Saturday 12 November 2016

Close To Home .....John R. McKay

As a book reviewer I have made contact with authors from all across the globe and feel immensely privileged to be able to share some amazing work. However, there is always something rather special when a book comes to my attention which has been written by an author in my part of the North of England. So with this in mind I have great pleasure in featuring some of those authors who are literally close to my home. Over the next few Saturdays, and hopefully beyond, I will be sharing the work of a very talented bunch of Northern authors and discovering just what being a Northerner means to them both in terms of inspiration and also in their writing.

Today I feature Wigan based author, John R McKay

Hello, John and welcome back to Jaffareadstoo. Tell us a little about yourself and what got you started as an author?

I live with my wife just outside Wigan in Greater Manchester. After leaving college in 1986 I joined the Royal Air Force, serving in the UK and Belgium before leaving in 1994. After a couple of dull jobs I then joined Greater Manchester Fire Service and served as a Watch Manager in the Control Room until 2014. I have two daughters, Jessica and Sophie.

I have always read books. I cannot remember not having a book ‘on the go’ since I was a child. As soon as I finish one, I have to read a chapter of the next on my list before I finish the reading session. It’s just something I do!

For many years I wanted to write but for some reason I kept putting it off. I was a reader, not a writer. I had many ideas for stories running around in my head but never had the time or the patience to get something down on paper. When I was in my early twenties I gave it a go, but soon found that I did not have patience to see it through. However, around three years ago, I thought to myself that if I never tried to write a book then I would always regret it and being older and somewhat wiser, the patience that had eluded me in my twenties had arrived in my forties. This resulted in my first novel, The Journal, which mainly proved to myself that writing books was something I could achieve, and so I then set out to write the book that I always wanted to write, The Absolution Of Otto Finkel.

Now I have the bug and have completed two more: the contemporary black comedy Mosquitoes and the World War One novel, The Sun Will Always Shine. I am now researching my fifth novel which will be set during the Arctic Convoys of World War Two. I am also considering a follow up to Mosquitoes.

As a writer based in the North West, does this present any problems in terms of marketing and promoting your books and if so, how do you overcome them?

This is a very big problem for me. I truly believe that agents, publishers and marketers can be slightly prejudiced about where a writer lives. I have found that many agents are not particularly interested in new writers if they do not hail from the capital or surrounding area, or have attended some kind of ‘course’ with them, even if an author has an excellent book to sell. There are many excellent independent writers out there whose work may never get the attention it deserves due to this, and on the flip side, there is also a lot of rubbish sitting on the shelves in Waterstones, WH Smith and Tesco etc. I don’t want to sound cynical but I think that if you are a minor celebrity, with a terrible book that is probably written by a ghost writer, then you will be more successful in selling your work than someone from a town in the North West who is much more talented. It irritates the life out of me when I see these types of books looking down at me when I walk into a bookshop.

It is very difficult to spend time marketing books, particularly when you have a full time job, are fairly new to the industry (and quite naive at times), and are researching and writing more work. 

I find that social media is very helpful and also getting as many reviews as possible helps. I have had some excellent reviews for my books and in particular my second novel The Absolution Of Otto Finkel.

To be honest, whether I become the next Sebastian Faulkes or not, it does not really concern me. I write because I love to write and if people enjoy what I do then that is great.

Your novels are not always set in the North West but do the people and its landscape shape your stories in any way?

They seem to. I am very proud to be a Northerner but also very proud to be an Englishman. I do not necessarily plan too much about where characters will come from, but in all my novels, apart from The Absolution Of Otto Finkel, there is some setting in the North West. The main character of my first novel, The Journal, heralds from Greater Manchester, as does Alex Sumner, the protagonist of Mosquitoes. The Sun Will Always Shine is mainly set in a fictional Lancashire town, but this was required in order to tell the story of the massacre at Serre during the battle of the Somme in WW1, as most of those unfortunate men hailed from the North West. I also included some scenes in my home town of Wigan.

I suppose it is about writing about ‘what you know’ and so I feel comfortable using the North West as a location for some of my work and will probably continue to do so.

If you were pitching the North West as an ideal place to live, work and write – how would you sell it and what makes it so special?

The North West of England is extremely diverse, yet retains a uniqueness. Although there are many different accents, huge sporting rivalries and political differences, there is something about the North West that stands out against other parts of the country. We have huge conurbations in Manchester and Liverpool, yet only an hours drive from both you can see the most beautiful scenery in the country in Cumbria. If you want sport, we have the most successful football clubs in the country; if you want culture, we have some of the best museums, galleries, cinemas, theatres and libraries; if you want nightlife, then we have plenty of that; if you want peace and quiet, we have the Lakes and other such beautiful places; if you want to travel, London is 2 hours by train and we have international airports at Manchester and Liverpool. I can think of no other place in the country I would rather live, or any other country I would consider moving to. We have it all!

Writing is a solitary business - how do you interact with other authors?

I enjoy the solitude of the writing process. There is nothing more I like than to sit down with my laptop in the peace and quiet and get my words down. I have a structure to what I do which gives me the drive to continue with a work and I have the patience to push through to see a book to the end. I don’t really suffer from ‘writers block’ and at the same time I am not one of those who believe that you should ‘write your way through it’. If I am not in the mood to write then I just don’t do it. I will read a book, put the TV on or go down to the pub! I believe that if you write for writing’s sake then all you will produce will be rubbish and when you read it back it will only depress you. I don't waste my time like that.

I have some interaction with other authors through social media and have had a few emails through my website from new authors asking for advice etc. I like to do things my own way. I have my own formula for preparing a book, developing the characters, plots and sub-plots, setting up the scenes and editing. It seems to work for me.

How supportive are local communities to your writing, and are there ever any opportunities for book shops, local reading groups, or libraries to be involved in promoting your work?

I have had limited support, truth be told. I have had a signing at my local Waterstones for The Absolution Of Otto Finkel, shortly after its release. I have also appeared many times in my local paper (Wigan Evening Post and Wigan Observer), who are very supportive of my work, the journalist Andrew Nowell in particular. However, I have also been let down by one or two people in promising things that never, in the end, materialised. I suppose not being ‘famous’ limits the coverage you will get and although I would love to spend more time in promoting my work, I simply don’t have it. My website provides details of my work and how to contact me and I am always willing to do interviews etc.

And finally, if someone is new to your work, which book do you think they should start with?

The book I am most proud of is The Absolution Of Otto Finkel. This novel was developing for years inside my head and at times I thought that that was where it would remain. I wrote my first novel, The Journal, as somewhat of an experiment to see if I could actually write a book, to see if I had the patience to see it through. Once I had completed this, and people seemed to like it, I then embarked on writing the novel that I really wanted to write. A novel set in World War Two seen from different viewpoints. I spent years developing my knowledge on the war and during the research period, I found out little known facts and incidents that took place, which I have used in the book. It is basically a story about human nature and how our surroundings, situations outside of our control and the subsequent choices we make, can affect our lives and that of others; how this develops us as people. Some of it does not make good reading insomuch as it can be quite brutal, but I believe I have told it with honesty. I judge books on how it leaves you feeling when you have finished reading them. If it makes you think, affects you on an emotional level or leaves you wanting to know more of the back stories, then these are the ones I will remember. I believe The Absolution Of Otto Finkel achieves all this. 

The book took me many months to write and even longer to edit to a point where I was happy with it. It is receiving some quite excellent reviews from sites such as Lovereading, Bookmuse, Drunken Druid and of course, Amazon. It was also number four in the ‘most downloaded opening extracts’ on the Lovereading UK site for a time last Christmas. This is the book that I would recommend to any new readers of my work.

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You can find out more about John on his website by clicking here 

Follow on Twitter @JohnMcKay68

Huge thanks to John for taking the time to answer my questions about his impression of living and writing in the North West.

I hope that you have enjoyed this week's close to home feature

Coming next week :  Kate Field


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