In an upstairs room in Campbell Armstrong's creaky old house in County Offaly, ghosts of Ireland's violent past--victims of Cromwell's marauding troops, a priest dead by his own hand--have been known to appear. Or at least that is what the thriller writer claims, in the face of PW's 21st-century skepticism. It is only at nightfall, when a strange window at the end of a long vaulted corridor casts an eerie glow, that PW begins to believe there might be something to the old tales.
Armstrong may not write about ghosts, per se, but it seems appropriate that the author of books with titles like Agents of Darkness (1991) and Concert of Ghosts (1992) should have some contact with authentic apparitions. Even his latest effort, I Hope You Have a Good Life--a memoir from Crown--is a kind of ghost story, populated with the real-life ghosts of old loves and obsessions, and concerned with the preparations that each of us make for death.
I Hope You Have a Good Life represents quite a departure for Armstrong. In it, he tells the story of his first wife Eileen's battle with lung cancer and her miraculous reunion with the daughter, Barbara, she gave up for adoption at the age of 17. Barbara, it happens, is also stricken with cancer of the lung, and when the two finally meet, they must make up for more than 40 years of separation in just a few months. Spanning two continents--for Armstrong and Eileen were both born and bred in Glasgow, yet lived out their married life in the United States--the book addresses the most fundamental questions about adoption, families, life and love.
Despite his years in America, Armstrong retains a soft Glasgow accent. Sitting in the big kitchen of his old house, deep in the lush green of the Irish midlands, he is willing to talk about anything and everything: football, vegetable gardens, American novels, the Hollywood film business. Lithe and fit and almost ageless--he's in his mid-50s--Armstrong proudly shows PW around his apple trees and neat rows of sprouting vegetables. The house, with its big windows and tall gables, once belonged to the ruling Anglo-Irish gentry. On the grounds, PW spots well-groomed horses being trained for dressage by Armstrong's wife, Rebecca, who comes from an American racing background.
At the time of Eileen's diagnosis in 1997, 16 years after their divorce, Armstrong was married again and living in Ireland, but he returned to the U.S. to help nurse Eileen through her terrible illness, thus witnessing her emotional encounters with family members and her firstborn daughter. "Write this," she told him, from her sickbed. "I had to," says Armstrong. "It was a promise I had to keep."
What makes the book so powerful is its unremitting honesty about life and death. "You know, no one wants to go," he tells PW late into the night. "What's on the other side--endless darkness?" One of the most heartbreaking aspects of Eileen's story is the family's desperate desire to believe there might be a cure, the human willingness to try anything, any New Age or talismanic trick, to fight this unjust plague, this "lethal fungus" as Campbell describes it.
In telling Eileen's story, Armstrong relates his own as well, describing how his downward slide into alcohol and drug addiction and his many infidelities destroyed the couple's marriage. "I was out of control," he says, but he is fully recovered now and has made some amends by writing it all down. Indeed, his account impresses by how succinctly it reads and yet how much life and emotion he has packed into 246 pages. PW remarks that he could probably have written a few books with such material.
"Well, they'd like me to do another nonfiction book about my experiences," he says candidly, referring to his publisher in the U.K., Little, Brown. "But I feel it's all in this book." If he chooses to write anything else autobiographical, he might well seize upon his native Glasgow, a city he knows and loves well. In fact, his next thriller is set there. He is proud of the place. "Look at how pink it is," he says, as he shows PW pictures of the city's pink stone buildings at twilight. "Look at this factory, it's modeled on an Italian opera house! The Glaswegian merchants were ambitious people, God love them."
Glasgow has changed a lot since 1961 when Armstrong first met Eileen working in a clothing store, a "lively, scattered" girl from a Scots Jewish family, "with a smart, sharp light in her eyes." They went out, and, at an intimate moment on a camping holiday, she showed him a scar. She had had a child; it was her secret. After an encounter with a mysterious stranger, she had got pregnant at 17 and was encouraged to give the child up for adoption. "It would be more than 30 years before she'd say anything about her baby again," says Campbell, "but every time she caught sight of herself in a mirror, she'd see the scar and remember, she'd always remember."
Eileen and Campbell eventually married and moved to London, where Armstrong began working in publishing, first at Weidenfeld & Nicholson and then at Granada, living it up on the Soho scene. He paints a hilarious picture of a decadent world where lunches were endless and boozy, and editors doled out book contracts to their friends. While he was living in London, he first began to drink seriously. "I'm an addictive personality," he admits, whether he is drinking or gardening or writing or reading. "If I cooked a nice meal, for example, I might have the same meal for four days." Even soccer seems to bring out the trait in him, as for a time during our interview he is talking about addiction while simultaneously watching a big European soccer match on TV and listening to a league game back in Scotland on the radio.
Eventually, he and Eileen moved to the U.S. to make a fresh start, settling first in upstate New York, where the marriage nearly shook apart, and then moving on to Arizona to make yet another fresh start. In both places, Armstrong taught creative writing (at SUNY Oswego and Arizona State), but candidly admits that he d sn't believe in teaching writing. "You've either got it or you haven't," he says frankly. "You've got to have plot, you've got to have character."
By this time, Campbell had already published his first novel, Assassin and Villains (1968), and while struggling to produce the proverbial "difficult second novel," he knew he had found his true vocation. Under his real name, Campbell Black (he later changed to Armstrong to get out of a book option), he poured out the work, such as Death's Head in 1971 and Asterisk Destiny in 1978. Some were published by Macmillan, others by Grafton and by Bantam. In another deft move to give wide berth to his creative output, he adopted the pseudonym Thomas Altman to publish unabashed genre thrillers with Corgi. "I prefer to ignore these quickies," he says, but if nothing else, they are a testament to his industry. "Fiction is a fickle fairy," he says, but, clearly, writer's block is not a problem. "I always told the students to finish something," he says. "You can do the revisions later. The important thing is to get to the end."
But he is modest about his craft. A single poster on his wall testifies to his novelization of the George Lucas movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. "Ach," he says dismissively, "a terrible auld thing. Once you start with a professor and a bullwhip, where do you go from there?" He also wrote a novelization of Dressed to Kill by Brian De Palma. "Ah, he was a nice enough fellow. He just wanted a book with his name on the cover." For all the success of Hollywood, there is still a certain respectability that comes from having something with a cover on it.
However, it was as Campbell Armstrong that he really made a breakthrough. Jig (Hodder and Stoughton, 1987), a thriller set against the "troubles" in Northern Ireland, was a popular success. So was a sequel a year later, Jigsaw. In 1989 came Mambo,and in 1991 Agents of Darkness, dealing with the Cuban community in Miami. Mambo is continually on hold for possible film development, as are many of Campbell's books. His fiction is now published by Doubleday, and he is represented in New York by Diane Tyler of the MBA agency and in London by Arthur Pine of the Richard Pine Agency.
Armstrong loves the idea of scouting different locales for the settings of his novels. After the next story, set in Glasgow, he is keen to set a novel in contemporary Dublin, only two hours away from where he now lives. A veteran of the thriller genre, he laments the current clichÃ©d nature of crime writing--the autopsy room, the endless gore and serial killers. And also the stereotypical characters, including the lonely cop with a booze problem. "I've decided to go against type," he says mischievously. "I'm going to have an American cop, happily married, coming to Scotland, who d sn't drink but is very distressed because he is not allowed to use his gun!" In an show of restraint that might upset the Charlton Hestons of the world, the cops in Ireland and Scotland do not carry weapons.
"Fiction has been good to me. I've done it 20 years full-time. But I'm not satisfied anymore by your basic sort of genre--even though I try to do it as well as I can. The present book [about Eileen] was very different. It was totally driven." It was also the first book he'd ever written knowing the ending before he began writing.
Armstrong enjoyed his time in America, but despairs of some of its excesses. His book is very good on the mundanity of its urban landscapes, especially the soulless shopping malls and endless parking lots in Ph nix, where Eileen lived. Searching for an apartment for Eileen after she leaves the hospital, he and their two sons inspect a depressing series of edge-of-town complexes. In some places "shifty guys in shades lounge around... as if they've waiting for the dark before their nefarious work really begins," he writes. It's a thriller writer's touch, but there is also a personal recognition. For Armstrong describes how years earlier he might have been looking for such characters, suppliers of the cocaine he began using when alcohol wasn't enough.
Eileen, in Armstrong's back-and-forth telling in the book, emerges as heroic in her efforts to keep the marriage together, and just as heroic in letting it go away. She worked tirelessly to get him back on the wagon whenever he fell off, but inevitably the situation would become too much to handle. Eventually, Armstrong met another woman. When the marriage ended, Eileen was gracious, concerned as always about his happiness, and, wisely, her own. They remained good friends. When Eileen was diagnosed with lung cancer, Armstrong and the boys were there to help. In the book, Armstrong muses long and hard on the symmetries and coincidences of life, such as the way his son Stephen is like him. Or the way in which Eileen and Barbara, who grew up in England, were brought back together.
In 1994, Armstrong came to Ireland on a visit and decided he wanted to settle there. Looking for a place to buy, he stumbled on this rundown old house deep in the quiet countryside. Literally "stumbled" on it--he'd been on a bender with some locals. Ireland is a mixed blessing for a recovering alcoholic. He discovered Guinness and gives it a description worthy of any ad writer: "after this lovely sour mash, you discover ice cream at the end of the glass!"
However, Campbell has been clean for years now, and his ebullient character suggests he d sn't need the stout or anything like it. Besides, he has his house and grounds to keep up, including an old hay barn in which grapes are growing. Grapes--in Ireland! The man is an optimist. Meanwhile, family and friends drop in regularly. A son lives in Dublin, as d s one of Rebecca's daughters.
On one wall, PW notices some old black-and-white photos of a racetrack in Texas and a strikingly handsome jockey. It looks like a scene from The Misfits. "Oh, that's Rebecca's father," says Campbell, warming up for another story. "Now, there was some character...." More ghosts, more stories, and PW looks out into the fading sunlight at horses grazing contentedly, heads down, as if they've found something.
Eamon Delaney is a Dublin journalist and author. His book about his time in the Foreign Service, An Accidental Diplomat, will be published in Ireland by New Island Books.