St Andrews writer Robert J Harris talks about two of his current book series at NessBookFest on Friday
WHEN writer Robert J Harris – better-known as Bob – tells you he is still doing for a living the same things he enjoyed as a youngster, he has a point.
Creating games including a Dundee version of Monopoly when he was eight – and long before the real world thought of customising the game – developed in adult life into creating the global success that is board game Talisman.
And the stories he wrote as a child, including hand-drawn comics that would be passed around the class, have become a writing career that has blossomed from a start co-writing novels for young adults and children, to his own books exploring the early years of legends such as Leonardo, Shakespeare and now Sherlock Holmes writer Arthur – ‘Artie’ in Bob’s books.
"I liked reading and writing and I don’t know what it is like not to have stories and characters in your head because I have always been like that," said Bob.
"I read a lot as a child. I remember going to the library and getting Tarzan Of The Apes out and a book about Robin Hood. I would read before breakfast – get up early so I could read before going to school.
"Then at school I was making comics and stories, even a few games in primary school. I had a magazine and made full of funny stories and characters I invented.
"But I’d make them one at a time because it was hand-made, so it would get passed round the class and we would have votes now and then on the favourite characters."
He did Latin as a degree, one of the few people to write Latin poetry as one of the papers in his finals.
So why Latin?
"I hadn’t meant to take Latin
"Much of my life has been just doing what women tell me!It is a theme that recurs," Bob laughed, before revealing that his registration teacher had suggested he should be taking Latin not German when the option came up at school.
"I was at Morgan Academy and this other chap and I were always the first or second in our class. At the end of the year because we had all done French that year, if you were doing OK at that you were given the option of doing another language. You got to choose between German and Latin. Like everybody else, I wrote German. Because that was practical that made sense to me. But my teacher said ‘Robert, why are you taking German? I thought you would be taking Latin?’ And I said ‘Why take Latin?’ and she said ‘Well you are top of the class, I thought someone like you would be bound to be taking Latin!’ and I said ‘OK I’ll take Latin!’.
"So it was basically not my decision at all, I was pushed into it. So that settled my fate for many years to come. I
" was really rubbish at it to begin with.
"Last year I was at the prize-giving at Morgan Academy and one of the stories I told to encourage people was you can start doing something and find you are rubbish at it butthere comes a point maybe when it clicks.
"We got an unseen translation – when you turn Latin into English – and it was about the assassination of Nero.
"I had just seen the film of Quo Vadis on TV in which Nero is assassinated. So actually, I knew what was happening in the piece because of that! And I got a really good mark because I could guess what a lot of the words were, and after that Latin really clicked with me and I became good at it.
"I ended up doing it at university and I try and sneak as much Latin as I can into the things that I write.
"If you can make yourself do something really difficult, everything else comes easy. I came back to St Andrews after my degree as a PhD student and then everything happened.
"I met my wife and designed my board game Talisman while I was failing to complete my PhD!
"I made a lot of new friends and it was really the fact I was able to come back to university – having not found anything else to do with my time at that point.
"My future life kind of formed in those days as a graduate student."
Scarlet Phantom, the third book in his Artie series, is out in a couple of weeks.
And in June the paperback version of Castle Macnab came out.
"The 39 Steps was one of the required books at school and that was all I knew about Buchan.
"That was all I knew of John Buchan's book at that point and then many years later some years back my wife bought me a copy of Greenmantle, another Richard Hannay novel.
"These thrillers all weaved together and this world where there are three main streams of stories which all overlap with the charactersespecially Archie Roylance who is in all of them – and the fact that the characters all know each other, even if they don’t all have adventures together, they are allconnected.
"I read the last book Buchan wrote before he died, Sick Heart River which he wrote when he was in Canada as the governor general and it came out after he died. And in that, Edward Leithen, one of the main characters in his book, is facing his own death.
"There is a point where Buchan has just mentioned that war has now broken out while Leithen is in Canada searching for someone lost in the wilderness and he learns about war breaking out and he reflects then that back home people like Richard Hannay and Archieand others will be going back in action again, even though they will be about 60 by now.
"I remember thinking then ‘If he had lived, I bet he would have written that story' because he wrote about his adventures in the First World War when it was still going on. and immediately after.
"I thought ‘Well he has actually mentioned the Second World War, and if he had lived a few more years, we probably would have had a Richard Hannay adventure in the Second World War.
"I thought ‘It is kind of a shame that he didn’t write that, I’m sure he would have done’. And then I thought ‘It’s surprising nobody has, 80 years on’, to write that continuation that I think Buchan himself would have wanted to do.
"Then I started to think ‘Maybe I could do that’.
The Thirty-One Kings followed.
Castle Macnab, his second sequel for adults to the famous Scottish writer John Buchan’s Richard Hannay adventures, – came out first in November. And he already has plans for a third.
But there will be a wait, he warns, with the next one not likely to appear until September 2021. That is because Bob is branching out again into the world of adult fiction. This time, he is taking the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson into the era of the beloved later Sherlock films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce – the 1940s and wartime Britain – to solve a new mystery.
“I’m writing it just now and really enjoying it,” Bob said.
The book is scheduled to come out next September after he had the idea for it, developed and wrote it.
Bob had remembered sitting with his family – his American wife Debby, also a writer, and their three children, enjoying watching the series of black and white Basil Rathbone Sherlock films on TV.
There have been many follow-ups and different Sherlock adventures written over the years.
“But I realised ‘No-one has written a novel set in wartime London when those films are set’. And I thought ‘It would give you a new perspective and leeway to do interesting things with the characters’. So I pitched it to the publisher and now I’m enjoying the excitement of getting to write a Sherlock Holmes novel! I want to write a first-class mystery – I’ve got two locked room mysteries within it.”
Bob is also including some of the real life details about the actors’ lives in the book too.
Bob Harris will appear twice at NessBookFest this weekend – talking about Castle Macnab at an event for adults at Waterstones Inverness and earlier he will talk to P4-7 pupils at Inverness Library about the Artie Conan Doyle adventures.
The first of his Artie Conan Doyle Mysteries came out in 2017, and later that year, his first Richard Hannay adventure, The Thirty-One Kings was first published. Bob had only planned on doing that one sequel.
“I wrote it and was really pleased with how it came out. I felt when it was finished that it did all the things I wanted it to do – it had the Buchan feel, it was an exciting story, even people who didn’t know John Buchan would be gripped by the story and might be encouraged to go and read the original Buchan books. But it was never in my mind to write any more than that. I thought that this book would be my Buchan tribute!”
But the Scottish journalist Allan Massie said in his Scotsman review of the book that as it was set in 1940 there was potential to do more follow-up wartime adventures.
“I started to ponder that,” Bob said.
But it took him a while to come up with a plotline that he thought was good enough to continue the sequels.
Castle Macnab only began to take shape, the writer said, when he pictured the dishevelled figure of a roughed-up Richard Hannay coming to the door of a Highland retreat, finding his three adventuring friends there and gasping: “I need your help in what may be the most desperate endeavour of our lives.”
It’s a clever way to get readers hooked into the adventure that follows, but after all writing is an art Bob has been perfecting since his schoolboy days.
He laughed: “It’s the same stuff I was doing as a kid.
“I’ve done all sorts of things to keep body and soul alive.
“But I was writing stories at school and now I’m doing the same thing as an adult... which is much better than growing up and getting a proper job!”
Catch Bob at NessBookFest in Inverness Library on Friday, 10.30am (for P4-P7 pupils); and Waterstones Inverness on Friday at 2pm: Robert J Harris and Castle Macnab.