In September 1970, just out of university, Ken got a place on the graduate journalism course run by Thompson Regional Newspapers. After three months training, students were sent on work placements with Thompson-owned newspapers. With his knowledge of Cardiff, Ken returned to his native Wales to join the South Wales Echo as a trainee reporter.
Throughout his career as a journalist, Ken worked as a general reporter, or ‘fireman’, covering whatever stories came up on the day. On the South Wales Echo, he got most pleasure out of pop music writing, interviewing stars like Led Zeppelin and Stevie Wonder.
He returned to London in 1973 to work on the Evening News, where he wrote a regular column about the River Thames. He enjoyed the work, but did not find it very stimulating. “I wanted to be a hot shot investigative reporter, but I never made the grade.”
Ken continued his political interests, joining the National Union of Journalists, and the same Labour Party that he had rejected during his student years.
“I felt it was time to settle down and besides, we had failed to create a world-wide revolution. It was time to think about more modest political aims. The Labour Party has basically been where my politics have been ever since.” But he was not very active in the Party for the next 10 or 12 years. His family was growing. In 1973, Ken and Mary had a daughter, Marie-Claire.
Ken became increasingly frustrated with his job at the Evening News and began to write. At first, this was only in the evenings and at weekends. But even when he began to make money from his writing, he did not give up his day job for several years. He saw his writing as, ‘sort of a paying hobby’. Most of what he wrote during that period was published, but despite his desire to write a best-seller, none of those early books sold very well.
“All my life I have got tremendous pleasure out of good story telling, good yarns that have taken me to places I have never been and shown me life styles and periods that I have never known. When I started writing fiction, my impulse was to give the same pleasure to others that I had enjoyed myself.”
During the 1970s, Ken met Al Zuckerman, who was to have a profound effect on the young writer’s aspirations as a writer of popular fiction. Seeing some of Ken’s early work, Al became his American agent. Ken would send him outlines and manuscripts, and suggest ideas. Al would write back, usually to say that the story was not sellable to the American market.
“Then would follow a little homily which generally wasn’t about the American market at all, but it was about how to write a good story. At first I thought, ‘what does he know?’ because while I was trying to be a best-selling writer, he was still trying to be a hot shot agent. Neither of us had made it yet. But as time went by, I began to listen to him, because the things that he said were very smart.”
It was Al who pointed out that Ken’s characters had no past. The reader would never learn about a character’s mother, childhood or previous marriages. “You just found them in the middle of the stage – and if you don’t know much about the character, it is hard to identify with him or her when they get into a predicament.”
Another comment particular to The Modigliani Scandal, was that, “the trick endings belong in the short story, not the novel. If a reader has given a week or two to a book and comes to the end to find that he or she has been fooled, it’s not satisfying. It’s irritating. It may be amusing if you have been reading a short story for half an hour, but it is beyond a joke in a novel. Al told me many little things like that. That really focused my mind on what I was doing, and what I could do to make it better.”
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