In our new feature asking how authors research their books, Roy Peachey chats to Roaring Reads about the life story of athlete Eric Liddell – and how he found out about it for his captivating new novel, The Race.
Can you tell us a little about the research you did for your new book?
Having first come across Eric Liddell in the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, I found out more about his fascinating life while studying at SOAS, University of London. What I discovered then must have rattled around my head for a few years before emerging when I started to write The Race. I then went back to SOAS to explore some more and had a wonderful time in their archive, reading the letters Liddell wrote from China when he returned to the land of his birth after the 1924 Olympics.
How important was research to your story. Did it change the direction of your book?
My research confirmed what I had already begun to suspect: that Eric Liddell was a truly extraordinary individual. What’s more, it convinced me that there was a whole side to his life that was largely unknown, that there was a great story just waiting to be told. That story was one of integrity, bravery, selflessness and grit.
Eric Liddell could have remained in Britain to soak up the glory and make a fortune after winning gold so unexpectedly at the Olympics, but he didn’t. He returned to China and put himself in harm’s way for others. That’s why he ran his final and, in some ways, most impressive race in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.
Tell us about your process. Do you research first, write first, or a bit of both?
I like to get all my ducks in a row before I start writing, but I am also acutely aware that historical research can take over if I’m not careful. Writing fiction is not the same as writing history! When I wrote Between Darkness and Light, a novel for adults about a Chinese interpreter in World War I, I did masses of research before I started writing. When writing The Race I kept the research more light touch. It was important to stay true to the historical record but I also needed room for my imagination to do its job. So I speckled the writing process with research, checking facts as I went along and building on what I had already discovered.
Do you have a favourite source, or a favourite discovery from your research?
Yes! There was a wonderful moment when I was sifting through the brown cardboard boxes that SOAS dug out for me. The letters from China, written on wafer-thin paper during the 1930s, were fascinating, but then I came across a painting of a peony. What was that doing there?
As I read on, I found the answer. It was a gift from a Chinese soldier whom Eric Liddell had saved after he had been attacked and left for dead by Japanese troops during those terrible years. He and Eric became such firm friends that Eric kept that picture when almost everything else was lost. It was a reminder, as I wrote in the book, “that hands of friendship still stretch out across the oceans. In that one simple picture Scotland and China are united.”
Were there any gems you discovered that didn’t make it into the book?
I wrote a long section about an amazing journey that Eric and his brother, Rob, took from Tientsin to Siaochang during the chaos of 1937 that had eventually to be cut from the book. It was humbling to read about how the two brothers responded to being robbed by both Japanese troops and Chinese militias during their perilous journey.
Another discovery which made its way into The Race, but which could have become a book in its own right, was the life of a Trappist monk called Patrick Scanlan, who was imprisoned with Eric in the Japanese prisoner of war camp at Weihsien. He was a remarkable figure who helped keep the prisoners alive by running a smuggling operation into the camp. As Eric traded his athletics medals for food, Scanlan and his fellow monks distributed it around the camp, hidden in their robes. On one occasion a live goose was thrown over the camp wall and ran off down the street until it was smothered!
Do you have any research tips for writers starting a new project?
My top tip would be to do your research and then to put it away. Let ideas ferment in your mind. Give them time to become fine wine that others will want to drink. In my experience, down time, thinking time, is just as important. Perhaps that’s why my most creative ideas often come when I’m in the shower or when I’m walking the dog! As writers, we like to think we’re in control but there’s almost always more going on under the surface than we realise.
- Here’s a excerpt from the Roaring Reads review (click here to read it in full): “The Race is a fascinating story follows two parallel sporting lives. It is an inspiring and multi-layered read that both celebrates sport and ultimately reminds us that determination, compassion and love have greater value than glory.”