Reigate writer John Hughes talks using Reigate as a setting for fiction, and balancing writing with a career

Reigate is known for many things – its caves, its Leader of the Opposition-producing grammar school, its historic buildings – but the one thing you’d never think to associate with the town is the Nazi party. Yet, in his Reigate-based second novel Follow My Leader, novelist John Hughes uses a real-life rumour of a Nazi fleeing to Reigate after the war as a jumping-off point for his narrative. 

‘I live in Reigate but had no plans to write a book based there,’ says Hughes. But then, ‘by chance, and from various well documented sources, I came across rumours that a certain high-ranking Nazi may well have escaped the Führerbunker in Berlin in April 1945 and, of all places, ended up living in Reigate after the war – in a road just a few hundred yards from my house. With the location as a given, I used the Reigate of 1951 as a sleepy, innocuous backdrop to complement the sinister activities of some of the characters; there are scenes in The Old Wheel tea rooms, in Church Street, Knight’s department store and on the W.I. float in the summer carnival procession.’  Reigate, which provides a benign ‘contrast’ to the tumultuous events of the novel, was ‘the ideal setting.’

Hughes hasn’t always been a writer. Indeed, even now, it isn’t a full-time job; like most of us who write, he has to juggle writing against the need to actually live. ‘I’ve always had a proper job as I do like to eat and drink occasionally,’ muses Hughes. He didn’t start out as a writer at all. Studying music rather than literature, he first became interested in writing when a friend, who worked for A&C Black publishers ‘entirely out of the blue he asked me if I’d be interested in writing a book for them on how to play portable electronic keyboards. They were very new and popular at the time and A & C Black had spotted a gap in the market for a tutor for beginners. I agreed and was given just four weeks to come up with a draft manuscript. Keyboard Magic and How to Achieve It was the result and did very well – it remained in print for more than ten years.’ After years of writing commercial books such as this, Hughes ‘had a hankering to have a try at fiction.’ His first novel, Spitfire Spies, was initially unsuccessful, but twenty years down the line, it was published, giving way to a career in fiction. It was eventually followed by Follow My Leader and a short story collection, How to Steal a Piano(bringing Hughes full circle, at least in terms of piano-based titles).

As well as being flexible in terms of genre and type, Hughes has diverse influences, such as Somerset Maugham, Peter James, Rumer Godden, Mary Webb, Joseph Heller and Ian Fleming. This range shows a writer who is keen not to be tied down by his genre; he’s always open to reading beyond crime and thriller. Yet the king of crime, John le Carré, is, says Hughes, ‘in a league of his own.’ His ‘style and plotting are superb. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy would be my desert island book choice; I’ve read it a dozen times and very nearly understood it the last time.’ 

But in 2020 more than ever, it’s difficult, in fact nigh-on impossible, to make a living solely off writing. In his day job, John works for the NHS. ‘I make time,’ he says of juggling this with writing. ‘During the week, I get up an hour earlier than necessary to write, and sit down for another hour when I return home – or during lockdown switch from one computer to another on the dot of five-thirty . . . The trick is to write something every day. If you skip a day it becomes a week, then a month, then your project flounders.’ As a writer myself, I know the truth of this; I can’t tell you how many plays and short stories I’ve abandoned from laziness and bad time-management. The key to success in anything is, fortunately or unfortunately, hard work and persistence, and writing is no exception. 

Finally, Hughes teases us on what to expect next. ‘I’ve just finished the final draft of a novel called Living With Jo. It’s a black comedy about a lonely man who is given a cardboard cut-out of a famous and beautiful actress as a bit of fun. However, the fun soon wears off when he begins to become emotionally attached and wants more from her than a piece of cardboard has to offer. I won’t give the game away by naming her, other than to remark that I too think she is absolutely fabulous.’ Now this sounds intriguing; a dramatic departure from what’s gone before, which is always a good thing. 

Whatever the future holds for job prospects in the arts, it always has, and still does, require commitment to gain any level of success. Hughes is a testament to this; not letting a full-time job get in the way of writing multiple books, he would not have been published if he’d let this or anything else deter him or made excuses for himself. It may be tiring, but if you have enough willpower, you’ll find the time. 

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