Interview – Tony Whelpton, author of Billy’s War
Self-Publisher’s Showcase: Today we are joined by Tony Whelpton, author of Billy’s War. Welcome to the Showcase Lounge, Tony.
Tony Whelpton: Thank you, Paul, and thanks for inviting me.
SPS: For any of our readers that haven’t come across your work previously, can you take a moment to tell us all a little about yourself?
TW: Well, there’s a good chance that many of your UK readers have come across things that I’ve written before even if they haven’t read any of my novels, because for a long time I was writing school text books and setting exam papers. So anybody who studied French to either O or A Level, or to GCSE, in any school in the UK, probably used one of my books (well, there were over thirty of them, and some of them were best-sellers!) or sat one of my exam papers, because I was Chief Examiner for more than 25 years! For many years I taught French, first in schools and then in a university, and it wasn’t until I’d been “retired” for several years that I started writing novels. My first, Before the Swallow Dares, wasn’t published until I was 79, and I’m now working on my fourth. So at my current rate of progress (one per year) I should have notched up more than 20 by the time I reach the age of 100!
SPS: What are your perfect writing conditions, and how often do you write?
TW: In theory I write every day, but in practice I don’t really. But even though there are some days when not a single word makes its way onto paper, there are very few when I don’t spend some time thinking (and worrying at times!) about some aspect of the book I’m working on. My most prolific writing days tend to be when I’m on holiday (somewhere hot) – for instance, roughly a quarter of Billy’s War was written by the pool at a beautiful hotel in Cayo Coco, Cuba. So if readers want more of my books, they need to buy those I’ve already written in greater numbers, and then I’ll be able to go on holiday more often, and get more writing done!
SPS: Can you put your finger on the moment where you decided that you wanted to publish your work?
TW: That’s difficult. When I wrote my first school book in 1979, it was always my intention to publish it, because the object was, at least partially, to make money, and I had a publisher waiting anyway. Then, when I started writing fiction, with no real confidence that what I wrote would be worth reading, the fact that my wife Joan reacted with enthusiasm to what I’d written was sufficient encouragement – Joan is an avid reader, and readily dismisses something as “rubbish” if she feels it’s a waste of time, and I respect her judgement..
SPS: Why do you think it is that you have found yourself writing in the style/genres that you do?
TW: To be honest, I think I just fell into it. I began by following the dictum “Write about what you know”, and gradually I found that my characters started to tell me “That’s nonsense! There is no limit to what you can know, and therefore no limit to what you can write. If you don’t know about something, go and find out, and then you can write about it.” A significant moment was when, at the end of a day’s work on Before the Swallow Dares, one of the characters, a maverick and predatory Frenchwoman named Arlette, made me exclaim as I put down my pen, “Well! I never expected her to do something like that!” In other words, it was a clinching moment when I realised that I was capable of creating characters who were independent of me.
SPS: What would you say best differentiates you from other authors?
TW: Probably my style. I’ve always felt that the job of a story teller is to tell a story, and his style is what enables him to tell the story well. But if he allows himself to write in such a way that the reader is more conscious of the way the story is being told, rather than being moved by or involved in the story itself, then I feel that this is not good writing. There are a lot of pretentious novelists out there, and I don’t want to be one of them. I want to create interesting characters involved in an interesting situation, and tell their story in the most effective way I can. You won’t find a lot of purple prose in my books, but I hope you will be moved – to tears or laughter, whichever is appropriate! Nor will you find me padding out my prose with expletives which are better implied than expressed, nor will you find explicit sex scenes…
SPS: Can you take a moment to tell us all about Billy’s War?
TW: It’s a World War 2 story about a little boy living in my home town of Nottingham who loses his mother in an air raid in May 1941. Because his father is away in the army, little Billy has to go to live with his mother’s sister. But that doesn’t work out well, and he is so desperately unhappy that he resolves to run away and find his missing Dad. The story, therefore, is an account of the adventures he goes through in the course of his quest – essentially it’s one of the most common themes in fiction, the quest for happiness, although in Billy’s case, it’s a happiness which he once knew and then lost.
SPS: What led to the focus on the events of the 2nd world war?
TW: I was nearly 7 when the war began, and 12 when it ended, so it played an enormous part in my childhood. The Nottingham air raid in May 1941 really did take place, and I remember the screaming of the bombs as they fell to earth, followed by tremendous explosions. Fortunately none fell on our street, but I’ve always been aware that, compared with many, I was very lucky in that nobody from my family was killed (although I did have a cousin who went through Dunkirk, El Alamein and the invasion of Italy and Germany, and managed to emerge unscathed!), and I started to think of what it must have been like for a child of my age to lose one or both of his parents in that air raid. Gradually, the character of this courageous little boy emerged from the smoke and the rubble of the air raid shelter…
SPS: What can you tell us about your protagonist Billy Frecknall?
TW: I’ve probably already said as much as I can without spoiling the book for new readers! But as well as being courageous, he’s also a naturally cheerful and likeable boy. But he’s very much of his era; he probably wouldn’t be able to do today the sort of things he did then, because in those days people tended to be much more open, and go out of their way to help. I’m not saying that doesn’t happen at all today, because I know that wouldn’t be true, but people these days are much more wary. I must admit, he does have a lot of good luck in the pursuit of his quest, but if he hadn’t already had a much bigger share of bad luck than is normal, he wouldn’t have been involved in the quest anyway, so it all balances out really!
SPS: An author’s work can often contain a fair amount of the author in the characterisation, is there any of you in Billy?
TW: Well, Billy is certainly not a clone of me! I don’t have his courage for a start. Having said that, I’ve never experienced anything like the things which gave rise to Billy’s motivation, so I don’t really know. One thing that comes across in the book, however, is his love of reading, and the books and the authors he loves are the self-same ones that were my favourites at that age. There is, however, one way in which Billy Frecknall really is Tony Whelpton: the photo of a small boy which is featured on the cover is one that my father took of me in about 1939 or 1940!
SPS: Which other characters should readers be on the lookout for?
TW: Billy’s Uncle Len, who I like to think has something of Bill Sykes about him; the four soldiers Billy encounters on the train; and Sally, whose feelings for Billy arise from her own war-time tragedy.
SPS: How has the reaction been to your work, and do you have a favorite review?
TW: It’s been very well received in the UK, with no adverse reviews to date! It’s been less well received in the USA for some reason, although the best review I’ve seen so far was written by a lady I didn’t know before, and who lives in Tennessee (and I understand there is another good one coming out soon from someone in Arizona)! I suspect US sales may have been adversely affected by one awful review written by a man in the US who, for some unknown reason, thought Billy’s War was a children’s book, and decided to avenge himself by writing a bad review, saying it was a parody of wartime life – exactly how he could know if he wasn’t as old as me and hadn’t lived through it, I have no idea! But that’s trolls for you… Unfortunately they do get taken more seriously than they deserve!
SPS: What can a reader expect from The Heat of the Kitchen?
TW: Sex, politics, spin-doctoring and intrigue – although, as I’ve already implied, the sex is less explicit than the politics!
SPS: Where did your love of all things French come from, and what made you decide to write around French politics?
TW: I paid my first visit to France in 1948, when I was 15, and I fell in love with the country, the language and the way of life; later I fell in love with the literature too. After many years I reached a stage where my own command of the French language was so good that I realised that when I was speaking in French, I was not simply using different words to express thoughts I already had, but I was thinking in a different way. I think (at least I hope!) that the French characters in my books bear that out, and are genuinely French in the way that my English characters are English! As for the second part of your question, I started writing it when I was on holiday in a small town in the south of France, and wondered how on earth it might be possible to get rid of their eternal traffic jams!
SPS: Is the work purely fictional or are there elements of truth embedded?
TW: It’s purely fictional, although the things that happen in the book could very well happen in real life, and the niceties of the French local election laws which are involved are 100% authentic. What’s more, all the elements of the ingenious, eco-friendly and, for some, far-fetched solution to Saint-Pierre-sur-Loup’s over-riding problem, have actually been implemented in real life in both France and Italy, though never, as far as I am aware, in such an integrated way and in one town.
SPS: What responses have you received from French readers?
TW: Reassuringly good! An old French friend of mine (in whose house I stayed during the 1948 visit I mentioned above) swears blind that I can only have portrayed such goings-on as a result of being on the inside, whilst a French reviewer on Amazon accuses me of having based both town, council and Mayor on the town where she herself lives!
SPS: What’s next on the self-publishing horizon for yourself?
TW: I’m currently working on a sequel to Billy’s War. I felt that, having managed to create as strong a character as Billy, it would be a shame to leave him undeveloped.
SPS: Was the Self-Published/Indie-Published route always your preferred route for your work?
TW: Not initially, but it became inevitable after a while. Eventually I came to realise that most publishers will only speak to agents, and agents receive so many submissions that they are essentially looking for reasons to reject rather than reasons to accept. What’s more, they can often take up to six months to let you know that, much as they loved your work, they feel it is not for them and, given that many agents don’t like authors submitting to more than one agent at a time, I decided that at my age, I don’t have too many six-month periods to spare!
SPS: Has the experience so far been all that you thought it would be?
TW: It’s been very hard work, and it’s been an eye-opener, in that I’ve come to realise just how few books the vast majority of novelists actually sell! How do I know that? Because I’ve seen one of my books climbing over 200,000 places in the Amazon rankings as a result of only two or three copies being sold! Yes, reading is popular, but an awful lot of readers seem reluctant to spend more than a few pennies on a book!
SPS: If you could give one piece of advice for someone looking to get into writing, what would it be?
TW: It has to be a Shakespearean bit of advice. Although old Polonius in Hamlet usually comes over as a pompous twit, his advice is beyond improvement: “To thine own self be true”. In other words, be yourself, don’t follow fads and fashions, don’t try to imitate other authors. It’s your world that you’re creating, inhabited by your characters, and what you say, goes!
SPS: Before we bring this interview to a close, it’s your chance to name-drop. Anyone who you feel is deserving of more recognition at present or someone whose writing you have recently enjoyed? Now is your chance to spread the word…
TW: One of the best books I’ve read recently was written by one of my Twitter friends, whom I’ve never met, and of whom I’m intensely jealous – not just because she lives in France, but because of her skill with words. Her name is Claire King, and her book is called The Night Rainbow. If you look it up on Amazon you will be able to read my review of this fabulous novel.
SPS: Thank you for joining us today, Tony, and all the best for the future.
TW: And many thanks to you, Paul, for allowing me to reach so many potential readers!
SPS: For more information on Tony Whelpton and his work, please do visit his Showcase Author page here.