Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Michael Gilbert -- the last gentleman amateur?

Michael Gilbert, who died last week aged 93, was an English gentleman of the old school. He was also a fairly well known crime writer, and although he was never a big international name, like Ian Fleming, he was honoured as a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America in 1988.

Both the Telegraph and the Times published full obituaries, and the Telegraph's is the one to read if you want details. For a bibliography, go to our faithful friend Fantastic Fiction.

The point I want to make here, however, is that Michael Gilbert was a prolific novelist, producing at least a book a year for several decades, and yet he was never a full-time writer. After service in World War II, he joined the law firm of Trower Still & Keeling, becoming a partner in 1952. He remained with them until his retirement in 1983, at the age of 71.

How then did he produce his books?

Simple. He used to commute to London from his home in Kent. The journey took 30 minutes. In the mornings he wrote two foolscap pages (about 400 words), and in the evenings he did research and planning. Every novel was meticulously plotted before he began to write.

There is a lesson there, I think, for those who believe that a three-year MFA degree course is necessary in order to bring forth one's first literary child.

I last met Michael Gilbert at a large conference for crime-fiction fans in London, in 1990. At the final dinner, attended by several hundred people as I recall, Michael was given a lifetime-achievement award and I won a prize for a stage play. (Spykiller, if you're interested.)

I noticed that Michael did not hang about afterwards. He received his award gracefully, made a short speech, and then left. No doubt he had a train to catch. And 400 words to write in the morning.

1 comment:

Kate Allan said...

Yes, I commute into London from Hertfordshire and I can get a couple of hundred words down in my notebooks on the way in - although it's harder when I can't get a seat on the train! Most of my first novel got written in this way.