Newcastle author Dan Smith is descended from Lord Lawson of Beamish, whose career took him from pit boy to Secretary of State for War, and he spent part of his teens in Brazil where the family gardener was reputed to have killed 17 men.
Told to “write about what you know”, many an aspiring author will reflect on the thinness of the material. You’d imagine that wasn’t a problem for Dan, in whose Gosforth home we’re drinking coffee. Indeed, he has two new books just out.
Red Winter, set in Russia after the revolution, is his fourth novel for adults while My Friend the Enemy, set in the North East countryside during the Second World War, marks his first stab at writing for younger readers.
“It’s recommended for ages nine to 12 but I think adults could read it and enjoy it as well,” he says.
“It’s one of those things in publishing, that everything has to be put into brackets. There is crime in my adult novels but they’re not quite crime novels so they get called thrillers.
“Apparently Graham Greene used to call his books entertainments, which I thought was really good. Most authors must hope their books entertain.”
Full marks to Dan on that count. He writes sharp, no-nonsense prose and leads his readers to places they wouldn’t want to be in real life, such as the scene of a massacre in the early chapters of Red Winter or the fuselage of a recently crashed German bomber in My Friend the Enemy.
At the age of 42, he is still a relative newcomer in publishing terms. His first novel, Dry Season, set in Brazil, came out in 2010 and was shortlisted for The Authors’ Club best first novel award.
It was followed by Dark Horizons, set on the Indonesian island of Sumatra where Dan has also lived, and The Child Thief, set in Ukraine (Dan confesses he visited only once, spending a weekend in Kiev, but he did live in Russia for six months).
Orion, his publisher, had first refusal on My Friend the Enemy... and refused. “We offered it out to other publishers and Chicken House liked it and took me on,” says Dan.
Good for them. My Friend the Enemy is set in the summer of 1941 and concerns Peter, a 12-year-old boy who lives with his mum. His dad is in the army. One night he sees – at horribly close quarters – a German bomber come down. Amid the rush for souvenirs, Peter and his new friend Kim, a tomboy from the city, find the ultimate souvenir, the sole survivor of the crash.
Erik, the German airman, turns out not to be like the fearsome Nazis on the propaganda posters but a frightened teenager whose wounds need tending.
It’s a heartwarming story that you could imagine would make an appealing film, if they made films like that any more.
“The first novel I ever wrote was for children but it was awful so it’s in a bottom drawer somewhere, which is a good thing,” says Dan.
Reflecting on the inspiration for My Friend the Enemy, he says that in the playgrounds of his youth children were still fighting the Second World War.
“Growing up I was surrounded by war stuff. I was seven when Star Wars came out but the films on television were things like Where Eagles Dare and the war seemed very present.
“When I was at my grandparents’ house there were always people in uniform on the walls and photographs of the Queen. My grandmother was very proud.
“My grandfather fought in the Second World War and my grandmother’s sister was an ack ack gunner in the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service).”
That girl with the gun, Great Aunt Alma, was a chip of the old block. Her father – and Dan’s great grandfather – was Jack Lawson whose story would seem far-fetched if presented as fiction.
One of 10 children born to illiterate parents, Jack went down a County Durham pit the day after his 12th birthday, working 10-hour shifts as a ‘trapper’, opening and shutting doors to let wagons pass.
Self-educated and with a thirst for knowledge, he rose through the trade union movement.
From 1919 to 1949 he was MP for Chester-le-Street and earned high office, serving as Financial Secretary to the War Office in Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government of 1924 and as Secretary of State for War in 1945-6, appointed by his friend, Clement Attlee.
After resigning from parliament, he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Durham – hence all the pictures of him with the Queen and the Queen Mother. Apparently, since the job had no salary attached, he was on income support for a time. In 1950 he was ennobled as Baron Lawson of Beamish.
He died in 1965 so Dan never met him. But he can say he is following in a literary tradition since his great grandfather did write his life story, A Man’s Life, and also a novel, Under the Wheels, a tale of mining folk.
And the pair were brought together a couple of years ago when there was a memorial service in Beamish.
During the war an enemy plane dropped three bombs on the village, one of which fell into a cellar where it lay unseen. When it finally blew up, eight people died including three children, one of whom was Jack Lawson’s nine-year-old adopted son, Clive.
“I thought of what it would have been like to be that age during the war and I started reading up about it,” says Dan. “That’s probably where the idea for the book came from.
“I thought it must have been terrifying with the bombs coming down but I think a lot of kids had a good time during the war.”
The obsession with souvenirs, hunting for shrapnel after a raid, has been well-documented but Dan says his book is “about friendship, adventure and trying to do the right thing”.
There is one pretty graphic scene, the one in the fuselage already alluded to.
Dan, who has a daughter of 11 and a son of seven, reasons: “Children are more sophisticated now because they’re bombarded with so much information, They’re capable maybe of understanding more than they are able to articulate.
“I think they probably like a bit of darkness in a story and I think if you put in something where they’ll go ‘Yuck!’ then that’s probably OK. I think children like that.”
Dan probably went “Yuck” quite a lot when he was growing up. He was born in Stockton but his dad was a chemical engineer with a lust for travel.
When Dan was very young – too young to remember – the family relocated to Sierra Leone but then returned to Washington, Tyne & Wear.
Then, when he was six, they were off again, to Indonesia, where they spent seven years, although Dan and his brother - two years his senior - spent term times at boarding school in England. The globetrotting routine was maintained when the family moved to Brazil where Dan’s dad managed a rubber plantation.
“Books were an escape at school,” recalls Dan. “There was a moment in the day before lights out when you had to be quiet. That was when you could escape into a book.”
Come holiday time and escape was for real. Dan describes a marathon journey involving a flight to Brasilia and another to Santa Terezinha, a town 1,000 miles from the nearest city.
Preparing to embark on the return flight, a guy would stand beside the plane with a fire extinguisher in case the engines caught fire. It was rudimentary and, says Dan, “great fun”.
“I think I was the right age for it. Basically we did boy’s adventure stuff. We’d go up the river for a couple of days and fish (photos on Dan’s website show catfish longer than a man is tall). Also we hunted with guns. The main street wasn’t much. There were bars, brothels and shops where you could buy basic foodstuffs, bullets and fishing gear.”
The local Brazilians “loved to party”. But evidently they had their own code, as Dan explains.
“In my first book there’s an electrician who has a second job in that he’ll kill people for money.
“Our gardener was a respected man because he’d killed 17 people but there was never any sense of threat. He was quite a good guy. He once said to my dad, ‘You’re a really good employer, Mr Smith. You pay us on time, so if there’s anybody you don’t like, let me know. I can do it for free.’”
The way Dan tells it, he drifted into writing. At his brother’s urging he went to university to do a degree in modern languages and politics which entailed six months living in Spain and another six in Russia.
There followed a sequence of unrewarding jobs before he found his calling.
“I think I wanted to be a writer but I didn’t really know how to go about it. I had written short stories but being at work made it difficult.”
He signed up for an MA in creative writing at Northumbria University and found the impetus he needed. “It was great. I met like-minded people and got a lot of encouragement. It gave me a better idea of what I needed to do.”
Dry Season, incorporating some of his real-life Brazilian experiences, emerged from a short story - originally a radio play - that he wrote as an exercise on the course. It became a very well-received novel.
Now Dan Smith, author, has very much arrived. His next ‘entertainment’ for adults, God and the Devil, is due out next year and he has two more titles for Chicken House lined up.
In a neat twist, both will be set in 1941, like My Friend the Enemy, but the first featuring a boy in Germany and the other a girl in Ukraine. Keep tabs on progress on Dan’s website, www.dansmithsbooks.com