The Godfather: Peter Corris on The Gulliver Fortune
I’m sometimes asked which of my books has meant the most to me. My glib answer, because it made me the most money, has been The Empty Beach, the fifth Cliff Hardy book, which went through three or four printings before it was filmed. Although the film was a failure, it prompted a few more printings, such is the power of publicity. But in fact the book that I feel most attached to is the first of my historical novels, The Gulliver Fortune, published in 1989.
Along with hard-boiled crime fiction, historical novels had always been my favourite recreational reading. My first attempt at a novel, mercifully universally rejected, was an historical novel. Having achieved some success with the hard-boiled PI genre, I had the ambition to try my hand at historical fiction. I had, after all, trained and practised as an academic historian.
The story fell into my hands when a technician came to fix the gas pipes in the house I had in Leichhardt. He was working in a room filled with books and when I told him that I was writer he remarked casually that he had a story. It’s more than 25 years ago now and the details are a little unclear to me, but I believe he said that his grandparents had emigrated from England with a large brood of children and had died on the voyage. The children had been allotted to other emigrants, had landed at different places in Australia, and most had never connected again with their siblings.
My own grandparents had emigrated with a smaller clutch of children, but I couldn’t help thinking, ‘What if?’
The bones of a story were presented to me but it took some time for this to grab me and, to my regret, I never learned the name of the man who provided the impetus. I thanked him as an unknown presence in the dedication to the book that resulted.
At the time, with a mortgage and three children, I was writing at least two and possibly three of the series characters I’d created – Hardy, secret agent Ray Crawley and rapscallion Richard Browning – in order to make a living, but I remember that I tried to clear my desk to devote myself to this kernel of a story.
It was a clear departure from anything I had done before. It had to span continents and decades and I had to keep track of who was whose grandson and who was whose niece or nephews. The story revolved around a ‘lost’ masterpiece by the celebrated English artist JMW Turner, with big money involved.
The separated siblings had led widely different lives in different contexts. But of course I drew on my own experiences of time in the Pacific islands, London, Europe and other places as well as my research into subjects like pugilism and World War I to flesh out the story. With no knowledge of the provenance of paintings, I consulted experts on the subject. I immersed myself in places I knew about but in times I had only read about. I found it exhilarating to write an historical novel in the way I imagined those I’d admired – Henry Treece, Georgette Heyer, George Shipway and others – had done.
My agent at the time, Rosemary Creswell, was enthusiastic about the manuscript I produced and was able to sell it to Transworld Publishing for a handsome advance. The plan was that it should be published simultaneously in Australia, England and the US and attract international attention. The advance was my biggest payout since The Empty Beach and I was buoyant, thinking this could be my ‘breakthrough’ book. The publishers stumped up for a launch party and the well-produced hardback featured a flattering photograph of me at the age of 47.
The book was well reviewed in Australia but the English version never appeared and the American edition was a tawdry paperback with inappropriate sexual motifs. A very brief flutter of interest was shown by the office of a film producer. I met the producer himself not long after at an unrelated party and he, completely unaware that an approach had been made by his representative, told me that he had no interest in films with an historical theme. I never again took any film producers, male or female, at their word.
I continued to write historical novels and I still feel they are among my best books, but eventually the ongoing success of the Cliff Hardy series eclipsed them all – something to be grateful for but not altogether pleased about. The writing life has its ups and downs. The ups are the enjoyment readers have had from one’s work, the downs are the feeling that some books could have been better served.
At the risk of sounding self-promoting, I should add that The Gulliver Fortune, having failed disastrously to sell its large print run, is now available as an e-book, but at a very low price that is unlikely to redeem its initial promise.