Paul Torday was nudging 60 when he wrote his first novel, but now it’s a film starring Ewan McGregor.
To the aspiring novelist, Torday is a poster boy. He had his first story published in a women’s magazine in 1965. Then, for four decades, there was nothing apart from a couple of efforts deemed worthy only of the bottom drawer. The theory that, knocking on 60, he might finally ignite his literary ambition was as absurd a notion as, say, fishing for salmon in the Yemen.
“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” was published in 2007. The film version, starring McGregor and Emily Blunt, is about to come out. And near the start of every year since, a sprightly new novel by Torday has followed. The latest is The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall, set like several of his books in his native Northumberland, England, and telling of the moneyed county set in which Torday contentedly moves, though his working life has, in fact, been spent in the engineering industry.
“As you get into your late 50s,” he says, “you begin to realize that everybody else is younger and cleverer than you are, so it’s time to move on. I thought to myself, ‘I’ll just have one last go. If nobody shows any interest, that’s it?’”
The bizarre idea for his first success came in a business meeting. “I’d been travelling a lot to the Middle East. Also, I was helping to set up a charity to do with the health of the local river. I like fishing. In one of those meetings, while not listening to what was going on, I got this crossover idea: fishing, desert. It would be nice to write a book that was really a metaphor for not getting involved in the Middle East.”
He began writing it in the form of e-mails, like a modern-day Clarissa or The Woman in White, then loosened the stylistic straitjacket to include diaries, memos and interview transcripts. The proposal he sent off told of a shy government fisheries scientist (McGregor in the film) in a dry marriage who is retained against his will by a posh female surveyor (Blunt) to pitch an idea to a peace-loving Yemeni sheikh keen to cast his rod in a desert wadi.
“Nothing happened. The manuscript had been out there for months and I’d given up the idea of becoming a writer. I got the e-mail saying, ‘This might possibly be publishable. Could I see the rest?’ I then had to somehow produce the rest at night, mostly, and at weekends. When it came out a friend of mine said he thought it would do quite well if there were 50 Northumbrian gentlemen who would buy a copy.”
In fact, the film rights had already been optioned by Kudos, and Simon Beaufoy, who wrote the screenplays of “The Full Monty” and “Slumdog Millionnaire,” took on the script. Torday kept his distance.
“I didn’t really want to be involved because I’m only just finding out how to write novels and I didn’t think I’d add anything at all.”
This is how Torday sounds. He has the self-effacing demeanor of someone who perhaps feels they don’t quite belong, either in literature or London. He lives with his wife in a Jacobean country house in a remote Northumbrian valley. The tweed overcoat and the polite county vowels put his roots in another place. (So does the surname: Torday is a village in Transylvania; the author’s father was Hungarian.)
The modesty extends to the way he talks about his work. His second novel, “The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce,” tells of another male misfit, this time a computer wizard whose alcoholism is caused by a Damascene conversion to fine wine. Torday narrated it backwards.
“It’s a device,” he suggests. “I think probably, if I was honest, I wasn’t that confident in my own ability to write a book without a gimmick. After that I’ve managed gradually to get into straight narrative.”
The Legacy of Hartlepool Hall offers a different sort of safety rail: It revisits several of Wilberforce’s acquaintances, principally the aristocratic young heir to a stately home in deep debt. The book sounds a morose note as the old order is swept away by chavvy developers. He makes no apology for affectionately visiting in fiction a world whose disappearance he mourns.
“I slightly feel that it’s no longer ok to write about life in the country. So many novels are set in a metropolitan context and simply ignore the existence of the land-owning farming classes. It almost feels as if those people belong to some kind of ethnic minority who can’t be talked about, so I like writing about them to be perverse.”
Another perversity of Torday’s is to create heroes whom, to quote Jane Austen, no one but himself will much like. Ed Hartlepool is a feckless wastrel the loss of whose inheritance thanks to bungling forebears is no sadness.
“No, he’s not meant to be liked. I just like writing about complex, slightly broken people.”
He’s all in favor of McGregor’s performance in “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” he concedes, but embodying Torday’s quiet hero, “he is basically too cool and too good-looking.”
He has no idea what made his debut catch on. “There is so much chance and randomness in whether your manuscript happens to be at the top of the pile on a good day. It happened to come out at a moment when there was a lot of angst nationally about the war in Iraq and it probably resonated.”
It certainly wasn’t based on a knowledge of Yemen, which he had never visited. His research was based on a trip to southern Oman. He was eventually invited by the Yemeni minister of culture and the British Council.
“All the Yemenis said to me, ‘What’s all this stuff about the fish?’ Luckily for me, the Yemenis on the whole have got a very good sense of humor, although when I gave a lecture at the University of Sana’a there was a man with a very suspect beard at the back of the room who kept asking me whether I thought salmon fishing was Islamic or not. I kept well away from that one.”
“Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” will be shown exclusively at Ayala Malls Cinemas (Glorietta 4, Greenbelt 3 and Trinoma) starting Oct. 10.