical ‘villain’, there is no ‘hero’ representative – unless you count Mark Roscoe. Was this deliberate?
Following on from above, I don't do 'heroes' and 'villains'. It’s about the people and letting the reader make their own view.
There's an old Hollywood saying: If You've got a Message then send it Western Union.
There are a number of differing threads and characters in the book, who all come together at the end. How hard is it to hold all the separate subplots and personalities in your mind?
I enjoy hugely the company of my characters, and I hope that each of them play an integral part in the story: there are no 'second class' citizens in a Seymour novel. Weaving a story together so that even the lesser participants have a role to play at the end is like making sense of a jig-saw puzzle and huge fun.
You have obviously been to Croatia and must have seen some of what you described, even if not quite first hand, as well as how people continued with their lives in later years. What was it that made you use this as a base for the book?
Of course, it would not have been possible to write this story without having gone to Croatia, and - in particular - to Vukovar. I was made very welcome there and found many people who would sit down and talk to me with great frankness about the events when their town was overwhelmed in 1991 after a three month siege, and the lasting effects and scars of the defeat and its awful legacy. I tramped through the countryside and learned at first hand the locations of the tracks through the corn fields that were the life line for the town and the villages that were under attack.
It is a moving and emotional journey and not one easily forgotten, and I found a place well worth writing about, and people who told fascinating stories. I felt they deserved to be heard.
You still do a lot of travelling – have you gone back to Croatia recently?
I have not been back since I researched 'Dealer'. I write a story and then move on and look for new horizons.
Please tell me how you managed research on ‘spooks’ and also on the intricacies of hiring a hitman from a remote village in Croatia to London – I am very intrigued!
I am lucky enough to have people who talk to me on the strict understanding that it is non-attributable and off-the-record. I stick with it, and it is important. Sorry, no comment.
Quite a few of your books have appeared on screen, would you like to see more or would you consider writing a screen play?
I've done that and been there! Now, I don't regard the screen version of a book as being that important. If a film is made then it is a bonus but the original book is always of primary importance to me ... But, I am hugely proud of the ITV portrayal of Harry's Game.
Do you like to watch thriller type programs and films or do you have another preference?
I'm less likely to watch a screen thriller than to settle down in my arm chair and watch a top quality documentary: I'm afraid that information for me comes ahead of entertainment.
I was very pleased to have taken part in the Oscar winning documentary One Day in September (telling the story of the fiasco of the Munich Olympics and the failure to save the Israeli athletes held hostage by Palestinian gunmen).
So what’s next for you?
Maybe a couple of days off, and maybe a long walk with our labradors, and maybe a stiff gin.
Excellent! Thank you for your time Gerald.
SOMETIMES, surviving a war can almost seem worse than dying in it.
In a Croatian village near Vukovar, no one who survived will ever forget the night they waited for the weapons they needed to make a last-ditch fight against the advancing Serbs.
The promised delivery never came, and the village was overrun.
Eighteen years later, a body is unearthed from a field, and with it the identity of the arms dealer who betrayed them.
Now the villagers can plot their revenge.
In leafy England, arms dealer Harvey Gillott regards himself as a man of his word. There is only one blemish on his record, and that was long ago.
But Gillott, his family, his friends and his enemies are about to be pitched into a sequence of events that will unfold across Europe with breath-taking drama and almost biblical power.
Harvey Gillott is about to find out what happens when the hand of the past suddenly reaches out to the present - and it's holding a gun.
Published 08/07/2010 Publisher Hodder & Stoughton Ltd Hbk RRP £16.99