You only have to turn on the TV or flick through a magazine to see how much attention our wicked sides are getting from the media and advertisers. Soap operas love their villains, newspaper column inches are devoted to moral ambiguity and the thinner sort of woman’s magazine is full of headlines including the word ‘cheat’. Doesn’t everyone love a rogue?
Crash Cole in ‘The Rake Spared’ began seven years ago as the collision, literally, of two quite distinct ambitions. One of them was to concede at last the love-hate relationship I have with opera, that normally loiters in the shadows. Opera’s affinity with darkness is often revealed as compellingly as any movie and though I might never admit this down the pub, some of my favourite anti-heroes are not Loki or Blofeld but the operatic bastards: Mozart’s Count Almaviva or Puccini’s Scarpia. Operatic stories tend to be very good ones, if at times laboriously realised for those of us who are tone-deaf or ignorant of German, and I had long felt that an operatic libretto might retell and translate effectively in novel form.
My other motivation was to try to process the increasing hysteria that follows people in the public eye, to try to understand it and fashion it in such a way that it became the backdrop to a story. The extreme reactions people show to public phenomena and public figures has only been exacerbated by twitter in recent years, but in 2006 one event in particular caught my attention. After the near epic reaction to the death of Princess Diana in 1996, the dragster accident which nearly claimed the life of British TV presenter Richard Hammond presented a different kind of challenge to the British public. Hammond was lucky enough to live, but he was seriously injured, and his rescue, recovery and rehabilitation were exhaustively covered by the TV and newspaper media. I was fascinated by the level of interest shown in Hammond – a popular personality who, with his good looks, good sense of humour, knowledge of cars and bikes, and suitably British sense of self-deprecation, was appealing to both men and women – and by the way people responded quite personally to his situation. It wasn’t particularly that it could have happened to one of us rather than to him – he was driving a jet-powered dragster at 288mph when he crashed – but that his real life persona, his lack of artifice, and the fact that he wasn’t playing a character in his work made his accident very real to us. The inability of audiences to disassociate the real person from the fictional has always interested me, but here was an example of a very real kind of empathy. People literally felt for Hammond. After the emotional tidal wave around Princess Diana’s funeral it was a small step for me as a writer to imagine how that might manifest in a different way after an accident like Hammond’s.*
So, back to the story. Which opera to retell? I wanted to write about a huge character, big in the public consciousness. I wanted someone who inspires sympathy, empathy, envy, hatred and attraction. Someone men want to be and women want to be with. Someone who, when suffering a near tragedy, will inspire most of those people to want him to survive, perhaps in spite of their rational selves. Yet success does not generally come to those who have been entirely nice, good, or well-behaved. I wanted this figure to be divisive, dramatic, compelling but not necessarily in a good way. So who else but Don Juan, recast as Don Giovanni by Mozart in 1787? A great lover, adored by so many for what he is, not who he is, a man who takes what he wants without thought to the consequences. What men among us don’t secretly harbour a version of Don Giovanni inside them?
And so Crash was born, a mostly popular public figure, a façade, a construction of, by and for his fans, who has an accident which nearly kills him. Only is it an accident at all, or is it the consequence of Crash’s own actions, the wilful desire to have his own way finally caught up with him? On the verge of his passing, Crash is saved by the literal adoration of those same fans, their love and affection hauling him back from the brink of death. But what is the life that Crash almost left behind? And as he races the press to find out the truth about his accident, what will happen to the co-dependence between him and his fans? Can they keep him alive or will the truth kill him?
Seven years on since I first wrote the book, that intimate overblown relationship between star, media and public has become even more extreme than it was then, and perhaps it is a shame that twitter and facebook were not as strongly established at the time the novel was written to merit reference, though they would not have changed the story. Bringing the novel to publication in 2013, I decided not to update the novel to include reference to social media, because it was a detail that did not alter the central premise. It is not that the novel belongs to its time but rather, like Don Juan and Don Giovanni, that the story of love, hate and revenge stands the test of time.
Love him? Hate him? Crash is a divisive figure who feeds the public consciousness much as they feed his need to be alive. I hope you’ll want to get to know him though. He remains one of the best characters I have ever written, and I am delighted to let him out into the light.
*It should be noted that this is not a novel about Richard Hammond – if he will forgive me, it was only his accident that inspired me to write this story, and not the man himself. I was as relieved as anyone that he made a full recovery.