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How To Get Ahead With Advertising: Interview With Novelist, Peter Mayle

03/03/2014 17:13 GMT | Updated 02/05/2014 10:59 BST

"Writing advertising copy, which I learned largely from the great David Ogilvy, taught me not to waffle, and to use facts instead of purple prose when describing something," says Peter Mayle over a glass of red.

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As a man who made his bones in the advertising world of the 1960s - a time when there was a surfeit of product to sell and a vast international demographic with deep pockets that was willing to buy it - Mayle then acquired the literary skills that were to put him ahead of the pack when the time came for writing novels.

Also known as "The Father of Advertising", David Ogilvy was the mentor from whom Mayle absorbed a rare wisdom; a Highland Scot and wartime employee of the British intelligence services, Ogilvy knew well the power of words and sloganeering.

"Ogilvy taught me to be on the lookout for the curious detail like the odd tics in someone's behaviour. He told me to cultivate the discipline of observation."

Mayle walks in the same footsteps of ex-advertising copywriters like F Scott Fitzgerald, Salman Rushdie and Joseph Heller and learned to swim in the post-war world of consumerism. Don DeLillo was a colleague of Mayle's when they both worked for advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather.

As a prolific journalist and author of books including Chasing Cézanne (1997) and A Good Year (2004), Mayle is best known for the global sensation that was A Year in Provence (1989), which is a story he describes as "credible and concerning interesting characters, a few unpredictable plot developments and a satisfying ending".

He makes it sound simple. Mayle as novel writer was a success because of his ability to keep it simple. His prose won over a public emboldened by the social ambition of Thatcher's Britain. He was able to ratify what they felt to be true, and therein lay his power as a writer. His success was global. He'd struck gold.

"Ogilvy influenced my style," he tells me, "and E B White, whose invaluable little book, The Elements Of Style, I re-read every year. There are others, from Tom Wolfe to Patrick Leigh Fermor, the historical adventures created by Patrick O'Brian and George MacDonald Fraser, the wit of James Thurber and the biographical genius of Robert Caro. It's a list that could cover pages."

Mayle writes as a means of selling his ideas to the masses. He has told them things they hadn't realised they had wanted to hear. Successful advertising, therefore, can be defined as being able to sell a product to those who neither need nor want it. It is then that the successful ad copywriter's gifts can be likened to those of the magician.

Yet he is unwilling to compromise his art. "To compromise is to do something that you know to be second-rate."

Resident in France, he concedes that French culture is conducive to writing. "It helps chiefly because French quirks and eccentricities provide me with so much material that I would otherwise miss if I lived, say, in Manchester. I write to amuse my readers and myself, and to make a decent living."

Which undoubtedly he does, his muse never a deserter and instead the longest relationship of his entire life. "As much as I love France, I'll always be essentially English, from my appreciation of tradition and cricket to what my French friends call votre bizarre sens de l'humour anglais."

One hopes that publishers are today investing in writers with acumen who, like Mayle, plough a more unique course than one which is hellbent on delighting the terminally unread. 

But as Tesco moves into book publishing hoping to become the natural home for big name writers, we should fear that novels may yet become impulse buys like chocolate, chewing gum and condoms. The form must never be dragged into a cultural gutter because of financial expediency.

"I don't think the world is as pleasant or as civilised as it used to be," Mayle tells me. "It's in too much of a hurry and has grown superficial. I despair of the people who are making such a mess of running it. In other words, I'm getting old."

He deals in hard facts and is currently working under the aegis of the Californian-based independent publisher, Escargot, which affords him the requisite freedom. "It's a benign employer. I write pretty much what I want, I receive intelligent criticism and, a few times each year, I'm treated to excellent business lunches."

Neither a political animal nor a believer that publishers have become abnegators, moral or otherwise, Mayle is most assuredly a man of the old school. For him literary awards are of negligible worth. "The greatest award, I've always thought, is a substantial and faithful readership."

If it is incumbent upon writers to concern themselves with the "tinned minds" of which Betjeman wrote so presciently (Slough, 1937), then, perhaps, Mayle may yet have to adapt his style to fit the credo of the world from which he sprang; after all, all novels are advertisements for the writers who wrote them.

But as a one-time advertising colleague of Alan Parker, today all that separates Mayle and the film director is the grammar of their chosen métiers, because their language is the same.

Old he may be, but a writer as mindful of the zeitgeist as Mayle has enjoyed success because he has always understood what people want to read. And any writer who can manage this holds in his hands the power of a titan.

Photograph by @BetinaLaPlante

Click here for more information on Peter Mayle and Escargot Books