Memories of best-selling fantasy novelist David A. Gemmell and death on the page

Fantasy author David A. Gemmell at work in his final days as a newspaper man in 1986

I FIRST met the best-selling fantasy author David A.Gemmell nearly 40 years ago. He was standing on my doorstep pretending to be John Wayne.  He was also about to become the editor of the newspaper I worked for and had decided that a face-to-face meeting on home turf would be the perfect way to introduce himself to his new senior staff.

Whether this was a good idea or not, I don’t know. I found the idea of a new boss I’d never met before hammering on my front door and demanding a get-to-know-you session a little unsettling. Dave –  never David in those days – was, I quickly worked out, far more scared by the encounter than I was.

He talked nineteen to the dozen about his great passions, the songs of Bob Dylan, the films of John Ford and his great hero Wayne.  He would later have a framed picture of the movie star on his office wall. I don’t think he mentioned newspapers once. He certainly didn’t ask anything about me. He finally departed, moseying in classic style down my front path with the words “Walks off slowly into the sunset.” The fact that it was 10 O’clock at night and pitch dark didn’t appear to register. 

A man with a rampantly overactive imagination and sense of romance,  he was horrifyingly ill-equipped to deal with the day to day reality of editing a newspaper. If there was a meeting he didn’t want to attend he just wouldn’t turn up . I believe there was even a summons to court once that he conveniently mislaid. 

When I worked with him in the early 1980s Gemmell spent a lot of time shut in his office endlessly reworking the manuscript of what would become his breakthrough novel Legend. As a journalist he was always an inspired writer. However he suffered the fate that so often awaits high-flyers in the newspaper business, promotion to a job that frankly he was never cut out to do. Gemmell seemed singularly unsuited to the editor’s chair and the management was clearly alarmed at his lack of interest in actually editing the paper. 

He was on borrowed time but it didn’t matter. Legend was a huge success and a string of best sellers followed. When he eventually got his marching orders, Gemmell was already a publishing sensation. Today, 15 years after his untimely death from heart disease, there are still websites devoted to his work and a great many fans for whom he will always be regarded as a towering talent among authors.

I can’t say that his work actually had any significant literary merit but it was certainly commercially successful. My memory of Dave Gemmell will be of a maverick newspaperman who worked out how to use his talents as a tabloid hack to become a hard-hitting and successful novelist. It can’t have been easy. It was a path that many had tried and failed to follow before.

As a colleague and a boss he was talented, fun and fascinatingly unpredictable. He was also a little crazy and, behind the wheel of a car, positively dangerous. For the best part of a year or so he would drive me weekly across southern England to stone-sub the paper. I’m still not sure how we survived.

Happily we did and I have good memories of the times we spent together. Dave even paid me the dubious compliment of having me killed on page 255 of his 1986 novel Waylander. In interviews he has said that he based his characters on real people. He even claimed that he was eventually sacked from the newspaper for using thinly disguised versions of company staff as characters in his book. I hope not because  I am immortalised as a young soldier called Milis. In the space of a page and a half Gemmell has me swapping tall stories about the local whores before I get three arrows in my back and have my throat cut by a marauding invader. It must have been something I said? 

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