Hi Rob, and welcome to my blog. Please could you tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in Cardiff UK, into the Lee household, within a stone’s throw of the Steel Works. A normal everyday family but for a DNA defect. The Lees carry an exit gene. After a couple of years my parents looked at their marriage, two kids and chose to close the show, exit stage left.
Scooped from the catholic kids home doorsteps by my grandparents, I went on to enjoy an extremely warm childhood. School, well that was a different matter. An amphitheatre of mutual disdain, it was much to my teachers’ relief, when at 15, the Lee exit gene kicked in and I took my leave of formal education.
Without qualifications, a future of manual labour beckoned. The singular worth I did possess was a sense of creativity: a love of art, of endless drawing, music. Attributes that found no home in Sixties working class South Wales. For a couple of years, a square peg, I wandered the round holes of foundry work, docks, building sites, warehouses and the dole office.
Fortuitously the answer came from 150 miles east. Almost overnight Swinging London had erupted. At 19 and penniless I arrived at Paddington station. Soon, sharing a Chelsea bedsit, sustaining myself cleaning homes of the wealthy including film producers, magazine proprietors, diplomats, and burgeoning impresarios such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, I put together an art portfolio of sorts. Mostly paintings backed by a few political cartoons. It so happened my political cartoons drew the attention of IPC magazines who put me to work on comics such as Whizzer and Chips, buster, Cor, etc.
My big break. That was until the Lee exit gene again raised its head. After 12 months I decided to leave the company to forge a career as a freelance strip cartoonist. A gamble that fortunately succeeded, spring-boarded a career that would last for decades. Following years spent creating, writing and drawing dozens of cartoon characters for various comics, I moved into animation. For a year or so I worked on the Superted series before creating or collaborating on many TV series such as Fireman Sam, Joshua Jones, the Shoe People, Digswell and many more. Fireman Sam is still going from strength to strength with over 200 episodes currently aired in 155 counties while being translated into languages from Arabic to Mandarin.
How did you get into writing?
Over the years I’d written reams of cartoons strips and children’s books, but despite promising myself, had never gotten around to writing adult fiction. About ten years or so ago, amidst a three-month break in Florida, restless with so much time on my hands, that Lee gene again, I decided to write a novel. Finishing a first draft and uncertain of its quality, my wife (a gold medallist in any reading Olympics), convinced me of its worth. With her wind in my sails, so began what would be the first of five books. Another currently on the way.
What drew you to write thrillers?
I’ve loved crime thrillers from an early age. Grew up on a diet of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ed Macbain and the ilk. Loved the tight, stylised plots and slick repartee. In particular the black humour regularly tossed in amidst the pathos. Echoes from a literary past that have inspired many a movie and TV series. I can often sense the genre’s subconscious influence in my work.
Your writing is filled with ever changing atmosphere, is as if you paint with words. I feel as if I’m watching a movie when I read the Brad Lovett stories. How do you crystallise the detail and knowledge into a story?
My mode of working probably stems from my TV background, where once scripted, each episode is mapped out in finite detail. Storyboarded time and again before going into production. A method that helps me ascertain the pace of the chapters, the amount of detail needed, and importantly the narrative I’m birdseed trailing at any given time. Yes, people often say my writing is very pictorial. In truth I haven’t given it much thought, but for some reason it’s essential for me to have a graphic image of the scene’s backdrop in my mind before committing to type. Images, whether a murder scene, a bar or domestic setting, I attempt to vividly depict for the reader. Define a clear sense of place.
I love your artwork. Does your eye for painting, influence your writing?
I think the two disciplines are definitely interlinked. As I’ve mentioned, visualising a scene from every aspect before writing it is very important for me. Albeit, here the system is working in reverse. Rather than interpreting a script into pictures, I’m interpreting a picture into text.
I suspect I’m a screenplay writer at heart.
It also, of course, helps that like most of my novels, a lot of my paintings feature Florida. Between my books and my paintings, I suspect there’s a constant Gulf Coast ambience afloat in my studio’s ether!
What genres of books do you enjoy reading?
Both fact and fiction. If I had to choose, preferably the former.
That said, my favourite books are Catch 22 and Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo.
Currently I’m reading Empire of the Summer Moon. An amazing book about the Comanche tribes history and impact on vast swathes of the states Also, an interesting book entitled Uncommon People documenting the vanishing of rock idols.
I know you love visiting America, when was your first visit and why?
My first trip was in 1978. A get together organised by my Scottish father-in-law who had been going to Florida for many years. My wife and children and myself joined the whole Scottish side of our family, many from all compass points. In those days the Gulf state was kind of old worldly, mainly small, mom and pop motels and local family run diners. Over time, along with the cabana curse, legions of condos have mutated as pastel sentinels along the coast.
Yet despite the irrepressible onslaught of tacky modernity, I’m still awed by the State’s ambience, it’s tropical weather, both beautiful and ferocious, the abundant wildlife, eye watering sugar sand and sweet Florida fragrance that drapes the air, greets you the second the airport doors open.
And of course, the cities, towns and swamps are a wonderfully evocative setting for novels. A theatre where if you lift the curtain’s hem, glimpse beyond the good, God fearing folk who daily live side by side with Gulf’s whim, you’ll confront a seamier Florida. One born of New York gangsters, moonshine stills, Tent Revivalist preachers, bone ridden swamps. In their wake, three card trick sub-prime hustlers, the snake oil realtors, hurricane insurance scammers, Haitian, Cuban, Mexican narcotic traffickers, post code gangbangers. The constant drip feed of transient barflies, drifting through looking for opportunity, however squalid. The kind who aren’t who say they are, aren’t even who they think they are. For an author, a place generously rife with storylines.
I’m currently loving Penitence Road, is there another book in the pipeline?
Words Can Kill, a thriller set in London, has just been released. The novel features Harry Kinsella, a disgraced, prescription-dependent journalist who caught up in a dark web of intrigue, begins to doubt his own sanity. It was quite a strange experience reverting from American speech nuance to British vernacular. What do they say? Two peoples separated by a common language. I very much enjoyed writing about Harry, got to know him quite well. I imagine I’ll do another book featuring the errant reporter.
My latest novel, Lonely Road, again set in Florida and featuring Brad Lovett, will be available in the new year.
Looking over your varied career, are there any highlights that stick out.
Receiving two BAFTA nominations in the same year for cartoon series I was associated with, (Fireman Sam and the Shoe People), was a very proud moment. Neither won but it was an illuminating and enjoyable experience for my wife Sandra and I to rub shoulders with people like Emma Thompson, Sean Connery, Cher and the like. I was soon brought back to terra-firma when BBC head of children’s television Anna Hume leaned over and said by way of consolation, “It wasn’t a terribly good year for children’s animation, Robert.” Thank you, Anna.
Another milestone was receiving a letter from Kensington Palace. I’d sent a cartoon of Fireman Sam to Prince George on reading in the newspapers that it was his favourite cartoon. I received a nice letter in return. I imagined my dear grandmother, a staunch monarchist, beaming down at the notion of her grandson’s picture hanging in the future king’s bedroom
Lastly but certainly not least, a cartoon concept I’d designed called
Digswell the Dog, has the distinction of being adopted by the Young Astronauts Council before being painted on a Soyuz Rocket and launched from Russia. After orbiting earth for five days the rocket landed in the waters off Seattle on Thanksgiving Day.
A cartoon of mine in space. Not too shabby for a working-class lad from the outskirts of Tiger Bay.
Thank you, Rob for sharing your amazing story. You can check out Rob Lee’s on the sites below.