There's a joke in the advertising business that every copywriter really wants to write novels. Ted Bell proves that you can be successful in both.
He had an amazingly successful career in advertising (no, really, he not only won the Grand Prix at Cannes but a few Clios along the way, AND was the youngest VP in the history of legendary ad agency DDB -- see how he ended up in advertising below) but finally retired from the business in 2001 to write full time.
Author of the Alex Hawke spy thrillers, Bell last year ventured into the world of children's books with Nick of Time (MacMillan, 2008). Many thanks to Ted for taking the time to answer questions for this interview on Cool Kids Read!
CKR: When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
TB: I started writing short stories (science fiction, westerns) in the fourth or fifth grade. All i wanted to do was read, and I guess something in me was saying, "You can do this, too. Why not try?" I still recall the intense thrill of realizing this was 'my' story and I could make it go anywhere I wanted. I showed a few to the teacher who put them up on the bulletin board for the whole class to read. You had to sign the story out and could only keep it overnight (like Blockbuster!) and then you could write your comments on the sheet next to your name. I'd sometimes arrive at school a little early so I could read the 'reviews'. All very thrilling at that tender age. I suppose that from then on I was constantly reading everything with a 'critical eye', thinking, well, how would I have done that? Or, what a beautiful sentence. This is something all writers do, even subconsciously. The fact that I've been doing it for a VERY long time has, I'm sure, helped me. When, later, I discovered writers like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzerald, the romantic ideal of the writer's life appealed to me. Right after college, I sailed for Europe, lived in Paris and Italy, writing my first novel. Unlike Scott Fitzgerald, I was not an overnight success. But I kept at it. Scott Fitzgerald and Mark Twain are still my two favorite authors. THE GREAT GATSBY and HUCKLEBERRY FINN are, for me, the two best novels in the English language.
CKR: How did you make the move from advertising copywriter/creative director to author?
TB: Actually, I went from author to advertising writer to author. While living in Italy, trying to finish my novel, I realized I'd have to make a living some other way for a while. I happened to meet some advertising people in Milan who thought I might be good at it. I was offered a job as a copywriter, taking Italian lessons at night. The job didn't last long, but I was hooked on advertising as a way to live a creative life, but still be able to afford food and shelter. Later, I got a good job in New York City. I continued with my own writing, short stories, a Broadway musical that never made it to Broadway, and, at age 25, sold my first screenplay to Hollywood. It was called SCREAMATHON and was about a horror movie film festival at a drive-in movie theater where all the teenagers are being murdered by a psycho escapee from a mental hospital. Not exactly CITIZEN KANE but it was a start. I think all that time writing TV commercials helped me develop some new skills. I thought commercials should be stories, but you had to tell them in 30 seconds and still have a beginning a middle and end. Tricky.
CKR: What inspired the idea for Nick of Time?
TB: I was living in London, where it rains a lot, and my 8-year-old daughter, Byrdie, spent a lot of time reading. this was pre-HARRY POTTER and I realized that no one was writing the kind of thrilling adventures I had read at that age. Books like TREASURE ISLAND, KIDNAPPED, THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, CAPTAIN BLOOD. So I thought I'd write an old-fashioned adventure in a new-fashioned way. Exciting, but filled with the notions of heroism, loyalty, self-reliance, love of family and love of country I had cherished so much as a child. I began NICK OF TIME while working in London, actually writing a lot of it up in my daughter's room on the top floor of our house because that's where the computer was. There was a painting in that house of a lighthouse standing high on a cliff overlooking a stormy sea. I was staring at it one night and began thinking, what if there was a young boy who lived in that lighthouse? That was the beginning of NICK and that painting hangs over the desk where I am writing these answers now.
CKR: Young Nick is quite the sailor. Are you a sailor, too, or was that just lots of research?
TB: In one of the earliest pictures of me (about 1 or 2 years old) I'm sitting in my grandfather's lap behind the great wooden wheel of our schooner RAMBLER. My grandfather was a very competitive racing sailor and won the St. Petersburg-Havana-St. Petersburg race many times. My uncle was the Flying Scot national champion when I was a boy. I grew up in Florida and so was messing about in boats from a very early age, like Nick. My first sailboat was called STORMY PETREL just like Nick's. My last sailboat, MARACAYA, had won the Block Island Race, in 1954. I have two boats now, a sport-fishing boat called SPY and a little sailing dingy called HIBISCUS.
CKR: How many of the historical elements of the story are fact and how much is "creative license"?
TB: All of the historical elements in the story are factual. I did a great deal of research on the German invasion of the Channel Islands to provide the background for NICK, also the threat of the packs of U-boats in the English Channel. Winston Churchill actually had a network of spies just like Nick's father, Angus. Admiral Lord Nelson, like Churchill, is a great hero of mine. Nelson's victory at Trafalgar in 1805, and all the details surrounding that battle and his death are completely factual. The Tempus Machina time machine is made-up but I wish it wasn't.
CKR: Which was your favorite character to write in Nick of Time?
TB: I'd have to say Nick's younger sister, Katie. I like the fact that she's always 'one-upping' her big brother. She is funny, spontaneous, and very smart. While Nick and Gunner agonize over solutions to various problems, the answers just seem to pop out of her mouth. As in the scene where Nick and Gunner are debating how to open a forbidding door at Hawke Castle and Katie says, "Why not just push it open?" They do, and of course it works.
CKR: Is there a sequel in the works? Any film news?
TB: Yes, there is a sequel and I'm putting the finishing touches on it right now. It will be out next summer, I think. The title is THE REVOLUTIONARY SPY and it picks up right where NICK leaves off. The Nazis invade Nick's islands and he and Gunner go about making life miserable for them in a lot of ingenious ways. Nick also travels back to the 18th Century, meeting General George Washington and playing a role in the Battle of Yorktown. Katie returns, of course, and helps foil a plot of the evil Captain Blood.
As to film news, I am in the middle of serious negotiations with a major Hollywood studio to produce the ALEX HAWKE books as movies starring a wonderful actor I'm very excited about. The producer is now reading NICK OF TIME. All I can say is, I hope he likes it, too! Fingers are crossed around here.
CKR: Anything else you'd like to share?
TB: I was extremely honored to receive a letter from Mrs. Barbara Bush inviting me to speak at her annual Foundation for Family Literacy dinner in April. I can think of nothing that would be more helpful for our country in these trying times than for parents to encourage a love of reading in their children at a young age. And reading books that not only entertain, but help build strong character, a sense of honor, and virtue, and pride. These are the precious values that made this country great and we desperately need to embrace them once again.
CKR: Well said! Thanks, Ted, for spending time with Cool Kids Read!
TB: Thanks, and keep reading!!