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 Fortold 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.
SN: Do you think you could share some of your work with us?
THE MESSENGER : CHAPTER 1
Hit, Iraq – Aug 3rd 2010
14.37 hrs – local time
The dust-covered 1998 Toyota Camry heading north-west in a line of traffic through Hit looked like any of the other cars journeying through this small town on the Euphrates … and that was exactly how Jack Chandler wanted it. He flexed sweaty fingers over the M4 Colt Commando assault rifle placed between his right thigh and the car door as he and the driver, Robbo Banks, scanned the roadside shops and derelict buildings they were passing.
As they headed out of the town, toward the blistering heat of the desert corridor to Haditha base, Jack’s mind flipped again between their clandestine commentary on their surroundings and the prospect of what lay ahead when he arrived back in the UK the next day. The former he could do almost without thinking – the latter troubled him. He hoped Sally appreciated what he was giving up for her.
A truck loaded with old tyres swinging out from between dirty white buildings stopped his thoughts and pumped adrenaline as it snail-paced along in front of them.
As Robbo braked Jack tugged up the Colt and checked back and forth along the road. No change in car movement or people busying themselves along the pavement – windows and roof-tops empty.
‘Clear,’ he said dropping the Colt back. He glanced at Robbo, the thought of them having a cold beer together back in Plymouth disappearing as the truck jerked to a halt – its front end turned toward the line of oncoming traffic.
Robbo braked again. ‘Where’s this twat going?’
Jack didn’t comment. He was staring up ahead, past the truck at a young girl in a yellow dress, amongst a group of people attempting to cross the road.
One hand tugged at the cloth of her mother’s black abaaya – the other pointed back across a hundred metres of wasteland to a derelict warehouse beyond a rank of shops on Jack’s right.
On the warehouse roof parapet the silhouette of a head and shoulders shimmered in the afternoon heat. A second silhouette tightened Jack’s gut.
He punched a fist at Robbo. ‘Machine gun! Three o’clock.’
A burst of 12mm rounds ripped across the wasteland dropping the people crossing the road – the shrieks of those crawling for cover silenced as the gunner opened up again.
More bullets cracked along the tarmac ricocheting off the bonnet of the Toyota.
‘Back up!’ yelled Jack.
Robbo rammed it into reverse, shunted the car behind them back a metre just as the fuel tank on the truck exploded. Blazing tyres erupted, tumbling onto the Toyota as it careered back onto the pavement braking alongside the row of shops.
‘Call it in!’ Jack grabbed his rifle, kicked the door open and checked the street.
Behind them the doors on abandoned cars were open – engines still running – drivers and passengers crowded into doorways. Across the road three more cars were locked together – bullet holes in bodywork, windows shattered, drivers and passengers dead. Ten metres past the truck inferno the girl was screaming in the middle of the road next to her mother’s crumpled body.
The machine gun stopped.
Jack darted to the edge of the rank of shops, peered around the wall at the roof-top gunner, then glanced back at the girl pulling frantically on her mother’s arm. If the woman was alive Jack could see no sign of it.
The girl turned and looked at him, and for a moment he couldn’t move – couldn’t take his eyes off hers.
Robbo’s hand gripped Jack’s shoulder. ‘Don’t even think about it.’
‘She’s a kid for Christ’s sakes.’
‘This isn’t our business. Air support’s coming in. We’re to sit tight, then move out.’
Jack’s dark green eyes refocused on the girl rocking back and forth – arms crossed over her small frame – mouth open, body straining to scream but no sound coming out. He jerked away from Robbo’s grip. ‘Cover me.’
‘Fuck it, Ja…’
Robbo’s words were lost in an exchange of fire as Jack raced to the smoking truck, rounds from the roof top machine gun cracking around him.
He choked in a breath stinking of burning rubber and poked his head around the smouldering remains of the cab.
Beyond the three shot-up cars two concrete pillars marked the entrance to a market. If he could grab the girl he could make for them.
The machine gunner opened up again and bullets swept along the length of the truck.
A round zipping up off its front wheel jerked Jack sideways as it hit the iridium satellite phone clipped to his belt. ‘Shit!’ he cursed.
Heart thumping, he turned, pressed his back against the cab door and stared down at the dangling remains. ‘Comms out,’ he bellowed to Robbo. ‘Hit that Raghead now!’
A sustained burst from Robbo’s rifle interrupted the onslaught as Jack pounded along the road, swept the girl into his left arm and zigzagged to the pillars.
Slamming them both behind one, he held her head against him as bullets exploded concrete off the column. He dragged in hot powdery breaths, blinked gritty eyes clear and checked on their position.
This wasn’t good.
The pillar barely shielded their bodies and the girl’s wriggling was making them an achievable target.
‘La-titharrak!’ His order to her, not to move, was lost as more bullets ate into the concrete and she screamed in his ear.
‘Maaku syaah.’ Telling her not to scream had little effect as she began shrieking again.
He hugged her closer – tried to calm her. ‘Don’t be afraid … la-tkhaaf, la-tkhaaf,’ he said edging a look around the pillar.
He ducked back as rounds whistled past erupting jars of spice on stalls inside the market. Suddenly, the warm, woody aroma of cinnamon filled the air and for a moment he was five years old again watching his mother bake apple pie.
More shells ricocheting off the pillar next to his head dispelled the image and he turned, squeezing the trigger on his Colt.
A second later his gun stopped.
He squeezed the trigger again.
‘Stoppage,’ he yelled at Robbo and slipped the girl to the ground behind his legs – his hand holding her shaking body.
He looked down at her. ‘La-titharrak.’
His warning again, not to move, had terrified, brown eyes and a dusty tear-stained face stare back at him while small shoulders lifted as she gulped air.
She must have been about eight he reckoned. ‘Look, I’ll get you out of this. OK?’
Her look told him she didn’t understand what he was saying. His language training before mission deployment generally consisted of shouting at people to drop their weapons or lie on the ground. Reassurance wasn’t a priority in his trade.
What was Iraqi for “I’ll get you out of this”? He couldn’t remember. He jabbed a finger at himself. ‘Sadiiq. Sadiiq.’
The girl didn’t look convinced that he was a “friend”. Maybe all she was seeing was that he was a man with a gun just like the terrorist on the roof. Jack looked down over his loose fitting shirt and jeans, and at the 9mm Sig Sauer P228 rammed into his belt, he didn’t even look like a soldier.
The distant screech of a jet stopped his thoughts and raised his pulse as he scanned the sky for the air support.
The girl’s cry for her mother and her body shaking against his legs made him glance down. ‘It’ll be alright,’ he said patting her back.
This time she didn’t look at him, didn’t take her eyes off the bodies in the road.
He raised his gaze again to the grey shape of a Tornado swooping down, vapour twisting off its wingtips.
The child’s questioning tone took his attention again. She was staring around the pillar into the road where her mother’s arm was half-raised.
It dropped back and the girl bolted from him, his rifle slipping to the ground as he made a grab for her – the ends of straggly, dark hair passing over his fingers as she ran into the road. ‘NO!’ he yelled. ‘Come back!’
SN: Thank you very much John, this has been really insightful.
JW: My Pleasure.