In 1954 Alistair MacLean was a 32-year-old lecturer at the University of Glasgow, married with a child on the way and struggling to make ends meet. MacLean entered a short story competition and won first prize, £100.
“I saw no future in writing books,” says MacLean, who was approached by a publisher after the contest. “I thought I would make more money by hiring out a boat in the summer.” When a bad storm stalled his boat, MacLean decided to give writing a try.
He took 32 pads from the university—he insists he later replaced them—and wrote every night and on weekends for 10 weeks. Drawing on his five-year navy experience, he wrote H.M.S. Ulysses, about a mutiny aboard a cruiser in WW II. It was published in 1956, and MacLean has been a best-selling author ever since. His suspense thrillers have sold over 19 million copies and been translated into 25 languages. Star-studded films have been made from The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, Where Eagles Dare and (soon to be released) The Golden Rendezvous. Turning out the screenplays—as well as novels—has made MacLean rich. MacLean’s latest book, Seawitch, about the struggles of an oil tycoon, has just been published by Doubleday.
The son of a minister, MacLean grew up in Inverness, Scotland and majored in English at Glasgow University. In 1956, once the money from his novels started rolling in, MacLean moved his family to Switzerland, where the tax bite is less. Then in 1962 he stopped writing and moved his family to England to become an innkeeper on the west coast. “My publisher asked me up to London once a month. He would discuss everything under the sun except my getting back to writing. Eventually I got so infuriated I came back,” says MacLean.
Though he has a house near Cannes on the French Riviera, home base for MacLean is a ground-floor apartment in Geneva. His first wife, Gisela, and their three sons, Lachlan, 22, Michael, 16 (adopted), and Alistair, 14, live in a villa nearby. When his second wife, Mary Marcelle, returned recently to England after a vain attempt to patch up their marriage, she complained that hard-drinking MacLean locked himself away with his typewriter. “And when he showed himself, it led to quarrels. It was impossible to live that way,” she says.
A shy and reticent man who treasures his privacy, MacLean refuses to talk about his personal life. He spends five weeks on a novel, working up to 14 hours a day to complete it. He knows the last sentence of his fast-paced plots before he writes his first line. “I don’t deviate from it,” he says, “but I like to embellish as I go along.” The embellishments do not include sex. Says MacLean: “It would slow up my stories.”
MacLean attributes his success to “self-discipline, not genius. A little talent and inventiveness help, but the rest is hard work.” And work hard he does. He’s already finished his next book, Goodbye California, about the dangers of nuclear technology and earthquakes, scheduled to come out next spring. He plans a nonfiction book on the preservation of wildlife, another entitled A Layman Looks at Cancer and a third about Captain Scott, the Antarctic explorer.
Overall MacLean is a satisfied man. “I want nothing. I have been everywhere, I have done everything. And I most certainly have tasted the good life, the sweet life. But,” he adds, “the sweet life lacks the basic humanities; it turns sour, and one is very happy to return to the simple life.”
There is still one thing he would like to do, not so much for himself as for his old friend and editor Ian Chapman—write a good book one day. “I don’t know if I can ever do that.”