Bill Spence Interview
Posted on 11 May 2007. © Copyright 2004-2024 WriteWords
WriteWords talks to novelist Bill Spence, who also writes as Jessica Blair, Hannah Cooper, and other pseduonyms
Tell us something about your background.
I have written: 3 War Novels, 36 Westerns, 1 Romance, 3 non fiction books dealing with aspects of Yorkshire, 1 non fiction book entitled Harpooned – The History of Whaling. This is a highly illustrated work. 16 historical/romantic sagas set chiefly on the Yorkshire coast in the 19th century though they do go to other parts of the country and the world. One encompasses the Second World War. One more will be published in September, another is at the editorial stage (this one covers the years 1938 to 1945) and a third is about to be written.
I started writing under a pseudonym with my second book which was a Western so I chose a name I thought more befitting that genre, Jim Bowden. This was followed by Floyd Rogers and Kirk Ford. I wrote the romance under Hannah Cooper because a female name was more fitting for that type of book.
When I changed genres and wrote the Red Shawl I submitted it under my own name. The publisher, Piatkus, liked it but wanted to change the by line to Jessica Blair to which I agreed. I suppose this was because of the nature of the novel – historical romantic saga and also because of marketing.
Harpooned, my war novels and other non-fiction books were written under my own names; three of the non-fiction books in collaboration with my wife Joan.
For about four or five years I did tutoring for a correspondence Writing School. This was quite interesting in that it covered a wide spectrum of work – articles, short stories, books, non fiction and fiction. It enabled me to see how other people, with the desire to write and be published, tackled the work. It was satisfying when a pupil achieved success but the majority fell by the wayside because they did not have the will or true desire to commit themself to the hard work writing entails.
Before turning to novels I wrote articles for local papers and regional magazines and some national magazines. My first piece was published in 1950 in a local weekly paper. This got me into writing and the way material should be presented and gave me a good grounding in the use of words in a particular way for the specific market at which the material was aimed.
I have run a book review column in a local weekly paper for over thirty years. This has widened my reading and made me look closely at the publishing world. It has also let me see how other writers use words and express themselves. It is essential for a writer to read.
The desire to write and a love of books must have sub-consciously come to me when a boy through my parents always having books and magazines in the house and encouraging me to read.
My first efforts were three short stories that I wrote in 1946 while still in the RAF on a voyage to Durban, South Africa, on the way to a posting in what was then Southern Rhodesia. I was bitten by the bug. On demob back in England I tried articles and short stories with some success, but all the time there was the desire to write books. I decided to write a novel with the background of my experiences as a Bomb Aimer in Lancasters of Bomber Command. I did this for my own satisfaction. I was ‘green’; did not know what to do with it; did not know any other writer from whom I could get advice. In our evening paper I saw (my first stroke of luck) a short note saying that a paperback publisher was running a competition for war novels. I sent mine in. While it did not win, the publisher said they would like to publish it. What a thrill! It appeared in 1956. I had enjoyed the longer form of writing so wondered where I went next. I knew a lot about the history of the West and had read a lot of Westerns so I tried one. Where do I send it? I wrote down the names of six publishers out of the Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book. It kept coming back with the usual rejection slip – we don’t publish Westerns. Then it went to Mills and Boon; don’t smile – I was ‘green’. The usual typed rejection letter came signed by Alan Boon but that dear man had penned two more words ‘Try Hale’ (My second stroke of luck). I will be forever grateful to Mr Boon for in effect it launched my writing career. I sent the book to Hale who liked it, published it and said go on writing them for us. The rest is history with the Western leading me into writing other books.
Who are your favourite writers and why?
I was brought up on John Buchan, and as a boy, devoured all his novels. They probably inflamed my desire to write. I suppose we have all been influenced by the ‘literary’ writers, of these I would say Jane Austen was prominent in my reading.
Of modern writers I enjoy Susan Hill, particularly her Woman in Black and Mist in the Mirror. Barbara Erskine, P.D.James, Mary Higgins Clark.
I like their way with words and their story-telling capabilities.
How did you get your first agent/ commission?
I have had two agents. The first by recommendation – he has since died.
The second through a phone call after a policy change by a publishing company after my accepted non-fiction book had been taken off their schedule. He got me better compensation and sold the book elsewhere. I am now without an agent and deal direct with my publisher myself.
What's the worst thing about writing?
For me the worst thing about writing is finishing the book and having to leave the characters I have become close to and know so well, but there are new people to meet in the book ahead.
And the best?
The best thing about writing is seeing the book in hardback. But also after the story has gelled seeing the first word on paper – a great adventure lies ahead to produce an acceptable work.
Tell us what kind of responses you get from audiences\ readers.
People always seem to be interested in meeting a writer and if they have read my books it makes the meeting even more interesting. I find their comments valuable especially on the book they have enjoyed most. Email has made contact more widespread (I get them from all over the world) and I value the comments that come this way.
What was your breakthrough moment?
My breakthrough moment was when my first book was accepted for it showed my work was publishable and therefore spurred me on to do more. Then of course there were other breakthroughs when I shifted genres.
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