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Author Interview: Luke McCallin on a character that could be you

Luke McCallin

by Mary Yuhas

Luke McCallin expounds on Bosnia, mysteries, knowing what is right and what is wrong, and giving it all up to write.

Luke McCallin was born in England, grew up in Africa and was educated around the world. He worked with the UN as a humanitarian relief worker and peacekeeper in the Caucasus, the Sahel, and the Balkans. His experiences have driven his writing, in which he explores what happens to normal people put under abnormal pressures, inspiring a historical mystery series built around an unlikely protagonist, Gregor Reinhardt, a German intelligence officer and a former Berlin detective chased out of the police by the Nazis. The Man From Berlin, was published in 2013, followed by a sequel, The Pale House, in 2014.

LitVote: One night, you had a dream and after you woke up, you quickly wrote it down. That dream was the foundation for your first fictional book, The Man From Berlin, the first of three book in your historical mystery series. Can you expand on that?

Luke: It may sound clichéd, but Gregor Reinhardt walked into my dreams one night, said hello, and then sat quietly to one side for months and years, not saying much, not doing much, just waiting for me to find the time and the courage to start writing his story.

I was a political advisor to the United Nations mission in Bosnia when Reinhardt appeared. I worked with people from all walks of Bosnian life. With policemen and judges and lawyers, with mayors and town councilors, with priests and imams, with refugees and people still living in ruins, with war criminals and those who survived them, with those who had lived the war and those who fled from it, with women holding families together, and men who had fallen adrift of life. I began to build up a collage in my mind. I kept wondering, asking myself, what would I have done in their place, and I began weaving that human and historical tapestry, which is one of the most complex and fascinating you can imagine, into a story, and then into a book, albeit into another time, that of the Second World War, and the book had at its heart a man on the edge of despair at what his life had become, and his name was Gregor Reinhardt.

In creating and writing Reinhardt, one of the things I wanted to do was to make people think that he could be you. An ordinary man in extraordinary times, still trying to behave and believe in what makes sense, but so painfully aware of his own fears and limitations, and still knowing what is right and what is wrong. If you give someone like that an opportunity to do something, be someone, what would he do? What would you do…?

LitVote: Gregor Reinhardt is the conflicted protagonist in your series. Despite his heroic behavior in WWI, the Nazis chased the once German intelligence officer and detective out of Berlin after he refused to join the party. How did you develop his character?

Luke: His character really grew out of my own experiences with the United Nations, and from my fascination with history. I’ve lived and worked in a lot of amazing countries and situations, but the six years I spent working in Bosnia were among the most intense, and you can’t live there, or in Sarajevo, for long without it seeping into you. As much as it’s an overused analogy, Bosnia really is a historical and cultural crossroads, and it’s so contested. It defies any simple explanation, just like the finest puzzle or book or question. No matter the need to reduce and simplify it, there’s no one way to read it or play it, and a place and time like that gives someone like me, someone who had always wanted to write, so many options as an author, for drama, action, reflection, for asking big questions and trying out the answers to them. I could say so much more about the themes I wanted to develop. I could entice readers with the promise of adventure in the Balkans, a part of the world known to most as a by-word for intrigue, or treachery, so it was a chance to show readers another side of that region. It was also to make readers more keenly interested in the characters. They’d have to be tough or resourceful to survive the Balkans, right?!

Out of my experiences there, came the first outlines of Reinhardt’s character, and the ideas for The Man From Berlin and The Pale House. The time of the Second World War is one that fascinates me, when the fates of individuals—or the ability of individuals to decide their fates—were cast into the fire. We like to think there is not much we cannot control, but in fact the raw edges to life are closer to us than we like to think. Not only that, but all a person can be can not only be undone and brought to nothing, but warped away from what that person might have been. Trying to understand the human motivations or conditions in all that, that’s what inspires me to write. That, and the sheer pleasure of creation and sharing.

For sure, all the places I worked and lived in—in Africa, in Russia, in Haiti, in Pakistan, in the Balkans—taught me something, or I saw something, or felt something. About what happens to people—ordinary people—put in extraordinary situations. Right now, watching the news from Ukraine, I get awful flashbacks to my time in Bosnia, to when neighbours turned on each other. Over the years, I’ve found that no amount of work we, as humanitarian workers do, will ever suffice to overcome those impulses. You are always going to be frustrated in what you achieve, to only get halfway to where you want to be, and often—far too often—the guilty get away with it.

I try to understand and explain what makes friends of decades suddenly believe the worst of each other. What makes a delivery man become a gunman? What makes a woman arm her husband or son and send him out to fight the sons and husbands of other women? What makes one man stand up for another? What makes one man resist, while another man gives in, or collaborates? I think with my writing I’m trying to find some way of coming to terms with that. I don’t write about white knights on white horses—Gregor Reinhardt is certainly not one of those—but I try to ask those questions that seem to haunt me, and I try to find answers, and a sense of closure.

LitVote: You were concerned about writing your first book because you thought it might come off as an apology. Can you further explain that?

Luke: The Man From Berlin was nearly eleven years in the writing, but there were a lot of fallow periods, a lot of dark periods, and a lot of those periods coincided with angst about the story. It was not so much a question of could I write it—I had a degree of confidence in myself as a storyteller and a writer—but should I. I often felt that what I was trying to write could so easily have been misunderstood as an apology. The time, the place, a character such as Reinhardt—a German, a soldier, a servant, however unwilling of a regime such as the Nazis—when what I was trying to get at was the human aspect of one man caught between choices.

I was very concerned that in writing about a man like Reinhardt people might only fasten onto the visual elements, like the uniform, the swastika, or some of the key historical elements, like the Holocaust, the invasion of the USSR, the Nazis’ policies of persecution and repression. All of that happened, and it makes for a daunting challenge to write a story in it, and to develop a character that I could firstly bring myself to have confidence in, that I could then write about, but who could have existed in those times.

The watchwords to Reinhardt’s character and story are probably ‘change’ and ‘consequence.’ Reinhardt’s story is a thread woven into a tapestry of a continent in upheaval. He goes through those times initially just trying to keep his head above water and survive, but he changes. It’s impossible not to. I wanted to make people interested in those changes, interested in the consequences of those changes, and to make people believe Reinhardt has something to bring to the table, so to say. I wanted people to care about him, and to survive is not enough.

LitVote: What was the biggest mistake you made while writing your first novel?

Luke: When I imagined Reinhardt, and his time and place, I was not much of a fan of the mystery or crime genres. As time went by, and as Reinhardt sat quietly but insistently waiting for me to write his story, I began to read in the genre. I read the classics, like Chandler and Elroy, and then I discovered that others had written in the same period I had thought of, notably Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series. I almost packed it all in when I came across Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy, thinking they couldn’t be bettered in terms of time, place and character, and character.

I realised two things. That I was going up a series of blind alleys looking to write about a white knight in a dark time until I realized—and this was why my time in Bosnia was so important—white knights hardly ever exist. Instead, you have people, with all that makes them good and bad, and what makes them good or bad is partly their nature, but it’s also the opportunities they have, and the decisions they take. And the second thing was that you need to have confidence in yourself as a writer that the stories you have to tell are as good as, and different from, those written by those you look up to.

LitVote: Any suggestions for first-time authors?

Luke: I had a rather unusual initiation into the world of publishing. Of those people who write, some finish a novel, some then find an agent, and some are then fortunate to get a contract. I sort of short-circuited that in that I pitched my novel to editors at one of the Algonkian writers workshops in NY, and one of the editors bought it.

What are the things I think I’ve learnt as a writer…? There are no magic bullets, and that includes social media. Unless you are a complete genius at it, or you hit on some amazing formula for using it, there really is no substitute for hard work at the core of your craft, which is your writing. And the one thing a writer should do is write, and not to be afraid to write badly, or with difficulty because, as someone once told me, there are no good writers, there are only good re-writers. Just write. Don’t wait for the perfect idea, or the most ingenious plot. Don’t be afraid to show what you’ve done, and show it widely. Writing is a lonely business, so it’s important that you as a writer get out and about, and that you show your work to people, as many people as you can. You want criticism, and you want that exposure of yourself and your work. It was looking for that exposure that lead me to the Algonkian writers’ workshops, and to the editors.

A couple of other things. Read outside your genre and comfort zone, and read widely and voraciously because you’ll never know what you might find, and where you’ll find it. Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are all kinds of resources out there: workshops, writers’ groups, online courses and coaches. Make friends with writers so that you have a community. For my second novel, I was something of a rabbit in the headlights as the publisher wanted to keep a year between books, so I went looking for help, and benefitted enormously from an online coach who taught a great course on plot development.

LitVote: Do you use social media to help market your book? If so, which one(s)

Luke: I use social media—mostly a blog on my website, Facebook, and Twitter—not nearly as much or as well as I probably should. I work full time, and the social media/marketing can take up an awful lot of the time I otherwise need to devote to my writing and family. Everything I’ve seen, heard, read or been told, has explicitly or implicitly convinced me that using social media requires you to sometimes minimise the ‘me, look at me!’ aspect of your publicity efforts, to grow connections and networks progressively, and to understand that using it well means using it over the long term. I remember some excellent advice I was given, which is to try and find your niche on social media, and to become something of a curator for a certain kind of information. In being that curator, you establish trust, and in establishing trust, you can grow your audience. I’m pretty sure I’ve not quite found that niche, but I’m still looking!

All that said, I enjoy using the blog and Facebook most, I enjoy the connections it makes as, being in Europe, I don’t have an easy way to connect with readers. I’m in something of an unusual situation in that I have my books published primarily in the United States, but I’m living in France where social media for publicity is much less important, and so there’s much less of an imperative to use it, and not much of an enabling environment to use it well. I completely understand the value of it, though. It really is a combination of time to use it, and confidence to use it, too. I find for confidence, Facebook is a much more forgiving place: Twitter seems a little too daunting, sort of ‘fire and forget’!

LitVote: What tips do you have for beginning authors who have to perform a lot of research for their books?

Luke: Don’t let the facts get in the way of the story! That’s something of a cliché, and it’s not meant to be a throwaway comment. An author who wants to write historical fiction needs to know the times and the people he or she wants to write about, but there’s a fine line to be drawn between keeping slavishly to the facts, and allowing the facts to support instead of dominate a story.

I really came up against this when writing The Pale House, as it was my intention to use an actual historical figure—Vladimir ‘Valter’ Perić, the Partisans’ commander—in the story. There is obviously a strong temptation in historical fiction to use real people as characters, and in many ways it provides for thrilling and meaningful literature. I approached using historical figures with extreme caution and—I hope—a lot of humility. In so far as a writer should be confident enough to bend facts to tell a good story, I personally do not feel confident enough to do the same to the thoughts or motivations of people who once existed.

As well, for what I want to say and do with my writing, I do not want to have real people take too much away from my characters, so my approach was to use such historical figures as made their way into my novels as added layers of authenticity to set my own characters more firmly in context. It was more important for me to distil characters from historical sources, and to use that distillation to shine a light on the times I write about and the characters I populate it with.

LitVote: How did you find your agent?

Luke: Thanks to the efforts and help of a friend and fellow writer, called Charles Salzberg. I came at this whole book business from an unusual angle, getting a book contract before I had an agent. This was because, as I mentioned before, I pitched The Man From Berlin straight to editors at one of the Algonkian writers workshops, and one of the editors was from Berkely Books, who ended up making a two-book offer, and the first thing they said to me was that if I didn’t have an agent I needed to get one! Charles had led the workshop I attended, and had read the manuscript and was very supportive. He put me in touch with several agents, until I found one, and finding an agent, given I already had a book contract, was the trickiest part of the whole book-writing and book-selling experience for me! Some agents did not want to take on an author who already had a deal, or others did not want to work with that particular publishing company, or else would have preferred an author with a blank slate, so to speak. But given that many writers are never able to get an agent, let alone a book deal, I was fantastically lucky!

LitVote: What are your future plans?

Luke: Mainly to keep writing the Reinhardt novels. I’ve got ideas for another three or four, in addition to the two published and the third I’m currently writing. A lot of people ask when I’m going to give up working with the UN, or if I ever think about doing it. I’m really not sure I want to do that. I know that I get a lot of inspiration from my work. For sure, Reinhardt’s stories would not have been the same without my own personal experiences working with people affected by war in Bosnia, or Chechnya, or Gaza, or disaster in Pakistan, or Haiti after the earthquake.

I do a job I love, in an organisation that is aspirational and inspirational, with people from all around the world, and every day brings something new. My wife does similar work to me. So do most of my friends. It’s a source of renewal and of great pride and satisfaction, and I think I would turn away from that at my peril. I do sometimes dream of giving it all up to write. Who wouldn’t?! But I wonder if giving up work would deprive me of that inspiration. So far, I’ve been able to juggle both, or make room for both, and for my family. So long as I can keep doing that, I’ll keep writing the way I do. There may come a time I’ll do just that, but it’s not yet.

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Author Mary Yuhas, is the author of the upcoming memoir, QUIT AND BE QUIET, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother,  featured three times on Scribd.

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