Roger Harvey is a multi-genre British writer best known for his historical novels The Silver Spitfire and Maiden Voyage; also as a prolific poet and journalist.
Roger was born in 1953 and grew up in Newcastle. He began writing in 1966, took a degree in Law, then trained as a teacher of English, History and Drama before working as a radio scriptwriter and producer of drama and commercials. At the same time he was establishing himself as poet and was, for a short period in the 1970s, editor of Poetry North-East magazine. Since then a very large number of his poems, articles, features and stories have steadily appeared in British and American magazines along with specially illustrated editions of selected poems. He was the first poet to read on BBC Radio 1 and was a contributor to the largest anthology of foreign poetry ever produced in Russia. His work is now published in Canada, Germany, France, Japan and the USA and has enjoyed success in major national and international competitions.
Roger’s first novel The Silver Spitfire was made into a 13-part radio serial then published as an audio-book followed by hardback, paperback and e-book editions. His other novels Percy the Pigeon, A Woman who Lives by the Sea, Albatross Bay, Room for Love and Maiden Voyage have been published in Britain and River of Dreams in America. His play Prisoners and a number of other works have been produced for British radio and he has won many commercial radio awards including an Orson Welles Award from America. His one-woman stage-play Guinevere-Jennifer was toured in the North of England with an acting edition of the text published shortly afterwards.
Following a period of staging one-man poetry shows all over Britain, Roger was invited to tour the USA, performing at venues from New York to Las Vegas and Disneyland; he was also visiting lecturer in American universities and guest reader at literary conferences, appearing on radio and television. His vigorous and accessible performing style won critical and popular acclaim and his experiences on the tour were distilled into Poet on the Road, an intimate travelogue in confessional style. At the same time, publication of the award-winning audio-collection Northman’s Prayer resulted in an invitation to tour Germany, where he gave readings and lectures in Düsseldorf, Köln, Giessen and Berlin. International publication of Roger’s work continued with the appearnce of a second poetry collection Raising the Titanic in Canada and a third, Divided Attention, in the UK.
Roger also undertakes a programme of workshops and residential courses for students of creative writing.
Having written screenplays for animation and a screenplay from his own novel A Woman who Lives by the Sea, he realised a lifelong ambition to produce a motion picture: his directorial debut Guinevere-Jennifer, which he also wrote and designed and originally directed on stage, was screened at film festivals in Britain and Europe. This was followed by a lavish audio production of his play Asra! Asra!, revealing the secret love-life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He then directed a tour of his one-woman comedy Money! Money! Money! which called for the actress to create three diverse characters in rapid succession.
Roger is married to Sheila Young, an expert on Royal jewellery whose book The Queen’s Jewellery became the definitive work on this subject. While he continues to work in an astonishing variety of styles and media, his most recent publication is the sweeping historical novel Maiden Voyage. He is currently drafting sequels to Room for Love. His other interests include photography and classic cars, while much of his relaxation is found in music, walking and the English countryside.
ROGER HARVEY INTERVIEWED BY VERONICA WELLS, LITERARY AGENT
VW: When and how did you start writing?
RH: I started writing in 1966 when I was 13. It was with serious intent, never just as a hobby or a creative pastime; it was to express things I felt had to be expressed, and writing seemed the only way I could express them. At that age I didn’t think of becoming a professional writer but somehow suspected I would have to eventually–without knowing how I would ever manage it. From the start I was a Romantic writer and remain so; more in what you might call the ‘High German’ sense than the ‘Mills & Boon’ sense, although I love a love story. All my books contain love stories. When I was starting out, my fellow poets were pre-occupied with grim stuff like unemployment, bedbugs and death while I was writing about sensual landscapes, exciting adventures and beautiful girls. (I still am; I suspect the bedbug poets are still peddling unemployment and death). Predictably, this got me into trouble with some critics, but fashions changed in my favour and my work fared better. Anyway, I don’t write to please the critics.
VW: What about the influences of your birthplace?
RH: My upbringing in Newcastle has been important to me. Like most Northumbrians and Geordies I’m very conscious of the special atmosphere of our homeland. There is a great spirit of endeavour, inventiveness, cheerfulness-in-adversity and good humour which I like to think I’ve inherited. I am proud to come from a place so steeped in history and modern flavours, but don’t consciously write about regional issues or always make my home the setting for my stories. (Having said that, my novels Percy the Pigeon, A Woman who Lives by the Sea and Albatross Bay all share a North-East coast location, the Room for Love stories take place in Northumberland, and of course Maiden Voyage celebrates the building of Mauretania on Tyneside.) I could do what I do almost anywhere, but I’m very pleased to be doing it where I feel so completely attuned to everything and where the quality of life is both vibrant and peaceful. Although I like to travel I always enjoy coming home. I also have a mixture of Scots and European ancestry which has contributed to the sort of person and writer I am.
VW: Were there influences from your education?
RH: Every English artist and writer is expected to have been desperately unhappy at school, but I can’t say I was. Overall, I was successful at school. There were times when it was boring, difficult, or downright terrifying, but most of my school career was just a nuisance to me: I was quite happy at home and would have much rather been there getting on with my own life my own way! School was something to be tolerated and I tolerated it pretty well; only towards the end did it become a great artistic, academic and social adventure which I truly enjoyed thanks to some excellent teachers and a curiously relaxed yet formal atmosphere at the very end of the 1960s. In my last years at school, despite the terrible pressure of exams, I was almost deliriously happy. I still have idyllic dreams about it (see Poet on the Road for details) but that was largely because I was in love with people and things outside school. English was my favourite subject (surprise, surprise), with History a close second. When I was younger I also loved Bible studies, not for any religious reason (I, and I suspect everyone else in class, was too immature for any valid concept of God), but as vivid drama played out under blazing desert sun and filled with crazed prophets, cruel Romans, kings, beggars, love, lust ,war, famine, miracles, the lot. Okay, so I was an infantile Cecil B. de Mille and of course–you’ve guessed it–I still am. Seriously, I still go the Bible when I want good drama and great poetry. But if I made the best of school I was miserable at University where I could barely do the work, was almost sent down, and felt like an alien amongst the other students…until I eventually earned my degree, took a postgraduate course, and was loved by a woman of such tenderness and grace that–despite my hurting her and losing her–the wonder and potency of our relationship coloured much of my work for many years. So you see a good education can be a wonderful thing! Many of the experiences I underwent during my education have had some effect on my writing, and I’m genuinely grateful that my parents set up a privileged and varied education for me, but I don’t believe that what is generally regarded as a good education is a requisite for successful writing. Successful writing can come from any background, culture, or experience, however deprived. On the other hand, I am convinced that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, light happier than darkness, civilisation better than barbarism. Of course education–and not necessarily of the formal or scholastic kind–should be ongoing. There is so much to learn, and so little time. My own knowledge may be wide, but my ignorance is truly vast.
VW: Who has helped you in your career?
RH: I received tremendous support from my mother. We had a great relationship. We were each other’s best friend. Apart from striving to give me a happy and secure childhood and succeeding in this at what must sometimes have been great emotional and physical cost to herself, she managed to understand and cope with most of the joys and trials I underwent in establishing a writing career and she kept me going through all manner of crises. More than once I would have been sunk without her. I just wish my father and grandmother (I was very close to both of them) had lived long enough to see some of my bigger publications and successes, such as they are. I was fortunate in some helpful and sympathetic bosses in my broadcasting jobs, and a few kind editors have been instrumental in keeping my poems and articles in the public eye. In certain plays and audio versions of my work I have had enormous help from very fine actors. Now I have a number of dear friends and colleagues. I value them very highly; life and work would be poorer without them. As all writers know, when you’re alone in front of the sheet of paper or the empty screen, no-one is really going to help you find the words, juggle them, and put them down in the best order; but that is only half of the writing business. In the other half–publishing those words and surviving as a writer, never mind prospering–some ‘establishment’ help is essential, while good friends are a true blessing. Today I have found new happiness with my utterly lovable and talented wife who is a wonderful support in all kinds of ways. Of course the happiness continues because we support each other.
VW: What inspires you?
RH: Inspiration is a tricky concept because I’m not convinced it exists, not as most people think it operates anyway. Certainly there is compulsion to write, to create, to express or celebrate or explain something; there is God-given talent, there is hard work, determination and application of skills; then there is something else quite magical when subject, understanding, form, style and tone-of-voice all come together in a piece of writing which then–to use an overworked expression–seems to ‘write itself’…but whether or not this amounts to most people’s undertanding of ‘inspiration’, I just don’t know. I do know some pieces of writing have an almost divine perfection of shape and tone, as if they could not be done better, like certain lines of poetry or pieces of Shakespeare (Hemingway called him ‘the number one champ’, and he is), but it’s really impossible to say how it’s achieved. If that were known, we’d all be trying it. As to what has inspired me, well, I like to celebrate the extraordinary in life, things which we too often take for granted but which are truly wonderful. Love and the natural world–those two old overdone subjects of the poets–are pretty good places to start. Then there is beauty in all its forms, physical and spiritual. In some ways my writing has been a search for beauty; what some other writers call ‘quality’. Everyday life is beautiful, if only we can see it through the muck and mire we have created for ourselves. All human experience is valid, and our own planet should be an endless source of wonder: a fresh blue sky still tugs unbearably at my heartstrings. And music and films of course: countless ideas and images throughout my work can be traced to music and films. Love has been an abiding theme of mine: all that we go through in the name of it, with and without it. The relationships we build on love can be sullied or destroyed by our own follies, and denial or refusal of love is the worst sin, but the love itself is never anything less than wonderful. It regenerates and ennobles us. When people say ‘it’s the best thing in the world’ I have to agree with them.
VW: You have been a professional writer since the 1970s. Can you list some highglights of your long career?
RH: Some moments on my US tour might be called great and are mentioned in Poet on the Road, but one of the sweetest was in my home town when, after the national launch of Northman’s Prayer, I came back to Newcastle to re-launch this poetry collection with a reading at the famous People’s Theatre. It was founded by Bernard Shaw and has an audience with high expectations. Furthermore, I knew some members of a local literary scene in which I had never felt comfortable and where my work had never been rated would be coming along in, shall we say, a less-than-generous spirit. My friend the actress and presenter Jane Jermyn confessed to some stage fright, but her unease was nothing to my anxieties about peddling my wares in my own back yard. But in addition to going down very well with the big audience and actually making money, the show was a huge success in personal terms: that rarest of things, the word-perfect read and action-perfect performance making people laugh and cry and sending them home remembering the words, or at least some of them.
When my dear friends Rita and Joan Clark, amid years of love and support, presented me with little statuettes to mark the first publications of Percy the Pigeon and The Silver Spitfire. They sit on top of a book-case and mean more to me than a pair of Oscars.
Having Poet on the Road accepted after it had been turned down by so many publishers–then it went to a second edition within a year.
Getting my first job in broadcasting was very important, so many opportunities flowed from that.
Directing my own screenplay of Guinevere-Jennifer. I had always wanted to make a movie and was given this wonderful opportunity with the talented, elegant and inventive actress Eileen Glenton as my leading lady once more (she had previously created the tricky dual-rôle on stage, and that had provided a highlight too, when I saw her walk in through the audience for the first time in her gaunt nun’s habit, a magical transformation from the stylish modern lady she is, which transfixed the whole theatre, and myself). The shooting and editing of the film, the actual making of it, was an intensely happy time for me: I felt truly alive. When aspects of the process came together with a akind of magic and just ‘worked’ I felt creatively vindicated. The premier got a standing ovation, but the biggest moment emotionally was seeing the first run-through. I was alone in the cinema and was overwhelmed to see my long-cherished visions up there on the big screen with full sound, colour, special effects, the lot. I thought I was crying with emotion but actually found a big smile on my face instead of the tears. Yet more great moments with Eileen came when she took my hugely demanding comedy script Money! Money! Money! and brought houses down with it every night on its first tour. After tremendous strains in getting this produced I could sit at the back, free at last to laugh shamelessly at my own jokes while the audience fell about.
As far as publishing goes, I think the most significant moment, and a great personal thrill, was seeing the full text of The Silver Spitfire produced in paperback after more than thirty years of struggle, some of it quite desperate and shot through with terrible strokes of ill-fortune and bedevilled by many frustrations. I have always held this story dear; it had been out before in various versions but never the full, unabridged text, so that felt like ‘the big one’…but while The Silver Spitfire has been hugely important in my career and continues to sell in different formats, as an historical novel it has been eclipsed by a bigger book, and launching Maiden Voyage alongside the famous turbine-engined ship Turbinia made a true highlight in my life. My wife–without whose help the book wouldn’t have been completed the way it is–was there to make it an extra special occasion along with many good friends, and of course the location was perfect. Maiden Voyage wouldn’t have been written at all without my boyhood visits to see historic Turbinia while my father explained the superiority of a turbine over a piston engine: ‘Something that goes up and down has to stop and start, but something that goes round and round can go faster and faster.’ Amongst other things he was a seat-of-the-pants stick-and-rudder pilot and I loved his way of teaching me physics.
VW: You really are a multi-genre writer, producing novels, poems, plays, radio scripts, short stories, magazine articles, screenplays, even commercials. You also direct for stage and radio and produce your own poetry shows. What is it like working in so many diverse media?
RH: It’s great. It’s what I want to do and I wouldn’t wish to do otherwise; in fact if I stopped I wouldn’t feel satisfied. I need the variety of outlets to express different things in different ways. Perhaps nothing beats writing a novel for scope and control, but I think poetry remains my first love. I certainly want to see more of my work adapted for the screen. I am a very visual writer and see almost everything ‘through a viewfinder’. That’s how I write much of–and I think the best parts of–my novels: shoot them in my head with the best cast and director my brain can conjour up, then write down what I have projected on the screen of that cinema in my head…but don’t tell the critics.
VW: You describe poetry as your first love among these genres. Why?
RH: I believe when poetry really ‘works’ there is no form of literary expression more powerful. I wrote my first poems in the 1960s but didn’t take up poetry seriously until the early ’Seventies; then for a while I wrote nothing but poetry. It came about when I pushed my prose style so far beyond the limits of the form that what I got could only be described as poetry. Then I started with poetic forms themselves, and discovered how pure and powerful poetry can be. There are some things which can scarcely be expressed any other way, except perhaps by music. In fact I’d go as far as to say that poetry is a form of music and vice-versa–and since I can’t play any instrument and have no musical skill beyond a great and deep love of it, you could argue that I write poems instead of songs or symphonies. I also believe that other forms of writing should aspire to the values of poetry; so the novel, the essay, the radio play and everything else should have the force and balance and potency and magic of a poem. But this is only a tiny part of what there is to say about poetry. If you want a poetry interview we’ll book another day!
VW: Your Write Beside the Sea courses aimed at new and aspiring writers became very popular and successful. What is your main advice to beginners?
RH: Keep going. Try not to write entirely about yourself, yet be uniquely personal: this means using your own experience and telling your truths your way without forcing your own life story down the readers’ throats. Read the great writers but never try to copy them; you can absorb their ideas and skills without directly stealing their plots and characters. Refine your own technique by always making sure you’re using the most appropriate words in the clearest possible way; if you’re writing in English, you already have the most versatile language there is. In the face of rejection, continue to submit work wherever you can. Believe in yourself, even when you receive a rejection-slip so cruel that the Spanish Inquisition could have secured confessions with it. Keep hammering away on publishers’ doors; if you’re good, something will have to give–just make sure it’s not you! So at the same time, try to accept yourself as you are and learn contentment: not always easy for the creative personality. If you want to progress in this business and stay sane you must learn the trick of being delighted by whatever successes you might have while always striving for more. The Write Beside the Sea courses have been successful because they concentrate on what I call ‘the business side’ of being a writer. It’s all very well going on a creative-writing course and producing something stimulated by the tutor, but how are you going to get it published? My course-participants all go away with a rock-solid plan for completing their projects, establishing a professional presence, promoting their work and impressing publishers.
VW: What do you do when you’re not writing?
RH: Worry about not writing. Apart from that, I find relaxation and new stimuli in watching films and listening to music, and I love walking in the countryside or by the sea. I also restore and maintain classic cars, which are objects of beauty and historical interest giving pleasure to myself and many other people. My wife and I have great times taking our cars to many classic car shows which can be hugely enjoyable events at some of Britain’s most beautiful venues. As I said to Jane Jermyn years ago in the Northman’s Prayer interview, it can be very therapeutic to put down the pen and pick up the spanner.
VW: Where do you want to go with your writing? What are your ambitions?
RH: My main ambition is to live long enough and stay fit enough to achieve all my other ambitions–of which I have a list longer than anyone’s arm. There are more books to write. I want some of my existing ones made into films. Of course I want more and better publication of existing and new work. Then–I hope without sounding pompous–there is the ambition to leave something for the future. To communicate with the future is surely the greatest purpose of writing, and every serious writer has this ambition in one way or another. We need an enriched future now more than ever. The 20th-Century society in which I grew up and which, for all its terrors, provided so many stimulating and life-enhancing joys, has tottered into a kind of recession where Art and Culture and indeed all Humankind face glum and hectic prospects. All the more reason then for writers and artists to start a new renaissance. I should like to assist with that. Above all I have a dseire to be absolutely honest and write a kind of dazzling truth: the most difficult thing for any writer to achieve, but perhaps the only thing that matters in the end. I don’t mean all writers want to tell lies (although some do); I mean there are pressures forcing and tempting us to ignore, twist, or deny the truth until the effort or dangers of telling it seem too great and we slide towards writing something which is ultimately worthless because it isn’t true to the facts or our own feelings. These pressures operate on all of us, whatever we might be writing, and every writer should learn to resist them. Like most people, I suppose, I have done some things of which I am not proud and a few of which I am thoroughly ashamed, but I’ve done none of these things in my writing. In my writing I have striven to stay pure, remain sincere, and tell the truth. I want to go on doing that. Ultimately, I want to feel I have not dishonoured the truth in any way.