Jack Whyte is driving his shiny new Mercedes - sleek and dark on the outside, tan leather and wood trim on the inside - when suddenly he lets out a roar: "Get off my tailpipe, you stupid woman." Delivered in his birth country's Scottish brogue, the admonition sounds particularly aggressive. "Some women shouldn't be allowed on the roads," he shrugs.
Despite the gender scourge of the highways, the 69-year-old Whyte is in an ebullient mood. He's taking me the "scenic route" to his home in the mountains of the Okanagan, pointing out the apple trees bending from the weight of their fruit, and the ridge in the distance that was aflame just a week earlier.
The author of numerous bestselling novels devoted to Arthurian legend and Templar mythology, Whyte's latest, Order in Chaos , the final instalment in his Templar Trilogy, was published earlier this month. Filled with his trademark lengthy descriptions and attention to political and historical detail, Order has since propelled his book sales to beyond the one-million mark - and that's just the Canadian market.
With his nine-volume A Dream of Eagles (known as The Camulod Chronicles in the U.S.) and with the Templar Trilogy translated into multiple languages and devoured around the globe, the money is flowing, and Whyte is not embarrassed to embrace the financial rewards of his efforts. It's surprising then, for one so widely read, how little is known about Whyte himself.
The Mercedes - his first - was bought on a whim, he says, and he loves it. He could move house if he wanted to, but can't think of anywhere he'd rather call home than the golf-course townhouse he and his second wife, Beverley, bought 13 years ago. The view is certainly spectacular (if you don't mind 18 holes of pastel-coloured polo shirts between you and the craggy mountain skyline).
Settled on a viewless patio on the far side of the house - the only space Beverley allows him to puff his Backwoods cigars - with a cup of tea and a plate of Digestive biscuits, Whyte frowns when posed a question about his childhood. Clearly expecting to hold court with tales of medieval skulduggery, he's momentarily dumbfounded. "That's different," he sniffs, before deciding to oblige.
He was born during the Second World War in a Scottish town that held both an army base and a PoW camp. On D-Day, when Whyte was just 4, his father returned home from the campaign blinded; he was told he shouldn't have any more children, and that he was qualified for nothing more than basket-weaving. "So, I'm the oldest of 11," Whyte notes, savouring the irony. He also proudly points out that his father became a successful physiotherapist through sheer determination to prove everyone wrong.
If there's a gene for stubbornness, Whyte certainly inherited it. At 35, after Whyte's broken marriage, his high-school teaching career stalled upon emigration to Canada. Following a decent run in the entertainment business (he wrote and toured a one-man show on Robert Burns, before being hired to write a series of 90-minute variety shows for the CBC) and in the midst of a successful copy-writing gig in advertising, he began spending his evenings writing a story he just "had to get out."
He toiled for 14 years, producing three complete novels of what he planned as a four-book series. "I solved the Arthurian legend," he declares with a satisfied sigh. "I knew how the sword got into the stone and how the kid pulled it out. Nobody had ever solved it before." That was the final scene of what he had originally envisioned as a "fairly short story."
More than a decade later, after Beverley told him the ever-growing manuscripts were "getting ridiculous" and that it was time to see if he could get a publisher interested, Whyte contacted an editor at Macmillan Books, who spent a year trying to get the series green-lit. In the end, Whyte was advised that only a large international publishing house was likely to take on such a massive endeavour by an unknown writer.
He went to Penguin Canada, who signed him up forthwith, and by the time he finally got to the revelatory moment of Excalibur's excision from the stone, the series was nine thick novels deep.
Even though he soon had four books on the Canadian bestseller list, it wasn't until 1996, after the series was sold to the American market, that he became financially secure. He gave up his day job, moved to Kelowna, and began writing full-time.
He works nights - from 8 p.m. until 2 a.m. - a habit he picked up when he held down an office job and Beverley worked the dinner-shift front-of-house at a local restaurant. He says his family, friends and business acquaintances all know not to phone him after 8 o'clock, or, he adds, rather disconcertingly, "I'll rip their face off."
He says it with a smile, but it doesn't feel like a joke. Neither does he appear to be joking when he cites, approvingly, Enoch Powell and his infamous "rivers of blood" speech that argued against allowing more immigrants into Britain.
By contrast, his home is all soft and pink and gold. His workspace is on the bottom floor of the house - an office, a large sitting room with white leather couches, and a patch of green just outside the patio door. It's where he spends his days, sitting in a beaten-up favourite armchair, correcting his previous night's writing with a pencil. The bookcases lining the walls of his sitting room are stocked with different editions of his novels, some in languages he can't place.
He is proud of the early Canadian covers that he designed himself. He's less impressed with the more recent jackets created by the art department at Penguin, and irritated that - of the multitude of domestic and foreign editions - only the Brits have managed to display the correct rendition of the Templar cross. (It should have arms of equal length, and not the longer vertical arm of a crucifix.)
Such poor attention to detail would never be found in his novels, he notes with a frown. Research, for him, is paramount. "Once I have a thorough understanding in my own mind of the political, regional and international situation at the time, and I've captured the central historical characters and their interaction," he says, "only then do I tell my story."
His characters, he says, are everything to him, and for them he draws on his own moral centre. "They have the same family values, the same basic integrity. All that is pretty much me," he says, before taking a deep draw of his stogie, years of practice having riven sharp creases into the skin of his jaw. "Even the villains," he grins, as thick smoke curls out through yellowed teeth.
His mission, he says, is to make those characters believable, to make the reader believe. And though it's tough talking about "fact" when the subject matter is King Arthur or the Templars, Whyte genuinely believes he's breaking new ground.
He missed the wave of fascination generated by The Da Vinci Code by a couple of years, and grimaces at the mention of Dan Brown's name. "The natural slur is: You're jumping on the bandwagon. Bullshit," he spits. "I'd been researching that thing for 10 years."
He takes a moment to chew on his cheroot and check his anger. A sip of tea later and he says he's over it now - that anyone who could read his books and miss the depth of research involved "isn't worth getting into an argument with.
"I'm trying to deconstruct the legend," he says of his process, "get rid of all the accretion that's accumulated over the centuries, gather the bare bones of what actually happened, and then recreate the story in humanly feasible, acceptable and non-fantastical terms."
Which brings us to another of his bugbears. He is outraged that his novels are filed in the fantasy section of the bookstore - somewhere, he says, that neither he, nor anyone he knows, would be seen dead in. The lack of prestige the classification brings doesn't help matters. "Oh, I am not a literary writer at all," he sneers. "My style is discursive, I write huge descriptions and long sentences - complex sentences - because I'm a storyteller."
He rejects what he considers the "intellectual position" that genre novels are all plot, and literary novels all character-driven. "I think I can claim," he proffers slowly, "without being immodest, that it's because of my characters that my books are so well-received and so widely disseminated."
Does the lack of critical recognition bother him?
"Only when I think about it," he responds with a half-hearted laugh, before stubbing out his cigar. "Yeah, I think it does bother me." He starts rooting around for another smoke. "Why am I not part of the CanLit scene? I've been wondering that for years. I'm not recognized by the literary community in Canada," he says. "Although there's not too many people dare say it to my face."