In Their Own Write
Peter Walker wrote the books which inspired the long-running Yorkshire-set TV series, Heartbeat. Now his daughter has launched her career with a debut novel, Benedict's Brother. Tony Greenway met them both at Peter's North Yorkshire home.
Peter Walker is a persistent man. He doesn't let anything get in the way of what he wants to do - and what he wants to do is write.
Under the pseudonym Nicholas Rhea, Peter created the popular Constable series of books which became the inspiration for ITV's Sunday teatime ratings Goliath, Heartbeat. "I've been very fortunate," says Peter, modestly. "I was a former policeman, just like the main character in the books. So I've struck a seam which I know a lot about."
Now Peter is delighted that his daughter, Tricia, has written and published her first novel, Benedict's Brother, which started life as an internet blog and, by word-of-mouth, slowly gained an international audience. "An author once said to me: 'A good book is any book you read twice.'," he says. "Well, I've read Tricia's book twice - and lots of people I know have told me that they're reading it again."
He laughs. "I don't think anyone would read MY books twice."
"But that might be," deadpans Tricia, "because you've written so many of them..."
He has, too. In fact, over 40 years, Peter has written a staggering 130 books under a range of different names. "Actually, those are just the ones I've had published," says Peter. "Before then I'd written 13 rejected manuscripts. I knew that if I wanted to be a writer I had to sit down and apply myself."
In the early days, he admits, the problem was he didn't know the first thing about shaping the structure of a novel or developing characters and plots, until a friend of his said: 'Why don't you just write about what you know?'
And what Peter knew was police work - it was his day job after all - so he wrote a crime story. "Writing was in my blood more than policing," he says. "But I come from a village out on the Moors and when I was a young man there were no jobs which appealed to me. So I thought the only thing I could do was join the police. It was an open air career which I fancied, and I'd read a lot of crime novels and thought that was how policing worked!"
In Peter's spare time, he wrote stories and blitzed publishers with on-spec copies of his novels - and, to his surprise, a small firm accepted his 14th manuscript on Christmas Eve, 1966. He was 31 and received a £50 advance.
Encouraged by his wife, Rhoda, Peter continued to write books - sometimes one a week - while working and raising a family. In 1979, he produced his debut Constable novel, Constable on the Hill. "That was the first big success," he says. "I don't know how many books I'd written before then: about 40, I should think."
The Constable books have been much-loved and well-read and have a large and loyal following. "They're written in the first person, so they look like they're real stories," says Peter. "I was determined not to have a glamorous detective solving crimes. I wanted an ordinary copper on the beat - PC Nick Rhea - coping with whatever life threw at him."
At the police station, Peter's colleagues knew about his second career - and they liked it. "They were proud of the books then and they still are," says Peter, "because it put the North Riding Constabulary on the map. And, of course, they all thought they were featured in my books!" The Heartbeat TV series came along in 1992, and by that time Peter had long-retired and was averaging six books a year. Not everyone knew that Peter Walker and Nicholas Rhea were the same man, though. "I'd written a series of Emmerdale novels and was having lunch with the producer," remembers Peter. "I asked him how things were going and he said: 'Fine! Very busy. We're doing a new series called Country Constable set out in the Moors. It's from a series of books by a chap called Nicholas Rhea.' "I said: 'I'm pleased to hear that. That's me...'"
The title Country Constable never saw the light of day; but Heartbeat did, and it's still a phenomenon 16 years later that's popular, says Peter, because of its warm-glow nostalgia-factor. He works as a consultant on the show and reads all the TV scripts several times. "Some of the writers don't know the first thing about police procedure," says Peter, "so I rewrite some of the scenes occasionally - and they accept that. But you do have to let things go for drama's sake, now and again."
Peter is proud of Tricia's success. Her novel is the story of a York woman, Benedict, who travels to Thailand after inheriting £5000 from a relative. There she meets her brother, who has become a Buddhist monk; and their spiky relationship is intense, engaging, funny and sad.
Tricia is keen to point out that Benedict's Brother is fiction - even though her own brother is a Buddhist monk and she once travelled to Thailand to stay with him. She also says that nepotism has played no part in her achievements. Just because she's Peter Walker's daughter doesn't guarantee a book deal.
"It doesn't work that way," says Tricia. "It means an agent is probably more likely to look at a manuscript of mine - my father's agent is my agent, too. But in terms of publishers? No. They're just interested in number crunching. If they think a book will sell, they'll publish it. If they don't, they won't be interested. So I have to prove myself.
"I'm still an unknown name, a first-time writer, but signings have been going well, as have internet sales; and I've also been appearing at festivals and events. I love meeting people who have read the book."
"I find it quite frightening," says Peter. "They sometimes know more about my books than I do..."
Writing is obviously in the Walker genes. "I admire Dad a lot," she says. "The idea of producing 130 books! I'm in awe of that."
She's also in awe of the fact that Peter is soldiering on with his work while battling prostate cancer. When we meet, in October, he looks incredibly well. How does he feel?
"Better than I looked a few months ago," he says. "I lost an awful lot of weight. The cancer had come right through my body... and I was in a state. They told me it was inoperable and incurable; so they gave me an implant which is pumping female hormones into my body to make the cancer think I'm a woman. Obviously, prostate cancer is purely a male disease, so hopefully it'll get sick of it and not bother me anymore. It seems to be working."
Peter even prepared for the worst by writing his last-ever Constable book, calling it - in a tongue-in-cheek homage to the first novel - Constable Over the Hill. "The publishers sent it back saying: 'Sorry - we don't want you to end the series, so we won't accept it. We want more from you - so stick it on the shelf and bring it out later.'"
Peter is currently working on an historical novel, which is, he says, a first for him; and Tricia has finished her second book, and is plotting her third.
"My books are completely different from Tricia's," says Peter. "To write a story like Benedict's Brother... well, I'd find that impossible. It's just not in me. I don't have the grasp of human emotions that Tricia does."
"We do share common ground, though," insists Tricia. "And that's a strong narrative voice. We talk directly to the reader, I think. And although we produce fiction, our stories are linked to real-life events."
Like father, like daughter, then. "It's almost like a relay race," agrees Peter. "I'm pleased Tricia's taken this path. I always knew she was a very good writer - and I think there's a big future for her as a major novelist. She has that capability."
Tricia cites To Kill a Mockingbird as one of her favourite books. So is there any novel Peter would like to have written?
"Yes," he says, eyes gleaming. "A best-seller! The chances of becoming a millionaire through writing are a bit like winning the lottery. You've got to be JK Rowling, I think. I was quite realistic about embarking on this career, but I've enjoyed every moment of it. I've no regrets at all."
This interview with Peter (Nicholas Rhea) and Tricia Walker was conducted by Tony Greenway, and appeared in the January 2008 issue of Yorkshire Life magazine. We are grateful to them for permission to reproduce it here.