Encounters with the Famous: Authorship as Collaboration
In 2000 I went to hear the mystery author Richard Stanley “Dick” Francis (1920-2010) read a selection from his just released book, Shattered. All of us in attendance were fortunate in that he was accompanied by one of his sons, Felix, and his wife Mary Margaret.
Francis, born in Wales, was a one-time jockey, including for horses of the Royal Family. Like most jockeys who ride for any length of time (it’s the most dangerous sporting profession), he suffered through many accidents and so turned to covering the horse racing circuit for a newspaper. After completing his autobiography he became a professional writer and published a book every year between 1962 and 2000, the year we met him for the first time.
(Dick Francis’ whole life was wrapped up in horses. His first horse related injury came when a pony fell on him when he was 12 years old. He volunteered for the English calvary in WWII, but instead ended as a sky jockey piloting bombers and fighters. Mary became a pilot, as well.)
When we met in 2000 Dick Francis said he thought he might retire. There was an audible groan in the room. Fortunately, he did published five more books after Shattered, four of them with his son Felix. I was surprised – but not. It is difficult to retire from something you, if not exactly love, do not loathe. What no one foresaw was that Mary would die shortly thereafter. And she was essential in his work.
Mary Margaret Francis was as important in the writing of Dick Francis’ novels, a co-equal, if you will, as Mr. Francis himself:
“Mary and I worked as a team. … I have often said that I would have been happy to have both our names on the cover. Mary’s family always called me Richard due to having another Dick in the family. I am Richard, Mary was Mary, and Dick Francis was the two of us together.”*
So why was Mary important in his writing? Along with editing the manuscripts she did all of the research for those interesting jobs in the books. Shattered features a glass blower, Reflex features a photographer, Rat Race revolved around an air-taxi service, Straight has a jewelry business theme. Mary investigated all these fields in-depth to lend veracity to the books. (Elmore Leonard, for instance, uses the same technique but has an employee do the research for his dialects, vocations, etc.)
Unusual, for me, in thinking ahead, in 2000 I thought to take along a wood horse, cut out of a board with a jigsaw, to the book reading. I planned to insert it into the lintel of a built-in book case where my signed Francis titles were kept. (I have since moved and took the horse and its mate with me!)
When the reading ended and people lined up to get their books signed I began talking to Mary about the world of art glass. She said she had found the research fascinating. Suddenly it occurred to me to ask her if she would sign my copy of Shattered. She was, after all, an enormous part of this, and many other Francis titles. She reddened in the face and tittered like a young schoolgirl, saying no one had ever asked her to sign one of the books. She then wondered aloud if she really should as she was not the author. I pointed out that she was responsible for the verisimilitude in the work and so she agreed.
All we had at hand was one of the short, stubby pencils the bookstore used for people to write their names on a pre-made form so Dick Francis would not have to ask whose name to sign the books to. (A great system for the hard-of-hearing and for those with names that are difficult to spell!) We used this nubbin of a scribe and Mary, in a shaky hand, added her name after her husband’s. She then made a joke about this copy being worth more now that it had a unique combination of autographs. Six months later she had a heart attack and passed away.
I cherish my unique copy still.
* Swanson, Jean; Dean James (2003). “An Interview with Dick Francis”. The Dick Francis Companion. New York: Berkeley Prime Crime. pp. 1–10.