Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Interview: Andy Johnson

I now bring you my interview with Andy Johnson, author of Seelowe Nord:

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Sure. I was born and grew up in York, England. I joined the British Army at the age of sixteen just a couple of weeks after leaving school. I then served for twenty four years with a regiment called the Coldstream Guards, which is one of the Queen’s Bodyguard infantry regiments. I did active combat service in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to training and residential postings all around the world. I have taken part in Trooping the Colour, Changing the Guard, and a range of other State Ceremonial events. I also spent a total of four years as an instructor at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. I finished my time as the Regimental Sergeant Major of the Coldstream Guards and retired from the Army in 2009 after being awarded the Meritorious Service Medal.

I then started a number of civilian careers. I immediately began writing military history themed novels, took a job as a youth worker, and became the chairman of a military charity. I have now finished the youth work job and am in the process of starting up my own leadership and management consultancy business. I donate a percentage of the profits from my novels annually to British military charities. This year I am supporting the Army Benevolent Fund, The Casualty Fund of the Coldstream Guards, The British Limbless Ex-Servicemen’s Association and Combat Stress. It’s not a ground breaking sum of money but I like to do my bit for them.

What got you interested in alternate history?

I think all of us, even the most pragmatic, can’t resist looking back at events and thinking ‘what if…’ As an author, Alternate History is a great genre, because you can make up your own plots, story-lines and endings as you would with any other kind of fiction, but at the same time, you don’t have to spend too long inventing your own little world, and the people who populate it; history has already produced the background context and over-arching scenario for you. Also, as I’ve found out these last couple of years, there’s nothing guaranteed to get tongues wagging than messing about with the history books!

What is your novel Seelowe Nord about?

It is essentially the story of the proposed German invasion of Britain in 1940 which obviously came to nothing in reality. In my book however, I credit the Germans with achieving a partial victory in the Battle of Britain and then successfully getting their invasion force past the Royal Navy and onto British soil. Almost everything is based on actual military strengths, plans and orders of battle existent at the time, but I’ve changed the German plan by moving the landing area some 200 miles north so that they launch their invasion against the east coast, in the county of Yorkshire. There follows much blood and guts – I’ll say no more.

What inspired you to write the novel?

Firstly, I’ve always wanted to write a novel that communicated the reality and intensity of frontline combat. In this modern world of console and computer games, people are deceived into thinking that war is a relatively straight forward and clinical business. It is far from it.

Regarding the scenario, I grew up in the area where the book is set and, as a child, I remember wondering why there were dozens of military bunkers, pill-boxes and other field defences littered around the fields and coastline of Yorkshire. Only as I grew up and learned the history of 1940 did I understand the reality of the invasion threat back in that fateful year.

In my final military appointment, I decided to run a tactical training exercise for my Junior NCOs, in order to develop their conceptual ability, and my staff and I came up with a scenario that would require those NCOs to plan an amphibious assault against the Yorkshire coastline and then fight their way inland for about forty miles, using all these original defensive positions as the enemy objectives. Essentially, they would be playing the German role in the exercise. Unfortunately, the battalion was deployed at short notice to Afghanistan and then I reached my retirement point, so the exercise never took place. Despite that, I was left with this very detailed scenario sitting around in my mind and, suddenly, everything came together; I’d found the right vehicle for my first novel.

What sources did you use when researching for the novel?

I was lucky that I am quite familiar with the early years of World War II as it’s something that the military world studies in quite some detail. There were however, some long days at the city library, followed by visits to various museums and archives around the country. However, most of the research was on the ground. I spent many glorious days in both rain and sunshine, hiking over the hills and dales of Yorkshire, as well as walking the coast itself, tracking down all the obstacles, defences and bunkers that are still in existence. I then spent many hours reverting to my military training and thinking to myself ‘so how would I attack this position?’

How did you come up with the title?

I wanted an unusual, punchy and dramatic title. The original German plan for invading Britain was Seelowe (Sealion) and because I’d moved the German plan north I decided to add Nord onto it; hence Seelowe Nord. At the same time, I was conscious that not everyone understands German, so I had to add an English sub-title that would give a hint of what was to come inside the book. Because I wanted the book to be very blunt, direct and uncompromising, I went for a very straight forward sub-title of ‘The Germans are coming’.

Who designed the cover?

The design team at the publisher did the artwork, but in line with my fairly detailed wishes. Again, I wanted a pretty ominous looking cover and found the perfect photograph in the US National Archives (NARA). I purchased the photograph and license through them and then passed it to the design team, with the instruction that the cover should look ‘dark, ominous, threatening, suggesting immediate action or imminent violence’. They did a brilliant job and their first attempt was spot on. Even now, I get a shiver of excitement when I look at the cover.

Consensus among alternate historians is that stories stemming from Operation Sea Lion divergences are inherently implausible. What is your opinion about this?

As a former soldier, I am as aware as anyone that looking back in history, with the benefit of hindsight, the reality is that Operation Sealion was always going to be a non-starter, and I was especially aware that any book written along the lines of an alternate history of the operation would throw people into a frenzy of debate. However, having said this, I would make a few points. Firstly, the whole idea of alternate history is that we are looking for an alternative outcome from a historical event which is firmly embedded in everyone's folk-memory and therefore, any reader has to willingly suspend their disbelief in order to read the genre in the first place. Secondly, the main lesson that I learned as a soldier was that you can never say never. If you look at the great military feats of history, it is littered with events that at the time, defied belief. The reality in war can often be far more stunning and unbelievable than anything a novelist could conjure up. As a soldier, I learned to never say 'that is impossible' or 'the enemy would never do that', because, as sure as eggs is eggs, if you said those things, you invariably ended up having to eat your words. More than any other human endeavour, war is far from being a science. It is entirely exposed to the vagaries of human spirit, human ability, Mother Nature, and just old fashioned luck and coincidence. And of course, when you see the amount of concrete that was poured along the east coast of Britain in 1940 in the construction of bunkers and field defences, you see at a glance that those who lived through that period in history were under no doubt whatsoever that the Germans really were coming.

Interestingly, a joint German-British wargame was held at Sandhurst in the early 1970s with many original commanders from both sides playing staff roles in a play-test of the original German Sealion plan. Both German and British commanders agreed that the landings would probably have achieved initial success, but that the attrition caused by Royal Navy interdiction and the constraints of supplying and reinforcing the landing force would result in an eventual defeat on land for the Germans. As for the opinion of historians, well, at the end of the day all historians, be they highly qualified professionals or self appointed amateurs, are essentially just commentators on past events as opposed to the architects of the future. So, all in all, I don't take the Operation Sealion debate too seriously at all; I just wanted to find a scenario where I could write a rattling good war story in an unfamiliar context, and I have to say, I had tremendous fun doing so. As I mention in the foreword to the novel; please take the novel for what it is - a story of men at war.

Will there be any sequels to Seelowe Nord?

Seelowe Nord is the first novel of my World War II series, and my second is entitled Thunder in May, which was published in July last year. The third book in the series I am currently working on and is due to go off for publishing in April/May this year. Its title is being kept under wraps until April but the book will be a late-war scenario.

What is Thunder in May about?

Thunder in May is a part dramatisation, part fictionalised story of the German offensive in the West in May-June 1940, culminating in the evacuation of Dunkirk. Many of the characters from Seelowe Nord reappear in the prequel, including the central British character, Sergeant Jackson of the Coldstream Guarrds. The book covers some of the well known, and some of the lesser known actions of the campaign, including the assault on Fort Eben Emael, the German assault crossings of the Meuse, the bayonet charge of the Coldstream Guards at Herent on the Dyle, the BEF's stand on the River Escaut, the British counter-stroke at Arras, and of course the battle for the Dunkirk perimeter.

Do you have any other projects you are working on?

I am toying with the idea of writing some near future military novels, a dark-future gangster style novel, along with some ancient history/fantasy fiction stuff. Fortunately, I’m not stuck for ideas just yet; it’s really a case of trying to establish what people want to read about. I don’t want to overdo a particular theme.

What are you reading now?

Apart from lots of World War II research stuff, I’ve just read Harvey Black’s first novel Devils with Wings, and I’m now flicking through my brand new Kindle to see what I’m going to treat myself to next. The only thing is, I can’t read other peoples work while I’m writing my own stuff, as it tends to throw my literary style all over the place, so I’ve got quite a disciplined leisure-reading calendar!

Any advice for would be authors?

Be disciplined. You’ve got to treat writing like a job and make time for it so you can get into the flow of writing and make real headway; otherwise you’ll never get anywhere with it. I learned that the hard way. Most importantly of all though; don’t be afraid to put pen to paper and put your work out there. It would be a poorer world if people didn’t write new books. Don’t be scared of getting a bad review. Everyone in this world has an opinion; some are good, some stink; just don’t take it personally. What’s the worst that can happen? Not many people buy your book? Well, if you don’t try in the first place then NOBODY will ever read your book. I’ve got a new Kindle and I want something to read, so all of you get writing!

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Those interested can catch War Blogger's review of Seelow Nord.  People interested in learning more about Andy Johnson and his novels can check out his website, where they will find maps and photographs of the terrain, weapons, equipment, etc.  They can also follow him on Twitter (@shelowenord).

2 comments:

  1. Good that Andy's getting more exposure. Despite what some may think after reading my review, I wish him all the best.

    ReplyDelete
  2. ... even though he's blocked me on Twitter.^^ That's a wee bit childish for a grown lad, don't you think?

    ReplyDelete