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
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
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.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project