Author Interview: Bill Aitken

253643991916. Britain is deep in the grip of the Great War, spilling the best of its blood in Flanders’ fields. Morale at home is low. But one thing is certain: war minister Lord Kitchener will see things through. So when Kitchener is assassinated by the IRA, how will the public react? How will British troops at the Front take it? It’s up to MI5 to handle the situation, and quickly. Lieutenant Chris Hubert’s suggestion of lookalike Colonel Henry Farmer staves off the announcement of Kitchener’s death. But when ‘Kitchener’ is sent off on a mission to St Petersburg, it’s in the interests of friend and foe to ensure he won’t come back. Now, only Hubert and Special Branch officer Anne Banfield can save Farmer from a torpedo in the cold, dark waters of the Pentland Firth. The U-Boats are waiting …

Blackest of Lies is an exciting story of how the British Secret Services aim to murder an unsuspecting military doctor to hide the news of Kitchener’s assassination at the hands of the IRA. It is uncomfortably close to historical events. Just how close is for you to decide.

Coffee with Architects of Worlds Afar is excited to announce that Bill Aitken, author of Blackest of Lies, is here today. Please put your hands together and join me in welcoming him!

1. Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in 1960s Glasgow, Scotland, and qualified as a secondary school teacher of Biology in the mid-70s.  Then I joined the RAF as a pilot and had a great time, serving in the UK, Cyprus, Norway and the US.  In the latter half of my career, I was trained in systems analysis and computer programs – fields in which I still have a great interest – and that’s what took me to Norway, attached to NATO.  A few years later, I had left the Armed Forces and I was designing bespoke courses for industry.  Now, I live and work in the Middle East, as a competency architect for the oil and gas business.  I like to paint and write code – both creative pursuits in my view.

2. When did you start writing?
I really started writing in the 1980s by researching and writing the history of the station in which I was serving at the time.  It had a very strong link to the Great War and I had the privilege of interviewing many pilots of that era as part of the research.  I then went on to write several other RAF histories throughout the remainder of my career but my first foray into publishing was in 1990 with my first programming book for the burgeoning personal computing market.

3. Why did you start writing?
In the case of the aviation histories, it was because I had a real interest in the twists of history – not the standard views of those not even alive at the times but the individual stories of those who actually witnessed the events in their own lifetimes.  To hear an elderly Royal Flying Corps pilot describe to me how he was left clinging by his knees almost upside down in his biplane with no parachute (they weren’t issued at the time) left me breathless.  Or reading an account written by a mechanic in 1916, serving on the same station as myself, telling how he had been given a severe headache by spinning the propeller of a fighter and being struck by it.  It gave me the chance to walk alongside them, in the same place but separated by 80 years or so in time.

4. Do you recall the moment you first conceived the idea for your novel?
Oh yes.  In NATO, Oslo, there was a little library – a tiny little thing – and that’s where I first read a book by Donald McCormick called The Mystery of Lord Kitchener’s Death.  It was a piece of investigative journalism written in the 1950s when many of the witnesses to events were still alive.  It made great reading and so many questions were thrown up by his writings that I began to think of alternative ways in which Kitchener’s last weeks might have played out.  This was around 1991 and I published the book last spring.  That’s what I call a real gestation period.  Over the years, I picked it up, wrote a bit and then put it down again.  Several times, I re-wrote it from the start.

5. Tell us a little bit about your book’s title.
The book is called Blackest of Lies, which is part of a line by Tennyson from his poem The GrandmotherBlackest deals with the British security services (particularly MI5) in the Great War, a field not greatly mined by other authors and it gives me that “odd” angle into great events that I like.   As you can imagine, the security services are rather good at duplicity.  They deal in half-truths and the storyline revolves around one in particular involving Lord Kitchener and his death.  Were it to be revealed to the public, it could cause public morale to sink so low as to lose the war.  As Tennyson says “The lie which is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies” because it is a harder matter to fight.

6. Does your story have a moral?
I don’t know about moral, as in teaching that right always wins or lessons of that sort.  It’s more about ‘choice’, particularly when it comes to loyalty – to one’s friends and country and the conflict such choices bring in wartime.  EM Forster is famously quoted as having said “If I had to choose between betraying my friend and betraying my country I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”.  This is the central dilemma for the book’s ‘hero’ – Christophe Hubert, a French-Canadian, gassed at Ypres and seconded to MI5, having been made unfit for active service at the Front.

7. Of the characters you’ve created, which one is your favorite?
Oddly enough, it isn’t the central character – Hubert.  Instead, it’s Doctor (Colonel) Henry Farmer of the Royal Army Medical Corps, who treats Hubert during his long convalescence after returning, gassed, from Ypres.  The storyline needed a person of the right age to carry out some work for MI5 and I described Hubert thinking of Henry and visiting him at his little hospital to ask him if he would help out.  I showed how Hubert waited in the doctor’s office for him to return from completing his morning’s rounds of the wards and, as I typed, Henry just walked right on to the page, fully formed and speaking exactly as I needed him to do.  It was quite a surprise.  Until that moment, I had no real idea of how he would walk and talk.  It was as if Henry had walked right up to me and introduced himself.  I had read of other author’s experiences of this sort of thing and thought it exaggerated or even invented for effect but I can assure you it does happen.

8. Using five words or less, describe the protagonist in Blackest of Lies.
Courageous, principled, flawed, funny, loyal.

9. What does a typical writing session look like for you?
I don’t think I have one.  My life is a busy one, travelling a lot around the region.  I snatch moments when I can but I do like silence.  I know other writers enjoy music playing in the background but I have never been able to concentrate like that, even in my student days.  I do a lot of research to ensure that the storyline is woven as tightly into real historical events as I can make it.  I would say that research takes up two or three times as long as the book writing takes.  This seems to resonate with my reviewers – several have said how they felt compelled to Google every single character to see if he or she really existed.  But, in general, I just like to settle down in an armchair at home (usually mid-morning) with a cup of tea and my laptop and pick up where I left off.  Usually, I expect to write 1500 words or so in a session.  Of course, many of those will fall by the wayside during editing.

10. How do you feel about outlines?
Outlines are an absolute necessity for me.  I may have 10 important characters weaving in and out of historical events at any one time so I have to have a clear idea of what’s happening.  An Outline allows me to block out the book and its individual chapters to give me a clear idea of what is going on, where and when.  You can see that in Blackest, since it takes the form of little vignettes showing the actions carried out by the key players as they gradually converge towards the climax of the storyline.  This is difficult to achieve – or, at least, it is for me – unless I have a clear idea in advance.

11. What is your favorite book genre?
As you might imagine, it is historical fiction, both reading and writing, although I also enjoy straight social history, too.  In my youth, several centuries ago, I had a taste for science fiction/fantasy, and I still have the outline for a story in that line.  Someday, maybe …

12. What are you currently reading?
Actually, I’m currently re-reading Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series.  They are well researched and he’s not afraid to own up his departures from true events in his end-of-book notes.  I once read an interesting article written by him in The Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook where he said you should try to get things as correct as you can.  Your research should not be sloppy because this is how many people actually learn history.  That was already my own view when I read those words but it really underlined them for me.

13. What is your favorite book?
I hesitated about this question but I must own up to being an Austen fan.  Pride and Prejudice, for me, is a triumph of characterization and I cannot count the times I’ve read it from end to end.  The style and wit are endearing and still so relevant today, if you would only use text speak and throw in a slack handful of expletives.  I also enjoy Trollope and have just finished re-reading Doctor Thorne in the wake of Julian Fellowe’s entertaining 3-part production.

sweesorrowcover14. Any project in the works?
Yes, indeed.  I am currently working on the sequel to Blackest, called Sweet Sorrow.  It carries on a few weeks after the first novel ends with Hubert, Special Branch and MI6 being sent to New York, ostensibly to help curtail the efforts of saboteurs working out of the German Embassy, but primarily to hunt down a particularly dangerous individual working for the German Secret Service.  Almost all of the characters existed and acted as described.  The result was a very close call for Europe which would still be affecting us to this day – and yet, it is virtually unknown.  You’ll have to read the book to find out what.

15. How long does it take you to write a book?
It largely depends on the subject.  If it is a programming book, it’s already in my head.  I wrote several books on the subject, each taking me around 6 months.  But writing historical fiction is a very different matter.  Not only does the historical context have to be researched very carefully but the characters have to be determined and placed within it.  I would normally expect to complete a book of that sort in a year – 80,000 – 100,000 words.

16. In your opinion, what makes a book ‘good’?
It’s ‘good’ if I care about the characters.  One of my reviewers said that she had actually shed a tear at one point in her reading of Blackest.  That made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up because it told me that she, at least, had thought the book ‘good’.  She had cared about the characters.  She never identified the actual scene, but that comment made my whole week.  If you cannot feel yourself emotionally invested in a storyline, what is it for?  To say a book was ‘OK’ is the greatest damnation I can offer.  As Sir Percy Blakeney once said, “Nothing is so bad as something that is not so bad”.

17. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
That’s a tough one, as I consider myself as ‘an aspiring writer’.  It took me a long time to complete Blackest.  When I look over its history, I realized that it was because I thought I couldn’t do it.  I knew that I could write technical books – I had written about a dozen – but fiction was a very different matter.  I never really knew how different until my friend of half a century – David Nielson (check out his book, The Prussian Dispatches – another historical novel with a twist – and see his interview on Rebecca’s blog) – took me in hand and helped me put the infant chapters into some sort of order and structure from the dramatic point of view.  There are two pieces of advice I would give, simply because they figured so prominently in my own work.  The first is ‘keep going’.  Try to write a little bit every day.  It soon mounts up.  The second caused me a lot of heartache – Point of View.  It has to be understood or you lose all dramatic impact.

And now for a game of “Which Do/Would You Prefer?”
1. Books or Movies?
I thoroughly enjoy both but I must confess to being a movie nut.  I can tell you the kind of ice cream Zeppo was serving in A Day at the Races.  My favourite has to be Casablanca, because I am a soft touch, as my wife’s shoe cupboard can attest.

2. Dogs or Cats?
I love dogs.  At one point, we had 5 of them.  I can bear cats but they just don’t give as much back.  You’ll know the coffee cup wise-crack “Dogs have owners, cats have staff”.  It’s perfectly true.

3. Summer or Winter?
It’s ‘winter’ for me.  I loved my time in Norway and very nearly stayed there permanently.  It wouldn’t have taken much.  Magical place.

4. Car or Motorcycle?
I love cars, particularly classic ones.  I have an MGB GT at home.  My retirement project.  I would also love to have a motorcycle – always have – but her indoors won’t let me have one.

5. eBook or Physical Book?
That depends.  I like old books.  There’s nothing quite like heavy quality paper, old typefaces and the smell of book cloth.  But, for modern works, the material are very perishable and they just don’t have the same feel.  I own a Kindle and treasure its abilities to hold an entire library.  I find it easy to read from its screen, although I concede that not everyone can.  I know that it has had an effect on the traditional market but there are only so many trees in the world.

6.Being able to travel to the past or being able to travel to the future?
Got to be ‘the past’.  What would I give to have a glimpse of Henry the Eighth or Queen Victoria?  To be able to chat with Charles Dickens?

7. To find true love or to win the lottery?
Well, I’ve already found the former so it must be ‘to win the lottery’.

8. To be drawn into a tornado or to be drawn into a whirlpool?
Got to be the tornado (if I had to choose).  No great lover of the sea.

9. Going without internet access for a week or going without watching any movies/television shows for a week?
Actually, I had no internet access at my house for 8 days a couple of weeks ago.  I hated it but it didn’t stop me watching movies every night on my laptop.  Man cannot live by internet alone.

10. To never again eat a piece of chocolate or to never again drink a cup of coffee?
You can keep coffee.  I only drink it when there’s nothing else.  I love good tea.  Chocolate used to be a real luxury for me but I have grown distant from it for some years now.  It certainly isn’t the centre of my universe as it is for my wife.  So my choice, a weak one, would be ‘never to drink another cup of coffee’.

Thank you for joining us, Bill!
Readers: want to connect with Bill? You can find him on Facebook.

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