What made you want to be an author?
I was a voracious reader as a child, and something must have stuck. There were times in my working life when my prospects looked decidedly dodgy, so I developed a sideline on the fringes of journalism – magazine articles, book reviews, travel writing – as a second string. Retirement gave me the time and opportunity to pursue my love of history at a semi-professional level.
How many books have you written?
I’ve written three books, with another on the stocks, plus several papers and articles. Novelists, once the muse is on them, can sometimes produce two or more books a year. A historian must find and absorb reams of source material, organise it, then filter it down to something that will not overwhelm the reader. This takes time.
Do you have any writing tips for an aspiring author?
My thoughts are unavoidably pitched to non-fiction, but I hope are generally applicable. Don’t be afraid to throw away words you have slaved over if they don’t fit, aren’t good enough or are plain wrong. They are chip wrappers, not babies. Time spent on reconnaissance (research) is seldom wasted. Time spent editing, never. I have read novels which had good bones and could have been very good but were littered with plot inconsistencies and typos. They went straight down to the charity shop. More humiliatingly I have opened a shiny new print of my own book and thought ‘How could I have let that through?’ Self-publication at least lets me fix it. There will be times when you think, ‘This cannot work’ and want to chuck it all in. Guaranteed. Don’t believe it.
What was the first book you wrote?
Armageddon Fed Up With This is based on a large cache of my father’s letters to his then wife, who died in 1944 while he was serving with an anti-aircraft battery. I didn’t know of their existence until late on. With my mother’s help to transcribe them I found they could be woven into the wider picture of the Second World War to make a coherent narrative. At a personal level I found this was not only a fascinating story but became an adult conversation with a man who died when I was fairly young – an unexpected joy.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Above all, I am drawn to the human stories behind the great cataclysms of the twentieth century. Individuals and families who found themselves divided, or in the wrong place when the curtain fell, servicemen caught between their sense of duty and a regime they abhorred, the tension between total war and basic humanity. There are family links highlighting some of these questions.
Was there anything which put you off becoming an author?
Put simply, the need to earn a living. If you are looking for money and fame, look elsewhere.
Who are your favourite authors?
What a question! Let’s see, I really admire good historical fiction – the ability to weave a story through the lattice of known personalities and events. Robert Harris and Sharon Penman spring to mind as superb practitioners. Then there’s the police procedural. So many good/great authors, but can anyone match Ed McBain? For spy-fi I’ll pick a slightly off-the-wall choice. Some of Anthony Price’s phrasing wouldn’t get past a modern sensitivity reader but overall, his work deserves to stand alongside better-known authors. I need to explore Mick Herron in more detail though. Moving on to sci-fi I like Larry Niven’s talent for imagining plausible alternative worlds and life-forms, and Douglas Adams for his impact on our view of life, the universe and everything. Most of these are quite old, which doesn’t mean I think nothing worthwhile is produced today. Indeed, since getting to know Portsmouth Authors’ Collective I have been awestruck by the range and depth of talent on my own doorstep. It simply reflects the fact that my recent reading is dominated by research for my own projects. As for my genre – too risky – not going there!
What is your favourite book of all time?
So many books, so little time. So impossible to answer!
I will, however, pull a few influential volumes off the shelf. As a child I remember being fascinated by The Sea and its Story – a compilation of chapters ranging from prehistory to the early twentieth century. Written before WW1 it exuded confidence that Britannia rightfully ruled the waves. Then there was Wild Water, the memoir (in translation) of a Dutch lifeboatman. These two, in retrospect, helped give me a lifelong fascination with ships and the sea. In a slightly more age-appropriate vein there was the Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay. Surprisingly, I didn’t discover Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill until much later.
As a young adult I was a voracious consumer of sci-fi and fantasy, especially the kind of plausible alternative universe imagined by Larry Niven and the moral clarity of Tolkien. Then there’s Douglas Adams, who uses the medium as a kind of parable to make the reader laugh and think at the same time. More recently I have been drawn to thrillers, historical novels, police procedurals, and the occasional biography.