My guest today is British journalist Jack Owen who transplanted himself to the colonies – that is, North America, the United States. He’s been writing for a long time (we won’t ask how long!) Most but not all of his writing has to do with historical – mostly nautical – events.
He says that his books, anthologies, articles and short-stories are available online in ‘E and Tree’ versions, adding that ‘in the course of seeking information for stories about everything from Mushroom Growing to Murder, he has sailed oceans, climbed mountains and bent the ear of many bartenders. Cops and crooks have shoved guns in his face, society dames have hired him to ghost-write their life-stories. Editors have hired, fired and hired him again.’
Jack has written for publications as diverse as the National Enquirer to the National Fisherman and Sports Digest to Modern Maturity, ‘while playing many roles Upstairs and Downstairs to get the story.’
In a parallel life, sometimes serendipitously merging one with the other, he has fostered a second love and livelihood in antiquarian and contemporary books. As an active bookseller and appraiser in the late 1970s he has been a charter member, officer and former president of the FABA (Florida Antiquarian Booksellers Association).
As a fellow Brit, I’m interested to know where you originated – doubtless some seaside resort?
London, but raised in the deep south at Eastbourne at war's end. It is promoted by PR people as the 'Suntrap of the South'. They are far less keen to record nearby Beachy Head, which shelters use from Atlantic storms from the west, as the Suicide Leap Site of the World. A fun place to scramble around as a child. Also, while every schoolboy can tell you the date of the Battle of Hastings. 1066, its location close by where Pevensey Castle ruins still stand to the east, was a playground too.
I served in the Royal Navy and I understand you did too. Tell us about that, please!
My time in the service came to an abrupt end shortly after the incident of the chipping hammer which broached the hull of a very famous frigate. She had been instrumental in sinking six U-Boats on one sortie. Honest, it was an accident.
Jack buried in a book en route to Suez...
Presumably, when you left ‘the Andrew’, you became a journalist. Or did you tackle lots of other writerly-useful jobs before that?
While on one Christmas leave out of Pompey (Portsmouth, UK – Ed) the editor of the Eastbourne Gazette allowed me to accompany staff reporters working court cases, council meetings, fires, accidents, and sob-stories. It also exposed me to the news-room hierarchy, and how to prop up a bar until my round had been bought in. (I wonder if any of my tankards still exist?) It made a change from being a temp at the Post Office sorting greeting cards and filling the coffers of local pubs with the cash money earned.
BTW, my first published news story was a three-paragraph squib about a UXB I found at the foot of Beachy Head, while beachcombing.
You were an investigative crime reporter and boating columnist in south Florida for half a century. Any tales you can tell about that? How did you get those jobs?
Working as a general reporter at the Camberley News when I got out of the service introduced me to the crime beat. My area included Broadmoor Institute for the Criminally Insane, and Sandhurst Military Academy, where the Windsor Royals and Hussein of Jordan did their square-bashing and got into trouble. Neither place readily doled out information, so tipsters were imperative. My expense accounts were sometimes a tad beer-stained and inventive. I broke several 'Stop Press' stories for Fleet Street evening papers, ahead of staff and freelance reporters, despite the Union edicts.
My greatest challenge was extracting a civil word from the spokesman for Scotland Yard, a Scot. He once acknowledged I would have to haul a multi-stabbed body across his threshold before he'd confirm foul play to any query I posed
America, with its 'Freedom of the Press' mantra in the early 1960s, was like happy hour for an alcoholic, for anyone working the police beat.
Jack on the job...
I’m about to start reading your first Porter saga, Midshipman Porter – In Harm’s Way. Is the Porter family based on actual persons?
Very much so. He's been my naval hero since I discovered him in the mid-1970s and accumulated quite a collection of and by him. His stepson was David Glasgow Farragut, of 'Damn the Torpedoes' legend, and his son David Dixon Porter was the second American Admiral (after his stepbrother) and Superintendent of the newly-created U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. He also was gung-ho writer of boys’ adventure stories.
Have you been tempted to use fictional and real characters in your Porter saga?
Family members percolated through the navy and political scene at a time when it was a very small pond and, seemingly, everyone knew everyone of consequence. The kid who became commodore was no squeaky-clean character, got into plenty of physical and political scrapes, but had more chutzpah than Horatio Hornblower and John Paul Jones combined.
I see that you like delving into so-called faction. And I take it that The Jekyll Island Enigma is a case in point. Can you tell us about that?
Jekyll Island as a winter resort for society was a precursor to Palm Beach by half a century. The 19th century clientele preferred solitude among their own kind. The 20th century generation, which faced, fought in and survived the First World War, tried to squeeze as much life out of every day – and night – as it could. Both upper levels of society, at home and abroad, were highly motivated to make the most, and keep it, as they could. Cutting corners, at the risk of other people's lives was part of the cost of doing business. Patriotism was fine and dandy, providing it didn't interfere with profits.
Wow. That sounds like today's breaking news!
There are plenty of examples on file of businessmen dealing with the enemy. In the Jekyll Island Club, the primary character of the story is a living example of a bygone era,. So are the menus and mores of an affluent, structured society where wealth, not accent, separated Americans.
On a more general note, it is said that ‘A life without books isn’t a life.’ As a book-seller, you’re bound to endorse that, I think. Do you know how many books on average you read in a year?
Maybe 30-40 fiction, but hit-skip, rummage, note, copy, post-it, hundreds of non-fiction books, manuscripts, files, ledgers, whatever in research. I prefer hard-copy versions to on-line cut and paste. I can have a semi-circle of books open to the appropriate place, ready to pounce on, instantly, several layers down a pile. I still don't trust computers. They too often get hiccups, freeze and die.
What are you reading at present?
Have three Kindle high-octane (shoot 'em up – sai 'em down) books on the go, at various stages. Have just read hard copy of J.K. Rowling's play The Cursed Child. Good luck with that. It seemed forced and recycled, but as a play for a night out in the West End, on a par with 'Peter Pan' in panto.
Currently on the coffee table: John Le Carré's The Night Manager; Stephan Talty's Empire of Blue Water (Henry Morgan's pirate army) and e. john robinson's(cq) Paint the Sea and Shoreline in Watercolors Using Special Effects. So far, I've spent the past two days painting the roof!
The Night Manager is one of my favourite books, Jack. I hope all that roof-painting won’t be affected by Hurricane Matthew!
As you clearly have a nautical bent, the prospect of being stranded on a desert island must have occurred to you before. What book would you take to a desert island?
Can you recall what book gave you the reading bug?
Probably Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea, or C.S. Forester's The African Queen for pleasure, and any Mother Earth Catalog from the 60s for survival..
Ah, Monsarrat. I read quite a few of his, and particularly enjoyed The Cruel Sea and The Kappillan of Malta. I was fascinated how Forester’s book and the film differed, too.
What book left you cold?
James Joyce's Ulysses.
Say no more… In most cases, writers are also avid readers. Some readers stick to a particular genre of fiction, or even eschew fiction and prefer non-fiction. Besides local history and nautical fiction, what other books do you gravitate towards reading?
Basically, if it’s a book, I'll dip into it. As a former bookseller I had to get the gist lodged in my brain box for inquisitive customers posing inane questions like. 'Have you read every book in here?'
'Only the ones written from left to right', was my stock response.
In real life I have an eclectic range of interests and an interest in what makes other people tick, so I can pass it on in stories or articles.
Writers were readers first. Then they decide to write. Your naval career probably didn’t draw you to writing; if so, then what did?
Frustration, possibly. When I'd run through all my favourite authors’ books and nothing fulfilled my need, I began writing what I wanted to read.
Can you describe your writing process? What comes first, for example – the character, the plot, or a central theme or idea?
It’s taken a while to wean away from the reportage and journalism formal formula and the 'crop to the top' pyramid where the essence of the story is contained in the first paragraph. I always thought that was an evil plot schemed up by headline writers to make it so much easier for them to absorb the essence to conjure up the type font to fit the column count.
The bridge from newspaper stories and articles based on fact, to readable entertainments built upon figments of my imagination, was creating short stories. Fact and fiction is the difference between a judge recording the specs to choose a fishing tournament winner; or measuring the applause for the same story as told by the fisherman - after a few pints.
My previous non-fiction transition to faction books have been built around real, but embellished, incidents. Currently I'm twenty-three chapters into a 'pantser', and I'm having a blast. Nothing is planned. When it’s finished and I read it I'll find out whether its worthwhile putting into print.
In the past people asked: “What’s your motivation?”
My response has been: “The mortgage payment, works for me.”
Today it would be: “I can’t not write.”
I’d agree there, Jack. Many writers are driven to write. Who is your favourite character from one of your books and why?
Ballsy people who survive and inspire despite the odds. The much married Millie Talmadge in The Jekyll Island Enigma and the stowaway kid and his cat – Sammy Taylor and Bambino aboard The Yacht America in Florida's Civil War play second fiddle in the story, but remain admirable characters in my heart.
Where do you find inspiration?
Wherever and whenever a 'What if?' question comes to mind.
Some can be quite mundane; conjecturing about the mom in the check-out line using food stamps: are the kids a burden or a bonus? Others might be: Does all the Florida Lottery Money really go toward education? Or: Why do dogs chase squirrels?
When pitching for reporting jobs, freelance working around the USA, I’d offer to find a story before the editor finished his/her cigarette. Just a look around the newsroom was inspiring enough: the little guy in the sports section, the overweight gal working the Women's Department; the retired Veteran newsman writing daily obits. Never had to leave the heat/AC to make a point.
We’re not talking Pulitzer stuff here. Although I may be one of few newsmen to get a tummy-rub from Roxanne Pulitzer – on record (see pic below).
Yes they are. One scornful columnist lauded Palm Beach – An Irreverent Guide, adding the caveat 'though, ineptly illustrated by the author'. It sold 1,000 copies per season for a decade on The Island, before Palm Beach Scandals – the First 100 Years was launched on the Joan Rivers Show. No illustrations – it died after a year or so in print.
Do you have a favourite quotation?
“They Also Serve Who Only Stand and Wait”, a Noel Coward patriotic slogan meant for non-combatants during WWII. But it also worked for me undercover, if you added “And Listen.”
And it was a pleasure listening to you, Jack. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.
Jack's author-page on Amazon is here