ONE AFTERNOON last summer, the Berkshire village of Blewbury lay serene and gray, the pub and the church looking just as they ought. Beyond the village, down a winding lane, "past the last electric pole" as Dick Francis instructs visitors, lies a pleasant though ordinary- looking English bungalow, distinguished only by the green paddocks and wooden stables in the rear. Here Dick Francis, trying nobly not to glance at the television with its broadcast of the afternoon races at Goodwood, talked about his life at the fictional racetrack and how he came to produce a string of finely wrought intrigues of life, death and horses. His wife Mary, a partner in all his work, remained firmly in the background, though willing to supply the occasionl missing fact. Francis leaned back in his chair and spoke about his writing in a modest, matter-of-fact way: W
HEN I'M WRITING I need time to
think before I start putting words down. I don't use an outline. I work out of my head but I've thought about things a lot beforehand. Then I write into a children's exercise book in pencil. I go along and I rub out. When I have an hour or so to spare I bring the story up to date on the typewriter. My final typewritten manuscript is usually a chapter or two behind the handwritten one. I've used the exercise book and the pencil from the start. This time of year I'm not writing, I'm thinking about the next story. I shall keep on thinking about it and discussing it with Mary between now and the end of the year, but I still don't know the end when I sit down with my exercise book.
I really started writing by chance. A friend of my mother's had a son who was an agent and he talked me into writing my autobiography--after Devon Loch (the Queen Mother's famous racehorse) collapsed on me in the 1956 Grand National. Mary also talked me into it. Not many steeplechase jockeys go on beyond 35. After that the human body doesn't allow you to bounce and in steeplechasing you have a fall every 10th or 11th ride. When you're riding say three or four hundred times a year, you're hitting the ground 30 or 40 times a year at 40 miles an hour. It's a great life, but you've got to be a young man. I was looking ahead, but I never thought I'd write. I suppose I thought I'd train or farm.
In 1957 when I was at the top of the tree and falls were taking longer to get over, it was suggested to me that it was a good time to get out. It was a terrible decision to make--to stop riding. I was interviewed on TV and radio and, of course, they all asked, "What are you going to do now?" I said I didn't know, but that I'd half written my autobiograpy. Well, the sports editor of the London Sunday Express took me out to lunch and asked if I'd write half a dozen articles for them on the racing scene. Then they asked me to sign on full time. I didn't for about eight months. Didn't see myself being a newspaperman. But then it got a little bit easier, and I did sign on--worked for the Sunday Express for 16 years. But life as a newspaperman wasn't quite as lucrative as being a professional jockey, so after about five years Mary said to me one day, "You always said you were going to write a novel. Why don't you do it?" So I did. In 1962, I wrote Dead Cert.
I submitted the manuscript to Michael Joseph (who'd published my autobiography, The Sport of Queens by this time) and they bought it straight away. That was one of the big days of my life; a week or 10 days after I handed in this manuscript, they said they would publish it.
My time in journalism definitely shaped my writing. I like to think I don't waste many words, and journalism taught me that. It used to annoy me when I took my pieces up to the Sunday Express and the copy editor would take out a word or two. I'd think 'why the hell didn't I do that?' I like to think that the stories are crisp, that I don't waste space. I was always a fairly disciplined fellow even before I took up journalism. Mary used to get so annoyed-- when I was racing I always liked to get there an hour before the first race.
My heroes are all very similar. They are the sort of chaps I'd like to meet. I build a character up out of a number of people. Sometimes I'd like to think I was as good as the heroes I create, but I'm not. I do like to write about good types. Probably my dark men, or bad characters, aren't bad enough. My heroes are all male. I can't really place myself in a woman's mind.
Only once have I written two books about the same character--Sid Halley. They made a TV series "The Racing Game" out of Odds Against. We didn't do at all badly. I was delighted with Mike Gwilym, who played Sid Halley. In fact, Mary and I became very friendly with Mike--he comes here quite often. The first time he came he just walked in and it was just as if Sid Halley were sitting down and having a drink with us. I was delighted with the way he played the part. He'd never ridden--had to take riding lessons. People ask, but I am not planning at the moment to write another Sid Halley book. Not being a born writer, I find building up my main characters as I go helps me to fill up the books. If I started with a ready-made character like Sid, I should be lost. I won't say Sid Halley will never come back again, although I'm getting old now. Can't go on writing.
I get a lot of letters--letters from America. Americans love writing letters. I do nearly all of my writing in America now--Fort Lauderdale--because we spend the first four months of the year there. Mary has developed very bad asthma in the last few years and when she's in Florida and its warm, she's wonderful, a different girl altogether. I've written my last two novels entirely over there. Very little editing is done on them, I'm glad to say..I don't allow it.
My favorite book? The next one is always my favorite. I'm writing a biography of Lester Piggott (11 times British flatracing champion jockey). I've been working on it for six or seven years, but he doesn't want it published until he's hung up his boots.