Authors > Q&A with David Coubrough
David Coubrough is the author of the thrilling, dark and sometimes humorous Half a Pound of Tuppenny Rice. Hopping between the present and the 1970s, and set against a vivid Cornish countryside, the novel tells the story of Grant Morrison and his relentless pursuit of the truth behind two deaths that marred a family holiday more than forty years ago.
Novel writing is something of a departure for the entrepreneur David Coubrough, who made a name for himself in the hospitality business. We spoke to him about the experience of writing Half a Pound of Tuppenny Rice.
What compelled you to write a novel in the first instance?
From a young age, I have always wanted to write; English was my favourite subject at school and the only one I excelled at. I’ve always expressed myself best in written words. I had tried my hand at plays, originally. But the novel allowed me to better explore the intricacies of dialogue and interaction, which had drawn me to playwriting in the first place. It simply took me to the age of 57 before I finished something I was happy with.
And was there a writing process to Tuppenny Rice?
Yes, but it was nothing unusual. My writing process is often sparked by reading something in a book, newspaper or magazine. For Half a Pound of Tuppenny Rice that article was about electroshock therapy. All of a sudden an idea took root in my mind, which, as readers will find out, informed the plot of the novel.
Not just the plot, I would say, but the deeper afflictions of some of the characters. Many of the characters are, in some way, dysfunctional or in dysfunctional relationships. Could you elaborate on their origins?
The characters who demonstrate some dysfunctionality I believe are realistic. Their dysfunctions help explain why things happen. For instance, Suzie Hughes-Webb’s childhood bulimia and worship of her all powerful father is at the core of the story, as is Carole Howe-Jessop’s lifelong grudge against Suzie’s father; people can, in my experience, go through life nurturing grievances and distrusting people who they believe, rightly or wrongly, have contributed to some misfortune or other.
Which goes some way to explaining why, besides the investigative elements, the mystery itself, much of the focus is on Grant and his powers of reading people. What do you think you are trying to say about the way people interact with one another?
I strongly believe what people don’t say to each other is more significant than that what they do. Most of the characters in the novel do not share Grant’s obsession for events of the past. Why should they? It was over forty years ago. But for a number of people, and in a number of ways, the past is so pertinent that they’d rather not re-visit it. And this is apparent in looks, in dialogue, in equivocation, in silence. Grant is not slow, but he is not particularly skilful at reading people, hence some of the mishaps that occur. He is probably too sensitive of an individual. He knew that justice was never done in 1972 and, as a lawyer and as a person, this has always troubled him. The fact that he has always feared his mother’s involvement in nefarious activity very nearly tips him over the edge and certainly fuels his quest for the truth.
Grant’s is not the only mother to feature in the novel. Indeed, at least eight different family units are caught up in the murders on the Cornwall trip. The character count is positively Tolstoyan. As a debut novelist were you ever worried you’d lose control of the proceedings?
I needed to build the base and to have five realistic suspects for the poisoning of Tom Youlen, the Night Porter. As the story initially revolves around families returning to the same destination at the same time each year, I was keen to show the full panorama of the situation; the cast was the base on which I built the story.
Eventually, a number of the characters become ‘bit part’ players, and by the second half of the novel I narrow it down to about six or seven significant characters. I never felt out of control and, actually, rather enjoyed Grant’s pursuit of such a wide range of leads, lukewarm or otherwise. The convolutions of character and motive also explained why the police were rather inept in their original enquiries into the poisoning of Tom Youlen and the death in the sea of Hector Wallace.
But, I did experience bumps in the road while writing the novel. I took myself off to Cornwall for a week when I hit the first major one. Revisiting the holiday destinations of my childhood and moving around the county allowed me to focus on the non-corporeal aspects of the novel. Whenever I grew tired of writing about people, I could always write about Cornwall.
And yet, for all the tranquillity you derive from Cornwall, you decided to set a murder mystery there. Can you describe the significance of the setting to you and the novel?
As a boy, I’d often take the train from Paddington to Devon and Cornwall; my grandmother lived in Torquay, and an Aunt and Uncle on Bodmin Moor. On these long journeys, I’d read Agatha Christie and stare out of the train thinking about where her plots were headed. Then near Dawlish these red rocks would come into view and I’d feel I was in another world, one totally different to London’s suburbs. So you see, Cornwall, its coasts, small towns and countryside, always evoked for me something divorced from my everyday existence.
The novel is set in a real hotel called Tregenna Castle. It sits above St Ives, and has a view across the town and out to sea. When I would visit, in the late 60s/early 70s, the place seemed charged with magic; it had a long sweeping drive, a grand castellated façade, and the smell of fresh pines, sea air and escalonia greeted you when you got out of the car. Then there were the people … I was part of what felt like a club of families returning year after year. I was embracing adolescence among friends in a similar embrace; don’t we all remember and cherish that time in our lives? It was the highlight of the year, possibly the best time of our lives. I tried to capture this in the novel.
So which character in the novel do you have most affection for? Which did you most enjoy writing and why?
Justyn Silver: he is, in my mind, the most interesting in adolescence and develops into the type of person I know well; a mercurial, but wasted talent. I loved throwing him in as ‘the joker’ taking Grant on a seedy night out, way beyond Grant’s usual boundaries and dextrously setting Grant up so he would root out Trevor Mullings, when Grant returned to Cornwall.
The other sort you know well, is the hotelier James Simpkins. You have been in the hospitality business for over 35 years. Did your experiences in any way inform the novel and its characters?
I pursued a path that was patently centred around the need to earn money to support four children, and sought to make life as comfortable as possible. At the age of 30 I started my own recruitment business in the hospitability industry. Over time, with my investments in business, hotels, catering, restaurants, property and even sea salt, I found the financial security to pursue writing.
The characters in Half a Pound of Tuppenny Rice were initially based on people I have known, but only in a superficial way. Their personalities developed into totally new creations. What I really enjoyed was recalling the things I had witnessed over the decades, putting into the plot incidents I had observed in the business, giving the characters a sense of credibility.
So absolutely, my experiences informed the novel. I’ve seen my share of the accidents and incidents that hoteliers and hotel staff are subject to. Anything can happen when the public are, ostensibly, in your charge. Deaths, certainly. Murders…
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