Fiction with an edge

JW interviewed by Sisters Noire

SN: Sisters Noire (unless otherwise indicated, interviews conducted by Ed Evans).
JW: John White.

SN: An interview with South West based author John White on the 16/06/2012 sat in the Union Rooms, Plymouth with a nice latte.
John, you’ve done a lot with your life so far, could you give us a little background on you and where you’ve worked et cetra?

JW: I joined Courage, the brewers, in Bristol in 1963 when I left school – at the age of 17. I had several roles in the company, mostly involved in the development of the businesses that the company operated. Over the next thirty-four years, via Courage, I worked with Fosters and the Hanson group, then Diageo, and, finally, from 1995, as a consultant with the Asset Management sector of Nomura the Japanese wholesale bank. But, by then, I had become tired with travelling all over the place to business meetings. I rarely saw my family, so, when redundancy came I embraced it! And, when I was offered a new contract, I refused. Why put myself back into the rat-race that I was so happy to leave? And I had always wanted to paint and write and here I was at the age of fifty being offered the perfect opportunity to do that.

SN: So painting and writing – you said those two were lifelong ambitions?

JW: From a child I’d always been interested in art and writing and I enjoyed painting at school. I won a couple of National Association of Boys’ clubs competitions when I was in my teens. When I left work in 1997 and began painting seriously, I had three exhibitions, sold in two galleries in Plymouth and one in Bristol and really began enjoying this change of lifestyle. Success with my art spurred me on to writing and in 2002 I attended a series of creative writing courses here in Plymouth and then helped to form the Southway Writers group. Interestingly, despite my love of painting, when I began writing I found the need to write compulsive and from 2003 onwards I’ve not painted. Writing takes over your life and I am fortunate that my wife, Jill, is very supportive with my work. Latterly, in 2006, I joined the three other authors in Fourtold Fiction, Jenny Cole, Silja Swaby and of course yourself, Ed. That group of friends gave me and my writing the impetus it, and I, needed.

SN: You have written a book, The Messenger, could you please explain a little about it?

JW: The Messenger came out of a story idea a friend of mine had – an author called Robert Shove. He had this concept of a soldier who is taken to a realm of war dead souls. In this realm, men, women and children, killed in war, suffer the pain of their deaths for eternity – and they want this soldier to become their messenger. They want him to stop war. A task that he knows is impossible. I created Jack Chandler’s story as a vehicle for the concept, because I feel strongly about how easily we can be led into war. I have photographs of children in war zones who have legs and arms blown off and other injuries, some we can’t see – like physiological trauma – and those images made me realise that I wanted people to think harder about conflict – about the repercussions of conflict. I think it was Plato who said only the dead know the end of war, but imagine that wasn’t the case, imagine death in war meant eternal suffering. How quickly then would we hand over our children to the military? How strongly then would we question the people whose agendas start war to ensure it’s the last resort, not the first, and certainly not for profit. So, when Special Forces soldier, Jack, begins seeing these dead people he is told he is suffering PTSD. Jack hopes it is, because, the alternative – that what he is seeing is real, terrifies him.

SN: So he doesn’t really know if he’s in his right mind or not?

JW: No, and I’ve left that for the reader to establish – is Jack imagining this or is this place real?

SN: It sounds like your book’s got a very interesting supernatural element, what genre would you say The Messenger belongs to?

JW: Good question. When I talked to one of the agents who had asked for the full manuscript, one I particularly wanted to work with, Camilla Bolton of Darley Anderson, she said she liked the characters and the plotline, but that she wasn’t keen on the subplot of the souls. She suggested I take them and the ‘other world’ out of it. When I asked her why, she told me it crossed genres – supernatural and thriller – and it seems publishers aren’t keen on books which cross genres. It took me two months to do the rewrite, but then when I reread the book it was just like any other thriller. The message that I was trying to create about war had gone and I realised then that I couldn’t go forward with it in that format. Everything came to a grinding halt and I had this fear that I had wasted five years writing the book and that it would never see the light of day. But, then, along came Kindle and I published it there in August of last year.

SN: To me the most interesting part of The Messenger is the supernatural element/

JW: It probably sounds arrogant, but I had this hope that when people finished reading The Messenger they would stop and think imagine if that’s true, imagine if that land of souls exists, imagine if people who died in war did suffer the pain of that death for eternity. What would we do then? I wanted to put that doubt in readers’ heads, because I wanted them to question more strongly the people whose agenda’s create war.

SN: Your protagonist Jack Chandler provides us with a strong yet troubled lead, an every-man against the world. What inspired his character?

JW: My father suffered a form of PTSD resulting from his three years in Egypt during World War Two. I was born in late 1946 and my mother, especially, and I, throughout my formative years, saw the effect that war had had on him. I don’t think the condition was investigated then as much as it has been since. I feel it’s an ‘unseen’ injury – and, often, out of sight is out of mind. So, having seen the behaviour this condition can manifest, I wanted to portray it in The Messenger – in Jack. But Jack is a modern military man and there were other military elements to his character which I needed to get right and I talked to military people to get the advice I needed.

SN: You’ve certainly done your research, if you could divide it up do you reckon research would be the largest part of what you’ve done?

JW: The book took five years to write and the research, I would say, was probably 65% of everything that I did. Not being a military man I had to check simple things that would come naturally to a soldier – like the SA80 Assault Rifle having a right hand ejector – making it a right-shoulder weapon. In one scene, Jack holds a child in his arms and needs to return fire. If he fired from his left shoulder the ejected shells could go into his face or hers. A soldier would know that. If I got that wrong they’d say, this guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I also had to research terrorist organisations, Iran, its Government, reference books on Special Forces, Iraqi language, Air Force One, because the Iranians have a similar plane in my story and I needed to know the layout. I telephoned a pilot at Plymouth airport (when we had an airport), to ask his advice about whether someone who had flown a Cessna 152 could land a 747. He said why would he need to do that?

SN: What were you planning?

JW: Mayhem! I told him that my character, Jack, is in a 747 loaded with explosives, on a collision course for Indian Point nuclear reactor just up the Hudson from New York. As I said that my phone line went dead – then started bleeping. The noise continued for a minute or so and then the line cleared. I phoned the airport again and talked to the guy from before. He asked why I’d put the phone down on him – I said I hadn’t. He suggested that mentioning a 747, explosives and Indian Point nuclear reactor in the same sentence probably had Menworth Hill or Langley in Virginia on my tail. He was laughing when he said it, but I did wonder if I had hit some trigger words at a listening post.

SN: In the story Jack must go up against the US. Would you say The Messenger is an anti-American book?

JW: No. I like America and have American friends. It’s just that it’s the most powerful country in the world and rarely does anyone stop it from pursuing its chosen course. I wanted Jack to put a spanner in its plans. In American films, the villains are usually Brits, so maybe I’m subconsciously turning the tables on that.

SN: Do you watch a lot of TV and films and do they influence your writing?

JW: I don’t watch a lot of TV and we don’t have Sky because, if we did, I’d be watching the Discovery Channel, the Sci-Fi Channel and UK Gold every day and I don’t want to do that, but I do like watching films. Especially films like Clear and Present Danger, the Bourne trilogy and such. It rarely happens, but if I find that I ‘ve got writer’s block, I’ll watch a film like Enemy of the State on DVD – that gets my mind back into ‘thriller’ mode.

SN: Fantastic films.

JW: I enjoy escapism films too, like Alien, Predator, and many more of a sci-fi ilk. That’s why I think my writing isn’t just about straightforward events, often I’ll link it to supernatural and alien themes.

SN: Was it important for you to set parts of the story in your local area? What was the reasoning behind this?

JW: I like to include the South West in my books because it’s such a beautiful part of the country. The film Warhorse was based in the South West and when Steven Spielberg came here to do it he said “We have three characters in this film – the horse, the boy and the landscape”. The landscape here is both rugged and intriguing and lends itself to a host of backdrops including mystery, romance, and, in my case, aliens! I think Plymouth is a brilliant city too with a great seafaring and military history. I especially like using the Barbican in scenes.

SN: Do you still find time to read? Are you reading something at the moment? Is it mainly research?

JW: I have a problem with reading at the moment and I don’t know whether any other authors have the same problem – we’re told that if we want to write we must read, read, read. I’m reading Fifty Shades of Grey and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at the moment. But the difficulty I’ve been finding over the last two or three years, is that every time I read a new book, I’m not absorbing the story but dissecting the writing.

SN: Do you see any parts of you in your characters?

JW: Rarely. I think it would be a mistake to put me into a book – I’m not that interesting. I’ve never been involved in intrigue or espionage or anything of that nature. I’ve led a pretty average life. I’ve had success in business, but I’ve never put my life on the line like guys in the military, the fire service or the police etc.

SN: Do you envisage your story as part of a series? If so will there be recurring characters? For example, without giving too much away, are we likely to see Jack again?

JW: Yes. The Messenger is the first in a trilogy and, in the second book, the situation with Jack and the souls will raise its head again. So will the fact that I don’t think we can trust Governments or politicians. Someone once said “Your Government is your worst enemy”, and whilst at the time I didn’t believe it, I find nowadays it has a relevance that concerns me – and that will crop up in the second of the series. I’m hoping by the third in the series the souls may have a reason for existing but not in the format that Jack sees them.

SN: Any work of fiction that takes your everyman and makes him question his government and what he hears in the media can only be a good thing. V in V for Vendetta says people shouldn’t be afraid of their government it should be the other way around.

JW: You’re right Ed. I think we forget that Politicians work for us, not us for them. That’s why I think prospective politicians should have to spend time living and working on the streets for two or three months before even being considered to represent the people. I think until politicians realise what it’s like to live that life, they can never truly know the people they represent.

SN: Do you have any advice for other writers who are just starting out?

JW: Writing can be an insular occupation. So, the first thing to get are writing friends, join a group, get feedback on your work. Make sure the feedback is honest. Sometimes that hurts, but when you realise the people who say “that doesn’t work” or “the character’s flat” or “you’ve got an opportunity here to do this or that” are doing it because they want you to succeed then it makes it bearable. Don’t be defensive. Learn from what they tell you. Go on creative writing courses – some are free. Write and read as often as you can.

No comments:

Post a Comment