‘Jimmy reached for the gun concealed in the dashboard. “So is this your idea of a friendly meeting?’”
So opens, Ballymena born author, John McAllister’s debut novel ‘Line of Flight’. We met up with John, late one afternoon, to talk about his writing, where thankfully unlike his character Jimmy, John had no gun concealed anywhere in his home office.
John, who has just recently semi-retired from his accountancy business in Armagh, ‘I had an office down the town with staff; it was a big firm for a one-man band. It was getting in the way of the writing. I had a novel accepted by Blue Chrome and I had been planning my exit from accountancy for a few years and I thought now’s the time to go.’
Working from home now, John who would put any worker to shame, still puts in two days a week with his accountancy firm, while also writing novels; his latest novel ‘Steiner’, has been named as ‘Best Thriller’ in the UKA Press, Opening Pages Competition. John also facilitates writing workshops for the Cavan and Meath Arts Councils, along side working as the production accountant for Macdara Vallely’s feature film ‘Peacefire’, which is in pre-production as we speak.
At the centre of this creative whirlwind though, John is a very calm, family orientated man who just oozes enthusiasm for what he does, ‘my first novel I wrote at boarding school, it was about ‘Paddy the Cowboy’, I’ve still got it somewhere, it’s certainly unpublishable, then I stopped for many years, because I didn’t realise writing wasn’t about inspiration, it was about keeping at it. And eventually Lucie (John’s daughter) wrote a poem that rhymed and scanned, it has been in three anthologies, it has won a national competition and I thought if she can do it I can do it, and that’s how I started’.
Growing up in Ballymena John was surrounded by books and trips to the local library were a family affair, ‘Granny Sarah, I used to take her to the library and she would get her books, when she got too old to go to, she would say, “John would you get me a couple of cowboy books every week”, so I’d get her four cowboy books, now, I didn’t know how I was going to remember which one I got before, without reading them all, as well as me own books and she use to read four cowboy books every week. Eventually the Librarian said, “John, what you could do is mark the inside of the cover”, (instead of having to read them all), and I though why didn’t you tell me that five years ago? So I started marking the inside of the covers, shortly afterwards I moved to Omagh to work and I couldn’t go to the library anymore, my sister took over, but after a week she got back to me and said, “you’ll never believe this, do you remember all those years you were getting cowboy books for Granny Sarah?” I said, yes, “Well,” she said, “I really wanted love stories but didn’t dare ask you…”
Still, it’s not at all surprising that John’s first novel was about cowboys. To date John has written quite a few novels including, ‘Steiner’, ‘Pursuit’, which is a prequel to ‘Line of Flight’ and is presently working on a new one, ‘the working title is ‘The Blood Warm Sun’, all I’ll say is I keep a travel book of Florence and an Italian dictionary beside me, so I’m going out to Italy soon’.
Between running his accountancy business and obviously enjoying family life John also managed to do a Masters in Creative Writing at Trinity College, Dublin, ‘I thought, if I had a full year of grind, except I was running my firm at the same time, which meant a four in the morning start, to maybe nine at night, between the two of them. It was a tiring year, see I didn’t know what you did for a masters, I had no idea and in one year I did enough to get a PhD, I wrote a novel and half a collection of short stories, no one told me a novel is supposed to take three years, you know, ignorance is bliss’.
John has also published a collection of short stories called ‘The Fly Pool’ along side being editor and joint editor of ‘Hometown’ (ABC Publications) and ‘Breaking the Skin’ (Black Mountain Press), but when it comes to editing himself John tells me it is his wife who is his best critic, ‘Patricia is very supportive, she’d read something and say, “all right, boring, too slow, couldn’t be bothered finishing it’, And then one day I wrote a story, which is the title story to the collection of short stories, ‘The fly pool’, and she said, “it made me cry”, then I said, yeah I’m there…’
At a time in their lives when most people are winding down and starting their retirement John is embracing his second career with an inspirational amount of energy, ‘I only need four to five hours a night, so I go to bed at midnight, I get up at six and write, if it’s a Monday or a Wednesday and I’m not working I tend to get up at six in the morning, write for an hour then go back to bed with coffee for an hour with Patricia, my wife and then when I kick her out to work, write to about eleven, by that time I’ve had my fill, so the dog an I go for a long walk, and then have a good lunch break, then I’d either write for the afternoon, do something different, catch up on some bookwork, I also mark assignments for the open college, so I try and do the in the evenings’.
In it also during the couple of hours sleep that John’s ideas and inspirations formulate, ‘I’d wake up with the story more or less in my head, that was with ‘Pursuit’, ‘Line of Flight’ I had to work at. I sat down for ten minutes a day with a jotter and I just kept going, somebody is killing Jimmy’s men, who are they? Why are they killing Jimmy’s men? Jimmy intends to find out who they are and sort them, peace process or no peace process. And that was my kick off, I kept asking questions. Very slowly and I tried not to think about it in between times’.
As our time together come to an end I ask John what advice would he give to a writer starting out on their creative journey and he very clearly explains, ‘get the character right first, I say to my writing group, get the character right and the story will tell itself. Also if you are doing this you need the support of the family, you really do, nothing is really that important except your family, I have two smashing kids and a lovely wife.’
John McAllister – Author published in Homes & Lifestyle NI
Words by Tina O Rourke