Edwin Thomas is a father and school governor, but he tells Julian Cole how under his alter-ego he has just helped pen Wilbur Smith’s latest novel.
Authors like it when you’ve read their books, so I apologise to Tom Harper for having only half-read The Tiger’s Prey. “That’s all right,” he quips. “I only half-wrote it.” The remark is typical of Tom, who is clever and serious and wryly amusing, too. You wouldn’t guess from meeting this tall, sandy-haired man of 40 – a father of two and a school governor – that he spends his days dreaming up acts of derring-do in novels with sex and violence woven into the tapestry.
Tom is really called Edwin Thomas. His first novels were Napoleonic seafaring adventures published under his own name, before he adopted his alter-ego, having been told Tom Harper would be easier to find on a bookshelf. And now Tom’s name is sharing a cover with Wilbur Smith, the veteran South African thriller writer.
Two years or so ago, Tom was enduring his Monday night thrashing on the squash court.
“It was one of these rare life-changing moments, a real bolt from the blue,” he says. Not the regular sweat of defeat, but what happened afterwards. “I came off the court and there was a text from my wife, Emma, saying: ‘Call your agent right away’.”
Tom was intrigued. He wondered idly about a film deal, as writers do. He rang and his agent said Wilbur Smith was looking for someone to co-write his next novel.
The veteran novelist is 84 and still writes under his own name, but sometimes collaborates. Tom will write four Wilbur Smith novels, with three already completed.
The Tiger’s Prey has Wilbur Smith splashed on the front in large letters.
“Your name is in much smaller type,” I say.
“Yeah, but that’s the deal,” says Tom. “Ultimately more people will read it.”
Wilbur Smith is an institution and a publishing powerhouse. “Apparently, he’s sold enough books to film Wembley Stadium twice over, volumetrically,” says Tom.
The York author is no slouch himself. Having published his first novel at 24, he has amassed an impressive array of crime and historical novels in the years since. When Wilbur called, Tom had just finished Black River, a contemporary thriller. He was wondering about the next book and fancied a dip into history again. Then that phone call made up his mind.
Wilbur is probably most famous for his Courtney series, which begins with the novel that made his name, When the Lion Feeds. “It’s about this family in South Africa called the Courtneys. It starts in about 1870 with the Zulu War and then the Boer War, then into the 20th century,” says Tom.
Years later, Wilbur started a prequel trilogy set in the late 18th and early 19th century – Birds of Prey, Monsoon and Blue Horizon. Tom’s initial brief was to fill in the gap between the first two books, using Wilbur’s characters.
Two main characters, Francis and Christopher Courtney, were babies in Monsoon, so Tom has created them almost from scratch, putting his own skin on them.
“Wilbur said don’t worry about what you are going to write. Here’s a time, a place and a setting. Write something there.”
Is this a liberating or constraining way to write a book? “It’s kind of a classic thing where it can be quite liberating,” says Tom. He likes the problem-solving element and has felt freed from the usual writerly worries.
“I’m not thinking where’s the audience for this book; will the publisher like it; will I be able to Facebook it and tweet it, or any of that. Literally all I am thinking about is writing and telling a really exciting story.”
And he enjoyed Wilbur’s colourful cast. “They’re great characters,” he says. “Swashbuckling, adventuring – the kind of guy you dream of being when you are 15 years old.”
The Tiger’s Prey is certainly a rattling read, with piratical adventures in the Indian Ocean, shipwrecks, battles and gory trials of endurance, alongside love, death and betrayal. There is a fair bit of violence and a salty smattering of sex.
Scenes unlikely to leave the reader’s mind centre horribly on the insertion of a long and sharp stick where no man wants a long and sharp stick inserting.
Tom is far from being a violent man, although those Monday night squash defeats probably raise his anger, but he points out that the violence is always justified in historical terms.
“There are horrible things people have done to each other in history,” he says. “I don’t particularly want to unleash my imagination in thinking up horrible things to do to people, but I am happy to read about it in a historical situation and interpret it in my fiction.”
As for the sex, Tom always shows his books to his wife, an academic at the University of York. How does she react to the sex? Tom shifts in his chair and says she’s fine about it. “A few raised eyebrows,” he adds. “But again, in Wilbur’s books there are fairly graphic sex scenes and it’s about trying to stay close to his style.”
He does express a passing worry about his eldest son. “He’s getting to the age when he’ll be able to read my books,” says Tom. “I’m going to have to rip out a few pages.”
The Tiger’s Prey is also crusted with sea salt. Having written that earlier naval series, Tom knew where to go for research – up into the attic. “I’ve got a box of books I used to research those books, so I dusted them off and brought them down. It was really nice getting reacquainted with that,” he says.
Growing up, he was inspired by the naval adventure stories of Alexander Kent. “A bit Hornblower-ish and I loved them and read all of them,” says Tom.
When he started work on The Tiger’s Prey, Tom had to write an outline first. “The agent tossed in that Wilbur thinks India might be interesting. And why not? India might be interesting.”
After Wilbur had read Tom’s detailed synopsis, the writers met. Wilbur wanted a few changes, but he was encouraging and respectful.
“He said: ‘You’ve got to write the book you want to write and I’ll do what I want to do with it’,” says Tom. He points out that the arch collaborator James Patterson is said to be less kind to the hired-in help, saying: “It’s much more of a master/servant relationship, from what I’ve read.”
The finished novel went back to Wilbur, who made changes on almost every page, but the book Tom had written was still there at the end.
Working like this has given Tom great respect for Wilbur. “So much happens and scenes that would be the great climactic sequence in any other book just get whizzed through,” says Tom.
“He gets through so much material and so many places and so many battles really quickly. But at the same time, you’re there and you’re with him, so you don’t feel you are being cheated. They are epic stories that cover a huge amount of ground quickly.”
Tom has learned a lot, not least the art of telling a good story. He has one more Wilbur Smith book to write, but before that wants to write as Tom Harper. “Hopefully a few more people will have heard of Tom Harper,” he says.
The Tiger’s Prey is published by HarperCollins and Tom Harper will launch the book at Waterstones in York on Wednesday.