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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice