A dashing but unemployed actor, living in a Bob Cratchit-like room in a shabby sector of London, taps out a 1,000-page manuscript, wraps it in a plastic bag and trudges through the winter snow to the elegant flat of one of Britain’s top literary agents, Ed Victor. The agent takes pity and agrees to read it over the weekend. He can’t put it down. At midnight he turns to his wife and announces: “We just got rich.”
And so has author Stephen Sheppard at 33. Seeker & Warburg, a prestige London publisher, put up a $50,000 advance, and Hollywood mogul Daniel Melnick scooped up screen rights for about $1 million even before Sheppard’s opus, The Four Hundred, was printed. The morning after agent Victor finished reading the manuscript, says the cocky Sheppard: “Ed rang and told me to come over immediately, but I just sat for seven hours and made him wait. I knew it was good.” The novel is a fast-paced adventure based on an actual caper in which four American con men defrauded the Bank of England in 1873. This month, with much hype and hullabaloo, it bows in the U.S. (Summit, $11.95).
Like his heroes, Sheppard had to make a getaway from London—his inflated income forced him into tax exile. Playing the part of a swashbuckling rogue, he is now roaming the world in search of a new home. “I’m being wooed by Hollywood,” he smiles, “but it’s a place for a holiday, not for work.” He prefers Carboneras, an isolated seaside village in Spain (where he rewrote parts of The Four Hundred) but has yet to find “a room with a view” there.
“Having money relaxes you,” Sheppard observes. “It gives you the freedom to think about mortality.” It also allows for a midnight-blue Rolls rigged with quadraphonic stereo. “God knows,” he explains, “I’ve back-packed long enough.” He country-hops in style—roping cattle on a Texas ranch (“I enjoy dirty, cowboy stuff”), playing roulette in Monte Carlo (“I go to watch the people get feverish.”) or hunting black bear in Siberia.
Sheppard’s closest companion is “Winky” Evans, 27, a svelte blonde who works for a British oil rig supply company and who helped support him through the mean years. They met chasing the same taxi in London. “I could have been a con man or a convict,” says Sheppard, “but she believed in me.” He recently rewarded Winky with a Rolls of her own.
The son of Bristol schoolteachers, Sheppard recalls that “in postwar England, people were determined to lead ordinary lives without taking risks. I’ve always enjoyed fighting the system.” At 17 he won a scholarship to Dartington Hall, an elite progressive boarding school, and while there claims to have had an affair with the daughter of a duke. Later he entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, which led to nine months of spear-carrying with the National Theatre. Sheppard merely dabbled in screenwriting until he found a mentor in writer/ director Robert Bolt while cast as Buckham in Bolt’s film, Lady Caroline Lamb. “He told me to stick to writing, that it was far more dignified,” he says.
In 1973 Sheppard was writing a film in Jamaica when he happened on the story of the Bank of England heist. He returned home for 18 months of research on the Victorian era, then wrote a draft in six months which he spent a year polishing.
Though he would like to play a role in the movie version of The Four Hundred, Sheppard clearly has settled on the literary life. “I love that world,” he muses. “Once it starts to come, a book writes itself.” His next novel will be set in a different but still undetermined period; after that, he plans a sequel to The Four Hundred.
Reveling in his sudden success, Sheppard reflects: “There is a quality among the English that always allows them to come in a good second. This is an obstacle a young man with talent has to get over. Now nothing but being first really concerns me.”