Ex-US Army helicopter pilot and adopted Yorkshire Dalesman Steven L Wright releases first novel

Ex-Army pilot and adopted Dalesman Steven L Wright met his wife in a Chicago jazz bar. Little did he know that would be in the opening chapter of his first novel. John Blow reports.

Ex-US Army pilot,Steven L Wright with his wife Suzanne at their home in the Yorkshire Dales.
Ex-US Army pilot,Steven L Wright with his wife Suzanne at their home in the Yorkshire Dales.

Steven L Wright leaned against the bar of a Chicago jazz club on a cold night in the run up to Christmas when a young woman approached and spoke to him in a British accent.

She asked if he would sit at her table and keep her company, lest any undesirables disturb her wait for a song she had requested, My Funny Valentine in the style of Chet Baker.

An ex-US Army pilot, Mr Wright was happy to be of service.

Steven Wright during his days as a US Army pilot.

Little did he know that the woman was a detective on a murder squad. Or that he would go on to marry her, moving into a life of quiet contentment in the Yorkshire Dales, where she had spent her childhood holidays.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that these events sowed the seeds for Grey, Red, Blue...Gone, Mr Wright’s debut novel, penned from the Wensleydale hamlet where he now lives in his mid-60s and published in the summer.

“When I grew up I used to watch the original All Creatures Great and Small in the 70s and 80s when I was in university as an undergrad and I always liked that, I absolutely loved it,” he says. “And then lo and behold, when we found this house I couldn’t believe that we were literally a mile and a half from where they filmed the original series.”

He has to pinch himself, such is the departure from his upbringing in Cincinnati, Ohio, not far from the Appalachian Mountains in America’s Midwest that he now drinks in The King’s Arms in Askrigg, which doubled for James Herriot’s local The Drovers Arms.

Wright with a copy of Grey, Red, Blue...Gone. Picture: James Hardisty.

Wright had received a scholarship to study history at the University of Cincinnati, paid for by the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in exchange for five years of service – which he carried out from 1980 to 1985 – thankfully, for him, between the Vietnam conflict and first Gulf War.

He had performed well enough to get a Regular Army commission and initially he was an armour officer but after passing his flight test was sent to Fort Rucker, Alabama.

After leaving the forces he found a job as an archivist at a historical society in Cincinnati, after which followed similar positions around the US, including one in Seattle.

His previous marriage had come to an end and Mr Wright was in Chicago on business when he met his future wife, Suzanne, in the jazz bar Jilly’s. Later, after a rendezvous in New York City, Wright took the huge decision to settle in the UK almost 14 years ago.

“It’s been fabulous,” he says. “I have no regrets, no concerns, anything like that. She was a detective with the Metropolitan Police down in London, and she was on a child murder team, and she ended up serving 27 years and she’d had enough with so many budget cuts that David Cameron had inculcated in the force. Resources were stripped so thin and she just decided that she would quit early as a lot of her colleagues were doing.”

He adds: “She is from the North and she always used to take holidays in the Yorkshire Dales and always loved it.

“So, in the seven years that we lived in London, she would take me up through all the different seasons up in Yorkshire to make sure that I would like it – you know, the bitter cold, the pouring rain and the wind and all of that – and of course it didn’t bother me at all. Where we live in Wensleydale reminds me in a lot of ways of the American West, because it’s so open and there are some pretty good hills-slash-mountains, big streams and it’s just open.”

Now he enjoys a life surrounded by the roaming cattle, where he is able to go into Hawes for market days and visit shops like Elijah Allen and Son, where they know his name.

Suzanne, meanwhile, beavers away on pottery projects and is a bellringer at St Oswald’s Church in Askrigg.

“It reminds me of a throwback to another era that doesn’t exist anymore, you know, in the larger cities or even the larger towns,” says Wright.

But his settled home life contrasted with the turbulent political and social landscape of the US and the UK during recent years, a time of President Donald Trump and the division sowed by the Brexit vote.

It got him thinking about a book. He had written non-fiction and contributed to journals, but had always wondered whether he was capable of penning a novel.

“I remember a lot of my clients back in ‘07 and ‘08 said: ‘Oh my gosh, Steve, this is a fabulous story of what’s happened to you and Suzanne, you’re going to have to write a book’. I said:

‘No, I can’t do fiction I can only do non-fiction’, and they said: ‘No, you want to think about it’. So I just put it in the back of my mind. And once the politics got out of hand in America, I thought, you know what, this is my time, I think I’ve got a legitimate topic that’s not just about America but it transcends. It’s about American politics, UK politics, and two people, one American, one Brit, that’s appropriate for our time. And so then that’s when I started, and I enjoyed doing it.”

He caught the writing bug so much that he’s already about a third of the way through a new novel, one about the bygone Jazz Age in London but with a link to Harrogate.

The themes of Grey, Red, Blue...Gone, however, are about high-stakes human emotions.

Heavily inspired by Wright’s own story, it follows the relationship between a middle-aged American man and a younger British woman. Readers are taken to Chicago, New York City, Seattle, London, Yorkshire, Cumbria and a Greek fishing village. Politics provides a backdrop and the novel explores the effects of indecision.

Wright says: “It was when Donald Trump was elected in November of 2016, and we’re sitting here and I told Suzanne, I said: ‘Can you imagine, had I procrastinated and thought, oh well Bush was an aberration, Obama is where the real America resides, and that I didn’t decide to come over because all America has righted itself? Now look – Trump is President. Can you imagine? I just wondered if I had that decision, where we would be today. So then I started fictionalising in my mind what would happen if somebody wasn’t decisive and did procrastinate.”

He adds: “Then, when the neo-Nazi riots or demonstrations in Charlottesville occurred in August of 2017, that was it, that’s when I decided this is going to have to be a book. You can disagree with policy or policies but it’s almost as if the entire ethos of the government, and of a country, has been corrupted.”

Among various themes in the book, one, says Wright, is “finding contentment in a discontented world. You have to be decisive in your decision-making. You can’t procrastinate.

“Opportunities, the best opportunities, come once and the only thing that matters is what you do. And if you’re indecisive and you do nothing, that causes nothing but regret.”

It’s a good thing for him that he took his chance. Otherwise, he might never have got his pint in The Drovers.