Jessica Blair has written 26 historical romances. She “grew up in Middlesbrough, trained as a teacher and now lives in Ampleforth. She became a full-time writer in 1977 and has written 70 books under various pseudonyms.” That’s what the blurb on her latest book says, and it’s all true – except that ‘she’ is a 96 year-old former RAF bomb aimer called Bill Spence.
I recently visited him and spent a pleasant hour chatting about his books, his war-time career, his interest in whaling, his affection for North Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, where he was stationed during the war, and his love of cricket.
So how did a former flight lieutenant of 44 Squadron Bomber Command become a successful romantic novelist? It all began after the war, when the RAF sent him to Rhodesia and, travelling by sea to Durban, he wrote his first short story. That was when he caught the writing bug; on his return to England he started to write articles for newspapers and magazines. But his remembrances of the war kept getting in the way. To get that out of his system, he made use of his own experiences – a bomb aimer in the nose of a Lancaster – in his first novel, Dark Hell (1959).
Modest and unassuming, Bill did not say much about his time in Bomber Command, telling me only that he took part in 36 operational flights. It goes without saying that those were highly dangerous operations as Lancaster aircrew had a casualty rate of almost 50 per cent (55,573 men killed out of a total of 125,000).
A keen devotee of the cowboy films he watched in his youth, his next aim was to become a writer of westerns. His first western, The Return of the Sheriff, was rejected by six publishers, but one of these pointed him in the direction of Robert Hale, who took it on. It was the first of many: between 1960 and 1993 he wrote no fewer than 36 westerns, mostly under the pseudonym of Jim Bowden.
The first Jessica Blair novel was published in 1993, but its origins went back almost 30 years to his love of local history and the Yorkshire coast. A frequent visitor to Whitby, Bill became fascinated with its heritage as a whaling port in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
In 1980 he put the results of all this research into his first non-fiction book, Harpooned: Story of Whaling. Having accumulated an enormous amount of material about Whitby’s whaling history, he decided to use this as background for a historical novel. That was the decisive turning point that marked a step change in his writing career. His publisher, Piatkus, liked The Red Shawl and its female lead character, but believed that as a romantic saga it had to be published as the work of a woman rather than a 70-year-old man. Thus Jessica Blair was born.
The Red Shawl is a book about Whitby, whaling and the havoc wreaked by a woman who is driven by ruthless ambition. Bill wove a fictional story around thoroughly-researched historical fact. It’s a method he continued to use in subsequent Jessica Blair novels that took him far beyond the whaling industry. He is a firm believer in meticulous research. “If you got anything wrong, your readers would soon pull you up,” he says.
Most of the novels are set around the North Yorkshire coast, with its towering cliffs, sandy beaches, bays, coves, villages and the towns of Whitby and Scarborough. We meet herring fishers and jet carvers in Whitby, alum workers at Ravenscar and smugglers in Robin Hood’s Bay.
But Jessica Blair has ventured far beyond Yorkshire. Some of the novels have a Second World War background, while others touch on historical events such as the Highland Clearances, emigrant voyages to Nova Scotia and scenes from Revolutionary France.
For more than 50 years Bill has written book reviews for a local newspaper and he has a decent-sized library. His family have all loved reading, and they liked to read and comment on each Jessica Blair book before he sent it off to his publisher. His wife Joan (with whom Bill wrote three non-fiction books about the monasteries and other features of North Yorkshire) would give him constructive criticism, with comments like “Oh, she’d never act like that! A woman wouldn’t think like that or do that. What she’d do is …” His wife’s comments gave him an insight into the female mind. Joan died in 1999, and now it is Bill’s twin daughters who read his stories prior to publication and help him to ensure that his female characters are believable.
His latest Jessica Blair novel, Tread Softly, Alice, came out in 2016. Set in the late nineteenth century against a backdrop of North Yorkshire, Scotland and the Boer War in South Africa, it’s the story of a woman who is in love with two brothers, both serving army officers. When she leaves England to marry one of them, her life is turned upside down.
Bill is one of half a dozen male members of the 700-strong Romantic Novelists’ Association. Whenever he can he attends meetings of the Association’s Northern Branch whose members get together near Harrogate once a month to chat and share ideas over a meal. In 2014 he was nominated for the Association’s prestigious Epic Romantic Novel of the Year award.
For the past year or so Bill’s writing routine has been disrupted by medical problems and hospital visits. But he does not intend to stop writing. Far from it. He has just bought himself a new laptop and already ideas for the next Jessica Blair novel are swimming around in his head.