Tuesday, 18 December 2012

'Winston and Me' - The Interview

Presenting an interview with Mark Woodburn, author of our historical fiction blockbuster Winston & MeThe article was written by Oliver Robinson, and first published on TALKonline, the internal newsletter for Lloyds TSB. It is reposted here with their permission.

The cover of Winston & Me.
You might say Mark Woodburn became a novelist by accident.

He had no intention of writing a book, he says. It began as a diversion, something to take his mind off things in the evenings.

He started to jot down a few ideas. Four months later, Mark, who works for our Commercial Banking business, had finished his first novel and a few months later had found a publisher, a small start-up business called Valley Press in Yorkshire.

Winston and Me follows the lives of a young Winston Churchill and his servant or ‘batman’ during the First World War. It is a novel of conflict and contrasts: Blenheim and the battlefields of France, the English aristocracy and Edinburgh slums, the longing for home and the urge to flee domestic dead-ends.

Mark's story is told through the eyes of teenage batman Jamie Melville, who lies about his age to join the army.

"I wanted to create a story of parallel lives and tell it from the point of view of someone who had no axe to grind about Winston Churchill. Even now he is still a really controversial character," Mark explains. "I wanted someone with absolutely no preconceptions about him, and just to see him as he is, as an ordinary person."

The novel also charts the teenager's personal journey towards manhood – his role as the breadwinner in a large family, the pains of first love in his relationship with a nurse and, after the war, his efforts to find a career in London.

Understandably, though, the myth of Churchill looms large.

"Everyone has an opinion about Churchill," says Mark. "But as a battalion commander, he was a huge success, first class in every way. He was also a Renaissance man, he could paint and write. He suffered some terrible setbacks in his life, but he always seemed to come back.

"The thing I identified with most was his humanity – the empathy he had for his men. When he arrived at the front, soldiers wrote home and told their wives and families. The wives and families bombarded him with letters asking to do ridiculous things for them – one soldier's wife had lost her birth certificate and couldn't get it back, so she wrote a letter to Winston to see if he could help get it back – he answered every single letter that came to him, no matter what the subject. He wrote back and he did his bit to help. He wasn't this remote politician some people think he is."

As for his own efforts, Mark is low key about his success and plays down the effort needed to hold down a job and write a novel.

"It can’t be that difficult because I've already started on my third book. I never saw it as being work. Some people come home at night and they go to the gym. My sporting days are over because I had a very serious injury playing rugby. I don't go to the gym and I don't have other hobbies after work. If I were to do this for a living and suddenly a publisher said you’ve got six months to write it, then that might be a different story."

Winston and Me is published by Valley Press, and available through the publisher's website for £9. It is also available from Amazon and Waterstones.com.

There is a pleasing parallel story to the book's publication. Valley Press, established by poet Jamie McGarry, was highly commended in the 2012 Lloyds TSB Enterprise Awards, making it one of the top thirty graduate businesses in the UK.