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This 'ghost' writer loves a mystery

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With a mystery, it's so comforting to be able to call the author and ask all those nagging questions - such as, who was the woman in the photo? And, who was the ghost writer?

John Harwood, author of "The Ghost Writer," was more than accommodating when reached by phone at his seaside home in Victor Harbor, Australia (the nearest big town is Adelaide).

Harwood, 59, is a soft-spoken man who treats writing like a regular 9-to-5 job, as does his partner of 20 years; she's a historian, specializing in Australian immigration.

But more on Harwood in a bit. We need answers!

"The picture is of Anne, on her 21st birthday," he says, adding that the dress, named "Greensleeves" for its color, was handed down by Anne's mother, Viola. Anne is the evil sister of Phyllis, who is the mother of the protagonist, Gerard.

The photo, in essence, "is Anne saying to Phyllis, `I've found you,' " Harwood adds. He mentions that very early in the book, there is a visit to Gerard's home in Australia from a man who says he's from the Department of Statistics. Not! He's a spy, sent by Anne.

And the ghost writer could be anyone, Harwood says. Viola wrote the Gothic tales of suspense. Anne pretended to be someone she wasn't, manipulating Gerard through her false stories.

Regarding the confusion at the end of the book, Harwood admitted he didn't want to tie things up neatly at the end. "I wanted to leave things open. It was a balancing act, how much to reveal, and how many clues to let loose. I like being challenged."

The biggest challenge in writing "The Ghost Writer" was honing the character of the anxious Gerard. "He took quite a long time to emerge," Harwood says. The book took three years to write, and yes, the creepy Gothic tales within the main narrative came first.

"I enjoyed that, doing the different voices," he says. "I had a sort of rule that I was not allowed to change the stories to fit the plot."

Harwood admits a lifelong fascination with scary stories, having scared himself as a child growing up in Hobart, Australia. "I started writing these stories on dark winter nights in Tasmania," he says. "It kind of grew from there."

Eventually, Harwood went to Cambridge University in England, then taught English literature at Flinders University in South Australia for more than 20 years, until he quit to be a full-time writer. "The Ghost Writer" is his first novel.

You could say he came by his craft honestly; his mother, Gwen Harwood, was one of Australia's best-known poets. "She could rhyme off the top of her head, almost," Harwood says, citing the time she accepted an award and gave her thank-you speech in verse, in traditional stanzas. "Wonderful!"

A decade before Harwood began his novel, he became fascinated in a real-life Victorian woman, Olivia Shakespear, a writer and the lover, for a time, of William Butler Yeats. He published a book about her, "Olivia Shakespear and W.B. Yeats" (1989).

A decade later, he thought of basing a novel loosely on Shakespear's character, but making her a writer of ghost stories. That's when Viola entered the picture.

"When Viola came, Olivia walked offstage," he says, referring to the fictional author of the Gothic stories in "The Ghost Writer."

To hone the idiom and rhythm of the stories, Harwood reread some of his favorite late-19th-century authors, such as Henry James. He's also a fan of Susan Hill, who wrote "The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story."

""I love mysteries, a literary ghost story," he says. "If it's not gripping, I go back and make it more gripping."

As evidenced in "The Ghost Writer," he admits to being slightly obsessed, also, by Victorian painters, from J.M.W. Turner on. He has a Turner picture near his desk, of a pier at Brighton, "with soft floating light, slightly out of focus."

Harwood is currently working on his second novel, which he's calling "The Seance," out probably in 2007. It's set entirely in the 19th century, but it's not a sequel to "The Ghost Writer."

"It's a horse from the same stable," he says.


(c) 2005, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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