Ted Bell: the q & a
Who are your biggest heroes?
Winston Churchill, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ronald Reagan, George Washington.
Did you do anything interesting in your early years?
Reading, reading, reading. Messing around with boats. Traveling around the world, going to Italy to write the great American novel and failing. Discovering advertising and making it a career.
How did you become a writer?
I started writing short stories at eight or nine years old and never stopped.
How you get your best ideas?
Not sure what best ideas even are. When I write a novel, it’s like taking dictation. I listen to my characters talking and write down what they say. They keep leading me towards The End.
What inspired the idea for your first spy novel, HAWKE?
The promise of a modern Russia and how it was broken.
How do you overcome writers’ block?
Get up and leave the room. Go for a swim, look at the water. Pick up a book and start reading on any page I open it to.
What has your writing life has taught you?
Writing is hard. But you can’t quit. Just like life.
What inspired you to leave the world of advertising to write books?
I was actually writing fiction throughout much of my advertising career. I wrote and sold my first screenplay while at Doyle Dane Bernbach in the late seventies. While in London, I wrote an old-fashioned sea adventure called Nick of Time. The idea of writing it (pre-Harry Potter) was that young adult fiction had gotten stale, predictable and formulaic. It was all either horror or ‘message’ fiction. I re-read Treasure Island and realized that, while my generation had enjoyed it, my daughter’s generation would not sit still for some of the arcane language. So, I tried to write a modern day Robert Louis Stevenson epic. The book has sold in many European countries. Some people just can’t stop writing I think, no matter what else they’re doing. So, I’m just continuing down that road.
Your sea adventure, Nick of Time, was your first book. HAWKE is your first thriller. Other than the basic story, how are the two different?What makes HAWKE the huge thriller it is?
I think the two books, absent the storylines, are more similar than different. Nick is about heroism, personal courage, etc. as is HAWKE. One hero is twelve, the other is mid-thirties. Both have to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in order not only to survive, but prevail. With Nick, I was trying to write non-stop, page-turning, “what happens next” fiction. Same with HAWKE.
I can’t abide boredom when I read, or when I write, though I will put up with it if someone’s prose is beautiful. There’s a limit, though. There was a bestseller once about a soldier returning home after war. Beautifully written to the very last word but I did get bored halfway through. Stuck it out, but I was certainly glad when he got home.
You have to assume that if you’re bored with a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter, the reader will be as well. A blinding glimpse of the obvious, right? But it keeps you honest.
One essential difference between the two books is that Nick is a period character and I tried to get some of the romantic aspects of his period (England in the summer of ’39, eve of the war) into the book via dialogue, description, etc. HAWKE is very much a 21st Century hero. Both were great fun to do. In the thriller, I tried to create three-dimensional characters who were recognizable. I even attempted a sympathetic villain, a thoroughly despicable, even stupid, man. But many people have told me they feel sadness when he dies. And, of course, I tried to create 3-D heroes in both Nick and Alex Hawke. Alex is tough as nails but he’s also funny, sad, human. Ever see James Bond sad?
HAWKE is filled with fabulous multi-dimensional characters—especially Alexander Hawke. What was the inspiration for Alex Hawke, Gomez, Ambrose, Vicky, just to name a few?
Alex Hawke comes out of the English pirate tradition more than the secret agent/spy genre, although there are Bond-like aspects to him. I read all of Ian Fleming one summer and I won’t deny it changed my life. Alex Hawke, in Hollywood shorthand, is Errol Flynn meets James Bond meets The Thin Man. There is also something Holmes and Watson, Jeeves, and Bertie Wooster about the relationship between Alex and his sidekick Ambrose Congreve. It’s all a mish-mash. Things you admire and despise about real and fictional characters fused into, you hope, a brand new character.
HAWKE is reminiscent of the breathtaking action and international intrigue of a James Bond novel. Were you influenced by those stories? Were you consciously looking for a replacement for the Bond-type character?
Pretty much covered above. But I will say that one of the things I tried to do with Alex was give him the tough guy part of Bond but modernize him with humor, wit, and humanity. He surrounds himself with some very recognizable modern day characters. He’s much less black and white than Bond in that the good guys have bad sides and vice versa. I think some of our old heroes are getting a little long in the tooth. That was a key thought in his character development.
Do you see HAWKE as the beginning of a series featuring Alex Hawke or will your future novels take a different direction?
Hawke is very definitely planned as a series. In fact, the sequel was part of the original agreement with Atria and I’m deeply into it. I hope Alex has a long and exciting life. His supporting cast will go forward. The villains and the love interests will change, obviously.
How has your advertising background helped in your writing?
For example, doing TV commercials you need to create instantly recognizable characters to fit into a 30 to 60 second slot. Does this help you create characters in your novels who are more three dimensional? It does. You learn the idea of compression, which tends to make the writing more straightforward, less talky. A good commercial is a little scene with a beginning, a middle, and an end. A novel is hundreds of scenes linked together to form a story. You learn how to create instantly recognizable characters with quick brush strokes. The big difference is that in a commercial character must remain two dimensional due to time constraints, but obviously in a novel you have time to create three-dimensional characters. Good advertising at its best has the capacity to change how people feel, usually about products or services whereas good fiction has the ability to allow people to escape into an imaginary world where drama can be bigger than life.
Give us the inside scoop on your writing regimen: How many hours a day do you devote to writing? Do you outline the complete arc of your narrative early on? Do you draft on paper or at a keyboard? Do you have a favorite location or time of day (or night) for writing? What do you do to avoid distractions?
My ideal writing time is in the morning. I try to be rolling by nine and go through to lunch around one, so around four hours a day. I keep a running word count, write the latest number down every morning. Keeps you moving. 2,000 words is a very good day, but I’ll settle for 1,000 good ones. I’m lucky enough to look out on a beautiful garden and woods all day. It’s perfect. Staring at blank walls is highly overrated in my book. I don’t do an outline, I just let it happen. About a third of the way through, I’ve got a pretty good idea of where we’re headed but no earthly idea how we’re going to get there.
When and why did you begin writing and when did you first consider yourself a writer?
To this day, I remember sitting in a classroom and seeing the words “See Jane run,” in the book Dick and Jane. And I saw her run. That was it. I was hooked on reading, and writing, too, though I didn’t know it then, obviously. I was transported by the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift and when I ran out of those, I read Nancy Drew and I don’t care who knows it. I started trying to write short stories in fifth of sixth grade. It was a hell of a lot more fun than standing out in left field waiting to drop a lazy little pop-fly. In sixth grade, my teacher started putting my stories up on the bulletin board. There was a list and you could sign them out but you had to put them back. I couldn’t believe seeing those names on the sign-out sheet. In seventh grade, I created this character who was a total idiot and wrote five or six pages a night. Kids would pass them around all day and come up to me the next day for more. Furtively watching all those kids laugh in study hall, I guess was when I started to consider myself a writer.
Editor's note: Since this interview, Ted had wrote 11 spy novels in the Alex Hawke series. DRAGONFIRE, his 11th, was published on July 21, 2020. Ted's 12th Alex Hawke thriller, SEA HAWKE, was published in the summer of 2021.