Moving his readers

2013-04-24 00:00

GARETH Crocker’s first novel, Finding Jack, the story of a man’s love for a dog he found while fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, was a huge international success, selling well over a million copies.

It is not always easy to follow up on a big hit, and I ask the Johannesburg-based part-time author (he has a big day job as a spokesperson for a major corporate company) how he has managed.

Crocker is refreshingly relaxed and unpretentious about his work. He tells me that, although normally he is perfectly happy to go along with what his publishers want, his second book, Journey from Darkness, was very much his father’s story, and when big United States publisher of Finding Jack, St Martin’s Press, wanted substantial changes, he decided to come back to a local publishing house, Penguin SA. The company is also the publisher of his new novel, Never Let Go. I met Crocker in Durban while he was on a promotional tour.

Perhaps the best way to describe the book is as a “paranormal thriller”. Set in Los Angeles, it is the story of a celebrity writer, whose beloved daughter is kidnapped and murdered. He is ready to kill himself when a mysterious stranger tells him he can bring the child back, and so he sets out on a strange journey. To tell any more might be to give too much away.

I ask Crocker why, as a South African writer, he sets his books in the United States. “Well, the story arrives in my head in one form or another, and this one arrived in a U.S. setting,” he says. “I try to write stories with a bit of reach and not too localised. Despite my forbidding, bald exterior, I’m a gushy, sentimental guy and it’s the schmaltzy kind of read that I feel would do well in the U.S. market.”

Earlier this year, I interviewed U.S. author Jodi Piccoult, and when I asked where the ideas for her novels came from, she said they were the kind of things that would keep her awake at night, and, superstitiously, she thought that if she wrote about them, they wouldn’t happen to her. I ask Crocker, the father of two young daughters, if he is the same, if writing about every parent’s worst nightmare is some kind of superstitious insurance.

“No. I’m the complete opposite: terrified life will imitate art. It’s a kind of coping mechanism, a way of saying that even if the worst happens, maybe I could rescue a child from beyond the grave. If there was a way to step back in time to save a child, I would do it. I’m honestly surprised that more parents who lose their children don’t kill themselves.

“I’m waiting to be found out, of course. I’m always writing the same story, even if they are in different genres. The theme is loyalty, undying love, a quest, a sacrifice and a journey. I watched Rocky as a kid, and I suppose I was inspired by what it made me feel. My wife is an artist, and she painted a portrait of Sylvester Stallone for my study.

“I know that’s cheesy,” he says. But he also knows that heart-warming stories connect him with people.

“I’m a storyteller first,” he says. “I’m not aiming for literary art, but I write for normal people, like me, who want to be moved by a story. I really do want to move people.”

Never Let Go will move his readers, just as Finding Jack still does. Crocker says that every day he gets e-mails from people, some with photographs of their own dogs and some from Vietnam war veterans, who tell him about dogs that saved their lives in that horrible war and who are still scarred by having to leave them behind. It is a story that resonates with readers and author alike. His own Labrador at home is called Jack, as is the one in his latest book. Of course, not everyone is happy. Crocker has been told that he is on a government watch list in the U.S. for writing an anti-government book, though he’s not sure if he believes that.

Despite being successful as a writer, Crocker still prefers to do it part time. “I would go mental if I was on my own all day, writing. The world becomes very small, and I need interaction. But at 8 pm or 8.30 pm I come alive. I’ve got a whole lighting set-up in my study. I can change the colours to suit the mood of what I’m writing.”

This seems such a strange idea that I have to ask, and he explains. “Red is for action stuff, nature and adventure is green, and the emotional stuff is a lovely soft-blue colour. Daylight has a deadening effect on my writing.”

It will be hard to read his work now without wondering what colour was dominating. But each book is something of a rainbow.

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