How my life changed in a moment

Robert Mawson left for France with his belongings packed in one car, ready for an all-or-nothing shot at writing fiction.

Steven Russell

Robert Mawson left for France with his belongings packed in one car, ready for an all-or-nothing shot at writing fiction. The story he dreamed up had publishers salivating - and was later made into a movie.

He tells Steven Russell about finding his niche

LET'S celebrate Robert Mawson as an example of how someone from Suffolk can make it to the creative Big League. (We'll claim him as a local despite the fact he's originally from London - journalistic licence and all that.) His novel The Lazarus Child, a story of hope and despair after a road accident leaves a girl in a coma, was made into a film starring Andy Garcia and Geraldine McEwan. A subsequent tale, the set-in-Suffolk Under an English Heaven published under pen name Robert Radcliffe, was a Sunday Times top 10 best-seller, shifting 160,000 copies.

It wasn't always champagne and fanfares, though. There have been low moments and struggles, false starts and wrong turnings - plenty of them. It took the former commercial pilot several decades to find his true calling - stepping away from the corporate communications business he'd co-founded, selling up, and leaving Suffolk in the late 1990s for a borrowed cottage in western France for what he viewed as a last throw of the literary dice.

Ready to eke out his money, he would give himself a year to write two novels. “If I couldn't get them published, I'd give up and go back and try to get a proper job.”

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Success came quicker than he could have dreamed. The Lazarus Child was finished in five months and sent to his agent, who thought it phenomenal. It took the Frankfurt Book Fair by storm and prompted bidding wars. “I'd get strange messages from my agent, as I was sitting in this hovel - beautiful, but nonetheless a hovel! - saying 'So and so's just offered a floor of 300,000 for the UK rights, and the Americans want a bit of it',” remembers Robert. “It just went ballistic. Within a week my life was completely changed.”

Now, with a handful of published novels under his belt and a new one out, he's re-rooted in Suffolk - married, and with a young daughter. And always grateful for his good luck. “There are far better writers out there than me who have never been published - or get published and realise they can't make a full-time living from it.” (When all was totted up, for instance, his first novel brought in �1,500. Not a great return for two years' work.)

Born in London in 1956, the son of a doctor, Robert left school not really knowing what he wanted to do. He did apply to advertising agencies, but by the time one asked him in for a chat he'd already thrown in his lot at Lloyd's of London, working for a company insuring racehorses. He realised early on it wasn't how he wanted to spend his life and left after about three years in the City.

After sailing to the Mediterranean and back in his dad's boat he had odd jobs, including one with employment agency Brook Street - by this time realising it was with words that his future lay. “The trouble is, you can't just say at school 'I want to be a writer, please'; nor can you do writing as a regular degree. I do feel strongly there should be a better mechanism for identifying people who might have the right aptitude and helping them make a career.”

One or two teachers had noticed a spark, but he did “the wrong A-levels” - science. “You need someone in authority, whom you respect, to say 'Have you considered this . . .? You're good at this; why are you doing that . . .?' A little nudge at the right moment can make a huge difference.”

The next change took him closer to writing, as an editorial assistant on a small yachting magazine in London called Boat. It had a team of three, which meant everyone did a bit of everything and thus learned fast. Unfortunately, Boat sank in about 1979/80 and he got a job as a copywriter at Grigsmore, a big advertising agency in Ipswich.

He joined the house newspaper division, working for clients like Volvo and BASF. True, it wasn't dreaming up your own fiction, but he honed disciplines such as writing to length and hitting deadlines, as well as finding intriguing angles to make articles about industrial vacuum cleaners an interesting read! He also satisfied a yearning by taking up flying as a hobby, with lessons at Ipswich Airport in two-seater Cessnas. Unfortunately, Grigsmore encountered turbulence in the mid-1980s and Robert lost his job. Thoughts turned to a career in aviation. He racked up flying hours fairly cheaply in America, then came back and did an instructor's rating before getting a job as an instructor at Ipswich. Over a couple of years he built up his hours to the magic 700 needed for a commercial pilot's licence. Next came a job based at Norwich Airport, working for an air taxi company. Daytime work often involved flying oil workers to Amsterdam, from where they'd take helicopters to the oil platforms; at night there were contracts to distribute newspapers around Britain and northern Europe.

One day he spotted a Bedford company's ad for airship pilots. Robert spent eight years flying them - mostly in the United States, although he did help set up a passenger-flying operation over London. There was time in Australia and the Far East, and at three Olympic Games. Airships were very different beasts: heavy - “You're moving controls like barn doors!” - and greatly affected by the weather.

With the job involving lots of travelling, and time in hotels, he used off-duty hours to write short stories, articles he hoped to see published in the aviation press, “and working up very bad ideas for thrillers”. Then, in 1990, the airship firm went bust and he lost his job for the third time. “At that point I thought 'I'm never going to work for anyone else again! I'm going to work for me. I'm fed up being made redundant!'” He did complete a novel - A Ship Called Hope - and sent it to publishers. When they rejected it he tossed it into a drawer and forgot about it.

By this stage Robert was living near Leiston. He decided to start a business as a PR consultant, using an old building in the garden and his trusty Amstrad word-processor. He approached some of the clients he knew from his Grigsmore days and said “I'll write your brochures for you” - corporate communications, basically. It quickly took off and he realised he needed a partner with graphic design skills. He met a creative guy called Glenn Etheridge, hit it off, and they formed a joint venture that became EMA Design. The partnership was a great success, working for clients such as the Port of Felixstowe, health authorities and councils.

Robert was thus back to a kind of writing role. “But the trouble was I had this itch that was still scratching.” After a couple of years he retrieved that novel from the drawer and sent it out again. An agent loved it and vowed to find a publisher. It took another year or so, but the story eventually saw the light of day . . . and sold “about 50 copies!” A Ship Called Hope is about a middle class man who loses his job. London is too expensive, so his family moves to Suffolk, where his wife gets a job and he slowly falls apart. “Very much Thatcher-era stuff,” grins its author. Still, it was a start. Three years on and it was decision time: he could stick with EMA and help it continue to grow, or step away and give writing a proper crack. Robert chose the latter. “Give it one last shot. If it fails, it fails.” Glenn was wonderfully understanding, he says. “We came to an arrangement and effectively he bought my half of the business.” EMA Design continues to this day.

The would-be writer, who had a little cottage at Aldeburgh, sold his few assets and departed for that borrowed house near Nantes , , , where The Lazarus Child came together and sowed the seeds of a brighter future.

Robert says he'd gone through a bad period of depression. “The big switch, in a way, was making the decision to leave Etheridge Mawson. Which was crazy, because I had a successful company, doing well, and yet I was clinically depressed.” Any idea why? “There was a marriage failing, there was a big itch not being scratched, I could feel my life moving on in more of a tram-lined direction - a perfectly OK direction, but deep down I hadn't got to where I was supposed to be going.” He recalls the day he left England. “As I got onto the ferry, even though I was going into the unknown, with virtually nothing, it was like a weight lifting and I began to feel better almost from then.” With the success of The Lazarus Child, about 18 months was taken up with sorting out the foreign editions, doing publicity tours and negotiating the film deal. Robert didn't write anything for well over a year. On the plus side, in the late 1990s he rented and then bought in Aldeburgh. He met wife-to-be Kate, too, “and things started to get back together”. With writing, though, he struggled to find the groove. Publishers would have bitten off his hand for another Lazarus, but he didn't want to cover the same ground twice. Nothing clicked for about three years, as he wrote a lot that didn't find favour. “Too dark” was an oft-heard verdict.

Bubbling in the background was that love of aviation, and Robert was intrigued by the arrival in the East Anglian countryside of American airmen and aircraft during the Second World War. Here, perhaps, was the backcloth to a new tale.

He borrowed a bothy in Caithness for a month to get his ideas straight and an outline sketched, then came back and blitzed it. His agent liked it, but suggested sending it out pseudonymously as the historical drama was very different from his previous contemporary offering. “Robert Radcliffe” was decided on - his father's middle name - though one publisher twigged the style!

Under an English Heaven came out nearly eight years ago, followed swiftly by Upon Dark Waters - another story set in wartime.

Robert then had a bit of a pause, during which he and Kate had Eva, now three. He took a year out and became something of a house-dad.

Then his publisher suggested a 100,000-word novel about the Royal Flying Corps during the first war. Being commissioned was a pleasant feeling: writers can toil for years on their own ideas, only for someone to say “We don't like it.” Across The Blood-Red Skies has just been published and he's beavering away on a second commission, about the dambusters, with the manuscript due to be delivered by June. The popularity of this genre is down to a desire to escape reality for a while, he feels: “going back to a simpler era where there's adventure, romance, and good was good and evil was evil - not like today, where there are very grey areas. We are currently the bad guys, and people feel confused by that”.

A book takes him about a year: six months of research and planning, including writing biographical profiles of his characters, and six focused months of writing.

When the time comes to start tapping the keys, Robert's champing at the bit to get the story down. He's an early riser: the alarm clock shatters the quiet at 5.45am and, armed with a cup of coffee, he strolls into the centre of Framlingham, where he rents an office. At his desk by 6am, he takes short breaks for breakfast and lunch, before calling it a day by about 4.30pm.

And then, one day, the computer keys fall silent.

“I have a 'magic' yellow folder and I always surprise my wife. I print it off, stick it in there, and leave it for her to find, with a little yellow sticker: Finished! We crack a bottle and she's allowed to read it.”

Kate's a part-time primary school teacher. The couple spent about a decade in a 15th Century timber-framed pile at rural Monk Soham whose gaps let in the cold and about two years ago moved to Framlingham and a more modern home.

So why does writing give him a buzz? “I don't know . . . I wish I could say that it does make me feel complete and satisfied, but I'm a driven person and, as my wife will tell you, when I'm doing it I'm not necessarily a better person! Particularly when I'm right in the thick of it during the writing phase, I tend to 'look inwards' and put in very long hours,” says Robert, who also has three grown-up children.

He ponders further. “It's having self-worth, isn't it, I suppose? Everybody wants to feel justified they're doing something worthwhile for themselves and their family, whatever it is they're doing.”

Lights, camera, action . . . and on to DVD!

NOT only did Robert Mawson's make-or-break novel The Lazarus Child become a publishing success, it attracted the interest of the movie world.

The film, starring Andy Garcia and Geraldine McEwan, was shot mostly in Calgary, Canada, and Robert was flown out for a week. Shooting took place about six years after he'd written the book, and his visit brought emotions and memories flooding back. It was weird, for example, walking onto a set of the child's bedroom that until then had existed only in his imagination.

The deal he signed ceded editorial control. He wasn't thrilled about some ferocious pruning, though acknowledges cuts were needed to make a screen version possible.

Ultimately, the distributor wasn't over-enamoured with the dark story and insisted on changes and reshoots. Robert says it ended up being cobbled about and mirrored less and less the original. “It finally got released, of a sort, in America, where it bombed; then went straight to DVD!”

That said, he notices it's now starting to develop a bit of a cult status. “They did the best they could,” he reflects. “I've got it, I've seen it, it's OK . . . there you go!”

The man with two names

As Robert Mawson . . .

A Ship Called Hope: A middle-class man's world falls apart after he loses his job.

The Lazarus Child: Jack and Alison Heywood's marriage is bumpy - then their two children are involved in a road accident that leaves seven-year-old Frankie in a coma. They learn about an experimental and controversial neurological clinic in America. As time runs out, “it soon becomes apparent that only a supreme act of sacrifice can make a miracle happen . . .”

As Robert Radcliffe . . .

Under an English Heaven: In 1943 the Suffolk village of Bedenham finds a huge American bomber base on its doorstep. Teacher Heather Garrett's husband has been missing for 18 months and a friendship with troubled American pilot John Hooper sets tongues wagging. The flyer, meanwhile, faces danger in the skies.

Upon Dark Waters: Naval officer Michael Villiers, son of a socialite and a British diplomat, is brought up in Uruguay. During the war, British diplomats want him to make the most of his family connections in the neutral South American country. In a conflict, he's told, everyone has to take sides.

Across The Blood-Red Skies (Little, Brown: �14.99): With the average survival period of a First World War reconnaissance pilot just 18 hours. George Duckwell is on borrowed time. He forms an awkward friendship with Canadian ace pilot William MacBride . . . who falls for George's sweetheart, nurse Emily.