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The Smoke Spectres in the Smoke
Tony Broadbent London
Tony Broadbent London

Q&A with Cornelia Read

Q: Your website bio reveals that you were born in Windsor, England, and that you became an advertising copywriter and creative director after studying art in Late-Sixties London. Your novels The Smoke and Spectres in the Smoke evoke a haunting and powerful sense of that city in the immediately Post-War years. I've heard you speak with great passion about that era—the rationing that became far stricter following the Allies' victory, the "make-do-and-mend" sensibility necessary to survive its privations. But you've been at the heart of some other remarkable conjunctions of time and place, not least the afore-mentioned Late-Sixties London. What compelled you to mine this earlier period for your fiction?

The war—and its aftermath—was a time of heroes; ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times. It's been hailed as the time of "the Greatest Generation." They'd won the War, but now they had to survive the peace. And as with everyone else in Great Britain—born into the lengthy postwar period of austerity—I was steeped in the mythology of the times right from birth. So it represented an opportunity for me to go back and explore the country that'd made me, that'd formed me. There's that old saw, to 'always write what you know about.' So I peopled The Smoke stories with people and places I knew or had heard about. The character of Jethro the cat burglar was based on the father of an old friend of mine; my own father was the basis of another character. In Spectres In The Smoke, I also based one of the main characters on the father of another great friend who just happened to have served in the OSS during and after the War. I also included vignettes of Ian Fleming and David Niven—two 'heroes' of mine, as well as a very special hero, the writer and comedian Michael Bentine; the originator of the Goons; by all accounts, a truly lovely and remarkable man. Then I had them all meet up, back in London, back when they were all in their prime.

Q: I remember once hearing you mention you played in a rock band which regularly opened for bands like The Who, The Hollies, Mose Allison, and Alexis Korner back in the day when they played small clubs. I'm struck by the number of mystery writers crediting unrealized rock-star aspirations as their impetus for becoming authors. Any thoughts on what the connection might be?

Again it was a function of the times. The Beatles opened up the door for many a lad in Britain in the Sixties. I just jumped through the opening with a guitar in my hand, along with everyone else. Also, it was a great way to meet girls or 'birds' as they were called back then. And so I think it's not so much a case of why so many mystery writers wanted to play in a rock or blues band—almost everyone did, including one or two future Presidents and Prime Ministers, so I'm told.

Q: Like many writers, I'm fascinated by the world of advertising. You got into the industry at what strikes me as a pivotal moment in its history—working with the likes of David Ogilvy as Marshall McLuhan was in the ascendant, and tackling the collective consumer unconscious, so to speak, during a period of radical economic and social transformation. How did those experiences shape your view of the world, and your writing?

We all read Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders. And McLuhan was and still is a seminal influence. Ogilvy represented everything that was patrician and British—very snobbish in manner and allusions—and that of course appealed to all on both side of the Atlantic who aspired to being perceived as being from and of a better class. Me, I couldn't wait to get away from it. I was much more attracted to the new kind of simple, direct, witty—what was once called "thumb in the eye" school of advertising—that came out of New York, in the Sixties—where advertising grew out of the benefits of the product, rather than something that was applied cosmetically. All of which translated into greater truth in advertising.

Bill Bernbach of DDB, here in the US—and David Bernstein in the UK—were prime instigators of this new wave. And in time, I did work at DDB here in the US and for David's own agency in the UK. One of Bill Bernbach's famous sayings, about what you say 'yes' or 'no' to in advertising or in life, was that "A principle isn't a principle until it costs you money." It was and is a great guide.

Q: You've been quoted as saying that "advertising gives one a pretty good base from which to start writing in 'long story' form... [since] Advertising is really about determining and then delivering a series of propositions—or telling a story—clearly, concisely, and honestly"— excellent advice for those seeking to write a compelling novel. From an advertising perspective, can you offer further guidance on what writers might do to foster a book's success AFTER publication?

There's a saying I'm known for: "A brand that isn't famous isn't a brand, it's a commodity." So the advice of that great thriller writer Lee Child holds especially true, "If you possibly can, put every penny of your book advance into promoting your name and work; do everything and anything to get 'the message' out to booksellers, as well as book buyers." If no one knows about you or your book your chances of present or future success are considerably diminished.

Brad Meltzer said the same thing when I saw him once at a mystery writers' conference. He said that he got every member of his family, all his friends and their friends, too, to spread the good word. And 'word of mouth' as it's called is still the very best advertising medium there is. Just as long as the product stands up to inspection. As David Bernstein once said: "The last thing a bad product needs, is good advertising."

Q: Another advertising question... You've done a great deal of work in the area of brand strategy, observing that writers such as Graham Greene and Shakespeare could be said to have created a successful brand "because they always deliver a rewarding experience." What are some other tenets of establishing a successful brand that might be useful for authors to think on?

'Always deliver a rewarding experience,' in many ways, is still the only tenet to a 'brand's' true success, as it's the key to everything else that follows. It's certainly the key to continued success—for which read sales—in the writing business. In our case, the only 'brand' directive is to continue to write intriguing stories that are ultimately so satisfying that readers are compelled to come back for more. And the key to that, as was taught to me in a class by the marvelous Marilyn Wallace, is 'character.' To quote Lee again, and my great friend Jacqueline Winspear, it's not what the protagonist does in the plot that's important, it's what the plot does to the protagonist—how he or she is changed by events. It's that, that brings people back again and again to the latest 'Jack Reacher' or 'Maisie Dobbs.' A good definition of a brand is: "All promises made, all promises kept; and then some." Lee and Jacky are writers who deliver that, in spades.

Q: I'm at work on a second series novel, grappling with the sophomore effort's proverbial challenges. Now that your second book has been published, do you have any hard-earned nuggets of wisdom you'd be willing to pitch out to those of us still struggling toward shore?

Yes. Just keep on rowing, even though most of the time you can't see the shore, for looking. But do remember to take out a compass—or sight by the stars—every now and then to make sure you're not going around in circles. As an old salt once told me, if you know the point you're supposed to be heading for, come wind or storm, hell or high water, you'll eventually get there in the end—just as long as you keep on sailing on.

Mystery Writers of America—Northern California Chapter Lineup—Q&A with Cornelia Read


Tony Broadbent