Legacy: Writer Felix Francis has homes in Oxfordshire, Devon and central London
Felix Francis, son of champion jockey and best-selling author Dick Francis, secretly began writing books under his father’s name during his lifetime.
The 70-year-old former physics teacher, now a best-selling author himself, tells Donna Ferguson that after the death of his mother Mary – who “polished his father’s prose” – in 2000, his father never wrote another novel.
Felix inherited his father’s legacy and began writing Dick Francis novels in 2005 to stimulate demand for his father’s backlist.
He lives with his wife Debbie in London, Devon and the Cotswolds.
What did your parents teach you about money?
My father taught me to use it carefully while my mother taught me to use it for good. Later in life, when he was making very good money, he was extremely generous and always paid for things. He felt it was his job to do this.
And although he wanted me and my older brother Merrick to stand on our own two feet, there was always a backup for us if needed. This is also my approach to children.
What did your mother do for a living?
My mother and father wrote the books together. He came up with the ideas and wrote things down, and my mother polished the prose to get it into shape for publication.
To me, “Dick Francis” was always Richard (as my mother called my father) and Mary Francis. My brother and I learned to be quiet in the house during school holidays because we were both working on a book.
We grew up in what I consider to be one of the greatest fiction factories of the 20th century. My mother also ran a clothing store for 21 years and learned to fly.
Why was your mother never mentioned?
My father always said he would like to have my mother’s name on the front page, but she wouldn’t hear of it.
Dick Francis was already quite a famous name after my father rode Devon Loch in the 1956 Grand National and his horse, owned by the Queen Mother, collapsed just 40 meters from the winning post on the verge of victory.
So I think my mother was pretty savvy in marketing and Dick Francis was the right name for it.
Have you always been a wealthy family?
My parents had no money at all when they got married. They lived in a converted hayloft in a stable and my mother wallpapered the inside with newspaper to prevent drafts between the wooden boards.
Working as a champion jockey was quite lucrative and my parents bought a piece of land in 1953 and built their own house. So we weren’t doing badly, but I remember my mother complaining about the wear and tear on the carpets. And when the clutch broke on my father’s beautiful 1948 Jaguar Mark IV, he swapped it for an Austin A40 because the Jaguar was so expensive to run that he couldn’t afford to have the clutch repaired.
I was eight years old when her first novel, Dead Cert, was published in 1962. They celebrated by buying a new car. The next novel appeared in 1964, two in 1965, and one every year for the rest of the millennium. Towards the end of the 1960s, my parents were doing very well. My father had 34 number one bestsellers in a row. If he hadn’t made money from novels, no one would have.
They got a four-seater plane that they used as an air taxi, a nicer boat and started traveling more. In 1967, my father gave my mother a dark blue MGB GT sports car for her birthday.
When did you start writing Dick Francis novels?
It all came about by chance. In 2000, my parents decided to retire. They found the last book, Shattered, to be a big struggle. By this time my mother had not been well for years and they were living in the West Indies.
When I went to collect the book and bring it back to the UK, I discovered that it was only two-thirds written. So I rolled up my sleeves and wrote the last third of a week. My mother died of a heart attack this year, three weeks after they announced their retirement. Five years later, my father’s literary agent invited me to lunch. I was managing my father’s affairs and he told me that my father’s books were out of print because there hadn’t been a new book for five years. He said we needed a new hardcover that would boost backlist sales.
Memories: Felix, far right, with his parents and his brother Merrick
I looked at him and said, “Are you crazy?” Mom and Dad worked together. “Mom is dead and Dad is 85. Thank God he can barely remember what he ate for breakfast, let alone enough to write a book.”
The agent explained that he had asked my permission to ask an existing crime writer to write a Dick Francis novel. I must have had a few glasses of wine by then because before he asked anyone, I said I’d like to try it. So I did.
When the book “Under Orders” came out in 2006, my name was nowhere and no one knew I had written it. I couldn’t tell anyone about this for eight years. But I can do it now.
Did it sell as well as your father’s books?
Of course it was, because Dick Francis was on the cover. But I was afraid that all the reviews would say that Francis had lost his mind. Actually, they all said that the master was back. The second one I wrote, they wrote Dick Francis on the cover in big letters and – in the smallest font they could find – Felix Francis too.
My latest book, No Reserve, says “a novel by Dick Francis” because I think Dick Francis is a brand.
Unfortunately, my father passed away in 2010. I have now written 17 Dick Francis books. When I write to them, I feel closer to my parents. And Dick Francis’ backlist is still in print, so I must be doing something right.
What was the best year of your financial life?
In 1991 my father asked me to leave my day job as an A-level physics teacher to become his manager. He offered to double my salary. I agreed and after struggling to make ends meet on a teacher’s salary, my money worries disappeared.
Most expensive thing you’ve bought for fun?
The Jaguar Mark IV that my father traded in for the Austin in 1960. I bought it about ten years ago for £70,000. The previous owner found me.
Best money decision you’ve ever made?
Bought a two-bedroom apartment with views of Buckingham Palace and a parking space for £350,000 in 1999. It is now being sold for £2 million.
Are you saving for a pension?
Yes, but I’m now withdrawing more money than I deposited. I am 70 and my wife and I have four children together. We take out money to help them. I also receive my teacher pension and my state pension.
Do you own a property?
As well as the flat in London, we have a holiday home in Devon and live in a seven-bedroom manor house in Oxfordshire, with a cottage on the grounds where our chauffeur and caretaker lives. It’s a great treat that’s on the market for £4.5 million.
What is your financial priority?
So that I never have to lie awake worrying about money, and neither do my children.
- No Reserve by Felix Francis is out now, published by Zaffre, £20.
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