Friday, August 17, 2012

Interview with Ken McCoy

I’m delighted to welcome Ken McCoy to the blog today, and what a talented man he is. Having left school at 16, Ken trained in structural engineering design and at 26 started his own building company. He has also enjoyed two lucrative hobbies — art and comedy, worked in theatre and on TV. He took up writing when he bought his first computer in 1997, with his first book published by Piatkus in 1999. For the past 22 years he’s been on the northern after-dinner speaking circuit, with fourteen books traditionally published, plus five ebooks he published himself with more in the pipeline. 

What was the first thing you ever wrote, Ken, and did it help to launch your career? 

The first words I ever had published appeared in an Adventure comic. I was 11 years old and entered a readers’ joke competition in the hope of winning the star prize ― a bagatelle game. I accompanied my joke with a cartoon. In fact I won 2nd prize ― an all-purpose penknife . My joke was published but not my cartoon. The joke went thus: Teacher to class, ‘Silence boys, every time I open my mouth, some idiot speaks.’ There are those who think my humour has gone downhill since then.

It actually didn’t spur me into writing. All through my youth I assumed I’d be some sort of artist. Just before I left school I was interviewed by a careers officer who asked me what I was good at. “Art, sir,” said I. He, in his wisdom, (or lack of it) suggested I get a job in a drawing office. I was a grammar school kid and didn’t know what they did in a drawing office (we didn’t do technical drawing at school). I was offered two jobs: one via my art master working for an artist friend of his at £1 a week and another working in a drawing office at £4.10s a week. Hey, I was 16, it was a no brainer. I was possibly the worst draughtsman in the office, but it led me into a career in the construction industry.

Tell us about this picture.
This is an oil painting I did about twenty five years ago. I’m not a street scene specialist but this is the where I lived, during the war, up to the age of about six months. It had pretty much been demolished by the time I did the painting, but the steps and the foundations were all still there so, using what building knowledge I had, I just planted authentic houses there. Most of my sagas are set in streets such as this. Maybe one day I’ll use it as a cover.

You’ve written crime and sagas, how do you go about dealing with the change in style?

There’s almost as much crime in my sagas as in the crime books, but there the similarity ends. There’s a more organised mindset to writing crime. In order to get the reader interested the plot has to be controlled, well planned, challenging, believable, and clever (?). The reader needs to be kept guessing pretty much until the end. I actually don’t write police procedural books as the police seem to change their procedures monthly and it’d be a full time job keeping up, although I have a few friends who are coppers. My books involve private eyes and/or civilians solving crimes.

There’s more creative latitude in saga writing. I start with a main protagonist along with a central cast of characters, no more than four or five. The basic plot will be little more than a skeleton which fleshes itself out as the story unfolds. Sometimes the characters take complete control and I have to bring them back on track like a sheepdog guiding wayward sheep. My ultimate aim is to get everyone into the holding pen at the end of the course without losing too many of them. When I sit down to write it’s difficult to predict where the story’s going to be when I finish writing.

Writers are always asked where they find their ideas. Would you like to share any tips with us on how you find your inspiration?

My ideas come from the same place as everyone’s ideas ― my imagination. A lot of people claim to have little or no imagination. This cannot be true. For example, dreams come from the imagination and we all dream, whether we remember our dreams or not. Most men have imagined themselves scoring a winning goal at a cup final; some people imagine what it would be like to fly, or to be invisible, or to win the Lottery, or to beat up the bully, or to become a world famous film star. Writers simply have the knack of harnessing their imaginations and creating stories. A writer has the patience and skill to build on these brief imaginings and allowing one thing to lead to another. It’s a gradual process. A grain of an idea begets two more until the whole thing snowballs into a story.

I believe you are also an actor, and an accomplished artist. How do you think these skills have helped you as a writer? Here you are with the ladies of Last of the Summer Wine.

Technically I used to be an actor insofar as I was in Equity and got a few minor bits on TV. The biggest part I ever got was two lines as Lady Tara’s butler in Emmerdale. It looked to be a promising, part time job, but sadly the actress playing Lady Tara decided to leave, taking her butler with her. I only took this work to please a theatrical agent who also got me lucrative after-dinner work as a comedy speaker. I’ve done stage work but only as an act not as an actor. I don’t do the telly stuff anymore but I still do the speaking. I believe the timing I’ve honed in comedy helps enormously with the flow of my writing. It’s possible to tell the same joke in two different ways, one will be hilarious the other won’t raise a smile. This doesn’t just apply to humour but also to drama, tragedy etc.

What is the strangest place you’ve ever written in? 

Maybe not the strangest place I’ve ever written but certainly the strangest circumstances, was on January 28th 2010. I was in Leeds Infirmary, due to go down at midday for an operation. Fairly crucial to my well-being but I had been warned that theatre times were not set in stone. To take my mind off what was to come I picked up a notebook and pencil at about 9 a.m. and began writing. Like many writers, when I get in the zone an hour goes by in ten minutes. Nurses came to check on me from time to time. I would say I’m fine thanks, hoping they wouldn’t hang around and disturb my flow of thought and bring me back to reality. I couldn’t see the clock from my bed and when they eventually came for me I thought they’d come early. It was 2 o’clock. I’m still on the right side of the grass so the op went well and, I’m pleased to report, so did my writing.

Do you enjoy revision, and what tip would you give to anyone who doesn’t? 

Do I enjoy revision? Sure do. Revision gives us the opportunity to write as well as we can. When we hand a book over to a publisher we should do it safe in the knowledge that it’s the best we can do. If I were to give advice to anyone who doesn’t enjoy revising it would be this: Writing is part of the entertainment business and our books are our performance. This is the only branch of the business where performers have the opportunity to be always at their very best.

Do you research before you start writing, or as you go along? Does it vary for different types of books?

I think the two biggest boons to writers are Microsoft Word and Google. Without Word I probably wouldn’t have become a writer and without Google for research it would take me twice as long to write a book. With the sagas my research comes from Google, from books, from my memory and from the memories of my equally ancient friends. My sagas are mostly set in the 1940s and 50s (where I was set). I have a pile of books depicting life in this era but it’s my memory that adds the nuances of that era. The pleasures and fears, the sights and sounds, the humour and sadness, in short all the bits you can’t get from research.

Do you have any hobbies to give you a break from writing?

My hobbies outside writing are golf and painting. I play terrible golf twice a week, mainly to keep fit. I used to be a semi-pro painter, working for all the major greetings cards companies. In recent years the only work I’ve been paid for are the covers of two of my large print books. I intend turning our back room into a studio as I’ve had a set of oil paintings planned for some time now.

I’m also a great fan of the Music Hall and I’ve performed my act at the Leeds City Varieties Good Old Days several times. On November 13th I’m in London appearing at the CAA (Club for Acts and Actors) in Covent Garden, in a show to celebrate The British Music Hall Society’s 49th year.

Here is Ken in his guise as Professor Albert. And below with Rod Hudd, taken backstage at the Leeds City Varieties Good Old Days, just before he went on to do his Professor Albert act. So how did you come up with this character?

When I first started after dinner speaking I would turn up as a gate-crashing tramp: Professor Albert Crapper. This disgusting tramp would walk in to the very poshest of functions, unannounced, nick a drink off someone (usually a lady) and, before anyone could react, I’d be at the top table doing my act. My agent loved the idea a lot more than I did. It all went wrong one day and I was thrown out, painfully, by the male guests. It was good publicity as the story made quite a few newspapers. In fact I made Page 3 of a certain newspaper alongside a very topless young lady.

I can quite see why your books are so entertaining. If you could slip into a time machine and meet a famous historical figure from the past, who would you choose and why?

I’d love to watch Leonardo da Vinci at work. Not so much his paintings but his drawings. Drawing is probably where whatever artistic talent I have lies. It’s much more instant than painting and, if nothing else, I’d be able to appreciate the monumental genius behind what Leonardo was doing. I’d also like to talk to him, maybe tell him a few jokes. But that would require a second scientific miracle ― me being able to speak 15th century Italian and Leonardo appreciating English low humour.

Tell us about your latest book, and what inspired you to write it.

My latest book, due for publication by Little, Brown in April next year, is a saga called PERSEVERANCE STREET. It’s set in Leeds at the end of the last war and it demonstrates that the famed neighbourliness of the women left behind wasn’t all it was cracked up to be: Eight months pregnant Lily Robinson becomes a war widow in the last days of the war. A week later her four-year-old son is abducted and she’s accused, by her neighbours, of murdering him. Lily ends up being locked up in a secure psychiatric hospital under the care of an abusive doctor. I like to lighten my stories with an element of humour. This book was something of a challenge in that respect.

Thank you for sparing time to talk to us today, Ken. It has been both entertaining and informative. We wish you continuing success with your books. 
Best wishes, Freda 

Find out more about Ken and his books. 

Interviews on the RNA Blog are for RNA members, although we do occasionally take guests. If you are interested in an interview, please contact me:


Lesley Cookman said...

Certainly a very entertaining interview. Thank you, Freda and Ken.

Anna Jacobs said...

I enjoyed the interview very much. Thanks, Freda and Ken. I also exclaimed in loud approval what you said about revising, Ken. It's my favourite stage of all, where one can bring into play all one's skills and experience.

Happy writing - and painting!

Gwen Kirkwood said...

And they say only women are multi-taskers. I envy Ken's versatility, and the abilty to write both crime and humour. This blog is certainly different and I enjoyed it. Thank you Freda and Ken.

rhodabaxter said...

Wow. so many great skills! I really enjoyed reading this blog post.

Rosemary Morris said...

I'm full of admiration for your various talents, which I enjoyed reading about.

I like your definition of a writer, but there's something I'd like to add. I think writers observe everything around them in a particular manner. For example I was served coffe by a young man with fair hair and delicate features. Immediately I visualised him as a figure in a mediaeval stained glass window.

Liv Thomas said...

I don't think it's fair that one person should have so many diverse talents! Am I envious - you bet. Am I full of admiration - absolutely. Great interview. Thank you.

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Wonderful interview and so entertaining - I'm in awe of your multiple talents, Ken!

Sylvia Broady said...

Hi Ken,I always knew that you are a very, talented and creative writer and enjoyed after dinner speaking, though whenever you come to the RNA-N meetings, you are so modest about your achievements. A great review - thanks to you and Freda.

Linda Acaster said...

A wonderful insight into the artistic life of a man I've known for a while. What I'd like to know is how he blagged the storyline for his forthcoming book past the editor. "Y'see there's this..." I wish I'd been a fly on the wall.

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