Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Writing the Fulcrum Files


I was in New Zealand to do interviews for the publication of The Wrecking Crew and one question kept coming up – since you've sailed in it, why don’t you write a novel about the America’s Cup? I tried to explain that while the Kiwis had a minor obsession with the world’s premier sailboat race, most of the rest of the world didn’t even realise that they didn’t care.

Larry Ellison, Russell Coutts and the other characters that inhabit the contemporary Cup-world are interesting enough, but they aren’t quite in the same league as the likes of T.O.M. Sopwith and Harold Vanderbilt. In the midst of the Great Depression and the rise to power of Hitler; Sopwith and Vanderbilt still managed to find the time and money to build and race the extraordinary J Class yachts. Not to mention changing the course of history...

Hold on.

It suddenly occurred to me... what about a story set in the milieu of that most dramatic, romantic and tumultuous era, the 1930s? I didn’t begin it for quite a while as I was already half-way into another book, and although I knew the core historical story that I wanted to tell, it took a long time to figure out how I wanted to tell it.

Eventually, I decided to make the book’s principal characters fictional, and set them amongst a handful of real – but peripheral – people, whose actions did not have to be much altered or invented to make my historical fiction mesh with reality. And I decided to make it a thriller – believe it or not, The Fulcrum Files started out closer to the romance genre.

First and foremost of the real characters is the aforementioned Sir Thomas Sopwith, as famous for the Sopwith Camel and Hurricane fighters as for his two challenges for the America’s Cup. Chairman of the Hawker Siddeley Aircraft Company – a vast military aviation and engineering conglomerate - Sopwith was one of a handful of people that could afford the tens of thousands of pounds required to mount a Cup Challenge in the 1930s.

In those days, the America’s Cup was not so much a yacht race (it still isn’t) as a financial and technological battle of will between the elite of British and American society. The Cup was first won by the yacht America in 1851, after a race around the Isle of Wight. By 1935, fifteen successive ‘Challengers’ (mostly British, but the Canadians had also tried) had failed to wrest the Cup back from the New York Yacht Club’s nominated ‘Defender’, in the one-on-one ‘match race’ format used.

It was Sir Thomas Sopwith’s Endeavour that was defeated in 1934 in a highly controversial match against Harold S. Vanderbilt’s Rainbow (‘Britannia rules the waves, but America waives the rules,’ had thundered one paper, and an American one at that). Sir Thomas was not settling for that result and by early-1936 - when the story of The Fulcrum Files opens - he already has a new boat in construction in Gosport, England.

During this time, Sopwith made some momentous decisions. I’m not going to tell you what they were here - you’ll have to read the book – but suffice to say that they were more than enough to hang a thriller on.

Spoiler Alert...

While I’m not going to spoil the main plot of The Fulcrum Files for you, I know that part of my fascination with historical fiction is working out what’s real and what’s made up – so I thought I’d give you a couple of teaser points from all the research that I did to write the book. But even these could spoil your enjoyment of the story if you haven’t read it – you have been warned.

The close association of the aero-industry to the world of yachting in the Solent area during the 1930s was genuine. Apart from Sopwith; Supermarine – builders of the Spitfire – had their offices and plant in Woolston on the Itchen in Southampton, and management kept a boat anchored on the river. The plane was tested at nearby Eastleigh airport.

Richard Fairey also built aeroplanes and owned and raced a J-class yacht. He did tentatively challenge for the America’s Cup in the K Class, but the New York Yacht Club turned him down. He had an aircraft factory in Hamble and post-war it did much to raise the popularity of sailing as a mass participation sport thanks to the Firefly dinghy, which is still around today.

Sopwith might well have won the Cup in 1934 if it wasn’t for a strike by many of his professional crew. They wanted a little more pay to make up for the late date of the Cup match, which meant that they would miss the beginning of the fishing season, losing their places on the boats. Sopwith refused to negotiate and took a largely amateur crew in their place – which many observers at the time believed to have made the difference in the 1934 Cup match. 

There was also a female MI5 agent who worked undercover amongst the right-leaning elements of the British establishment. Joan Miller was partly responsible for the rounding up of a spy ring centred on the Russian Tea Rooms in Kensington. Her boss was Maxwell Knight, head of the anti-political subversion unit and possibly Ian Fleming’s inspiration for ‘M’.

I hadn’t realised before I started The Fulcrum Files quite how much research was involved in historical fiction – everything has to be checked, nothing can be taken for granted. The research, like the writing, took a long time – one of these days I’m going to try and get a research/reading list together, but just the idea of typing it all out makes me feel tired.

If you are interested in the background events that provided the starting point for this book, then you might like to read Pure Luck, Alam Bramson’s biography of TOM Sopwith, and Joan Millers autobiography, One Girl’s War. As for me, I think I’ve read enough history for a while, the next one will definitely be set in the present day, even if it’s not set in contemporary culture...

Mark Chisnell ©