Charlie`s big on stories
Malton author Charlie Charters talks about his debut novel, BOLT ACTION. By Stephen Lewis of the York Press.
NEVER judge a book by its cover, they say. That is definitely true of Charlie Charters` debut novel, BOLT ACTION.
It is packaged as one of those gung-ho action novels about a crack team of military special forces types out to foil a terrorist plot. But if you`re not into gung-ho action novels, don`t let that put you off.
BOLT ACTION is an action thriller, and a gripping one: but it is much more than that. It is an intelligent, thought-provoking first novel that combines frenetic action with a searing sense of anger at the way ordinary British soldiers are so often let down by the military at the time when they need support the most: when they`ve been injured or invalided out of the Army.
The heroes of the novel are a bunch of renegade ex-special forces soldiers who have been chewed up and spat out by the Army, and then left to fend for themselves. They all, with typical squaddie humour, have silly nicknames: Shoe, Piglet, Whiffler, Ferret and Button. And they`re all struggling to cope with life after the Army- desperately missing the sense of camaraderie they once enjoyed, lost and alone and hopelessly drifting.
Then along comes former Special Forces captain Tristie Merrit, a woman with a dark past and a serious chip on her shoulder. In a scene reminiscent of The Magnificent Seven, she recruits the ex-Army misfits to form a renegade unit called Ward 13. Their mission? To steal blueprints to the Trident nuclear weapons system and use them to blackmail the MoD into donating GBP315 million to a variety of Forces charities.
Before long, however, they are caught up in a terrorist plot to hijack a plane – and instead of hunting them, MI5 has to beg them for help. So far, so gung-ho. But it is the writing and the quality of characterisation that sets the book apart. Charlie, who lives at Barton Hill, near Malton with his Fijian wife, Vanessa, and four children, has really managed to get into the minds of his ex-soldier heroes. He understands their fragility, their sense of betrayal, the macho humour masking a desperate need to belong and to be led.
It`s an achievement that is all the more remarkable in that he himself has never been in the Army.
He has, however, packed just about everything else into his 42 years- war correspondent, radio DJ, sports TV presenter and producer, even racing tipster. But never the army. `I just couldn`t see myself in a situation where I would have to obey each and every order,` he says.
So how did he manage to put himself into the minds of his characters so convincingly?
He has a friend who is an ex-Army captain, he says. And he`s done plenty of research into things like the military covenant. And he used his imagination.
And one more thing. `I`ve never had a problem telling stories.`
He`s not wrong there. Over a cup of coffee, the stories- about his own life and family mainly- tumble over themselves to get out.
Like the one about how he almost had a book published before BOLT ACTION. He`d sent it to a publisher, where it had been placed on a pile of unread scripts.
`The story goes that the publisher`s wife brought the dog in, and it vomited all over the carpet. My manuscript was to hand, and the publisher took the top three pages to wipe up the mess. That gave him the opportunity to read the opening few paragraphs.`
Then there`s the story about his great-great-great grandfather, General Sir James Outram, who fought in the first Anglo-Afghan War in 1838 to 1839. He had a relationship with an Afghan woman, which resulted in Charlie`s great-great-grandmother, Fanny Outram, being born.
`Sir James` behaviour was impeccable, given the times,` Charlie says. `He insisted on recognising his daughter as his own, even though he was married to someone else.`
So there is a military connection of sorts, even if a long time ago.
Charlie is a giant of a man- six foot seven and hefty too. It comes as no surprise that he hails originally from Fiji. Though there is not a drop of Fijian blood in him, he says: his father was a tobacco farmer from Kenya who went to Fiji to manage a plantation, his mother a film-maker from Saffron Walden.
His parents sent him to England to school- Rugby, no less- which meant as a young boy he spent lots of time flying back and forth. That`s where his love of storytelling began, he suggests on his website. On those long flights, to keep himself occupied, he used to imagine he was someone else.
`I was helped by the fact that I was six foot by the age of 12,` he writes. `So I was a crop-dusting pilot, a stock-broker, a game-fishing crewman, a meteorologist with a fixation about hurricanes.`
School and university behind him, he went to journalism college in Cardiff, which leads to another story. At the age of 23, fresh out of journalism college, he took a train to Zagreb in the former Yugoslavia to see if he could cut it as a war correspondent.
It was 1991, and the start of the bitter wars between Serbia and Croatia. Charlie arrived at the railway station in Zagreb, and asked people `where all the journalists were?`
Then he turned up at the Hotel Esplanade and started asking for a job. The correspondent for UPI- United Press International- was desperate to get back to Belgrade and his family. `He hired me on the spot.`
Charlie spent three months covering the war, following a pair of experienced Reuters photographers around to ensure he was always in the thick of things. But he soon realised it wasn`t for him. He hated the way he became jaded about suffering.
`I found myself thinking `I`m writing about a tank that has run over a little child`s body. But I did that two days ago. I`m not going to do it again.`
After three months, he returned to the UK, then to Fiji.
There, the country was just setting up its first national TV station. He auditioned- in an old Masonic hall in the island`s capital, Suva- and landed a job as a sports presenter.
Within six months, he had been poached by ATV in Hong Kong to present the Barcelona Olympics. He spent the next nine years in Hong Kong, as a sports presenter, racing tipster and then wheeler dealer, negotiating TV sporting rights deals with the likes of FIFA and UEFA.
Then, in 2004, he and his family retired to a North Yorkshire house left him by his godmother, in search of a bit of peace and quiet. `Although with four children it isn`t exactly quiet,` he says.
But it has meant that, since 2004, he`s been able to concentrate on his writing. BOLT ACTION is his third book, although the first to be published. He received a `modest, undisclosed fee` for it, he says. It`s a two-book deal. So if you like BOLT ACTION, you shouldn`t have to wait too long for the sequel.
  1. BOLT ACTION by Charlie Charters is published by Hodder paperback, priced GBP6.99. The book will be officially launched at an event in aid of Help For Heroes at R Yates in Railway Street, Malton, at noon next Saturday. It receives its national launch the week after.
Saturday, 21 August 2010