It is an honor to welcome historical and contemporary fiction author John McKay to my blog. A native of England, John served in the Royal Air Force then worked for Fire and Rescue before turning to writing. He’s now published five novels, one of which – Mosquitoes – was long-listed in the UK International Novel Writing Competition in 2017.
He is also a one of the contributors to The Darkest Hour anthology, a collection of ten novellas about World War Two Tales of Resistance. His story is about a thirteen year old Parisian boy who uses graffiti to express his views on the German occupation and how this quite minor crime develops into a more active resistance.
I hope you enjoy learning more about John’s background and novels. I know I did!
While you’re here, be sure and read my interview with Jean Grainger, also one of the ten contributors to The Darkest Hour.
Spotlight on John McKay
Please tell me a little bit about yourself, your books and writing career.
I live with my wife, Dawn, in Wigan in the North West of England, 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 fact and fiction 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 dark 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. This novel was long-listed in the UK International Novel Writing Competition in 2017.
My fourth novel, the World War One drama ‘The Sun Will Always Shine’, was also long-listed in the UK International Novel Writing Competition.
I am always looking for new ideas to write about and my 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.
If you were packing for a long trip, which book would you take and why?
This is an easy question to answer. It would have to be Les Miserables by Victor Hugo – probably the best piece of literature I have ever read. A few years ago I read the unabridged version, 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!
[Note from Jennifer: This is one of my favorites! My hardback copy was originally my mother’s, who received it as a gift from her mother when she was a girl. Truly a captivating story for any age.]
Why do you write the kinds of books you do?
I have a fascination with the two world wars and twentieth century history in general. My interest in this period of modern history has been with me all my life and when I was stationed in Belgium whilst serving the Royal Air Force, I visited many of the World War One battlefields and my interest grew further. I have read many books and have become quite knowledgeable about what happened. Although you can learn a lot from history books insomuch as to what took place, what truly fascinates me is the human aspect to the two wars, how they affected those involved and the personal stories.
When I started out on my writing journey, I decided to focus on what I knew and then research the human element, telling stories of what it may have been like to fight in the trenches of Northern Europe or what it may have been like to be a part of the resistance movement in France.
I believe that it is important not to forget what took place and at the same time both educate and entertain my readers. I hope I achieve this.
What is your usual writing routine?
When I get the idea for a story or a novel then I will first do as much research as I can prior to starting the writing process. I will start by writing a very brief synopsis of the plot and then develop that into a list of chapters with an explanation of what I want to achieve within that chapter. I will then break this down further to scenes within the chapters. Next I will do a brief description of each character, including what they look like, where they come from, their personalities etc.
Once I am happy with this I will then start to write the novel. I tend to write until I either run out of energy, something comes up to take me away from it, or I get to a natural break in the story. I will then put it to one side and the next time I sit down to write, I will read through what I did previously and make any edits, amendments etc. This then gives me the inspiration and impetus to carry on with the story. As I tick each chapter off the list, it gives me the motivation to see it through to the end. There is nothing better than writing the words ‘The End’ to give you an immense feeling of achievement.
I then tend to leave the work for three to four weeks before I start the editing process. Once I have made two or three edits to the whole manuscript, I then give it to my trusted editor to make suggestions and further amendments etc. I will then pass on the completed novel to a few trusted people who I know will give me an honest critique before releasing it for publication, once further changes are made, if necessary.
What is the inspiration behind your latest novel?
I was approached to write a novella for an upcoming anthology ‘The Darkest Hour’ which is to be released in January 2019. The premise for the anthology is World War Two Tales of Resistance and there will be ten writers, including myself, who are contributing a novella each. I was asked to do this at a very opportune time as I had been researching the French Resistance and the Special Operations Executive for a novel I was about to start. My research had given me many ideas for future novels and I had an idea for a short story almost immediately.
The inspiration behind the story comes from two books that I read during the research, namely Matthew Cobb’s ‘The Resistance: The French Fight Against The Nazis’ and Agnes Humbert’s autobiographical work ‘Resistance: Memoirs of Occupied France’, both of which are superb books and I highly recommended both of them.
I got the idea of how resistance was not just about blowing up communications towers or shooting German soldiers etc., but was also done more subtly. The story is about a thirteen year old Parisian boy who uses graffiti to express his views on the German occupation and how this quite minor crime develops into a more active resistance.
What inspired you to be a writer?
I have always been a reader. I can’t remember any time when I have not had a book ‘on the go’ and get through many, many books a year. I read all kinds of things – thrillers, crime stories, war stories and contemporary dramas, in fact anything that grabs my interest. I also like to try out new authors and those recommended by people to whom have the same interests as me.
After reading quite a few poorly written novels a few years ago I got to thinking that maybe I could do a better job. I had tried writing a novel many years ago but did not have the patience, or life experience, to do a decent job. Being a little older and wiser and having the patience that maybe I lacked a few years ago, I embarked on my first novel, ‘The Journal’, in 2013. Once this was completed and I knew that I now had it in me, I have been writing ever since and have completed five novels and am working on my sixth (as well as ‘V for Victory’, the novella which will be in ‘The Darkest Hour’ anthology).
Why do you write stand-alone novels?
I am not one for writing a series of novels, preferring to vary what I write about (although I tend to remain in the same genre – 20th Century historical fiction). I don’t tend to read many series of books either (other than Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series), preferring to read stand-alone novels.
My favourite current author is Sebastian Faulks, who I think is probably one of the greatest ever British authors. Faulks writes stand alone novels and I suppose it’s because I am a huge fan of his that I too have taken this route in my writing.
However, there are links in some of my novels. A very minor character in one novel, who may have only been referred to in a conversation maybe, could appear as one of the main protagonists in another novel.
Is it important to conduct research while writing fiction? Must fiction be historically and factually accurate?
I believe so.
Historical accuracy is extremely important to me when writing historical fiction and I research thoroughly before I put pen to paper. I have to ensure that everything is factually correct to do justice to those who lived through the period of which I am writing.
For my novel, ‘The Worst Journey In The World’, I interviewed a veteran of the Arctic Convoys and read many, many books on the subject before I started writing. I visited the Imperial War Museum in London and also HMS Belfast which is docked on the River Thames, just to get a feel for being on a World War Two battleship. The more I researched the book, the more fascinated I became with the story of the convoys. This inspired me and made me determined to do a good job.
I like to get the fine details correct to give the work authenticity, from what the sailors ate to the kit they were issued. Everything has to be how it was. It has been the same with all of the historical fiction books I have written. Everything has to be factually correct.
When I had finished ‘The Worst Journey In The World’, I gave a copy to the Bill Halliwell, the veteran I had interviewed, and was extremely pleased to get very positive feedback from him.
What are you working on now?
I have just started writing my sixth novel which is as yet untitled. Although not exactly part of a series, 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. I felt that although ‘Otto’ was a completely stand alone novel, the character of Frank needs to be explored more. 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.
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!
Thank you for stopping by, John! I have already pre-ordered my copy of The Darkest Hour and can’t wait to read all ten stories.
Pre-order The Darkest Hour anthology now on Apple, Kobo, B&N, Amazon or via the authors’ website. It’s only 99 cents until November 15, 2018. All proceeds will be donated to the Washington Holocaust Museum! Release date is January 22, 2019.
Don’t forget to read Jean Grainger’s interview next. Happy reading!