The Interview: Bookbag Talks To John Righten

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The Interview: Bookbag Talks To John Righten

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Summary: Ani thought that Churchill's Rogue was nail-bitingly good. She had a list of questions to ask author John Righten when he popped in to chat to us.
Date: 29 September 2015
Interviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson

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Ani thought that Churchill's Rogue was nail-bitingly good. She had a list of questions to ask author John Righten when he popped in to chat to us.

  • Bookbag: When you close your eyes and imagine your readers, who do you see?

John Righten: A teenager flopping on a bed, taking timeout from their computer, desperate to know what happened next to the Rogues. An elderly person who remembers Churchill but was too young to know what an outcast he was in his 'wilderness years' as he tried to warn the world of the Nazi threat. Finally, someone who wants to immerse themselves in a high quality (I have no shame) action thriller to savour a little time away from the rat-race.

  • BB: The Churchill's Rogues' characters are compelling: a group of humanitarian dare devils in 1930s Europe who balk at being called mercenaries while killing any who get in the way of their mission. Were there real equivalents in that era and how near to the truth is the fiction?

JR: If there were, despite my research across Europe I did not learn of them. But I met many during my convoy work and used them as the basis for the Rogues. However, during my research I did learn of many extraordinary, but non-violent, characters who risked more than their lives to help refugees fleeing the Nazis. Oscar Schindler was not alone. A quietly spoken little man called Otto Wendt convinced the Gestapo that the brooms from his factory, a few kilometres from the Reichstag, were essential to the success of the war effort - and that the best broom makers were Jewish. Then there is our own, recently deceased, Nicholas 'Nicky' Winton, whose efforts saved the lives of hundreds of children on his Kindertrains. I have blended both these great humanitarians and many more into the Rogues Trilogy as their tales are inspiring in what was the darkest period in modern history.

  • BB: You certainly pull no punches in the way that you capture and narrate the violence of war. Ani's not complaining about the authenticity but is there a reason you took this route rather than a less bloody option?

JR: The Rogues trilogy is based on the Nazis' brutal persecution of the innocent, so I made no attempt to disguise the brutality of their actions. It was also important to make the characters real, so the fight scenes had to be authentic to make them believable. In many action films you have a grandstand fight scene at the end, the villain is vanquished and the hero is left with one delicately placed cut either above the eyebrow or on the cheek. Sadly, I have seen professional fighters clash and their encounters are brutal, vicious and short. The longer the fight, the more likely that injury will occur and that luck will play a greater part in the outcome. It was a rule of mine that if a Rogue survived an encounter with the Alpha Wolves, he, or she, had to carry the injuries: I hoped it would also stimulate empathy with the reader – it has, though I'm surprised by the comments among readers on their 'favourite' Rogue.

  • BB: The Nazi major (and the Rogues' nemesis) must in with a chance for the most sadistic fictional character's prize. He certainly provides a tangible fear factor. There must be a story behind the selection of his name so we must ask: where did Major Krak come from?

JR: Cerberus not only relishes inflicting physical pain but is an arch-exponent of psychology in that he breaks his victim's will before he even opens his tool-kit. I wanted him to personify the Nazis. Their earlier successes were not just due to superior tactics and firepower but also because they instilled fear in their opponents, convincing them that it was futile to resist. For such a villain, I wanted a name that would be so sharp and jagged that you might nick your tongue saying it. During my research which took me from Spain to Norway and across to Poland at the base of Wawel Castle in Krakow I came across a metal flame breathing sculpture, The Krak. It is a monument to a terrifying beast from Polish mythology that lived on a diet of human flesh. I also thought that in the West the word would have a totally different connotation and that The Rogues might have some fun with that.

  • BB: Is there a reason you chose historical fiction rather than another genre?

JR: I studied history at university and when I read of the horrors suffered by the Jews and others during the thirties while the democratic world looked away, I thought what would the rogues I knew have done? It was only years later that I thought of Churchill's actions at that time and to many he would have been viewed as having gone rogue. Then it all came together; it had to be historical fiction.

  • BB: Ani loves many things about your writing, including how readers are told that something has happened and then, with appetites whetted, get the opportunity to go back and witness it in real time. How and why did you come to use such an interesting technique?

JR: I thought let's shake this up a bit, if I only ever write one novel then give the reader something different. One chapter you're in the front line with the Rogues fighting on all fronts, outnumbered, outgunned. You turn the page and in the next chapter you are transported to a major point in history, such as a civil war or an orphanage where you discover one of the Rogues as a child and you understand what happened to make them the person in the next chapter who is defending a family.

  • BB: Churchill's Rogues isn't only the first in a trilogy; it's also your debut novel after your publishing debut, the autobiographical Benevolence of Rogues. Do you prefer to write fiction or non-fiction and why?

JR: I loved both. Benevolence was created from notes I made of the characters I met and not just during my humanitarian work. When people would see me with my bulky notebook they would ask 'so when is the book coming out?' This was never my intention, but over the years I have lost a number of what I call the 'benevolent' rogues and I decided that I wanted their children to know how extraordinary their parents were. It's my legacy to my late friends and, if I can abuse the cliché, it was a labour of 'friendship'. I must add that Benevolence is also a story of the trials of growing up and tells of the rogues I met and know of the non-benevolent variety – God love their over-sized, contraband filled socks.

As for the Rogues trilogy, once I applied myself to the task I sat down one night and by dawn I had sketched out the first chapter of Churchill's Rogue and the final chapter of the final novel, The Darkest Hour. I have always treated the trilogy as one huge book and over the last three years I thoroughly enjoyed laying down the complex, inter-winding storylines that link those two chapters. I'm proud of Benevolence and the Rogues trilogy. That's a very un-British thing to say, so put it down to my Irish genes.

  • BB: Your own life makes compelling reading. You've actually lived the desire that many of us leave unfulfilled, i.e. leading relief convoys to some very dangerous conflict zones with your own band of modern Rogues. Why did/do you do it and how did you recruit your Rogues? (We assume the interview process is slightly different from any we've been to?)

JR: In the eighties I was asked to help with an aid mission. I was healthy. I had no social skills so was unattached at the time. I could drive trucks and was fearless or it would be more accurate to say I suffered from the malady of youth, known as 'No sense: No feeling.' My first humanitarian convoy led me to children's aid hospices in Romania. After what I saw in the surrounding institutions, it was no longer a youthful adventure. I genuinely wanted to help and when it was too difficult to get medical aid to a hospital, I would get a call. That is when I came across other 'benevolent rogues'. Through stories in the press many came in search of me. Once I was 'lifted' off a London street and taken to a notorious gangster. I thought he was after the insulin I was delivering, but to my relief he offered to help. However, he had forgotten to tell his henchmen that their cargo should be treated as fragile, so I was a bit battered by the time they plonked me on a chair in his office.

  • BB: As a self-published author what tips would you give other would-be authors regarding things you'd do again and things you'd avoid in future?

JR: Be bold. You're creating a world so fill it with life and the unexpected. It's the nearest you can become to a dictator, so gorge yourself. If you filter your thoughts with what an agent or a publisher expects – if you are lucky enough to secure one or both, they will tell you soon enough – or think you will compromise to attract the largest audience then you will never find 'your voice'.

There is nothing I would avoid doing. When I completed Benevolence I went to some book fairs and met some literary agents. The responses were all negative: 'Medical convoys! Forget it, no one is interested in war . . . but did you save any animals?' My favourite was a very tipsy agent who said, while waving the book in my face, 'This is not worth felling a tree for.' So I'm glad I didn't spend too much time trying to pursue agents, and got on with writing. Maybe now that I have three more books published it might be time to see if any of them are worth felling a tree for, as I'd happily contribute to planting a new one.

As for what I would do again? I would thank my friends Jules, an editor, Alan one of my best friends though he doesn't have a roguish bone in his body, and my wife, Kate, for turning my scribblings into the Queen's English. A combination of being dyslexic and having gone to one of the roughest schools in the country (where the 3Rs were Rioting, Robbery and Remand means that even though I review each page of my work a minimum of ten times it is never enough.

I would also build a website and keep it fresh with updates. Not only does it promote the brand, but you learn so much from, and about, your readers. On my former website to promote Benevolence, I received some great comments, but perhaps you will understand now why one that really meant a lot to me was from a teacher in a rough school in Birmingham. She found one of her pupils reading it aloud to his friends, male and female, which was the first time a pupil had brought a book of their own into class.

Author's note: I have no right to offer advice as my novels have achieved 'cult- status' which means a hard core following, but is a polite way of saying they are not on the best-sellers lists. However, if I never sell another book, I can always say, 'Well you really went for it Johnny boy.'

  • BB: What's next for John Righten?

JR: To show my wife everyday how much I love her, raise our son together so he's a happy well rounded human being - and when the time comes for his exams if he doesn't get an 'A star' we can show him that's it not the be all and end all in life. That's it . . . though I do scribble away at night and place the leaves in a little folder that has only one word on the cover - Lochran.

  • BB: That's a wonderful aim, John. Thanks for taking the time to chat to us.

You can read more about John Righten here.

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Colin Uckley said:

What a superb interview with someone who obviously has a deliciously warped mind filled with imagination, devilment and proper morals. Mother Theresa with a switchblade.

Colin