Question: You talk about yourself as having lived and worked on every continent except Antarctica, but A Just and Upright Man is set in the North East of England, where you grew up. Do you still think of yourself as a Geordie?
John Lynch: I’m not sure I think of myself as anything now. I’ve noticed, though, that I tend to set my books there. Four of the five James Blakiston books are set in Ryton. Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper and When the Darkness Comes both have protagonists born and brought up in Newcastle, though they end up elsewhere.
Q: You don’t sound like a Geordie.
JL: I do if I spend any time there. I was eighteen when I left Newcastle and twenty-one when I left England entirely for the first time. I had to speak more slowly and clearly in the West Indies, just to be understood. Since then I’ve had extended spells in Africa, America, other places. None of them would have welcomed a supplier they couldn’t understand. You can’t speak Geordie slowly—try it and see.
Q: And now you live in Shropshire. How did that happen?
JL: My in-laws lived there and they spotted a house in Knockin that the Bradford Estate wanted to sell.
JL: A small village not far from Oswestry. And before you ask, yes, they do have a shop there. It was two seventeenth century farm labourers’ cottages knocked into one and extended sideways and upwards. It needed a lot of work but we were able to buy it for next to nothing, It was that simple.
Q: A bit different from a council prefab in Parkside Avenue.
JL: Parkside was a good place to grow up. And those prefabs were comfortable. We had central heating and constant hot water when those things were still a rarity in Britain. Anyway, we bought the place in Knockin; a few years later we moved because we had three children and we needed a bigger house, and thirteen years ago we moved again.
Q: You downsized?
JL: Yes. Our youngest had gone to university. He was the last to leave and we were bobbing around in this four bedroom, three reception house with an acre of garden which never got the attention it needed because I was in Nigeria or Kuwait or New Zealand or wherever and we thought, with the children gone, that was the time to move. Didn’t do any good, though—they found us.
Q: How do you like it there?
JL: Stay somewhere for long enough, it becomes home. It’s funny, because my first contact with Shropshire was when I was ten and I used it in a story that I ended up having to read at a Benton Park Primary School open day. I’d only put Shropshire in because I liked the sound of it—I hadn’t a clue where it was. I’ve been based there now for 31 years. I go to work in Saudi Arabia, or Qatar, or Abu Dhabi and then I fly into Manchester Airport and when I’m in the car close to home I see the Berwyns in the distance and I think, pretty soon I’ll be walking and cycling in those hills. Home is near Whittington—that’s the Whittington, the one Dick left to go to London and become Lord Mayor. Babbinswood is just down the road, where the original Babes in the Wood were murdered.
Q: Mandrill Press is not the most obvious publisher for you.
JL: Not at first glance. Actually, Robert Hale are the specialists for historical fiction and it looked as though they were going to publish AJAUM but then they decided it was too long. The economics of hardbacks mean there’s a maximum length. Otherwise it costs more to make the book than it’s possible to sell it for. I didn’t want to cut that much. I have three friends, people I’ve known for a long time, who were setting up Mandrill Press as a co-operative and they suggested I go in with them. So I did. It upset the balance a bit, because Mandrill Press mostly publishes what is politely known as erotica and that’s not what I write.
Q: You don’t approve?
JL: I don’t approve or disapprove. I don’t choose to write about sex. The others do. They’re all younger than me; maybe it’s a generation thing. I think I can put over what people are up to without graphic descriptions. I assume that my readers know what it is that men and women do together in the privacy of their own beds and they don’t need me to describe it for them.
Q: There’s actually no sex in A Just and Upright Man.
JL: No, there isn’t. There’s love, and desire, and I assume that readers understand what those things lead to, but if people want graphic sex I’m probably not the writer for them. But it’s true: most of Mandrill Press’s output is pretty rude. I enjoy reading it but that’s not what I want to write.
Q: You suggest it may be a generation thing. Are you conscious of growing old?
JL: How could I not be? Show my granddaughters a picture of me when I was young and they say, ‘That’s not Granddad.’ Ask them why and they say, ‘Because that man has hair and he’s skinny.’ Neither of those things is true today.
Q: Do you mind?
JL: There’s no point. Everyone goes through it. “Youth’s a stuff will not endure.” “They are not long, the days of wine and roses/Out of a misty dream/Our path emerges for a while, then closes.” I’d better stop—I’ll make myself sad.
Q: Do you fear death?
JL: No. Whatever for? I spend hours going through old documents, mostly from the sixteen and seventeen hundreds, looking for details of how people lived, what they thought and what happened to them. I’ve accumulated I don’t know how many stories about people. So many, I don’t suppose I’ll ever use them all. Some of them lived fascinating lives and I don’t know why some didn’t die of boredom, but they all have one thing in common: they’re all dead. Dying is what people do. I have dinner in Newcastle once a year with two guys I was at school with more than fifty years ago. One of them said a few weeks ago, ‘It may take thirty years and it may be next week, but that’s the finishing line we’re looking at.’ He’s right. A human life is an arc and at 70 you’re on the downward slope. That’s how it is. My hope is that I’ll keep my faculties to the end and that death won’t be painful when it comes. But fear it? The fact of being dead? No.
Q: Thanks for talking to us.
JL: (Laughs) Talking is never a problem for me. Thank you for listening.