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Monday 14 March 2022

Interview: Dot Marshall-Gent in conversation with Graham Donnelly

Graham Donnelly

Graham Donnelly was born and brought up in London.  He spent much of his life in Suffolk and Essex in the east of England and has worked in government service, international banking and as a lecturer in Economics and related subjects. Graham wrote five academic books before turning his hand to fiction.  He received acclaim in 2019 for his first novel Mussolini's Chest and followed this up with the equally successful Unwritten Rules published in 2020.  His third novel, Take One Life, was released in February this year.

Dot:                 Hello Graham, I’m delighted you’re able to give an interview for Mystery People.  I’ve just reviewed Take One Life and I found it thoroughly absorbing and profoundly moving.  To start us off, I wonder if you tell us how your latest novel was conceived.
         Hello Dot.  Thank you for inviting me to share my thoughts with you.  Originally, I had in mind to write a story about a man who never forgave and always sought revenge for wrongs done to him: a sort of negative force, but I found the concept too dispiriting and instead chose it to be about one person’s struggle to succeed.

Dot:                 William Lyus is an intriguing character, perhaps because he is such an ordinary man.  As the plot unfolded, I began to see him as a kind of Everyman.  Was this intentional and what inspired you to create this character?
          Yes. I believe the ordinary man (and woman) is undervalued as the starting point for a story and that The Everyman is the archetype for most of us and the character with whom we can most relate and yet can surprise us and even themselves. As a writer I enjoy the challenge of making that person interesting to the reader.

Dot:                 On the very first page of Take One Life, you describe the memory as “a dangerous place, full of imaginings, half-truths and delusions” and William begins keeping a journal to avoid recollections that have been distorted over time.  By drawing the reader’s attention to this, it added credibility to William’s perspective.  Would you say something about the importance of memory within the novel?
          William and his parents are all drawn to relate to the past: Alice’s family’s lost status, Jack’s nostalgia for Chartism and William’s wish to emulate his father. All of them have selective memories and William’s journal records only what he has chosen to record: dramatic and major events, so his memory is unreliable even when recorded.

Dot:                 And as a follow-up from the previous question, I wondered whether you have kept, and perhaps still do keep, a journal?  If so, how important is it to you as an author?
:          No, although, my wife has kept a diary for all her adult life, a useful check for our own regular false memories.

Dot:                 Take One Life is set in the first half of the twentieth century and includes details about English society as it progresses through these turbulent years.  Could you say something about the research required to create such a believable narrative?
          I have always loved history and Economic and Social History was a special subject for my degree. So, I do have a broad sweep of the major events of the period embedded in my brain. The research was necessary only for more detailed knowledge which I wished to highlight, such as fashion, motoring, fascism in the UK etc. But I enjoy the research and often end up with a lot more detail than I can use!

Dot:                 Your books defy easy categorisation.  Take One Life allows the reader to observe William as he makes his way in the world over the early decades of last century, but it is also steeped in social history, and includes adventure, fraud and the drama of war.  Similarly, the protagonist of your second novel, Unwritten Rules, explores cold war espionage including the Cuban Missile Crisis through the life of a civil servant, Anthony Fernard.  What interests you most as a writer, historical events or the different ways your characters negotiate them?
         You are right in saying that it is hard to categorise my books; I sometimes wish I could, but there it is!  While I have no hesitation in saying that I am enthralled by history, I am also fascinated by how the ordinary person, caught up in a major historical event and unable to determine the outcome, can still refuse to be tumbleweed, blown along by history. So, it’s the latter.

Dot:                 Before you began to write fiction, you were already a published author, although in a very different genre.  Could you tell us how you made the switch?
         Although my first published books were factual, I had always had a feeling there was a novel in me and had made one or two false starts. It was only when I had had my fill of academic writing that the slow urge to write a novel reasserted itself – and then I found the time.

Dot:                 What, if anything, did you find most difficult about moving from academic writing and did your previous experience of having your work published assist the transition?
         The advantage of writing an academic work is that the publisher commissions your work so you write to a known certainty. Perhaps the fear of regular rejection delayed my writing a novel until I could cope with the disappointment! But once I started to write my first novel, I found the discipline and creativity required for a factual book was still apposite in my new writing.

Dot:                 What have been the highs and lows of your career as an author of fiction so far?
         Lows first: many rejections before finding someone who supports your work and the odd reader review who seems to have read a different book to the one I wrote!  Highs: every acceptance and every publication day is a high; meeting so many people who enjoy reading, the kind approval and encouragement of those who enjoy your work (including you Dot) and always being on a journey to something new, even if it’s only in my mind.

Dot:                 And, when you are not writing, what other activities do you pursue?
         I play the stock markets, enjoy cricket and tennis, gardening, theatre and music and friendship.

Dot:                 Finally, Graham, with three successful novels already under your belt, what can we expect from you next?
         I am working on a novel, in fact it’s about three-quarters done, concerning a very famous historical person and blackmail. I have had to change tack a couple of times because I am never fully in control of where my books are heading, and I am concerned that the period is similar to Take One Life: I don’t want to be in a rut but that’s when this famous person lived so I can’t really change that!

Dot:     Sounds fascinating and I’m already looking forward to reading it!  Meanwhile, Graham, thank you again for such an interesting and enlightening conversation.

Dot Marshall-Gent worked in the emergency services for twenty years first as a police officer, then as a paramedic and finally as a fire control officer before graduating from King’s College, London as a teacher of English in her mid-forties.  She completed a M.A. in Special and Inclusive Education at the Institute of Education, London and now teaches part-time and writes mainly about educational issues.  Dot sings jazz and country music and plays guitar, banjo and piano as well as being addicted to reading mystery and crime fiction. 

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