An interview with Felix Francis

Felix Francis, the younger son of the legendary jockey and bestselling writer Dick Francis, was involved in the research and writing of his father’s novels for almost 40 years. He recalls for Eclipse Magazine what it was like working with his father and explains how he feels about his new book, Gamble, which sees him taking up the literary reins for the first time as the sole author of the Dick Francis novels, following the death of his father in 2010.

ON RACING:

Before you became an author, your father was a jockey. Have you ever ridden a horse (possibly even in a race) yourself?

I spent my childhood riding on ponies but I had some hip trouble when I was 14 and that stopped me riding. I rode in races at gymkhanas but never a ‘proper’ horserace.

Do you remember watching your father ride at all?

I watched him ride but I don’t remember him riding in races – he retired from being a jockey when I was just three years old. But he was a show judge until he was 60 and I spent much of my early years going to horse shows all over the country to watch him ride.

Did he encourage you to take up riding/racing (or did he try to keep you away from it)?

He was very keen that my brother and I should ride (indeed, my brother rode in races as an amateur jockey). However, he wanted us to ride well and he would lean out of his office window and shout “Sit up straight! Get your heels down!” But what he didn’t realize was that we were trying to be Lester Piggott not Dick Francis.

Do you own a horse or perhaps a share in a racehorse now?

Only a clothes horse! But I am thinking about it.

Do you have any direct connection with horseracing currently?

Lots of my friends are owners and trainers or others who work in the racing industry. Clearly I have to keep up to date with racing in order to be able to write about it so I fairly regularly go racing all round the world. And I am a member at Cheltenham.

ON DICK FRANCIS:

What is your favourite memory of your father?

The look of delight on his face on 1st October 1990 when I arranged for him to be a surprise guest at the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and we flew together in the last surviving RAF Lancaster bomber. Dad had been a Lancaster pilot during the war.

Did you watch your father riding Devon Loch in the Grand National?

I was too young aged three to go to the Grand National in 1956 and it was before the race was shown live on television. However, my mother told me that afterwards I used to regularly scamper across the sitting-room floor on my hands and knees and then go down onto my tummy shouting “Look at me, I’m being Devon Loch!”. It doesn’t seem to have been the most tactful of actions and perhaps it was a surprise that I reached my fourth birthday!

I believe as a result of that ride, he took to writing books (after he was asked to write about his racing experiences)… What was it like growing up with a father as a writer?

Life in the Francis household was quiet between New Year and the end of April, the period each year when my father was actually writing. He used to tell friends and family not to call him between Christmas and Easter. But it was far from boring with questions such as “Can a man survive the night with a .38 slug in his guts?” or “How much explosive is needed to bring down a light aircraft?” being the conversation over the breakfast table. When I was at boarding school he used to send a letter to me and my elder brother every week telling us what he had been up to. They would start with the truth but would soon turn to fiction as he made up stories and exciting adventures. How I wish I had kept them.

When did you start reading his books?

The first of his novels was published when I was eight and I think I read it when I was about twelve or thirteen. I was instantly hooked on Dick Francis Mysteries and I soon caught up the books that had already been written. I would then wait eagerly for the next, cajoling him into writing faster. When I started working for him I used to read them in chapter instalments desperate to know what happened next.

How did it come about that you started working on the books with your father?

It started when I was teaching and he needed help with the preparation of his tax papers, especially when he lived for a while in the United States and had to come to terms with a completely different system. I used to fly out to see him and my mother and then sit at their dining-room table working through the papers. Eventually I said to them that they needed a manager and my father asked me if I would give up teaching and come to work for them full-time. It was the easiest, and best, decision I ever made. From there it just evolved that I help more and more with the research of the books and eventually became his co-author.

ON WRITING THE BOOKS:

Please can you give a brief summary about your teaching career – did you enjoy it?

I read Physics at London University in the 1970s and then I taught GCSE, O level and A level physics for seventeen years at three secondary schools: Hampton School, Cheltenham Grammar School (Pates) and then as Head of Science at Bloxham School near Banbury in Oxfordshire. I loved teaching and I still have a great fascination for science in general and physics in particular. The first thing I ever had published was an O Level Physics paper for the Oxford and Cambridge Examination Board in 1986.

How did the research for your father's books start and what did it involve?

My first input to a Dick Francis novel was to design the bomb that destroyed an aircraft in RAT RACE in 1970 when I was an A level physics student. Since then I’ve helped with the rifle shooting in TWICE SHY (1980) where I also wrote the betting system computer program in the book. Research was the family business with both my brother and mother actively involved. Nowadays I do the writing and the research.

Was there any particular research job that you recall?

Back in 1981 I remember my father going up to an investment banker and asking him if he would lend him a million pounds to buy a horse. It was some minutes before the banker realized that my father was only asking for research purposes. It was an amusing moment but BANKER was the book that was the result of that initial question. My mother learnt to fly for research for RAT RACE and she went on to be a highly qualified pilot and also ran an air taxi company specializing in carrying racing folk around the UK. Research is the fun part, the writing is just damn hard work.

Were there any elements of the books that had actually occurred in real life – please give an example?

Lots of them. In EVEN MONEY there was a betting scam involving lots of people putting on a bet at different betting shops. In June 2010 someone used the plot in the book to run a real scam in Ireland that used 200 people putting on bets in just the same way. That is an example of an incident in a book becoming reality – just as the horse-napping in BLOOD SPORT became a reality with the snatching of the Derby winner Shergar.

Did your physics career help with any of the plots/research?

The main character in TWICE SHY was a physics teacher and my father came to watch me teach before he wrote it. In addition, the physics has helped with the meteorology in SECOND WIND and there are numerous other places where a knowledge of physics and electronics has been useful.

Where did the ideas come from for the plot lines?

In recent years most of the ideas have been mine. Ideas come from conversations with all sorts of people and often in the most unexpected situations. DEAD HEAT involved a chef and that was the result of my publisher bemoaning the fact that so many people bought cookery books as gifts at Christmas instead of the latest Dick Francis. If you can’t beat them, join them.

In research/writing terms, what was your relationship with your father like?

I would write the prose and he would then make suggestions or correct me if I had some of the racing not quite right. We never argued much – he seemed to like what I did.

At what stage did you take more of a lead role in the writing and why?

I started helping with the writing with UNDER ORDERS (2006) and had largely taken over since DEAD HEAT (2007) when my father’s health deteriorated.

In creating the books now, do you miss your father’s input or has he left notes for more plots… What is it like working with him gone?

Sadly there are no notes. It’s all down to me now. It is a bit strange that he is no longer around to read the manuscript and criticise my grammar, but I am confident that he would be happy with the result.

In your opinion what makes the Dick Francis books so unputdownable?

Ordinary heroes winning through in extraordinary situations. No super-humans! Most of the readers of Dick Francis books say they warm to the main characters and they care what happens to them. This is vital for a reader to enjoy the story.

What extra do you bring to the table, and what can we look forward to in the new generation of Francis books?

I hope that I have made the books a little more up-to-date, and I think I have introduced more humour into the writing.

ON THE NEW BOOK – GAMBLE:

What is the plot for Gamble?

Murder, fraud, revenge and retribution – all the key ingredients for a good story. Now read it!

Does it contain any characters we have met before in previous books?

No, all the characters are new. But the main character is much like any other Dick or Felix Francis protagonist – loyal, courageous and determined.

How did you conduct the research for this book – did it involve spending a fortune on betting?!

No. Strangely, I don’t like betting. I have met too many rich bookmakers! Most of the gambling in GAMBLE is not on the horses, it is gambling where losing means dying.

Do you normally bet on the races? If so, have you had any big wins?

Very rarely do I bet. Occasionally if I’m with friends at the races I will have a small flutter to participate in the occasion but I almost invariably lose. And if you bet on a horse then that is the only horse you tend to watch in the race. I prefer to watch them all.

What is your favourite sequence in the book and why?

I love the court case at the end of SILKS. My character was a barrister and I would have loved to have been in court to watch him solve the case – just as Perry Mason could always do. The best thing about writing fiction is that the characters do exactly as you tell them, unlike in real life! In GAMBLE, I like the sequence near the end at Cheltenham racecourse but I’m not going to tell you why – it would give away too much!

Are you already working on the next book? If so, what is that one going to be about?

I’m already thinking hard about my next story. I’m not yet ready to say what it’s about but it will be set, as always, on the racecourses. It is due at the publishers in March 2012 and I have worked out the beginning. The end will follow (I hope!).

Pictured top: Felix Francis, courtesy of Debbie Francis. Pictured below: Felix and Dick Francis, courtesy of Geoff Pugh.

Gamble is published in Hardback by Michael Joseph on 1 September, priced £18.99. To pre-order your copy please click here

MEET HIM IN PERSON: FELIX FRANCIS WILL BE TAKING PART IN A BOOK SIGNING AT BRITISH CHAMPIONS DAY, ASCOT ON SATURDAY 15TH OCTOBER

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