I remember exactly what I was doing when the idea for The French Executioner hit me like a bolt of lightning. I was working out. I was living in Vancouver at the time. Making my living as an actor. I’d written a couple of plays. But my dream from childhood had always been to write historical fiction.
I wasn’t thinking of any of that, on that day in a gym in 1993. I was thinking about shoulder presses. Checking my form in the mirror.
This is what happened. (It also shows you the rather strange associations in my brain!)
I lift the weight bar.
Me, in my head. ‘God, I’ve got a long neck.’
‘If I was ever executed,’ – Raise bar – ‘it would be a really easy shot for the ax.’
‘Or the sword. Because, of course, Anne Boleyn was executed with a sword.’
Raise bar. Stop half way.
‘Anne Boleyn had six fingers on one hand.’
Flash! Boom! Put down bar before I drop it. It came together in my head, as one thing: the executioner, brought from France to do the deed, (I remembered that from school). Not just taking her head. Taking her hand as well, that infamous hand – and then the question all writers have to ask: what happened next?
I scurried to the library. Took out books. I knew it had to be a novel. I did some research, sketched a few ideas. But the problem was, I wasn’t a novelist. A play had seemed like a hill. A novel – well, it was a mountain, and I wasn’t ready to climb it. So I dreamed a while, then quietly put all my research, sketches, notes away.
But I never stopped thinking about it. The story kept coming and whenever I was in a second hand bookstore I’d study the history shelves and think: if ever I write that novel – which I probably never will – I’ll want… a battle at sea between slave galleys. So I’d buy a book on that subject, read it. Buy another, read it.
November 1999. Six years after being struck by lightning. I’m living back in England and I find a book on sixteenth century mercenaries – and I knew the novel I was never going to write would have mercenaries.
Twenty pages in, I turn to my wife and say: “You know, I think I’m going to write that book.”
And she replies, “It’s about bloody time.”
I wrote. The story, all that research, had stewed in my head for so long, it just poured out. Ten months and I was done. I wondered if it was any good. I sent it to an agent. She took me on and had it sold three months later.
I was a novelist after all.