Interview with Author Keith Chapman AKA Chap O’ Keefe
As Keith Chapman, Chap O'Keefe was an editor and contributor to various fiction publications in London in the 1960s before shifting to New Zealand and spending nearly 35 years in newspaper and magazine journalism. He returned to fiction writing in earnest in 1992 with the O'Keefe westerns and edited the Black Horse Extra online magazine. As well as standalone titles, the O'Keefe westerns include the adventures of the ex-Pinkerton detective, Joshua Dillard, and the exploits of the engaging Miss Lilian Goodnight, a scallywag heroine better known as Misfit Lil. O'Keefe's books have been published in the series Black Horse Westerns, the Linford Western Library, and Dales Westerns, and they are now being reissued as ebooks. His latest ebook release is Peace at Any Price which I reviewed on this blog in February.
TM: I’m always fascinated by the books people enjoyed as children and in learning what influence they may have had. Tell me about the books you read as a child or as a teenager that might have influenced you.
KC: I guess it really began with my mother's 1928 Playbox Annual which included nursery-age picture stories featuring Tiger Tm and the Bruin Boys. By the 1940s, the Bruin Boys were appearing in Rainbow, the Amalgamated Press's companion title to Playbox. So I became a regular reader of that paper, then a fortnightly, around the age of six and still have three of its annuals. Once I was old enough to have a public library ticket – no, before, because I borrowed my big sister's! – my book reading quickly took in the usual British fiction favorites of the time, Enid Blyton's many series, Richmal Crompton's William books, and Captain W. E. Johns' Biggles flying yarns. As far as comics went, I largely shunned the adventure strips that appeared in the likes of Eagle and Lion. I preferred the text stories in weekly papers like the AP's Champion and D. C. Thomson Ltd's Rover and Wizard. By the time I was nine, I had added the monthly Sexton Blake detective novels to my reading list and was soon using my dad's library ticket so I could borrow Leslie Charteris's Saint books from the adult section. Then there was Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace, and John Creasey, who was the first author I corresponded with.
TM: In email to me you mentioned working in the 1960s with W. Howard Baker at Fleetway Publications, as the AP had become known. Can you tell me more about that?
KC: When Baker secured the editorship of the Amalgamated Press's venerable Sexton Blake Library in the mid 1950s, it was partly on the strength of a book that was ghost-written for him by Jack Trevor Story, who had been an author on the UK Panther Books list at the time Baker had been on their editorial staff. Story, of course, later secured his reputation with The Trouble with Harry (filmed by Hitchcock) and Live Now, Pay Later. He also wrote many fine Sexton Blake novels under his own name. At the AP in the late 1950s, Baker set up a system for producing Sexton Blake Library books that appeared under the house names Desmond Reid and Richard Williams. Manuscripts from people like Wilfred McNeilly, Vic J. Hanson (who later became a Black Horse Western writer under his own name and Jay Hill Potter), and Stephen D. Frances (the original Hank Janson) were accepted for about half the AP's fee. Baker would copy-edit the material and annotate the sections he considered in need of rewriting. The manuscript was then sent to George Paul Mann (aka Arthur Maclean), another of his old Panther Books associates I believe. Mann would produce a clean typescript for the printers and collect the other half of the AP budget for the book. By the time I was working at Fleetway as Baker's assistant on the Sexton Blake series, the Desmond Reid system, or a similar ghostwriting setup, was also used to produce the books that came out under the W. A. Ballinger and Peter Saxon pen-names and even as by W. Howard Baker. For example, early drafts of Savage Venture (Ballinger) and The Reluctant Gunman (Baker) first appeared in Baker's private office as distinctive, rather untidy Wilfred McNeilly typescripts. McNeilly produced his work using a blue rather than a black ribbon on lighter-weight paper than was the standard.
TM: Reading other Internet commentators, it would seem some murkiness surrounds Baker's writing activity.
KC: And you might say that was true at the outset ... in every way. I remember the cover over the fluorescent light fitting in Baker's office was decidedly brown in tint. Surely it must have been made that way? But no, by the late '50s/early '60s, as well as being overweight and perhaps spending more time than he should have in the Fleet Street pubs, Baker was smoking way too much. One weekend, the cleaners removed the nicotine stains from the white-enameled partition walls and from the ceiling and light fitting. On Monday morning Baker complained strenuously about the brightness in his office!
TM: How did the Fleetway experience shape your own career?
KC: Substantially. Bill Baker was a shrewd operator, and I probably owe him a great deal for a subsequent working lifetime spent exclusively in fiction-writing and journalism. How did it all happen? Well, when I was still in my last school years, I contributed to what US readers might call a fanzine and to the readers' letters pages that appeared at the back of the monthly Sexton Blake Library books. These review pieces caught Baker's eye and he invited me to visit him at Fleetway House, London, home of many of Britain's most famous periodicals. For a suburban kid with my avid fiction-reading background that was a great thrill. Even more captivating was Baker's later invitation for me to join his staff to fill a position left by the departure of Michael Moorcock. It was my last term of school before taking exams for the advanced-level General Certificate of Education. Having seen enough of academic study, I immediately abandoned Plan A, which had been to continue my education by attempting to secure scholarship entrance to Jesus College, Cambridge. The chance of commencing working life by becoming a junior at Fleetway was just too attractive to refuse. University would have been something of a drain on my parents' finances; I also saw it, in those impatient youthful days, as yet more delay to tasting other adult freedoms. I enjoyed the time I spent copy-editing the writing of authors like those already mentioned, plus Tom Martin (aka Martin Thomas), Rex Dolphin, and Philip Chambers, to name yet another regular three. I relished providing the blurbs and chapter heads for their novels, and invariably the titles that replaced their working titles in the way that was then common pulp-publishing practice. And I learned heaps of valuable skills.
TM: Which were?
KC: Today a writer of genre fiction must more than ever be capable of providing properly edited copy, ready for publication, print or electronic, with all the necessary ancillaries, like attention-grabbing headings and blurbs. Just the other day I came across a blog where the writer said Baker “had a knack for snappy titles,” and showed examples of ones for Sexton Blake books and chapters. I wonder if Baker was any better at or more prolific in this than in other areas. During the time I worked with him, I produced almost every editorially substituted Sexton Blake Library book title, plus most of the chapter heads. The procedure with the renamed books was that Baker would ask me for a short list of appropriate titles and taglines once a cover had been completed or selected from generic stock. The trick was to tie cover and story together to best effect. Sometimes I would insert material altering scenes in the book to better suit the cover art. I imagine all my predecessors would have served Baker similarly.
TM: Please can you tell me something about the years after Fleetway?
KC: Next up came an overly busy but paradoxically enjoyable stint with Micron, a fledgling backstreet publisher based at Wallington and Mitcham, south of London. This was amply covered last year in a 12-page article in issue three of the sumptuous UK publication Illustrators (The Book Palace Ltd, London). Demand had dwindled for text pulp fiction and Micron's output was mostly 64-page complete picture-story novelettes. Just leaving my teens, I found myself a big and somewhat lonely fish in a small pond. I ridiculously became responsible editorially for ten titles per month, four war, four western, and two detective. I also produced the scripts for some of them in what, strictly speaking, should have been my out-of-office hours. Although as a working-class child with limited pocket money I'd always considered picture-strip publications gave less value for money than similar text stories, I found them rewarding as a writer! On top of the comic books for Micron, I managed to suggest, set up, and become the founding editor for Edgar Wallace Mystery Magazine. This was in some measure Micron's attempt to fill the gap in the market left when Fleetway discontinued its Sexton Blake Library. Blake writers like Martin Thomas, Rex Dolphin, Arthur Kent, Vic J. Hanson, and Sydney J. Bounds all contributed thriller novelettes or stories to EWMM. Syd Bounds, like Vic Hanson, was another veteran of the post-war UK pulp fiction market who later ended his writing life as a Black Horse Western author. Tributes to Bounds by literary researcher Steve Holland and myself can be found under the heading Farewell to a Small Giant here: www.blackhorsewesterns.com/bhe5.
TM: And after Micron?
KC: Micron in its original form was short-lived. It was under-capitalized and up against stiff competition from much bigger publishers of similar material, like IPC (Fleetway) and Thomson who had the distribution muscle conferred by their top-selling women's magazines packed with lucrative color advertising of consumer goods. After Micron failed, I shifted back to London, to Odhams Books, which like Fleetway was another IPC company. Largely, I edited chidren's annuals for them. And, of course, I wrote lots of scripts for strips, plus a few text stories. As always, the output was shaped by what the market wanted: war, western, fantasy, school stories, humor ... you name it. I had the pleasure to see the stories drawn by people who were unquestionably at the top of their game: John Burns, Don Lawrence, Martin Salvador, Alfredo Marculeta, F. Solano Lopez, Matías Alonso.... But change was again in the offing, due this time to budget cuts and reorganization within the IPC empire. My wife and I chose to make a more settled life for ourselves at the other end of the world in New Zealand. This effectively brought a close to my regular writing for what had once been regarded as mass market-fiction publications. In our new country, my work was on newspapers and non-fiction magazines. Occasionally I would sell a confessions romance to a UK magazine, or a ghost script to Charlton Comics in the US which might be drawn by the celebrated Steve Ditko of Spider-Man fame, or Tom Sutton.