If you find yourself sitting across from Paul Fraser Collard on the 6:20 a.m. to London Stratford, you’ll notice his suit and urgent typing and assume he’s catching up on emails, perhaps putting the finishing touches to a report.
You’d be wrong.
The 39-year-old banker has been using his daily commute from Kent to write a series of historical adventure novels with a plucky impostor for a hero. The first installment, published as “The Scarlet Thief,” is set during the Crimean War.
I meet Collard at Deutsche Bank, where he’s director of the agency securities lending desk. In an empty conference room, we talk Victorian identity theft, natty uniforms and what it means to “pass a queer screen.”
Anderson: Had you always wanted to write?
Collard: No, not at all. I wasn’t actually very good at English and have no college degree. I’ve always had this long commute that I’d used for reading. When I turned 30 I just thought “I’ll see if I can write.”
So I bashed a book out in a year. The first of my midlife crisis! It died a death. Later I tried again but this time I planned it properly. It took a lot longer -- about two years.
Anderson: What was it like to get an agent and then a publisher?
Collard: It was brilliant to get representation. I never thought that would happen. I was on holiday in Boston with my family when my agent called and rescued me from shopping in Abercrombie & Fitch. He said: “You’re done, you’re signed, we’ve got a publishing contract.” That was phenomenal.
Anderson: The hero of the series is Jack Lark, an ambitious army orderly who steals his master’s rank. How did he come to you?
Collard: When I was a kid in the mid-1980s, there was a TV series called “The Monocled Mutineer” about a young WWI soldier from a mining town who went around impersonating posh officers. If you had some papers, some money and the right uniform and attitude, identity theft was very easy -- even more so in the 1850s.
Anderson: Is there anything of you in Jack?
Collard: He’s nothing like me. I’m as boring and staid as they come.
Anderson: How did you get into banking?
Collard: I’d very much set out to join the army. I was well on the way but at 18, I just thought it wasn’t for me. I was burning with ambition. Both my brothers worked in the City and in the early 1990s it was a quick-paced career. I became a vocational trainee at Deutsche Bank.
Anderson: Have any aspects of your working life found their way into your fiction?
Collard: The main thing is the camaraderie, the way teams work together. I’ve been in the same team since 1996 -- you feel bonds to people.
Anderson: Do you think of it as the day job now?
Collard: No. It’s still the big job that pays all the bills and looks after the children. Writing is a hobby, it’s just a more serious hobby now.
Anderson: What’s your favorite part?
Collard: You make stuff up. Working in banks is great but it’s hard, fast facts. You can’t make up data.
Anderson: I enjoyed some of the details that weren’t made up, like the slang -- “rhino” for cash, “passing queer screens” for using counterfeit notes.
Collard: That’s the “flash” language of the Victorian period. There’s a great website called the Victorian Wars Forum. It’s got these experts and you can ask them anything.
Anderson: The Flashman and Sharpe series are also set then. What makes the era’s military campaigns so appealing?
Collard: They have this glorious nature. They were very staged battles with music and troops marching in line and fabulous uniforms -- a real spectacle. For me, brought up with toy soldiers in red coats and films like “Zulu” and “Waterloo,” it’s deeply ingrained in the psyche.
Anderson: Sharpe’s creator, Bernard Cornwell, has blurbed book one. How did that feel?
Collard: He’s the guy I’ve read since I was 10. I’ve read every single book he’s ever written and to even think he knows my character exists is enough. I’ve hit way past the pinnacle I thought I’d get to.
Anyone who wants to write has to read and read and read. Of course, you stop enjoying books and start analyzing, which spoils it a little bit. I can’t bear to read redcoat fiction any more -- I worry I’ll read it competitively. I like to escape so I read John Grisham now.
Anderson: Still writing on the train?
Collard: That’s still my best time for writing - banging it out, headphones on, two hours a day. You don’t have to sit on your commute being miserable and moaning about delays. Use the time properly.
“The Scarlet Thief” is published by Headline ($30.50, 19.99 pounds, 304 pages). To buy the book in North America, click here. Book two of the series will be released in November.
(Hephzibah Anderson writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are her own. This interview is adapted from a longer conversation.)
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