Wednesday, March 22, 2017

HOW THE JACKAL BECAME MY WRITERLY INSPIRATION

By Gayle Lynds..... In the mid 1980s I was writing and publishing not only literary short stories but books in a genre the industry considered among the lowest of the low — male pulp fiction.
First UK edition, 1971

Some called my ability to do both artistic range.  But it puzzled and slightly offended others, and after a while I began to wonder myself — was there something wrong with me?  Maybe I was literarily schizophrenic.  Okay, let's ask the real questions:  Who was I?  What in heck did I think I was doing?

And then I got lucky and was able to dig deep.  I found my muse, my inspiration, maybe it was really my siren's song — I stumbled on The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth.

What follows is a tale of hubris and, perhaps, redemption.

Published first in the United Kingdom in 1971, the novel dramatizes the desperate hunt for an international assassin hired by a secret paramilitary organization to kill French president Charles de Gaulle in 1963.  The assassin is so clandestine even his employers know him just by a code name – the Jackal. 

First US edition, 1972
From the French police inspector under unrelenting pressure to stop the Jackal, to the young war widow who seduces an elderly government bureaucrat to extract from him the inspector’s plans, the author guides us unerringly into the hearts and fears of the story’s characters – on both sides of the political drama.

In the end we resonate with all of Forsyth’s characters not necessarily because we approve but because he reveals each’s humanity, and once we understand we can’t help but care at least a little – a feat of high artistic skill.

I’d avoided reading The Day of the Jackal when it was first published because, although many attempts were made on De Gaulle’s life, he died quietly, a private citizen in his own home, in 1970 — seven years after the novel’s purported events. 

Movie poster, 1973
The daring of Forsyth’s concept and marvelous conceit that an author could create not only believable but compelling fictional suspense about an assassination that never happened had been lost on me.  Instead, it buttressed my naive arrogance – if the book was a hot bestseller, it couldn't be good.

Fast forward to the mid 1980s:  I'd begun writing pulp adventure novels and experimenting in them with literary techniques from my short stories.  At the same time, I had two young children to support, and words-on-paper isn’t a food group.  (The literary journals paid in copies, while the pulp fiction paid in checks just large enough I could buy extra copies of the journals.)

That was when a paperback copy of The Day of the Jackal stared at me from the shelf of a thrift store.  It had been read so many times the spine was cracked and the pages tattered.  Obviously it had riveted readers.  I wondered why.  I bought it. 

Forsyth's autobiography, 2013
As I read, I felt as if I had finally come home.  Forsyth’s prose was rich and smooth, often lyrical.  The characters were memorable.  The insider details of the workings of the French government were not only accurate but, under his hand, fascinating.  The Jackal’s violence was remorseless, as it should have been. 

My love of history, culture, geopolitics, and fine writing had finally come together in the pages of this exemplary novel.  I was more than grateful; I was inspired.  My future in international espionage was sealed.  Thank you, Mr. Forsyth.

With this post, I begin the next month of blogs by my fellow Rogues.  From music to literature, we're revealing what inspires us, gives us ideas, pushes us into the next book or story.  

We'd love to know what inspires you....

11 comments:

  1. I found Day of the Jackal un-put-downable. Somehow Forsyth convinced me to read about a bad-guy who, I knew perfectly well, was never going to get away with it. Nice write-up, Gayle!

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  2. I remember Day of the Jackal still as an unforgettable novel. How wonderful to learn that it gave you inspiration.

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  3. How terrific to read about your inspiration --how Forsyth's writing inspired you to write the wonderful thrillers you are known for today. (I loved your observation that "Words-on-paper isn't a food group." Alas, how true!) Thanks for writing this most insightful post!

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  4. I had a similar reaction the first time I read The Eye of the Needle, by Ken Follett, although I don't regard his writing as being at Forsyth's level. A similar success, however, at positing something we all knew never happened - and making the outcome unbearably suspenseful. There's a reason both books became successful movies when more complex or thoughtful books do not. I would include one of my absolute favorites in this rare group: Robert Harris's Fatherland.

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  5. I've never read The Day of the Jackal. But now I will. And I never knew you started out writing pulp fiction!

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  6. Gayle, you are one of the most determined women I know. I speak for all your fans when I echo your thanks to Mr. Forsyth! Imagine if you'd never picked up the book? How sad for us all...

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  7. That is just so nice of you all. Thank you for your kind compliments. Yes, Jamie, please read it! And Francine, I hadn't thought about it, because I loved Needle, too, but read it after Jaguar -- and you're right, utterly riveting but not quite up to the same writing level. Glad you enjoyed my "words on paper" comparison, Karna. Sigh, but I sure am glad I'm not struggling to support a family anymore! Sandy dear friend yes, yes, yes to Forsyth! And Johnny ... I'm so glad you're sliding down the slippery slope! x to all!

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  8. Great blog post, Gayle! Thank you for sharing your journey. I loved Day of the Jackal, too.

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  9. Somewhere on my many shelves is my paperback copy that I bought ostensibly for my grandfather who's literary tastes I shared. However, on the train ride home from my job in Manhattan, I got so involved, Gramps had to wait an additional 24 hours before I would hand it over. Thanks for another well written blog and I am so glad it had the influence on you that it did!

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