Tim Willocks: Land of Pope and glory

Tim Willocks hit the big time, and then Hollywood, with his second novel 'Green River Rising'. Now, he tells Peter Stanford, he has turned his gaze to God

Good fortune and bad luck often go hand-in-hand. Tim Willocks has had his share of both. His 1994 book,
Green River Rising, a violent, merciless account of convicts sweltering in the Texas heat, was hailed as one of the best prison novels ever written and quickly achieved cult status. Its success saw him sought out by Hollywood where he went to work with some of the biggest names in the film industry as first a screenwriter and later a producer. He was even romantically linked by the gossip columns with Madonna.

Yet he also saw his first novel, Bad City Blues, swallowed up by the collapse of Robert Maxwell's publishing empire when its publication date with a Maxwell imprint coincided with the death of the pension-fund plundering tycoon. It took another six years for it to make it into bookshops. The medical career that he ran in parallel with his writing and producing exploits became mired in controversy in the late 1990s when he and colleagues from London's Stapleford Clinic for treating drug addicts were investigated for misconduct by the General Medical Council.

Willocks was eventually cleared, but the experience has led him to turn his back on medicine. And his screenplay for what admirers see as his masterpiece, Green River Rising, the original reason he went over to Hollywood, still has not, after "at least 25 rewrites", made it into production.

"It is a classic Hollywood tale," Willocks recounts, sitting forward edgily on his seat at Soho House, his London club. "Warner Brothers took an option on Green River Rising and Alan Pakula [ The Pelican Brief, Sophie's Choice, Klute] wanted me to write it. First this actor or director was attached, then another. It changed with the wind. And with every change there was a rewrite needed. Then Alan got killed in a car accident, but the process continued. In the end I just got so fed up with rewriting."

Willocks's red curly hair is fading to grey as it meets his face, but there is something very Mick Hucknall in his look. His black suit is well and fashionably cut while his freckly skin is very pale, untouched by the Californian sun. With very blue eyes and very red lips, he is undoubtedly striking, the overall impression only slightly mitigated by just a hint of Wayne Rooney in the set of his face.

For eight years Willocks divided his time between Hollywood and London where he carried on practising part-time as a doctor. The combined burden of maintaining those two careers meant something had to give. It has been a long time since his last novel. With hindsight, does he regret the choices he made? "When intelligent, charming, interesting people are inviting you to do things in the film business, it's hard to turn it down. In the end, I must have written about 18 other screenplays that didn't get produced but I've nothing bad to say about Hollywood. Yes, it's terribly frustrating but that's the nature of the business. It's part of the job in Hollywood to be frustrated. Even the biggest directors are constantly thwarted. And I love writing screenplays. I just got fed up of them not seeing the light of day."

In the autumn of 2003, he made his escape and disappeared off to a borrowed "log cabin in the woods kind of thing" in upper New York State to write The Religion (Cape, £18.99). "Screenwriting is a very sociable process," he says. "There are endless meetings. When I sat down to write a novel again, I wouldn't speak to anyone for five days at a time." The peace, though, was much valued. "I hadn't written a book in so long when I sat down that I didn't have any voices in my head about how people would receive it. I didn't even know if I'd find a publisher."

He has, and they are greeting The Religion rather as the arrival of the British navy would have been marked in colonial times. All flags are waving. One whole sheet of the three-page press release that accompanies The Religion is full of quotations not from critics but from Jonathan Cape staff. Behind the hype, the reason for their near-hysteria is easily diagnosed. The Religion is a novel for our times, dealing as it does with the clash between the Christian West and the Islamic East. Only in this case, it all takes place not in Beirut or Baghdad but in the 1560s. The setting is the siege of Malta, defended for the Pope by the Knights of St John the Baptist and attacked by the Ottoman emperor, Suleiman the Magnificent, and his navy.

"I used to run a fringe theatre company in London," the multi-tasking Willocks recalls, "and one of the plays we did was The Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe. It is loosely and inaccurately set against the siege of Malta. At the time I read into the background and thought it would be a great setting for a novel but never got round to working on it. What has attracted me back to the subject now is that it gave me an opportunity not to be shackled by modern concerns, although there are all sorts of modern concerns sublimated in the story. It was very freeing to work in a different time, to work with language in a different way. Modern dialogue is a bit stunted - it has to be. It's nice with historical fiction to be a little more flowery."

If the seed of the idea was planted before the most recent standoff between the West and much of the Islamic world, then the writing of The Religion was, Willocks acknowledges, influenced by it. "It would have been hard to ignore the insanity roaring out of TV while I was writing, but I wouldn't want people to think I am coming along with a message. Samuel Goldwyn, the film mogul, used to say: 'If you want to write a message, send a telegram.' I didn't want my book to be polemical. Instead, I wanted to stand in the shoes of the characters in the story and let any parallels that arose do so naturally within the world I am describing."

The principal character of Willocks's book, Mattias Tannhauser, a soldier of fortune, experiences both Islam and Christianity and has been brutalised and made cynical by both. The opening sections of The Religion's 600-odd pages suggest that, seen through Tannhauser's battle-hardened gaze, all forms of organised religion are going to get a pasting. But Willocks is subtler than that. "It's very hard to have a measured conversation about Islam or the right to belief in the current climate. As soon as you start talking about religion, I hear perfectly intelligent people saying: 'I hate religion. It is the cause of all the world's troubles.' To my mind that is just prejudice against religion."

It is not a prejudice Willocks shares. Instead, as his epic tale unfolds, he examines, through the reactions of his cast of characters, all of them caught up in extreme circumstances, the phenomenon of religion. "Tannhauser, for example, has had a very confusing experience of religious life. It seems to me to be terribly simpleminded simply to reflect that by rolling out all the old chestnuts about religions being evil. It is impossible for me to imagine the history of human endeavour if you extract religion from it. It has been a huge force for good and for creating a sense of community."

There is, though, it should be stressed, nothing pious about The Religion. Those fans of Green River Rising who are wondering what Willocks is doing writing historical fiction about faith need not fear. The psychological acuteness of old remains, as does a hefty and chilling dose of violence. The new book starts with 12-year-old Mattias watching his beloved mother raped and butchered by mercenaries."I suppose it would be true to say I'm fascinated by violence," Willocks agrees with a cherubic smile. "I always have been. It's so present in the life of the human race... I suspect the base line for the human race is to be suspicious, paranoid and untrusting and therefore all of us are potentially violent. Religion can be one of the things that holds us back."

The Religion is being marketed as in the tradition of swashbuckling adventures such as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Scarlet Pimpernel. It is a claim that in one sense may cause readers a nasty shock. Willocks's book is a good deal more gruesome than its predecessors. Blood and entrails almost literally drip from every page. But in highlighting Willocks's laudable attempt to marry high literary ambition to spectacle and entertainment, the parallel with Alexandre Dumas and Baroness Orczy hits the mark. It is precisely the combination Willocks tried for during his years in Hollywood. By returning after a long gap to publishing fiction, he may just have better luck.

Biography

Tim Willocks, 48, comes from Staleybridge in Cheshire. He qualified as a doctor in 1983 and spent 20 years treating drug addicts and psychiatric patients. Alongside his medical career, he also in the 1990s produced plays at fringe venues in London. His three novels in that decade, Bad City Blues, Green River Rising and Blood Stained Kings, brought him considerable acclaim. After the publication of Green River Rising in 1994 he attracted the attention of Hollywood. As a screenwriter, he has worked with Steven Spielberg, Curtis Hanson and Alan J Pakula. He has also produced Amy Foster (1997), Bad City Blues and Sin (2003). He is now back writing novels in Ireland. The Religion (Cape, £18.99) is published this week.

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
books
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes