AT TIMES, Colin Bowles must blink and wonder just who the hell he really is. And where he is. Or he might, if he weren't so damn busy - writing 26 books in 15 years, making multiple research field trips to exotic locations overseas, spending weeks deep delving in libraries, maintaining a watching brief on international affairs, tending a two-daughter family and an overriding passion for scub-diving ... it's the work of two men.
Just as well then that he is. Since 1984, as Colin Bowles, he has written ten books of satirical fiction and non-fiction (including the 100,000-copy-selling Wits Dictionary and G'Day, Teach Yourself Australian), as well as TV and radio scripts and a plethora of magazine articles and columns. As Colin Falconer, he has since 1990 published eight contemporary thrillers, four historical thrillers and four children's books. There's also the crime thriller all but finished, and another historical tract in preparation ...
There's something so archetypically Australian about his story. There, in relative isolation amid the eucalypts and plaguing kangaroos on his five-acre property on the outskirts of Dunsborough, a 3000-strong community near the coast in West Australia's Margaret River region, and nigh unknown in his adopted country, this English-born author has fashioned a library of topical cliff-hangers that are published in Britain and sell all over Europe.
Venom, Deathwatch, Fury, Opium, Triad, Dangerous and Disappeared are an intimate Cook's Tour of the world's trouble-spots, where the itinerary includes Argentina's Dirty War, South-East Asia's Golden Triangle, Bosnia's cruel carnage, the drug warlord zones of Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, South America's revolutionary roundabout ...
But it's his recent forays into factional history that have become the real story - his Harem has moved nearly 200,000 copies in Germany alone, another 150,000 in France, binloads-full in Poland, Spain, Romania, Greece and Slovakia. Its successor, Aztec, did almost as well, while the demand for his latest, Daughters of the Khans, has his agent, Tim Curnow, aglow with anticipation.
The irony, of course, is that in Australia and Britain, his books do respectable business (certainly by literary standards) but not sensationally by mass-market standards - say 10,000 copies here on average, about 25,000 in Britain.
For Bowles, that discrepancy is cause for some angst: why can't he reach the English language market with the same spectacular success as he does in translation?
The answer, he suspects, is promotional exposure. Or the lack of it. "Because I'm published in Britain and exported to Australia, I'm seen as a foreign author here; yet in England I'm also considered a foreign author. It's a weird situation, and I do get frustrated by it: to be in Dunsborough writing big sellers for Europe without being recognised in my own country ..."
Especially painful, he says, because he knows the demand for his kind of "good entertaining story with absorbing interpretive elements, using facts and history" is high here.
He had always suspected that his British publishers didn't really have huge faith in him, or rather that "they didn't think I could do much better than the numbers I was getting there. They were always very pleased to sign me up, but then they would just launch the books with no fanfare, and no promotion. They appear to rely on the 'track record' - you sold this many last time, you'll sell that same number this time ... and it doesn't seem to matter if it's a heap of crap or Dostoyevskian."
His wake-up call came, he says, "when the Germans gave my books window displays in bookshops and ran full-page ads in papers - suddenly I was selling 200,000 copies. And it made me think that maybe I could do better everywhere than I have been ..."
He stresses that "I don't want to sound just like another whingeing author, because every one of us would have a similar tale. And frankly, I am really pleased just to be earning a living from writing. But at the same time, every writer wants to be read by as big a market as possible ..."
Now 45, Bowles is not the stereotypical cloistered aesthete. His athlete's body radiates a gangly energy, while his mop of grey-tinged curls frames far-reaching farmer's eyes. There's a touch of the larrikin, too, an enthusiasm for seeing the absurdities in life and for not taking himself too seriously. His knockabout history has its own air of fiction about it. Various, sometimes simultaneous, incarnations have seen him as professional soccer player, barman, taxi-driver, folk singer, ambulance driver, scriptwriter, journalist, adman, humorist, political satirist, struggling author.
He grew up a virtual only child near Southend, in those days a small fishing village outside of London: "My half-brother was 11 years older so I pretty well inhabited my own imagination as a boy, very quiet, shy, a loner who read everything from classics to James Bond". His ambition was to play professional soccer, and he was good enough to "play for English county schoolboys teams and in trials for leagues clubs but I was never going to make league football ... the leap was too high." He was good enough, however, to be recruited in 1974 as a club pro goalkeepeer for a Perth team, and play for the state. "It was meant to be for a couple of years, but I so loved the place I never really went back. If you pick your country, it gives you a real sense of belonging."
At 26 and just married, his Perth-born wife Helen "said to me if you really want to be a writer, why don't you try. She convinced me I could, then supported me. It had been a secret ambition, but I'd have done nothing without her push.
"I spent the first four years earning ... virtually nothing from it. I did a bit of copywriting, drove taxis, whatever it took to keep going. We went to Sydney and I started writing humour feature articles." He got a break on the now defunct National Times when Patrick Cook went to England for six months "and they wanted someone to write his satire columns. It was a gamble but I had nothing to lose. It helped establish me - then I did some TV work, some radio, returned to Perth, kept plugging away at the magazines, started to write the books and have them published."
Simple really. Or maybe not. Whenever he returns to Sydney and "walks through Hyde Park, I say to myself, 'look, there's the bench where I sat and thought about throwing myself under a bus all those times - it just seemed like such a huge mountain to conquer, just getting an article published, then just getting a book published. I still sometimes pinch myself and wonder if I'm dreaming all this ..."
Which brings us back to the reality of his one-man publishing industry, and its dual-drive authormobility. A matter of marketing mechanics, apparently. "I was writing satire as Bowles but when I began thriller-writing, my publishers thought I needed a different identity to prevent confusion." He chose Falconer, he says, for its family resonances: "It's my wife's name, it was easy to spell and in a small way it's an acknowledgement of what a help she has been." And that productivity? "I'm not a tortured author, put it that way," he laughs. "I do write fast when I get an idea. My background's in advertising and journalism, and in both those you can't stuff around."
His philosophy of writing, I suggest, involves plot, pace, colour, movement ... "Yeah, spinning a whole load of plates at once. For me, every book starts and finishes with the characters. If people are intrigued by them, you have a book.
"I like a theme I can get my teeth into, something that interests me, that's important and has not been written about in depth. Then the characters have to be people you'd really want to read about, then comes the suspense, the visuals, the dialogue ...
"I don't want to sound pompous or as putting literary tags on myself, but writing does give me a handle on the world. When I write, I get a feeling that there's a sense and a meaning to things. "And even if some people dismiss my books as only airport novels, they are still an ordering of the world, still a filtering of meanings. I hope that people see more in them than glib critical categorisations."
This article was first published in The Weekend Australian.
Copyright © Murray Waldren 1998
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