The Writer’s Block Sanction
By Tom Claver
Next month I will fulfill a lifelong ambition of publishing a thriller. Having reached a certain age, I thought it was about time to do something about this goal that has dogged me for so long.
Deep down I always wanted to write but never managed to convince myself to get on with it. I remember when I was bitten by the bug and under quite surreal circumstances. It was in the early 1970s when I was studying for a degree in economics at North East London Polytechnic in Barking, near Dagenham. It was a depressing era, I seem to recall, filled with social unrest, strikes, demonstrations, student occupations, and, of course, a terrible dress sense.
I lived in a freezing bedsit with only a two-bar electric fire to keep me warm. Every night one of the tenants would play Home on the Range performed on all things a Hawaiian steel guitar. Over and over, he played this damn record, only stopping when the electricity meter ran out of coins.
To reduce my exposure to the tenant’s nocturnal habit, I decided to go to an evening class on creative writing at the poly. It had been set up by a visiting professor from the US. Anything would be better than listening to the Hawaiian steel guitar.
Make my day
I waited in the class with a few other students for a Dr. Rod Whitaker to turn up. He arrived 20 minutes late, looking very dapper in a three-piece suit. He was around 40, slim, and heavily suntanned. To say he looked out of place compared with our scruffy lecturers and Trotskyist students in jeans and Afghans would have been an understatement.
His opening line caught our attention immediately. “Sorry, I’m late, but I’ve just been on the phone to Clint Eastwood.”
Had I heard that correctly? Yes, I had. It transpired that Dr Whitaker taught at the Department of Radio, Television and Film at the Austin School of Communications in Texas. It also transpired that he’d written a blockbuster thriller called “The Eiger Sanction” and he’d sold it to Clint.
Being a big Clint Eastwood fan, I was captivated by the story of his first book becoming an international best seller and being turned into a film.
So he began to explain to us why he’d embarked on writing a thriller. He despised dumb spy novels and James Bond films and decided to lampoon the genre. His book was written tongue-in-cheek and he thought by naming the protagonist Dr Jonathan Hemlock and having characters called Jemima Brown and Felicity Arce (pronounced arse, British English for ass), the publisher might have cottoned on. But no one saw through his fun and when he realised there was genuine interest in his MS, he started to re-write it into a more considered piece, while still keeping the colorful names. It was an immediate success though people were mystified by the pseudonym on the cover, prompting all sorts of conspiracy theories and myths among fans about the true identity of the writer.
He wrote under the name of Trevanian and went to great lengths to keep his real name a secret, although never thinking twice about divulging it to us in Barking. Perhaps he thought we lived in the back of beyond and would never leave the neighborhood to spill the beans. Whitaker also wrote in a wide variety of genres and under five different names.
Despite achieving best-seller status he avoided interviews and publishers promotions that would reveal his true identity. Sometimes he would send imposters to represent him at interviews, just for fun.
Rumors circulated that he worked for the CIA. I don’t know whether that was true, but he did serve in the US Navy during the Korean War. However, he did mention to us that there was an objection to the word “sanction” being used to mean an “assassination”. He’d run it by someone in the CIA and couldn’t believe that the term was being questioned when he knew for certain it was used at the agency.
In 1979 he publicly revealed his true identity and his various pseudonyms in an interview with the New York Times Book Review. He scotched a long-running rumour that Trevanian was actually the thriller writer Robert Ludlum. But what readers may not have realised was that the pseudonyms he chose to write under were like character actors to him. By inventing the right character to write the book, he felt he could tell the story.
His writing classes were sometimes unorthodox, digressing occasionally into method acting exercises, but he did manage to get us to write short stories. And one evening I read my short story to the class and to my surprise all the girls around me loved it. I got the bug to write, there and then.
After graduating, my interest fell more in the direction of making films. I made some short films with moderate success. One 30 minute film I scripted was distributed in British cinemas and another short I wrote and directed was sold to Central Television in the UK. I started writing feature length scripts, one of which formed the basis of HIDER/SEEKER, my forthcoming debut thriller. The script had another title and was genuinely awful, but the BBC saw something and invited me to discuss it. Nothing happened and I decided it was time to put away my toys and turn my attention to raising a family.
The memories of Rod Whitaker drifting into our dreary lives in Barking still remained strong however, and like many people, I made attempts to write a book, usually the day after a significant birthday milestone.
Then a turning point came just over ten years ago when I decided I’d teach myself to write a thriller for the sheer hell of it. By reading books such as Stephen King’s On Writing and by sending my work for professional critique, I gradually improved. Two unpublished books later, I decided to take another look at the film script I’d sent to the BBC. I re-worked it into HIDER/SEEKER and I hope you will enjoy it when it is launched on 30 April.
From Zola to Chaucer
Out of curiosity, I wondered what had happened to Rod Whitaker over the years. I Googled him and sadly discovered he’d died of an illness in the West Country of England in 2005, aged 74. I had no idea he’d been living in the UK as I’d read long ago he’d bought a house in the Basque region of France. According to his agent, Michael V. Carlise, Whitaker preferred the intellectual climate of England rather more than that of America under Presidents Reagan and Bush.
Over his life time his 10 published books sold more than 5m copies and he was heralded as the only writer of airport paperbacks to be compared to Zola, Ian Fleming, Poe and Chaucer.
This elusive author who’d baffled so many in his lifetime has left a lasting impression on me and I guess on many others too. He also gave me the bug to write all those years ago. Thank you.
If anyone knew or studied under Dr Whitaker, I would love to hear from you. (Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
HIDER/SEEKER will be free to download from Amazon as an ebook between 30 April to 4 May.
About the Author
Tom Claver is a freelance journalist who has worked in print and television, and was formerly a director of a publishing company. He was brought up in London and currently lives in Dorset with his wife.