A.J. Quinnell is coming to terms with the fact that a book he wrote 23 years ago has become a bestseller, after the story was turned into a Hollywood blockbuster starring Oscar winning actor Denzel Washington.

The reprints of the 1981 novel, Man on Fire, have already sold seven million copies worldwide and made it to the New York Times bestseller list upon the film's release in the US.

"This is fantastic considering it was my very first novel and I wrote the book so many years ago. The film has given the book a new lease of life," Mr Quinnell said in an interview.

Progress Press, exclusive agents of the book, are also expecting a similar boost in sales in Malta upon the film's release next week. The film's preview is being held at the Citadel Cinema, Gozo on Saturday and then opening in cinemas across Malta next Wednesday.

Sipping a beer and relaxing on a plush sofa at Ta' Frenc in Gozo, Mr Quinnell admitted he rarely gave interviews for fear of revealing his true identity.

A. J. Quinnell is a pseudonym the author has used for all his 10 books, not just to keep his private life just that, but to steer clear of any possible threats which may arise from his subject matter - the mafia and Islam, among others.

"I was researching the mafia family in Sicily for one of my books and I got to stay at their homes for a while. It was a chilling experience - the families were very hospitable but at the same time you knew the men were involved in kidnappings and killings," he said.

Mr Quinnell had travelled to Malta to carry out some research for this first book and ended up making Gozo his home, shuttling between the peace of Gozo and Denmark, where his wife is an established writer. He feels at ease with the Gozitans who have already given him a Maltese version of his real name.

He laughed heartily as he recalled how his pseudonym came about. "I was in a Marsascala bar and my agent called me to say he needed the pseudonym there and then. At the time rugby player Derek Quinnell was constantly in the news so it's the first name which popped in my head. But my agent needed a first name, so I gave him the initials of the barman's son. The name stuck."

Mr Quinnell was 40 when he wrote his first book and after a stint as a freelance journalist in Hong Kong, China and Vietnam, he got the idea to write a book and Man on Fire was born. The book was an instant hit and a French director bought the rights to turn it into a film.

"It was so bad it became a cult movie in a European country. The director had never read the book and when I travelled to Paris to see the finished product I couldn't recognise anything I wrote," he said with a laugh.

Though the first film project failed, Tony Scott, director of Top Gun, never lost sight of the film's potential and this year's release is the culmination of a 20-year odyssey by Mr Scott and Regency Enterprises to bring the project to the big screen.

Mr Scott roped in two-time Oscar-nominated Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) to pen a new screenplay starring Denzel Washington as the story's protagonist, CIA counter-terrorist John Creasy. This character appears in three subsequent Quinnell thrillers: The Perfect Kill, The Blue Ring and Message from Hell.

Man On Fire focuses on a wave of kidnappings that have swept Mexico (in the film, Italy and the mafia in the book) feeding a growing sense of panic among wealthier citizens, especially parents who had to hire bodyguards to protect their children.

John Creasy is a burned-out former CIA operative who has given up on life. His friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken) brings him to Mexico City to be a bodyguard to nine-year-old Pita Ramos (Dakota Fanning), the daughter of an industrialist.

Creasy thought he had lost the power of feeling, until the girl's beguiling touch awakens in him the ability to love. His new-found purpose is shattered when Pita is kidnapped.

"I have to say I enjoyed watching the film. As a writer it's always traumatic to see what's been done to your book. In 90 per cent of the cases I felt the film ruined the book, except for The Godfather. But I have to say they did a good job with Man On Fire and I loved the chemistry between Creasy and the girl," Mr Quinnell said.

"When I first heard Denzel was playing the part of Creasy I missed a couple of heartbeats but he played the part brilliantly. The film is violent and if the anger is not portrayed properly, the result can be awful.

"I was also quite surprised because screenwriters usually like to leave their mark on the product but Helgeland used huge chunks of dialogue from the book.

"Tony Scott also has a unique directing style. It was a bit drawn out towards the end but that's Hollywood for you."

Mr Quinnell was never involved in the film's production: "The last thing they need is the writer screaming that the film strays from the book."

As he thrives on the tremendous publicity of his first book, fans will be happy to know he has put pen to paper and is working on his next novel set in the Middle East.

Mr Quinnell will be present at the preview of his film in Gozo and he will also sign copies of his book, which will be available for sale at the cinema entrance.

Progress Press said the book will be available in all bookshops on Monday, in time for the film launch at other cinemas across the island.


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