Alan Geoffrey Yates
Yates was born in Ilford, Essex, an outer suburb of London in 1923. In 1942 he joined the Royal Navy. Firstly in elite landing craft designed for commando raiding before being transferred to HMS Euryalus in the Pacific. ‘The ship arrived in Sydney around seven in the morning and I stood on deck with my mouth wide open just not believing it as vista after vista of the harbour unrolled in front of my enchanted eyes,’ Yates wrote in his autobiography
If that was the start of his love for Australia, it wasn’t long before he found love for an Australian too. He married Denise MacKellar in Sydney before they both travelled to England at the end of the war.
In London, Yates worked as a sound cameraman for a subsidiary of Gaumont British Films. He entered a newspaper short story competition for £1000. A fortune in those days. He didn’t win but he was hooked. He continued writing short stories in the mistaken belief that ‘because they were short they were easier to write’ Yates later amusingly admitted, sending them to only the best magazines Argosy, Blackwoods and The Strand and continually being rejected. Yates returned to Australia in 1948 working as an encyclopaedia salesman, a wine company clerk and a hardware store supplier before joining Qantas Empire Airways Ltd as a publicity writer, producing the monthly flight magazine and the staff journal. All the time he continued to write and write not just with creative but also with practical aspirations in mind.
Yates recalled that ‘publishers had found great success with pulp novelettes around 20,000 words in length which sold for sixpence a copy. Westerns were most popular of all. I knew absolutely nothing about the American West but as I read on I became convinced that these authors didn’t either. Right then I began to feel that if I couldn’t write any better than that I sure as hell could write faster.’ Very quickly he was to do both. Yates wrote his first western and sent it to Invincible Press. It was published and he was paid £20, £1 per thousand words.
Yates wrote mysteries, thrillers, westerns, horror stories, romance and sci-fi thrillers under a variety of pseudonyms but it was under the name Carter Brown that Yates was to find truly global success.
Between 1951 and 1985 Yates created around 300 Carter Brown stories along with a number of other books under other names, making him one of the world’s most prolific authors. And the success of Carter Brown made him one of the world’s most popular authors too.
Lyle Moore, a key figure at Horwitz throughout Yates’s career, came up with an astounding fact on his output. Moore estimated that by 1960 Yates had published 8 million words adding ‘to get there he’s probably written twice that number.’ The number of published words at his death twenty-five years later has never been estimated but could easily be at least the same amount again.
Yates had his own spontaneous approach to plotting and characterisation. ‘There must be many writers who can sit at their desks and carefully plot out the whole book before they start. I have tried it a couple of times but it never works for me. One of the main projected characters is so boring the typewriter yawns every time I write his name, while that minor character who was supposed to have been killed on page eight is starting to sound like fun.’ Yates always maintained that if he knew who the murderer was so would his audience before the end of Chapter One.
Yet despite this spontaneity and his impressive output, Yates still had the traditional fear of writer’s block and of course deadlines. A 1963 profile piece in Pix magazine revealed that he approached the dreaded deadlines ‘with the reluctance of a long-distance swimmer shivering on the brink of a cold, grey English Channel. In the manic depressive moments of the third night without sleep – when the deadline is long past and the mental block has set solid as concrete, the writer inevitably descends into self-analysis. He knows, of course, that it will be no more help than the last Dexedrine tablet but still clings to the naïve hope that, somehow, sometime, he will find a way of avoiding the recurrence of his present hopeless situation.’
Later, in his autobiography, Yates wrote ‘A friend of mine, also a writer, had said he’d found Dexedrine a great help for keeping the concentration going. I went on happily using Dexedrine for years, sometimes working for forty-eight hours straight. It was like castor oil, I always thought, the after-effects were lousy but it did its job. I was surprised when it was banned and slack-jawed at the thought of people taking speed for kicks. What the hell kick was that, staying up all night and pounding a typewriter?’
Yates was an extraordinary writer. He has been published in almost every genre, had the second most translated books after The Bible, is one of the world’s most prolific authors and arguably Australia’s greatest literary export.
Yet despite all his success and achievement, fellow author and long-time friend, Morris West, found Yates to be a modest man who wore his fame lightly and who found enjoyment in sharing a joke and a beer with a friend. Lyle Moore remembers him as ‘a superb man and quite a unique character. He had an amazing intellect and tremendous powers of concentration. But when he wasn’t writing he was a very urbane and interesting person who you could spend a lot of time with. He and Denise were always a very dynamic couple, very, very charming and interesting people, ‘
Yates continued writing right up until his death in 1985. He was survived by his wife Denise, a daughter and three sons. Alan G. Yates was posthumously awarded a Ned Kelly in 1997, Australia’s leading literary award for crime writing, for his lifelong contribution to the art.