Saturday, 24 March 2018

Diana talks to Peter St John

Interview by Diana Milne with Peter St John

What is the genre you are best known for?
Wouldn’t it be splendid, Diana, if I only knew what I am best known for? Unfortunately, genre is problematic for me as I find it difficult to place my novels in any existing category. As the principal characters are aged around 11 to 15 years, “Young Adult” might be appropriate. However, much of the action explores interactions between young people and adults. Not only that, but adults seem to appreciate what I write. The matter is complicated yet further in that, as the action is placed in the early years of World War II, the novels could be considered as being “Historical Fiction”.

2. If your books in the “Gang” series were adapted into a TV show or a film, who would you like to play the lead role?
Oh wouldn’t it be fun to have the “Gang” books made into a film series? Some of my readers have urged me
to go for this, but I wouldn’t know how to start. As for your question, I regret I am unable to answer directly, as the lead role would have to be played by a lad about 12 years old, and I can’t think of anybody who could fill the bill.

3. What made you choose this genre?
You know, Diana, I didn’t choose. The nature of the “Gang” series is such that far from choosing a genre, I was compelled to shoehorn the books into an existing genre which seemed to be the least worst fit. I sometimes wish there was a genre called, “Nine to Ninety-nine”.

4. How do you get ideas for plots and characters?
I like to explore relationships between children in their world, and the way in which they interact with one another and also with the world of adults who live in the same small community. The ideas and characters seem to be already in existence somewhere out there in the ether: I merely garner them. The Second World War, which I experienced as a child, also provides a situation of stress and difficulty that the characters must overcome. I also like to show, with humour, how relational interactions that the characters bring with them, can be integrated in each book with some overarching human value.

5. Favourite picture or work of art?
It’s extremely hard to pick just one favourite work of art, but in the context of my writing I’ll plump for “Children’s Games” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

In this picture, children and adults of a small community are playing games, and perhaps squabbling over them, which is not so far from the atmosphere of the “Gang” books.

6. If, as a one off (and you could guarantee publication!) you could write anything you wanted, is there another genre you would love to work with and do you already have a budding plot line in mind?
I sometimes think I’d like to attempt a romance, but one which develops at a distance, in an unconventional way, and which keeps the reader on tenterhooks. I do indeed have a plot outline for it, together with a fair bit of text already written. I think I need a good push from somewhere to get it underway again.

7. Was becoming a writer a conscious decision or something that you drifted into (or even something so compelling that it could not be denied?) How old were you when you first started to write seriously.
I no longer remember whether or not it was a conscious decision, but the idea of getting my own back on some of the adults around me when I was a child had something to do with it. I began my first novel at the age of seventy-three. This has been followed by eight more, as well as several booklets, and a collection of poems yet to be published formally.

8. Marmite? Love it or hate it?
In French, a “marmite” is a large cooking pot.
I live not far from Geneva where, every year in mid-December, is celebrated the Escalade.
This popular fête commemorates the defeat of the Duke of Savoy, who in 1602, attacked the city. The story goes that a certain Madame Royaume, who was preparing a pot of vegetable soup, spotted, from her upstairs window, the enemy troops creeping into the city. She promptly tipped her pot of soup on their heads, thus raising the alarm. The event is now celebrated by breaking and eating a tasty chocolate marmite filled with marzipan vegetables. (WHAT??? D) As for the kind of marmite you doubtless mean, it is not readily available here. I quite liked the salty sharp taste of it as a child in England, but then, with the war and rationing, there wasn’t much else to spread on a bit of bread.

9. Do you have any rituals and routines when writing? Your favourite cup for example or ‘that’ piece of music...?

As far as I can judge I have no special rituals or routines; and no music either. I prefer to listen to the silence. I just sit at the keyboard and try to set down the musical words of my characters.

10. I promise I won’t tell them the answer to this, but when you are writing, who is more important, your family or your characters?
This is hardly a valid question for me,
as I don’t have much family still living. The few members that there are, live at considerable distances. My characters have a lively presence, but it is not difficult to leave them for a while in favour of family and friends. My characters aren’t going to go away, even if sometimes I could wish they would.

11. Other than writing full time, what would be your dream job?
My dream job would be one with a huge salary for doing nothing. Actually, being retired is not so bad, although I could wish for a slightly bigger pension.

12. Coffee or tea? Red or white?
Coffee please for breakfast, and a good dry white, or an excellent vintage red with my dinner, depending on the menu.

13. How much of your work is planned before you start? Do you have a full draft or let it find its way?
I tend to plan in advance, towards a fairly clear idea of the ending, together with a rough chapter structure printed out and held in a loose-leaf folder. This, of course, gets modified and enlarged as the plot unfolds. The plan is an essential aid to weaving together the various subplots as the main conflict unfolds towards a resolution. It also helps me to keep the characters more-or-less in step with where we are all going, and not rushing off to do their own thing, which the stronger ones certainly tend to do.

14. If you had free choice over the font your book is printed in, what font/fonts would you choose?
I’d love to select fonts that (at least for me) would reflect the character and/or the action in progress. Alas, my publisher won’t allow me to do this, (never mind problems with ungainly apostrophes) so I have to stick with Palatino. It’s an attractive font with small apostrophes.

15. Imagine that you could get hold of any original source document. What would it be?
That’s easy to answer. I’ve written a novel (“Triple Agent”) which takes literally John 21:20 […] 21:24 (“Peter turned and saw following them the disciple whom Jesus loved. […] This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things and who has written these things”). I would dearly love to see the original document to discover whether my speculations and constructions on this theme were correct.

16. Have any of your characters ever shocked you and gone off on their own adventure leaving you scratching your head??? If so how did you cope with that!?
They try, but I usually have to delete their individual adventures. Sometimes, however, they add valuably to the unfolding of the plot.

17. How much research do you do and do you ever go on research trips?
Some research is necessary, not least into how life was lived in the early part of the Second World War. I have been on several research trips for example to verify elements from the London Blitz, and to check the geography of the village that was taken as a model for Widdlington.

18. Fiction authors have to contend with real characters invading our stories. Are there any ‘real’ characters you have been tempted to prematurely kill off or ignore because you just don’t like them or they spoil the plot?
Oh yes, but I prefer not to name names and to disguise

identifying elements, as some of the characters, or their descendants, may still be alive.

19. Are you prepared to go away from the known facts for the sake of the story and if so how do you get around this?
I don’t see this as a problem, although I try to incorporate known facts appropriately, even to such details as phases of the moon in some night adventures. That said, the stories are fiction after all.

20. Do you find that the lines between fact and fiction sometimes become blurred?
Fact and fiction might be deliberately blurred on the page, but not in my head (I hope).

21. Have you ever totally hated or fallen in love with one of your characters?
Oh yes, I can’t help feeling that if a writer doesn’t become emotionally involved with his or her characters, then the resulting novel risks to turn out somewhat cold and flat.

22.  What do you enjoy reading for pleasure?
I have eclectic tastes, but in general, prefer non-fiction to fiction.

23. What drink would you recommend drinking whilst reading your latest book?
A good whiskey without ice.

Last but not least... favourite author?
What an invidious question, Diana. I’ve lived so long, and read the works of so many excellent writers,
that I’m going to ask you to let me off answering your question with just one  name – unless it be my own!

About the “Gang” series.
The "Gang" books tell an ongoing story of children’s gangs and budding love. When a boy from London finds himself homeless after the orphanage where he lived was bombed, he is bundled off to the countryside to live with his only relative, a pious spinster aunt. Her village would be a peaceful place to live— or so he imagined... These stories contain war-time action including air-raids and invasion scares, as well as feuds and contests with rival gangs.
Although each book stands alone, a continuing story flows through them. The series has appeal for both adult and younger readers, and gives an intimate and nostalgic view of the drama of the early part of World War II.
Humorous yet thought-provoking, this series explores the difficulties and rewards of forging relationships in traumatic times.

Three of the “Gang” books, “Gang Territory”, “Gang Loyalty”, and “Gang Petition”, have been awarded the Book Readers’ Appreciation Group medallion.


Peter St John was born in London, at a time when worthless shares, and workless men littered the streets. His baptismal gift from two of the apostles, was difficult to live with in a Church-run orphanage destroyed in 1940 by Hitler's blitz. He was evacuated from the ruins to the countryside, where the Nazi aim again missed by a hair's breadth.
"Grammar" school was "Granpa" school: young men at battle replaced by oldies... and bright young women.
As an eager Air Force pilot, Peter navigated the winds, envied the birds, and learned the "arts" of war.
Back in Civvy street, Peter discovered marriage, fatherhood and Australia. He studied engineering and put letters after his name.
Aimed for the moon at Woomera, but hit the rusty desert instead. It's bloody hot, mate, in the sun; bloody cold at night. It's bloody deadly too at times, but strewth, so bloody lovely.
Came Sputnik, and the Cold War space-race. Peter rocketed to lend a hand in Europe, and discovered Paris, languages, ELDO*, and an office on three continents; one in sweltering French Guyana. Who'd volunteer for Devils Island except to rocket into space? But Europe's leap to orbit was crippled by political irresolution.**
So back to Australia where Peter now daily took "the liberty boat from shore" to reach the Navy's concrete HQ "ship" in Canberra. But the bold project for which he strove, never saw the sea. His ship was again scuttled by politics.
Disgruntled and unemployed, Peter set off for Parliament House, where miraculously he was offered a job helping Senators peer critically over Government's shoulder, and bring Parliament's Standing Committees to the people. Heady stuff. And then the PM asked him to join his staff!
But soon the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva called, requesting participation in strengthening parliamentary democracy around the world. Six challenging years for Peter...
And so to fiction, with his first novel published in 2007. This has been followed by eight more.
Peter lives in France where he is active in a literary group.
He has a son, two grandsons, a great-grandson and a great-granddaughter.

* The long-defunct European Launcher Development Organisation.

**Subsequently re-activated as the European Space Agency with the highly successful "Ariane" project.

© Peter St John 2018

1 comment:

  1. I absolutely ADORE Peter St. John's books! They are fun, poignant, humorous, occasionally a little sad, informative and, yes indeed, completely suitable for children 9-99!!! And by the way, that painting - I'm thrilled to say I know it! (I don't always know the ones authors cite here as their faves.) I came to know it first on the cover of a book about medieval children. Fab!

    Very well done to both of you, interviewer and interviewee, and may many peeps be reading these multiple award-winning tales all over the world!!!