Can coincidences always be explained, or does everything happen for a reason?
This is a very different type of interview for me. It is the first time that I have approached an author as a fan. I was absolutely delighted when J. W. Ironmonger replied and agreed to be featured on my blog.
The Coincidence Authority is the first novel that I have read for some time for pure pleasure. I hadn’t been asked to review it or provide a blurb for the cover. It wasn’t a proofreading project. It had absolutely nothing to do with research for my own work in progress. And though I love to do all of those things, it was wonderful to simply dip into my toppling ‘to-read’ pile, where it had been sitting long enough for me to have completely forgotten how it came to be there. I’m so glad the title grabbed my attention. Having read John’s author bio (below) I can see that I’m rather late to discover his writing but, at the same time, I’m excited that’s there’s more on offer.
John was born in Nairobi, Kenya. At the age of thirteen he was dispatched to boarding school in England (St Lawrence College in Ramsgate). He studied Zoology at Nottingham University, and went on to complete a PhD degree at Liverpool studying freshwater leeches and flatworms. This led to a period lecturing at a new University in Nigeria (the University of Ilorin).
John married Sue Newnes in 1975, and they have two children – Zoe, and Jon. In 1994, while Sue was serving on the Council of Chester Zoo, John wrote The Good Zoo Guide, which was published by Harper Collins.
John has worked in the IT industry since the 80s, and has travelled widely, spending a lot of time in America, Europe, and the Middle East. In 2007, John and a friend, Mike Taylor, drove a thirty year old Renault 5 across Europe and the Sahara in the annual Plymouth to Banjul banger rally – an adventure through eight countries and across 300 miles of sand. Their trip raised almost £10,000 for an orphanage project in West Africa.
The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder came third in the Guardian newspaper’s ‘Not the Booker Prize,’ and was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award. The Coincidence Authority was a Waterstones’ Book of the Week and was also published (as ‘Coincidence‘) in the USA and as ‘Le Genie des Coincidences’ in France. John’s third novel – Not Forgetting the Whale was published in February 2015.
In September 2012, John and Sue made a ‘heart-of-darkness’ trip to the Ujung Kulon national park in Indonesia and became possibly the only living Britons ever to see a Javan rhino and her calf. They are still smug about this.
Q: Welcome, John. As I’ve discovered, it’s rather difficult to draft questions in the hope of drawing out answers that give a flavour of the novel, without giving too much plot away. A couple of weeks ago, I posted on Facebook that I was reading The Coincidence Authority. Almost immediately, someone I met on a holiday in Cambodia almost ten years ago replied and said that you had visited his place of work a few days beforehand in the capacity of your day job, and that you’d mentioned that you’d written a book. I might refer to that as a coincidence, but your character, Thomas Post, wouldn’t, would he?
A: Well I’d call it a coincidence too! But Thomas Post studies these things. He would be able to show you mathematically that, given all your FB friends and all my business contacts, we shouldn’t be surprised by things like this. But that’s what I like about Thomas. For him everything in life can be distilled down to an equation. There are no real mysteries for Thomas. Until he meets Azalea, of course.
Q: I know that you have a day job. How did you came to be a writer? Is your day job a distraction or does it add another element to your writing?
A: I was fifty something when I had my first novel published, but writing has been something of a hobby (maybe even an obsession) since I was a teenager, and (like a lot of writers) I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a novel ‘on the go’. Thankfully none of my early attempts ever saw the light of day, and no one ever read them. I say ‘thankfully’ because they were universally awful. It wasn’t until I grew a little older that I stopped writing fantastical stories and my writing became more grounded and more reflective. Having a full time job has never been a problem for me, because I still like to feel that writing is a hobby to be enjoyed for perhaps an hour or so every evening. Deadlines make that a little trickier of course.
Q: If you were trying to describe your writing to someone who hasn’t read anything by you before, what would you say?
A: I try to write slightly quirky stories, set in the real world, but involving characters who don’t always understand the world, or who have obsessions that prevent them from recognising the things that really matter to them. My first novel, The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder, told the story of a young man who locks himself away in an attempt to catalogue every item of information in his brain. I think he shares with Thomas Post in The Coincidence Authority, and with Joe Haak in Not Forgetting the Whale a desire to explain life and the universe, but life gets in the way.
Q: Regardless of genre, what are the elements that you think make a great novel? Do you consciously ensure all of these are in place?
A: What a good question. I think the traditional answer says you need three things: a good story, good characters, and good writing. A great many novels hit two of those targets but miss the third. In particular I tire of novels that don’t have an engaging story. I sense, however, that there’s a fourth element. I like a novel that widens my horizons, that tells me something profound about humanity, that makes me look at the world in a different way. I’m not sure that I have ever consciously tried to make sure that I have all four elements in place – but maybe I will in future, now that you’ve made me think about it.
Q: Is probability something that obsesses you as much as it does, Thomas Post? If not, where did the idea for the book come from?
A: I was drawn to write The Coincidence Authority because of the character of Thomas Post. I saw him, initially, as someone who was irredeemably rational – and I wondered what would happen if he was to meet and fall for someone who has a completely different view of the world – someone who believes (as Azalea does) that everything happens for a reason. The probability stuff came a bit later – it helped the narrative to make Thomas a mathematician and a philosopher with a very inflexible world view – but in reality I think a lot of people think the way that Thomas does. I recognise this in me too.
Q: I really enjoyed your use of a deconstructed timeline, because I felt as if I was discovering Azalea’s story – both though her eyes and Thomas Post’s. Can I ask, what order did you write the story in and how did you arrive at the final structure?
A: I wrote the novel in a non-linear timeline, and despite some misgivings, this structure made it all the way through to the final published version. I am so pleased you liked this. Maximilian Ponder takes a very similar approach. I like the rather disjointed structure it gives to the story, so that you assemble it in pieces like a jigsaw rather than in a linear way from start to finish. One of the only pieces of writing advice that I remember from school came from a writer (and I can’t for the life of me remember who he was) who told us, ‘never start a new chapter where the old one finished; take the reader somewhere new in time, or change the perspective. Otherwise why do you need a new chapter?’ I don’t always follow this advice, but sometimes I enjoy starting a new chapter and picking a moment way in the past or the future and seeing where it goes.
Q: I felt that the contrast of the locations in the book really added weight to the sense of life’s cruel randomness and seemingly improbable connections. You really brought each setting to life. How many were you familiar with and how many did you research remotely?
A: Most of the locations were places I know. I spent some time in the far north west of Uganda when I was a teenager and I was confident that I could describe the people and the places as they might have been in the 1980s when Azalea was growing up there. There was a mission school and hospital that I remember clearly. I remember sitting on the veranda drinking a cold beer, and I remember sharing a meal with the mission children in a large, open sided mess hall. For me, this became the mission in the novel. But quite early in the writing I realised that the story would need to end with Thomas visiting the West Nile Province in the present day, and this gave me a dilemma. I wasn’t at all sure what West Nile would be like after three decades of civil war. So in May 2011 I revisited with my son Jon, and we recreated Thomas’s journey. I am so pleased that we did this. It helped to make the final scene more believable (in my view). We never found the mission, but we saw many others, and we saw a region that had made a remarkable recovery from years of terror and hardship. This was something I tried to convey in the novel.
The original cover for the hardback edition by nathanburtondesign.com
Q: I imagine that for many people reading The Coincidence Authority, it will be the first time they have heard the names Joseph Kony and the Lords Resistance Army, but, unfortunately, even though your account is fictionalised, it is very much rooted in fact. I have just read a newspaper article in which one survivor who had buried his family in a mass grave told Deo Komakech, a visiting social scientist: “There’s no one to listen to our story. It’s good you have come.” Why was this part of the story something that you wanted to write about? Did you feel a responsibility to bear witness?
A: You probably recognise how it feels, once you have visited a place that makes an emotional impact on you, how you always notice news reports from that part of the world. It was like that for me with West Nile. For years I would watch the (admittedly rare) reports from Uganda with a growing sense of horror. I would often think about the people I had met, and the mission school, and I would wonder how they had fared. So yes, I did want to tell that story. I did (and still do) feel that what Kony did has been comprehensively ignored by the rest of the world.
Q: What are the particular challenges of writing fact-based fiction, particularly when it includes living people?
A: As it happens, Kony is the only real person in the book. The lawyer at Orion Books asked me if I was comfortable calling him the things I call him. But we agreed that he was hardly likely to sue. I read a lot about the Lords Resistance Army, and I tried to make sure that the events I describe in The Coincidence Authority, while fictional, were at least consistent with the behaviour of Kony and the LRA. I hope I managed to get it believable – or at least to uncover some of the truths in the history of this region. I’m not sure that I could ever write a story based entirely in fact. I would get too many details wrong.
Q: As well as taking us all over the world, you juggle a number of strands, cultures and characters. Is there any one character who you feel is the hero of your book, and why?
A: For me this book is Azalea’s story. I love the fact that she has such a mosaic of stories in her life. I love the plucky way as a teenager that she stands up to the LRA soldiers. She is rebellious and I like that too – the way she flings the flowers at her fates. So Azalea, for me is the hero.
Q: At what point in writing the book did you come up with its title? Did you ever have an alternative working title, and if so, what was it?
A; For a long time it was The Coincidences of Azalea. I’m glad I changed it. In the USA they called it, simply, Coincidence. I quite like that too.
Q: In which ways was writing the book transformative for you?
A: I love that you’ve given me a choice here – like an exam question. For me, this was the first book that I’d written to a deadline. Max Ponder took me five years. The Coincidence Authority took fifteen months. It was the most immersive experience I had ever had with a book, and I found myself having to trust the characters, in a way that I had never done before, letting them take the story in the direction that they wanted. It wasn’t always easy. In one chapter Thomas and Azalea set off on a car journey and almost immediately they start to quarrel. That hadn’t been part of my plan. So I scrapped the chapter and started again. Once again an argument started almost on the first page. I began to despair that I could ever write the chapter I had imagined. I started again, and this time I let the characters get on with it and argue. And it was the right thing to do. This book taught me to trust the characters, and in the end they will deliver the story.
Q: Is there one question your writing brings you back to again and again? Do you think you will ever find an answer that satisfies you?
A: You have a way of asking impossible questions Jane. Maybe, like Thomas, I’m trying to discover what life is all about. I think the protagonist in Not Forgetting the Whale gets the closest to answering that question. So maybe I’m getting closer.
Q: There’s a saying: “All fiction is biography and all biography is fiction”. Do you agree?
A: Only with the second part!
Q: Man Booker prize-winner Richard Flanagan said that The Narrow Road to the Deep North was the book he couldn’t avoid writing. Have you ever felt that way about a book?
A: The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder is the closest I have come to an autobiographical novel, and it is probably the book I had to write before I could relax and write other stuff. Max Ponder isn’t exactly me, but we seem to have been in very much the same places at more or less the same time. I used Max Ponder to smuggle in many of the stories from my childhood – my schooldays, a fateful cruise in the heart of Africa, my meeting with Idi Amin, my first encounter with death. I understand Flanagan’s sentiment. His next novel will be easier.
Q: Although the novel doesn’t preach, it does address some fairly substantial questions. Was it your intention to write a story with a message or a moral?
A: I’m not so sure that the novel does have a moral. In the end Thomas is left to make up his own mind about reality. Do we have free will? Do things happen for a reason? We don’t know the answers to these things, and I was careful not to pretend that we do, or to take a view one way or another. But I did want to make readers think about these things. Perhaps the moral, that Thomas learns, is to expect the unexpected.
Q: How did you feel when you had finished writing the novel? Were there any particular characters that you found it hard to let go of?
A: As a novelist yourself you will know that writing a novel means spending a year or more of your life inhabiting a very particular world with people who you grow to know and love. But just as you think you’re about to leave this world, and you’re getting ready to say goodbye, then in come the publishers and now you spend another year refining and editing, and all of this is so iterative that it is hard to recognise the day when the novel is really finished. I was happy to let all the characters go. People sometimes ask me, ‘what happened next?’ and the answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ The characters got on with their lives. We’re no longer there to eavesdrop. That seems OK to me.
Q: Does midsummer’s day have any special significance for you?
A: Ha ha – no – it really doesn’t. When midsummer’s day 2012 came around (which is the day that The Coincidence Authority pivots around) I failed to notice it until a few days later!
Q: I read an article by Alan Garner the other day, in which he says that what we call ‘creativity’ is the bringing together of pre-existing entities that had not been seen to connect before. Do you think that’s true?
A: It is certainly the kind of profound quotation that I like (and will probably use.) But I’m not sure that I think it’s true. It seems to elevate the idea of novelty above depth. I think there are very creative musicians and artists and writers who can express wholly perceptive truths that move us without necessarily showing us something we haven’t seen before. I do wonder if there are ever any undiscovered ideas. We are all mining the same seam. But this doesn’t mean that no artist is truly creative. I’m sure that every human being is creative.
Q: Where can we find out more about you and your work? (Please include all of your social media links that you would like mentioned.)
A: I’m not much of a social media animal – but please catch me on Twitter @jwironmonger or follow my (very occasional) blog or join my LinkedIn network . And if you like The Coincidence Authority, please look out for Not Forgetting The Whale – also out in hardback.
J: Thank you again for taking part in this blog interview. I’m very grateful that you took time out to answer these questions and wish you all the best with your future projects.
J: Thank you. It has been an enormous pleasure.
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