Wednesday, 25 April 2018

In Conversation with John R. McKay

By Gillian Hamer

Hello, John, tell us a little about you and your writing.

I live with my wife, Dawn, in the North West of England in a town called Wigan which is between Manchester and Liverpool. I have two daughters, Jessica and Sophie. I served in the Royal Air Force for seven years before working for seventeen years at the control room of Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service.

I have always been interested in literature and modern history. When I was in the military, I spent time in northern Europe around the battleground areas of the First World War, and this generated a keen interest in that period of history. I also became fascinated with the Second World War and read many books, both factual and fictional based around that period.

When I decided to give writing a go, I used this interest and the knowledge I had gathered over the years to form the basis of my work. There are so many stories to be told about this period and when researching my second novel, ‘The Absolution Of Otto Finkel’ I came across little known incidents that I managed to incorporate into the story.

I normally tend to stick to this genre, but I have dabbled in contemporary fiction also, for my novel ‘Mosquitoes’, which tells the story of a man who cannot deal with major changes to his life which results in a nervous breakdown. This is a black comedy of sorts and I had a lot of fun writing it, as the research was quite minimal and it was completed in a very short time.

I am always looking for new ideas to write about and my latest novel, ‘The Worst Journey In The World’, originated at a presentation I attended at my local museum, which my ex-high school English teacher had arranged. There I met a gentleman by the name of Bill Halliwell who gave an excellent talk about his life in the Royal Navy during the war and his voyages escorting merchant ships to the Soviet Union. I interviewed him a couple of times and he also gave me lot of reference material. I would never have written this novel if it hadn’t been for him.

Where do you find your plot ideas?

I like my novels to have some substance to them rather than just a story about ‘what happens’. I like to use events that actually happened and then put my characters into them and develop how they think and feel, and how this determines their ultimate fate. I always need a plot before I start and this usually comes about when I carry out the research for the novel. For example, for ‘The Worst Journey In The World’ I knew I wanted to write about the Arctic Convoys and so decided to base the central character around a young man from Liverpool. As my family are from that region, I knew a little of what was happening in the city around that time and so was able to bring that into the story to develop the character.

Sometimes sub-plots develop themselves. What I mean by this is that I could be writing a piece of dialogue and by changing the response of one of the characters, it can give me another idea of ‘somewhere else to go’ within the novel. This then gets my creative juices flowing and before you know it, I have a new sub-plot or maybe even a complete change in direction to where I originally intended. In a pivotal scene in ‘The Sun Will Always Shine’ I was about to write an important sentence but then suddenly thought ‘what if I flip this around?… what if I write the total opposite of what I intended?… where would that lead?’ I was bold and did it, and it changed the whole direction of the book, which I believe made the whole thing better and a book that I am very proud of.

Any other genres you fancy trying one day?

I love watching science fiction films but have never read any books of that genre, oddly enough (apart from a short Edgar Rice Burroughs novella when I was younger). I think there is so much you could do with science fiction as you can pretty much make it up as you go along. If you want to create a character with two heads who can read people's thoughts then you can have one and nobody will think you odd for doing so. I might give this some thought in the future but will probably stick to what I know for the time being.

Research – which camp are you? Love or loathe?

I love it. I see research as a part of the whole project and enjoy it almost as much as the writing process. First I get a basic idea or theme for a story, then I think about the plot and how to develop that idea. Next I look to research the parts that I don’t know about. I like my novels to be as historically accurate as possible right down to what the characters would have eaten and especially getting dates right. Sometimes research can lead to new ideas to include within the plot. For Marco’s story in ‘The Absolution Of Otto Finkel’ he was originally going to be an officer in the Italian army. However, once I became aware of what happened in Rome during the Nazi occupation, my whole original idea for him was scrapped completely and instead he became an Italian priest.
I have read so many great books for the novel I have just started and broadening my knowledge on the subject has been a great experience.

What’s the best thing about being a writer?

The sense of achievement when you write the words ‘The End’ at the bottom of the first draft. The sense of self-pride is unbelievable and I remember dancing around my living room when it first happened. ‘Look at me’, I thought. ‘I’ve written a book… I’ve actually written a book!’ However, it took many, many edits before I was happy with the final product.

And the worst?

Reading the first draft and realising it’s probably a load of old tosh! The editing process is not half as enjoyable as writing it fresh. I also find the promotion and marketing of my work a bit of a challenge.

I’ve read two of your books now, both with war themes, why does that period of history interest you?

When I was a young boy I watched many old black and white war films on the TV and with my father’s tales of what he got up to when he served in the British Army, my interest in military history developed. I also used to like reading the old ‘Commando’ and ‘Battle’ comic books and this also added to my interest.

I am also totally fascinated with how Germany allowed the Nazis to take over their country and how they caused such utter devastation and horror throughout Europe, particularly when it all happened not long before I was born. It all seems so unreal.

I still believe that there are stories to be told from that period of history and have tried to pay homage to some of those involved. This is why I was so happy to meet Mr Halliwell and write a novel based on his experiences during the Arctic Convoys of World War Two.

(I have also very recently visited Auschwitz/Birkenau and even though I have read so much about what happened there, it now just seems like they were just words on paper. You have to actually be there, to see it, to have a full appreciation of the magnitude of the horrors that happened in those places. I had a small scene there in ‘The Absolution Of Otto Finkel’ and am pleased that I got that part historically accurate.)

Which 3 books would you take to a desert island?

It is very difficult to choose only three books to take with me but I have finally narrowed it down to the following three.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo - probably the best piece of literature I have ever read. I read the unabridged version a few years ago and once you get used to the ‘style’ of the writing it was very hard to put down. Very moving story and just utterly brilliant. No other way to describe it!

The Shadow of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon - again a wonderfully written book. Set in Barcelona (the home of Zafon) it tells the story of a father who takes his young son to the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ where he is allowed to pick any book he wishes to take away with him. It then follows what happens when he tries to find out about the writer of the book he has chosen. Not long after reading it I had a trip to Barcelona and visited all the locations of the book. It has to be one of my all time favourites and I have read it more than once, which is not something I normally do. No doubt I will revisit it again in the future.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks - probably the most beautiful book ever to be written about war. I am a huge fan of Faulks but this has to be his finest work and will no doubt be regarded as a classic in years to come.

What are your future writing plans?

I have just started writing my sixth novel which is as yet untitled. This book will be linked to ‘The Absolution Of Otto Finkel’ and will tell the story of the fifth child from the boat and what happened to him during the war and beyond. Not wishing to give any spoilers away, I have again gone into extensive research to ensure that the historical aspects of the story are correct.

I also have ideas for two more novels, one being another historical fiction story set around a Spitfire squadron during the Battle of Britain and the other a contemporary spy thriller.

However, once my current project is finished I am thinking of adapting one of my novels, the World War One drama ‘The Sun Will Always Shine’ into a screenplay. This is something new to me and so I will have to make sure that I know what I’m doing before I begin.

What important piece of advice do you live by now that you wish you had known before your debut novel was published?

I suppose it would be not to get too downhearted when you hit a mental block. When writing my first novel, I remember sitting there for ages looking at my computer screen, typing a paragraph then immediately deleting the lot… over and over again. I got to the point where I thought, ‘What’s the point? I can’t do this!’.

I realise now that I have to be in the mood to write. Some say that you should ‘write your way through’ writers’ block but I believe the opposite works for me. If I don’t feel it, then I don’t bother. I put the computer away and go and do something else. By writing rubbish it only makes me worse. However, I look back at my first book and see that, yes, in fact I can do this. I’ve done it before after all.

Eventually, sometimes in the middle of the night or when I least expect it, a phrase, or a bit of dialogue will hit me and then I will write it down quickly before it leaves my head. Before you know it, I am back at the computer, my mojo has returned and all is well again!


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