Campaign Interview, by Iain Ackerman
“I’ve very much enjoyed my career, but I’m glad to be doing something else now,” says Tom Callaghan with distinctive, dry, comic delivery. “All copywriters are supposed to have a novel in their bottom drawer, but mine has finally managed to escape.”
Callaghan is sitting opposite me in the foyer of the Majestic Hotel in Bur Dubai. It’s the second time we’ve met in as many months and he hasn’t looked particularly happy on either occcasion. Looks, however, can be deceiving.
With a dour expression that hints at his northern English upbringing and belies a smooth and confident repartee, Callaghan has, in fact, every reason to be elated.
Independent publishing house Quercus – best known as the English language publisher of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy – has acquired the worldwide publishing rights to two of Callaghan’s thrillers, with Quercus to release the first novel, A Killing Winter, early next year. German rights have already been sold to Hoffmann & Campe, while Spanish and Portuguese editions are also in the pipeline.
It was Quercus’ publishing director, Stef Bierwerth, who signed the rights from Callaghan’s agent, Tanja Howarth, earlier this year, with Bierwerth stating that: “Right from the very beginning, A Killing Winter hits you like a steam train. It’s an incredibly polished debut thriller which convinces through its originality and timeliness.”
For Callaghan, however, the situation must seem surreal. Having previously written two novels – both of which had agents but were never published – he stopped writing for a long time, deciding instead to concentrate on his career in advertising. During the past 34 years he has worked for Saatchi & Saatchi, spending several years as a creative group head before joining M&C Saatchi, and has spent the past 14 years in the Middle East working for agencies such as Publicis and Expression (now Iris). His most recent position was at Doha-based Agency 222.
“When you’ve been doing vignettes if you like, a long piece of copy is 120 words,” says Callaghan. “Writing 80,000 words and trying to make it cohere, and remembering that your hero’s got blue eyes and not green eyes in the second chapter, is tricky. I didn’t really enjoy writing the book, but I enjoyed having written it, if that makes sense. I think the way to approach it is the way you’d approach a piece of copy. If you’re emotional about it, if you’re subjective about it, it’s going to be hard. Faulkner said ‘kill your darlings’ and I constantly edited as I went through, so by the end there was very little really that needed editing. I think the proof reader gave me a page of comments, which is pretty good. It took me just over a year, but I was working in Qatar and there’s not a lot to do in Qatar, so I’d just go home, sit at the keyboard, and set myself a minimum of 500 words a day, with weekends off. You can write a book in a year if you do that.”
Set in Kyrgyzstan, A Killing Winter centres on the brutal murders of several women, with detective Akyl Borubaev of the Bishkek Murder Squad the novel’s main protagonist. Filled with atmospheric descriptions of the Kyrgyz landscape and insights into the politics and corruption of Central Asia, advanced reading copies were distributed at last month’s Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate, while the sequel, A Spring Betrayal, is already a third written.
“I think crime fiction is literature now. Not Agatha Christie, not Miss Marple and Poirot, but we live in a world that we all feel is out of control. We feel we can’t do anything, we feel spied upon, our privacy invaded, as we know from Snowdon and all the rest. Crime books are about things that are out of your control. But there’s also a sense of redemption in a lot of crime books. The bad guys quite often get caught, even if it’s not in a sort of Miss Marple way. When Elmore Leonard has two bad guys shoot each other, it’s not the legal ending if you like, but it’s the most satisfying ending. And crime is the most popular genre in the world, particularly with female readers. Men are subjected to the threat of violence a lot, but we know that women endure violence a lot, whether it’s rape or domestic abuse or violent assault. They’re physically weaker and the things that crime writing are about impinge on them much more strongly.”
He adds: “When the USSR broke up, countries such as Kyrgyzstan were left floundering. They were very poor, with a lot of unruliness, a lot of lawlessness, and there was no point me writing a book set in
New York because Ed McBain’s done that. There’s no point doing Miami because Elmore Leonard’s done that. As far as I know nobody’s writtten a crime book set in Kyrgyzstan.
“I’ve been there several times, I have a stepson there, I was married to a Kyrgyz woman, and I see the book as the first part of a quartet. There are times in Kyrgyzstan when you feel much closer to the reality of existence. There’s no McDonald’s, there’s no Gap, there’s no Next. It’s not like coming to Dubai, which is sort of the West in Arabic a lot of the time. It’s its own place. It’s unique, like going to Laos or Java. There isn’t Ted Levitt’s globalisation, which is of course really Americanisation. It hasn’t reached there yet. It will, I’m sure, but not just yet. And it hasn’t forgotten the power of the word. Kyrgyzstan’s main cultural phenomenon is a thing called the Manas, which is the story of Manas, a superhuman hero. It’s the longest poem in the world. Half a million lines that weren’t written down. There are men called manaschi, a bit like shamen, who go into a kind of trance and recite long extracts from the Manas. I love this notion of an oral tradition that’s continued for a thousand years. We had it with Beowulf, the Greeks had it with the Illiad and the Odyssey, but the notion that there is this organic living culture is fascinating and alluring.”
It’s the power of the word, both spoken and written, that Callaghan is most passionate about, particularly in the context of advertising.
“I often wonder if we’re witnessing the end of copy,” he says. “Having been brought up as a copywriter and a believer in the primacy of words, to find that everywhere in the world now just doesn’t seem interested in words is depressing. Let’s have a flash image and a strapline that might be good or might not be good. Think about ‘All in or nothing’. What does that mean for Adidas? ‘Hello Tomorrow’ is such a weak successor to ‘Keep Discovering’. There seem to be far fewer people who understand the power of words. At Cannes this year there was no copywriting craft award. We’ve got all these amazing processes – things that I just couldn’t have been dreamt of when I started in the business – and yet the most direct way of communicating – the word – seems to have withered away.”
“Because people don’t invest as much time anymore. You know the story of the little girl who said she preferred radio because the pictures were better? When I read words what they conjure up for me is different to what they conjure up for you, but we’re around the same area. Whereas a picture, by and large, leaves nothing to the imagination. We also live in a world where brand differentiation has almost disappeared in terms of practicalities. It’s also much harder to reach your audience now. Bob Hoffman, of whom I’m a great fan, actually worked out that there are so many blog sites in the world now, that if you did nothing but look at a website a minute it would take you 200,000 years to get through them all. “One thing I have noticed – and I don’t know whether it’s this part of the world or advertising in general – but people seem far less aware of the history of advertising. When I say Bill Bernbach or David Abbott, people look at me blankly. People haven’t studied the history in order to learn the craft. It’s always been an egocentric industry, but there are too many people who are interested in the ‘Great I am’ rather than using their skills in the service of the brand.”
Born in the North of England, Callaghan divides his time between London, Prague, Dubai and Bishkek, with his apartment in Dubai not far from the Majestic Hotel
“The great thing about advertising is that it is different every day. But not as different as it used to be, because the math men have taken over from the mad men. Is Martin Sorrell worth £17 million a year? He is to the bean counters, but what does Martin Sorrell know about the creative side of advertising? The best agencies that have produced the best work are the ones that have a creative either at the head or the top two or three. Droga5 is one of the latest examples. It’s not that this is stuff that happened in the 50s and 60s, it’s happening today with new agencies that are newly founded. Once the account men and the accountants are at the top, the priorities change. You have to give clients a reason to want you. Yes of course they want good media deals and so and so forth, but they want work that stands out. Advertising just seems less exciting these days.”
There’s still a place for great copy though isn’t there,surely?
“Human nature doesn’t change,” Callaghan replies. “People who are going to propose to their girlfriends or boyfriends are still going to use words. They’re going to use the same words that people have always used. I like the notion that you can say a few words and you can change things. Think of ‘We are all Palestine’. I don’t need to see a picture of a small boy. ‘We are all Palestine’ says it all.”