A student at the American University in Amman asked if she could interview me as part of her course work. Of course I said yes – young women in the Middle East need all the help they can get (Etihad Airways emailed its customers in the run-up to International Women’s Day. The email had a lovely picture of a spa in which women could be pampered – no doubt while their menfolk got on with the serious business of running the world. I don’t think they’d quite grasped the purpose of International Women’s Day). Anyway, here’s the interview.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
I’m a man, old enough to have been born during the Second World War, and British. As a child, all I wanted to do was travel and I’ve lived and worked on every continent except Antarctica. I put those things first because they have had a profound effect on who I turned out to be. My family gave me a respect for education. Most of them were coal miners and I was showered with books as soon as they realised I liked to read. The message was clear: work hard at school, learn as much as you can and you’ll never have to go down a mine. The one thing no miner wanted was for his son to go down the pit. I knew I was going to be a writer from the age of ten, when I stood on stage at my primary school and read a story I had written to the assembled pupils and their parents.
What books have you written?
The first book I published was 30 years ago: Managing The High Tech Salesforce. It’s out of print now. The books I have out at present are:
A Just and Upright Man, the first in the five-book James Blakiston series set in northeast England during the 1760s
Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper
Sharon Wright: Butterfly
The International Sales Handbook
What are your ambitions for your writing career?
My writing will go in whatever direction it goes in. What I hope is that I will continue to write books that people want to read. But – let’s be frank – I’d like to see my books made into films.
Who or what is your inspiration?
There are so many. Writers build on those who have gone before and my influences include Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Julian Barnes, Hemingway and so many more. Cormac McCarthy taught me the value of a moral frame of reference and Elmore Leonard taught me to write simply. From TS Eliot and WH Auden, though of course they were poets and not novelists, I learned what value rhythm can add.
Have you ever used real life experiences in your book?
Yes. But please don’t ask what they were because I won’t tell you.
How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?
12 in total, and I wish I hadn’t written some of them. My favourite is Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper because it says what I wanted to say about the importance of taking responsibility for yourself.
Give us an insight into your main character of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. What does he do that is so special?
Billy McErlane is born into an appalling family in the northeast of England – in fact, to an appalling mother because he never knows who his father is. Surrounded by temptation, he falls and in fact spends time in jail, but he knows there’s a better life out there and he works to win it for himself. I suppose you’d call it a coming of age novel. Billy has an IQ of 147, but it is his gift for photography (and the help of other people) that allows him to remake his life.
How did you come up with the title?
Oh, that was easy. When Billy is born his mother registers his name as Zappa McErlane which causes him all sorts of trouble as a child – his peers at school make up rhymes like “Zappa’s on the Crapper” and “Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper”. When he’s ten years old he changes his name to Billy.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Yes, and I’ve already touched on it, but it’s summed up best in an extract from the book. An American priest, the Reverend Humphrey Catalan, is talking to Billy about his past:
There was a cultural thing here. I’d been born with a few serious handicaps and, yes, I’d overcome them but there was still part of me that was ready to accept them as a crutch and what the Reverend Catalan wanted me to know was that that was not the American way. ‘Other people were dealt shittier hands than you, son, and some of them did okay. Come to that, a lot of people got much better cards than you did and some of them are in jail, or bankrupt, or dead. Or maybe a combination of those things. When you come right down to it, it isn’t the hand you’re dealt that counts, it’s how you play it. And what about that maths teacher? What about Regus? He believed you when he didn’t have to. What about those teachers who gave up their time for you and didn’t charge a cent for it? Where do you get off holding grudges?’
It isn’t the hand you’re dealt that counts, it’s how you play it. That’s the message of the book.
What genre of books do you like to read? Do you limit yourself to only the genre that you write yourself?
I read most things. Genres that I don’t and won’t read include erotica, books about vampires and the paranormal. Other than that I read anything that looks good – though I do have a weakness for detective fiction, as long as it deals with personalities and motivations and not with police procedures.
Who are your target readers?
Human beings. Yes, I know, that’s an easy out – but I want to get into a reader’s heart and I don’t care who s/he is.
What compels you to write?
I wish I knew; I’d do my best to get rid of it. I have to write. I can’t not write. And that’s been true since I was a young boy. I still spend a lot of my time travelling and I usually wake up at about four in the morning and start writing. Life would be easier without this compulsion, but what can you do?
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Getting inside the head of female characters is tough for me. When I wrote Sharon Wright: Butterfly I had to work very hard to understand what motivated her. I think that’s normal – I hear about women writers who write authentic male characters and male writers who do the reverse to perfection, but when I read what they write I find that I don’t agree.
Are you currently working on something new?
Poor Law, the second in the James Blakiston historical series, is due out in August and I’m working on the final revision right now. I’m 50,000 words into another novel – I’m superstitious about saying too much about it till it’s ready to go. And there’s a book called When the Darkness Comes which has occupied me on and off for five years; I simply don’t know when I’ll be satisfied with it.
Do you read much? And if so, who are your favourite authors?
I read in the evenings – two novels a week on average. I have a large number of writers whose work I love; right now anything by Charles Cumming, Julian Barnes, JJ Marsh or Margaret Atwood will get my undivided attention. I just read Unravelling Oliver by a new Irish writer, Liz Nugent, and it may turn out to be the best book I read this year. If you haven’t already discovered it I recommend it without reservation.
What is your favourite motivational phrase or quote?
P J O’Rourke: “The only inalienable human right is the right to do as you damn well please. And the only inalienable human obligation is to damn well take the consequences.”
Where can you see yourself in 5 years time?
Oh, Lord. There have been so many changes in my life I just can’t answer that. But, wherever it is, I’d like to be among friends. And I’d like to be smiling. I’ve told my family that I want my gravestone to read, “He had a lot of laughs”.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write. Write. Write. Follow your own star. Never give up.
Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from your most recent book?
I know this is disgraceful, but I only watch television if there’s rugby on, and I only watch movies made by either the Coen Brothers or Woody Allen. So I just don’t know – I don’t see enough actors, male or female, to have a view.
Do you start with an idea and see where it leads you or do you plot out the complete book before you start?
The currently fashionable division is between planners and pantsters and I’m a pantster (I fly by the seat of my pants). I never know where the story is going till half of it is written. I’ve had some surprises, I can tell you.
How long does it take you to write a novel? Do you work for a set period each day?
Eighteen months. Yes – 4.00 a.m. till 12.00 a.m. if I’m at home; 4.00 a.m. till 7.00 a.m. if I’m on the road.
Most writers have some other thing they’re passionate about, what’s yours?
History. I’m fascinated by the way people lived, and how life was for them.
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Not a sausage. The book went through five revisions and that’s enough.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Sometimes my heart ached for poor Billy and what he went through. And I wasn’t alone. An American reader emailed me to say, “You bastard, how could you do that? Hadn’t the poor kid suffered enough?” All through the last third of the book I was thinking about the reader and what I was thinking was, “You think you know where this is going. Don’t you? You think this is a standard boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl back story. Don’t you? Boy, do you have a surprise coming”.
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
That only a complete damn fool would be a writer :-). But I also honed my understanding of point of view, how to say what you want to say – and how to do it in the minimum possible number of words.
I’ve been making flyers for the upcoming litfests at the London Book Fair on 17 April 2015 and Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival on 23 April 2015. This is the one I’ve made in A5 size for Sharon Wright: Butterfly:
A5’s a bit small for the screen, so here’s the text:
Sharon Wright: Butterfly
No-one gives Sharon a chance. Except Sharon.
In Sharon’s deprived childhood, Buggy was Top Cat – the one everyone went in fear of. Buggy ruled the roost and Buggy’s girlfriend could be the Number One female. So she married him. Of all the mistakes she could have made, that was the biggest. But mistakes don’t have to be final
All Sharon wants is a better life – a husband who takes care of her, the kind of food they have in magazines, and civilized conversation. Is it her fault that she is in the middle of a plot involving two hitmen? Well, yes, actually. It is. But Sharon is a survivor who makes her sure-footed way in a man’s world. And when she woos Jackie Gough she does it the way a female mantis might, knowing that when she is sated she may kill him. Until then she lets him think they are equal partners and will share the money she sets him up to steal. Poor Jackie.
ISBN (Paperback) 978-1-910194-10-2
ISBN (eBook) 978-1-910194-08-9
What John Lynch has to say about Sharon Wright: Butterfly
It takes a long time to write a book. By the time I’d finished Sharon Wright: Butterfly I knew my star character so well we were on snogging terms – except that snogging Sharon would be a risky thing to do. Jackie Gough tries it, and realises too late that the dumb blonde is no more dumb than she is blonde.
My sympathies are with Sharon. She’s born in a rundown place into a family that doesn’t care. Because she’s female, she’s expected to accept that her place will always be second to a man’s. She learns to hide her intelligence, but hiding it is not giving it up. She’s surrounded by South London criminals and assorted lowlife who would kill her without a second thought if they thought she posed a threat. And still she survives.
(Or does she?)
A word about the cover
When the book was done, I trawled Getty Images till I found a face and when I did it was “Beam me up, Spotty!” There she was! Her! The woman I’d got to know so well in a year of living side by side in the same little room (the one I write in). My Shazza. Then Scarlett Rugers McKenzie, an Australian book designer of genius, took the pic and made exactly the cover I wanted.
You can find more about Sharon Wright: Butterfly here.
I’m asked where the character of Sharon Wright came from in a way that no one ever asks about Billy, the central character in Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. I don’t find that puzzling; it reflects the unwillingness of people to accept the pursuit of self-interest in a female character when it would not trouble them in a male. It’s clear that some people find Sharon disturbing. Personally, I love the woman 🙂
When my daughter was nine, we moved house. For the previous year or so she had told us that her ambition was to be a doctor; she returned home on the first day at her new school and said she planned to be a nurse. I said, ‘What happened to being a doctor?’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Boys become doctors. Girls become nurses.’ I took her out of that school and sent her to one that accepted only girls and they set about the business of reinstating her ambition and sense of self-worth and making sure she kept it. I had better make it clear right now that I mean nothing derogatory towards nurses – my problem was with people who accepted that there must be limits on a person’s ambition for no other reason than that the person lacks testicles.
I actually wrote Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper before Sharon Wright: Butterfly but Sharon Wright was published first for reasons that don’t matter here. Zappa’s Mam is the story of a young man who overcomes the disadvantages of an appalling home background, achieves his ambition and shines in the world. I wanted to write a similar book about a young woman and that book became Sharon Wright: Butterfly.
It’s true that Sharon puts herself first but that wasn’t always so – it’s learned behaviour. If she had always put herself first she would have taken the opportunity to go to college and lead, far from the place where she grew up, a life of the kind her schoolmates could only dream of. Just like Billy does. She would not have made her sad marriage to Buggy, the Loser’s Loser, and might instead have found someone to love with whom she could share a rewarding life. Just like Billy does. Only when she sees what other people are getting out of life does she begin to plot a better future for herself – but when she does begin, no holds are barred. She plans her wooing of Jackie Gough the way a female mantis might stalk the male, with every intention of consuming him for lunch when he has served his purpose. She’s helped by the fact that she understands the men in her life much better than they understand her. She says,
‘Jackie. You know what I’ve learned? Started learning when I first went to school, and went on learning? Men need to think I’m dumb. Because I’m a woman, and I’m blonde, well, men think I’m blonde, and I like to spend a lot of time on my back with my legs in the air, and I like men for what they have that makes them men, I have to be dumb. Well, I’m not dumb.’
And Jackie has begun to realise that dumb is the last thing she is. Then she says,
‘I pretend to be, if that’s the game the man needs me to play. But what I really want is to play the game where we’re both smart and we both know we’re both smart. Think you can play that game with me, Jackie? Please?’
And Jackie says he can. Because Jackie thinks he understands Sharon and he thinks she’s going to play the game his way.
I’m on Sharon’s side. How about you?
Mandrill Press announces the publication of:
Sharon Wright: Butterfly
No-one gives Sharon a chance. Except Sharon.
All Sharon wants is a better life—a husband who takes care of her, the kind of food they have in magazines and civilized conversation. Is it her fault that she is in the middle of a plot involving two hitmen? Well, yes, actually. It is. In Sharon’s deprived childhood, Buggy was Top Cat—the one everyone went in fear of. Buggy ruled the roost and Buggy’s girlfriend could be the Number One female. So she married him. Of all the mistakes she could have made, that was the biggest.
John Lynch is an international salesman. He has lived and done business on every continent except Antarctica and knows Lagos, Jeddah and Abu Dhabi as well as the Shropshire countryside where he now lives. As R J Lynch he also writes the James Blakiston Series of historical crime/romance novels set in the 1760s.
Sharon Wright: Butterfly was published in October 2014.
ISBN: 978-1-910194-10-2 (Paperback) and 978-1-910194-08-9 (eBook)
Question: You gave us an interview for Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper and we don’t need to repeat all that here. Tell us about Sharon Wright: Butterfly. How did you come to write it?
JL: I’ve always regarded women as stronger than men. Not physically stronger – not usually – but mentally and spiritually stronger. I don’t know whether that’s because I grew up in the north-east as the son of several generations of coalminers but it’s how I see things. I’d written Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper as the story of a young man who overcomes the drawbacks of an appalling upbringing and I wanted to do the same thing for a young woman. Sharon Wright is that woman.
Q: Is she based on a real person?
JL: Answering questions like that can land you in court being sued for libel.
Q: Would you call Sharon a nice person?
JL: I wasn’t thinking in terms of niceness when I wrote the book. When we watch her wooing Jackie Gough you could say she woos the way a praying mantis might. When her mate has served his purpose he ends up being eaten and poor Jackie doesn’t know what he’s getting himself into. But I’d excuse her by asking, “What choice does she have? What options has Life given her? It’s her or the other guy and why should she accept that it has to be her?” And let me say also that if the central character of the book had been male instead of female I don’t believe you would have asked that question. If a man had done the things Sharon does the reaction would simply be that he was giving expression to his masculinity. Why should we expect a young woman to behave differently?
Q: There’s a lot of humour in the book. Do you find it easier to write with comic intent?
JL: I suppose I do. My next book is called When the Darkness Comes. It opens with a man realising that he is on the point of death and it contains this passage: He’s laughing, up here in the corner. And it’s a relief. Because, if being dead doesn’t really mean being dead, he’s not going to like it if he can’t laugh. He’s always been able to laugh. That – that business of always having been able to laugh – is probably about me. The book is not about me – I’m not the character who is dying – but that one character trait is definitely something he gets from me.
Q: Thank you for talking to us.
JL: My pleasure.
This is my third post introducing Sharon, the eponymous hero of Sharon Wright: Butterfly. We’ve already seen the background Sharon comes from and what sort of person she is and I’ve hinted that her wooing of the graduate but naïf Jackie Gough has something of the praying mantis about it. Now we’ll take one more look at Sharon as she starts to put her plan into action and then we’ll leave it. That’s a promise. At least for the time being.
‘You’re not really planning to visit those three lockups?’
‘That’s the plan, Sharon. Then I get Monty Green to buy what’s in them.’
Sharon shook her head. ‘Jackie. The police know about those lockups. You told them where they are. You even gave them the keys. What do you think’s going to happen when you show up there?’
‘It won’t be like that. I’m DI Prutton’s snout. She won’t let them pick me up.’
‘Put that in writing, has she?’
Gough looked uncertain. ‘Well, how are we supposed to get the money? You’re the one wants to go straight. You’re the one wants a B&B in Cornwall. You’re the one wants to change our name to Renton, disappear for ever. How are we supposed to do that if I don’t get the money?’
‘Jackie. How many lockups did you give the DI and Cameron? Three. How many lockups did I have keys for?’
‘Oh is right. Now I wonder which one of the four has about one and a half million quid’s worth of nicked drink and cigarettes in it that would be a piece of piss to get rid of in a day? And which three are full of knock-off videos and jewellery and crap like that?’
‘But we don’t know what’s in them.’ He watched her face carefully. ‘We do know what’s in them.’
‘So the thing to do…the thing to do is to get Monty Green to buy the fags and booze and get Muammar to put the money in an account.’
Sharon went on smiling.
Gough’s eyes lit up. ‘John Renton’s account, maybe?’
‘John and Sharon Renton’s would be better.’
‘Same thing, isn’t it?’
‘Not quite. Suppose we need the money in a hurry…’
‘…which we will…’
‘…and you can’t get away without making Cameron suspicious.’
‘John and Sharon Renton, then.’
‘Either to sign.’
‘Either to sign. Bloody hell, Sharon. That’s like two hundred and seventy and half of two hundred and seventy…that’s four hundred thousand quid.’
‘B&B in Cornwall. We’ll need all of that.’
‘I suppose. Sharon.’
‘Yes, my petal.’
‘How did you know that was the key to hold back?’ He stared at her. ‘I mean…how long have you…’
Sharon was still smiling.
‘Sharon. When I came looking for the keys? Were you waiting for me to ask? Have you planned this all along?’
She moved forward and smoothed the collar of his shirt. She kissed him gently on the lips. ‘Jackie. You know what I’ve learned? Started learning when I first went to school, and went on learning? Men need to think I’m dumb. Because I’m a woman, and I’m blonde, well, men think I’m blonde, and I like to spend a lot of time on my back with my legs in the air, and I like men for what they have that makes them men, I have to be dumb. Well, I’m not dumb.’
Gough shook his head. ‘You’re not, are you?’
‘I pretend to be, if that’s the game the man needs me to play. You know, like we played the game where you ripped my knickers off and did me? I needed to play that game. If a man needs me to play the game where I’m dumb, I’ll play that game for him.
‘But what I really want is to play the game where we’re both smart and we both know we’re both smart. Think you can play that game with me, Jackie? Please?’
‘I hope you can, Jackie. ‘Cos we make a good team, you and me. There’s stuff you can do that I can’t do. Getting those passports, for example. And there’s stuff I can do that you can’t do.’ She smiled. ‘There’s one very special thing I’m doing that you can never do, Jackie. I’m having your little boy. He’s going to grow up to be just like his daddy. And he’ll go to university, just like his daddy, but he’ll be even smarter than his mummy and his daddy because he’ll have gone to a private school first. And if I have a little girl, we’ll do exactly the same thing. ‘Cos girls can be as smart as boys, any day. Even blonde girls. You with me on this, Jackie?’
Gough nodded again. ‘I am, Sharon. I really am.’
‘I’m glad.’ She took a key from her pocket and a sheet of paper from a drawer in the kitchen table. ‘So now you’re going to go see Monty Green and arrange to get rid of the booze and ciggies. You’ll need this list, because Monty’s going to want to know what’s in there, isn’t he? And I love you and I couldn’t bear to lose you now, so you won’t go anywhere near the other lockups. Will you?’
Gough shook his head. ‘I won’t.’
‘Good. Jackie? Your copy of that PACE tape? The one that says you grassed up Dan Ablett? Where is it?’
‘In my pocket.’
‘Do you think it’s a good idea to carry it around? Why don’t you leave it with me? I’ll find somewhere really safe for it.
Yesterday in my Goodreads blog I posted a sort of introduction to Sharon Wright, heroine (if that’s the right word) of Sharon Wright: Butterfly. I’d like to show one or two more aspects of Sharon to help people decide whether or not the book is for them. I’ll post the final example tomorrow, but here is the one I want to show today. Sharon, who was recently widowed when Buggy, her husband, got on the wrong side of two hitmen, is with her friend from school days, Jackie Gough. They have just fulfilled one of Sharon’s long-held fantasies. Jackie is falling for Sharon which – at least from his point of view – is unwise because Sharon’s advances are in fact the kind a praying mantis might make. Here’s the extract:
Jackie Gough lay on his back, staring at the ceiling and thinking that now he’d seen everything. Sharon nuzzled his side. The tattered remains of her torn knickers clung to one thigh. Neither of them had a stitch on otherwise. ‘That was lovely, Jackie.’
‘Yeah. Yeah it was.’
‘Did you really like it?’
‘The best, Sharon. The best I’ve ever had.’
‘You don’t think I’m funny?’
‘I know you’re funny, Sharon. That was still the best sex I’ve ever had.’
‘You know what I liked best?’
‘I daren’t ask.’
‘The way you’d gone to the bathroom and washed yourself. You know. Before you came in. Most men don’t think about how they taste in a girl’s mouth. You’ve gone red. Do I embarrass you?’
‘You’d embarrass the Pope, sometimes.’
‘You don’t belong round here, Jackie. You’re a gentleman.’ She kissed him. ‘Aren’t you glad I’m not a lady?’
‘You are a lady, Shazza. In your own way.’
‘Funny, isn’t it? How playing games makes it better.’
‘We could play one of your games next time.’
‘I don’t know if I’ve got any games, Sharon. Of my own, I mean.’
‘I’m sure you could think of one.’ She doodled one-finger patterns on his shoulder. ‘Jackie.’
‘You know I’m a widow now?’
‘Bloody hell. Yeah, I suppose you are. Bit of a merry widow, aren’t you?’
‘Jackie! I do care about Buggy being dead you know.’
‘I know you do, petal.’
That’s why I’ve been wearing black knickers since he died.’
‘He’d be deeply touched.’
‘I loved Buggy.’
‘Let’s be fair, Sharon. You love a lot of people. Often at the same time.’
‘Yes, well. That’s because I loved Buggy, but I didn’t respect him.’
‘Well, you couldn’t, really, could you?’
‘I respect you, Jackie.’
Gough raised himself on one elbow. ‘Where are you going with this, Sharon? Shazza? Are you…why are you crying?’
‘If I hadn’t…if me and Buggy hadn’t been…you know…do you think it might ever have been me and you instead?’
‘Bloody hell, Sharon.’
‘I always fancied you. But Buggy was Top Cat back then, wasn’t he? And then, when I realised, we were married and it was too late. That’s what happens. You realise something, and it’s too late.’
‘Life can only be understood backwards,’ said Gough. ‘But it has to be lived forwards.’
Sharon sat up, her eyes shining. ‘Oh, Jackie,’ she breathed. ‘That’s brilliant. Oh, I wish I’d gone to college, Jackie.’
‘Yeah. Well. It’ll be too late for me pretty soon. And then it won’t matter whether it might ever have been me and you. Because there won’t be any me to be part of it.’
‘Jackie. Whatever do you mean?’
‘I’m in the crap, Sharon. I’ve got the police on one side, Jim Cameron on another, and Mad Dan Ablett on the third.’
‘Like a triangle. Why’s Mad Dan cross with you?’
‘He doesn’t know he is, yet.’
She put her finger on his brow and ran it down his nose. ‘It was you grassed him up.’
‘Grass is a nasty word, Sharon. Don’t use it. Even in fun.’
‘Buggy said it was you.’
‘Bloody hell. Who else did he tell?’
‘No-one I shouldn’t think. Buggy wouldn’t shop a mate. Even one he thought was seeing to his wife.’
She sat cross-legged on the bed. ‘Why don’t you tell me the whole story? And don’t look at me down there. You’ll only get excited again.’