It’s strange how a new novel can materialise in a writer’s mind. Most of the time, like most novelists, I have a nugget of an idea and a setting. Then I spend days, weeks, even months, nurturing and fleshing it out – the character arcs, the plot developments, sub-plots, etc.
But not so with my latest novel, The Sixth Man. I was sitting in the garden one sunny afternoon in August 2014, cup of tea in one hand, pen in the other, a pad of paper on my lap. I was about to write a shopping list. Then, out of nowhere, came this idea – six men in a prison in Nazi-occupied France. Admittedly, I had been reading a lot round the subject – two of my novels were already set in wartime France.
So now, armed with this seed of an idea, I sketched out the whole plot – from beginning to end. Thirty minutes gone, tea finished, I had it all done.
My wife returned. The dog barked in excitement. ‘Have you done that shopping list?’ asked my wife, breezily.
‘Er, no, but I have plotted out a whole novel. Look,’ I said, handing over a sheet of paper.
I waited eagerly as she scanned it, waiting for her hearty approval.
‘Hmm, very nice, dear.’ OK, she may not have called me ‘dear’ but the tone implied it.
The following day, I re-read what I’d written and decided it was, if anything, too simple. Ideas shouldn’t come that easily. It felt wrong, as if I’d cheated somehow. And so I filed this sheet of paper, with a faint smudge of a tea stain, and forgot about it.
And I really did forget about it. Never gave it another thought.
It was about two years later, when I was looking for something else, I came across it: ‘THE SIXTH MAN’ in capital letters along the top. Reading it afresh made me think – well, why not. Just write it.
And I did. It’s a short novel, only about 53,000 words. Took me about a month to write the first draft. The novel gives equal space to each of the six men. Usually, when writing a novel, you put yourself in the mind of your protagonist and perhaps the antagonist. But here, there were six of them, all of them flawed in equal measure. It was an enjoyable experience.
So this is what it’s about… six Frenchmen in a German prison in a village somewhere in France: a doctor, postman, policeman, soldier, teacher and, most importantly, a priest. Having spent six months incarcerated, ‘this’ is their last night so they’re all feeling rather jolly. But then comes a development – a German train has been blown up by the resistance, five German soldiers killed. Therefore, in reprisal, five of these men will be executed the following day. They have to decide which five should face the firing squad and they have six hours, ‘til dawn, to decide.
And that, essentially, is what the novel is about. We hear each of their sorry tales and none of them come out of it particularly well.
The novel was released April 2017.
If you get to read it, I hope you enjoy it.
You can read the opening chapters here.