The idea had come to me a while back that I would love to have the opportunity to interview some of the best authors out there about their latest books, and when it came to my very first interview, there was one man who, above all others, I really wanted to sit down with; Paul Fraser Collard.
They say never meet your heroes, but luckily for me, Paul is a friend. For those who don’t know him, Paul is the author of the amazing new ‘Jack Lark’ series of books – a tour de force of military history fiction which sets Jack – a roguish Redcoat with a penchant for stealing identities above his station – against a myriad of wars, battles, dangers and encounters.
With each new book comes a new identity, a new enemy, a new war to fight and invariably a new heart to win as he fights and flees by turns from the discovery of his grand deception and the hangman’s noose which awaits him. Compelling, clever and with brilliant battle scenes, these books, inevitably dubbed ‘the new Sharpe’ have been praised by readers around the world, including Bernard Cornwell himself.
Now, for the first time, I have a chance to meet the man behind ‘The Scarlet Thief’ Jack Lark.
1) So Paul, tell us a little about yourself…who is Paul Fraser Collard?
What an awkward first question! I am not very good about talking about myself but I shall do my best! I am a happy family man who one day decided to try to write a novel. For years I had used my longish commute into work to read and that led me to wonder if I could write my own novel. It seemed a good idea so I gave it a go. Well, it is now about ten years later and I am incredibly proud to have four (nearly five) published novels and three short stories to my name.
2) And how would you sum up your character Jack Lark?
Jack lark is a rogue. I first thought of him as a cross between Richard Sharpe and the Littlest Hobo (if you remember that TV programme about a dog who went from town to town doing good!) It was my agent (the superb David Headley) who came up with the Sharpe meets the talented Mister Ripley line. I think that sums him up rather well!
3) So where did Jack come from? How did the thought become a story and then a series of historical novels?
When I set out to write a novel, I knew I had to have a strong central character. The books I was reading at the time were focused on well-to-do young British army officers who were a little wishy-washy (to my mind anyway!) I like my characters to jump off the page and whisk you into an adventure that takes your breath away. It was also important for a series character to be able to develop through the novels and so I knew part of Jack’s journey would be to show how he is changed by his experiences. When I had the idea of a young imposter it just seemed to fit with what I wanted, especially when I decided to make sure that each novel would feature a new setting and a new campaign or battle.
4) There is a natural comparison with Sharpe, but Jack is quite different isn’t he?
Jack is not the hard-bitten warrior that Sharpe is. He scrapes through, fighting hard for sure, but he is not the same battle-winning hero. he is more of an ‘everyman’ who learns his trade as a soldier along the way. I also try to show how his experiences of battle change him, so that the Jack Lark we meet at the siege of Delhi in book 4 is already very different from the younger, more naive and ambitious Jack who first impersonates an officer in The Scarlet Thief. If I do it right, then I think that this part of Jack’s journey will be just as captivating for my readers as it would be if he single-handedly won every battle.
5) And Bernard Cornwell himself is a fan I’m told? How does that feel?
It might be a bit of a stretch calling Bernard Cornwell a fan! he was kind enough to give me a fantastic endorsement for The Scarlet Thief, the first book in the series. It is hard to express quite how much that endorsement meant. I have read every single book Bernard has ever written and I have never found a character that hit me with the same impact as Sharpe. To have your favourite author praise your own debut novel is quite extraordinary and it is by far the highlight of my writing career.
6) How easy is it to come up with some plot lines and new theatres of war for Jack to fight in?
I always knew I wanted the Jack Lark series to see each book set in a new environment with a new cast of characters. I was greatly influenced by George Macdonald Fraser’s peerless Flashman series. I absolutely loved how each book delivered something fresh and taught me about another campaign or part of Victorian history. When I started Jack’s adventures, the Crimea seemed a good place to start. At the time there had been very few other novels set against that campaign, so I hoped that would give me a small advantage in getting my work published. From there it has been a case of casting my eyes around the period, looking for somewhere to set his next adventure. To be honest, that makes my life pretty easy, as this period is absolutely packed full of small wars and fascinating episodes that I really enjoy researching and then bringing to life in Jack’s stories.
7) I know Jack Lark 4 – The Lone Warrior, has just come out, and book 5 is on the way…is that is for Jack, or do you still have more planned?
I have plenty more ideas! I am already working on book 6 which I plan to set at the start of the American Civil War. I have an idea to set two books there before perhaps throwing Jack out West. There are so many places to take him after that and I don’t think I shall ever run out of interesting parts of the world to take him. I certainly want to write on and on, and if I can take the jack Lark series into double figures then I shall be very pleased indeed.
8) Was there ever a ‘real’ Jack Lark? Was he based upon anybody in history, or have you found any similar stories?
There was never a ‘real’ Jack but I was most definitely inspired by the story of Percy Toplis, a real-life rogue from the early 20th century. Percy’s story was made famous in a BBC TV drama in the early 1980’s called ‘The Monocled Mutineer’. What fascinated me most about Percy’s tale was his ability to mimic a British army officer so successfully. He did this despite being a lad from a northern mining town with very little education to his name. This idea of an imposter fascinated me and it really was this that was the catalyst for Jack coming into being.
9) As a devoted fan myself, I never want Jack’s adventures to end, but do you foresee an end to Jack’s adventures, or will you keep writing as long as your fans are demanding more of Jack?
So long as you (and a few others) keep reading, then I shall keep writing!
10) Bernard Cornwell said he initially had reservations about Sean Bean playing Sharpe, but that once he saw him in the famous Green Jacket, he just knew he ‘was Sharpe’. Who would you like to play Jack if you were offered a TV deal?
I think the Jack Lark novels would make a terrific TV series! A handsome rogue as the lead character, fabulous and colourful locations, the drama of battle tied into the suspense and the drama of an imposter alongside an array of fascinating supporting characters that would make each episode (or series!) a wonderful contrast to the others. It would be like Sharpe, Indian Summers, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Band of Brothers and Zulu all rolled into one glorious extravaganza!
But I must confess I have no idea who should play Jack himself. I carry a very clear picture of him in my head, but I fail to match him to an actor. Perhaps you or the readers of your blog have some ideas!
11) So far we have seen The Scarlet Thief, The Maharaja’s General, The Devil’s Assassin and The Lone Warrior – do you have a favourite?
I think my favourite is The Devil’s Assassin although The Lone Warrior comes a very close second. I loved the storyline of The Devil’s Assassin and it also featured my favourite two characters in Ballard and Palmer. I liked this pair so much that they return in Jack Lark 5 – The Last Legionnaire (out next year!) the first time I have brought characters back from a different story.
12) How did you find the journey from manuscript to publication? – We hear so many authors’ tales of years of rejections and the dreaded ‘sloosh pile’ – was yours quite a smooth journey?
It took a while for sure! I wrote a book on a whim when I turned 30. When I submitted it to agents, nearly everyone rejected it (I still have it though – Ensign Fitzwilliam – the tale of a young officer set at the very start of the Peninsular War), but I had caught the writing bug. A year or two later, I set out to try again and this time I prepared very thoroughly before I started to write. That novel became The Scarlet Thief. When it was ready, I followed the standard submission guidelines that every agent lists on their website, and set it out with an introductory letter that explained why I thought it was worth their time. Happily three of the four agents I sent it to were interested enough to ask for the full manuscript. One of those was David Headley, and I am one fortunate writer indeed to have such a tremendous agent (and bookseller) in my corner. David worked with me on the book for well over six months and only when he was completely happy with it did he send it out to the publishers. Happily Headline were interested and signed me up for the first two books.
13) One of the most endearing things about your books is your personal story. You are very honest about still having a day job. Is there a misconception that successful writers have automatically ‘made it’ or do you think this highlights what it really takes to be a successful ‘full-time’ author?
There is certainly a misconception about how much money published writers make. It is a hard way to make a full-time living. I simply view myself as being very lucky. I enjoy both of my jobs immensely (I always smile when I think of writing as a job – it is far to much fun to ever be considered work!) and it suits me to continue as I am. I cannot really see a time when I write full-time and right now I am not sure that I would want to.
14) What advice do you have for budding writers?
My advice is simple. If you want to be a published writer then go for it. It is a dreadful cliche to say that if I can do it, anyone can; but I honestly think it is true. I have no background in writing, nor any experience or qualifications to help me become an author. Yet, I have made it and now have the absolute pleasure of seeing my stories in print. I never expected to get this far, and I know how fortunate I am, but it all happened because I gave it a try! The process works. So if you want to be a published writer then persevere and follow the rules.
15) Finally, what is next for you? More of Jack Lark I hope, but do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
Well, I certainly hope that there will be more Jack Lark. I am already writing book 6 and I am very excited about the new turn the series is taking. I have also started on another project set in WW2. It is fair to say it has been a hard task and the book is now moving into its third incarnation, but that is what writing is like. It takes time to get something into publishable form; a lot of time. I do want this idea to work, so I shall certainly keep trying to make it work!
So there we have it; an exclusive with Paul Fraser Collard! For my money, the Jack Lark series is one of the best I have seen in a long time, and fans of Sharpe, of Flashman, Hornblower or Aubrey will love them! There is time to buy them as a Christmas present on Amazon – the link is below, but thanks to Paul for creating such a wonderful character!!
N.B – Ricky D Phillips is an author of military history from the ancient world to Napoleon. He can be found at his Facebook page – Ricky d Phillips – Military History Author and is the Group Manager for the British Military History group on LinkedIn – the biggest and still fastest growing Military History forum on the web.