Robert J. Harris tells Nora McElhone and Nadia Vidinova about what inspired The Thirty-One Kings, which is being serialised in the Courier.
For academic and author Robert (Bob) J. Harris, a deep love for the Scottish landscape and paradoxically, a pull towards the exotic, have been instrumental in developing the inspiration for his writing.
A born-and-bred Dundonian, Bob grew up in the 50s and 60s, when Dundee was still famous for jute, jam and journalism.
He and his family moved between a series of council houses in the city. His mother worked as a yankee spinner at a jute mill, while his father was a painter and decorator, and later a charge nurse at Strathmartine hospital.
A voracious reader
At a time when higher education was arguably less accessible for those from a working class background, Bob studied for a degree at St Andrews University. He had always been bookish, spending a lot of time at Arthurstone Terrace Library. He would also regularly get up early to read before school.
“A favourite author of mine was W.E. Johns”, Bob reminisces.
“I read (and later collected) his ten science fiction novels concerning the adventures of Professor Lucius Brain and his friends who took off from his Scottish castle to explore the universe in their borrowed Martian spacecraft the Tavona.
“What appealed to me in all those stories was the sense of adventure. It’s something I try to put into all of my own work.”
John Buchan’s influence
A sense of adventure is certainly present in The Thirty One Kings. The plot revolves around Richard Hannay, a character originally developed by John Buchan.
In his final novel Sick Heart River, Buchan predicted that with the outbreak of World War Two, secret agent Richard Hannay and all his companions of old would be going back into action. The Thirty One Kings finally tells their tale of adventure.
“It seemed to me that if Buchan had lived, he would certainly have written the story of their further adventures”, Bob muses. “Over time it occurred to me that maybe I could undertake to do that.
“I read and re-read Buchan’s five Hannay novels to get that narrative voice into my head. It was also important, however, not simply to imitate the original stories but to add something new to Hannay’s saga.
“As well as giving him a desperate mission in Paris in 1940, I also brought him together with the Gorbals Die-Hards, who feature in another series of Buchan novels.
A love of Scotland
“John Buchan’s love for the Scottish landscape is evident in his writing, while he also spent important time in South Africa and spent his final years as governor of Canada.
“It seems to me there is a definite Scottish tradition of adventure stories. I hope I am tapping into that same vein of deep love for Scotland itself combined with the exciting allure of faraway places.”
The Courier is currently serialising The Thirty One Kings in a number of instalments. The novel was listed as one of the best fifty books in The Scotsman in 2017.
With this encouragement Bob wrote another Richard Hannay adventure, Castle Macnab. It is set in the 1920s and sends Hannay and his friends to rescue the ex-Kaiser Wilhelm from a vengeful Highland laird who means to hang him.
Currently he is working on a third Richard Hannay novel titled Redfalcon. Set in 1942, this sends Hannay on a mission to sabotage a secret German plan to capture Malta.
As well as writing, Bob created the classic fantasy board game Talisman, shortly after graduating from university. It was his wife, Debby, a fellow author, who influenced Bob to develop a writing career. He now lives with her, his eldest son and their dog at their home in St Andrews.