Welcome to “On the Way Up,” a new blog feature in which I’ll be showcasing the literary stars of the not-too-distant future. This week, I’m talking with William Kendall, who’s the author of a fascinating new thriller titled Heaven and Hell. William is also a graduate student in history in his native Canada….
William, how long have you been writing?
Since I was eleven or twelve. I think those of us who are of a creative bent, whether it’s in art, music, or writing, that side of us starts to develop around that age.
Which authors inspired you?
I’ve been reading since before I went to school, and it’s a habit I’ve never gotten out of. To start, I’d say historians like Stephen Ambrose and David McCullough stand out as personal favourites because they’re storytellers. I’ve read plenty of history books where the authors can’t engage the interest of the reader, but that’s not the case with these two.
Jack Higgins is another personal favourite. He writes in the spy thriller genre, and his primary character for the better part of a couple of decades now has been a former IRA enforcer turned British operative named Sean Dillon. Dillon’s a fascinating character, never apologizing for his background. The dynamic Higgins wrote between Dillon and the character Hannah Bernstein, in the form of bantering and occasional bickering, is a partial influence for my two main characters. And like Higgins, I’d like to find ways to fit Irish terrorists into every book I can.
My favourite novel is The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. It tells the story of the battle of Gettysburg through the eyes of some of the men who were there. It’s a book I always come back to, like an old friend you visit again just to see how they’re doing. His son Jeff has taken up his father’s mantle with a series of books exploring history through the eyes of the people who lived it. Jeff and Michael have been big influences on the way that I write, in terms of style and focusing tightly on character.
Heaven & Hell has a very intriguing, controversial premise. Tell us more!
In a brief blurb, Heaven & Hell is centered on a group of terrorists who try to start a war in the Middle East by manipulating all sides involved, and a group of intelligence operatives who are trying to stop them. By writing much of the book set in Israel and dealing with the terrorist issue, I’m practically inviting controversy. Particularly when it comes to the central event of the book.
I know that you’ve done some extensive research. Tell everyone about some of the more interesting experiences you’ve had in developing the background for Heaven & Hell.
A lot of it starts, of course, in the library. I’ve been writing about Israel, so the sort of things I was looking for included religious customs, archaeology, history, architecture… it’s involved a lot of note taking, searching about, finding information that might prove useful in the book. That’s an ongoing process, of course. There’s always something in the writing process that requires looking up something fresh that you might have overlooked.
I haven’t been to Israel, so it’s required reaching out, being creative in talking to people. I got a lot of assistance (and a great suggestion to add a sequence at the Masada) from a fellow at the Israeli embassy. It’s something I’d really suggest if you’re writing about a foreign nation; talk to someone from an embassy or consulate. Just be careful how you open up conversations. After all, I was talking about terrorism in Israel as a novel plot, and wondering the whole time how much of the conversation was going to be added into a field report.
I’ve also done the same, generally online, getting information from public relations staff, from places like Oxford University to the Israel Museum. I’ve gotten technical information from police officers on firearms, and just recently, some critical information from a fire fighter that helped me get past a bit of a dilemma I was in.
Aside from that? One of the great benefits to the internet is the ability to gather lots of photographs of distant places, so that when you’re writing, for example, about the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, you can see these places with your own eyes.
You’ve told me how the Stryker character was created. Share that with my readers, please.
Certainly! He’s a character who’s third generation, in a way. In high school, I was in a creative writing class, and one of the assignments was a long form story, like eighty to a hundred pages. That’s where he started out, as a private investigator named Robert Stryker. I haven’t looked at the story in years, and the only thing I might tell you off hand about it was that the climax of the book was set at a fire tower in the Muskoka region of Ontario, a place I know very well.
The second version of the character was one I wrote just for myself for a long time, a primary character named Christian Stryker and the people in and out of his life. Something of a continuing work, where the character went through a number of occupations, from police to espionage to federal agent. He started out in archaeology, but abandoned that profession early on. This is really the training ground for my current writing, where I honed my craft.
And so Tom Stryker is the third generation of the character. Like his predecessors, he prefers his last name only, and like Christian, he’s a former archaeologist. So he’s been a long time in development. Meredith Devon is a bit of a different story. She’s a mixture of previous characters I’ve written, but a lot of her is fresh and new. I’d known when I was contemplating writing seriously that I wanted to write two lead characters, a man and a woman, both strong and opinionated, rather then go with the lone wolf example created by Ian Fleming.
How much of Stryker is you? Come on, ‘fess up!
We’re both rock climbers. That’s how Stryker gets introduced in the book, climbing Mont Blanc. Rock climbing is one of my favourite activities, so of course I had to make him a climber. We both share the same irreverence in our personalities. And making him an archaeologist was deliberate. Like every other kid who ever saw an Indiana Jones film, I thought of going into that line of work. To this day, archaeology and ancient history fascinate me. Unlike Stryker however, I’m not multilingual, nor am I a partial Lakota, and I’ve never been tortured. Except by the sound of Justin Biebers’ voice.
Another thing you’ve discussed with me is your parents’ response to your story. Care to share with everyone?
My mother’s actually the one who started me off on this book, with her response to a question I once asked that forms the premise of the Very Bad Thing. She’s an avid reader, with a great imagination, and she’s liked what she’s heard of what I’ve been up to. My father, however, will never read the book. He dislikes violence in any form, and any time I’ve mentioned what I’ve written or ideas that I have in mind, his reply is to wonder what he and my mother did to end up raising a son who writes things like that.
You’ve made it clear that The Very Bad Thing is going to remain a secret until the book is published. Not even a hint?
The Very Bad Thing goes back to watching a newscast years ago, featuring rioting Palestinians, and asking my mother what would happen if terrorists ever did this and that. This and that being the Very Bad Thing. No, I’m not telling. I’ll just say it involves a very big explosion and a cataclysmic amount of casualties. And out of that, the threat of war.
A fellow author once asked me why someone as funny as I am (or as she thought me to be) would write such serious fiction. Since you’re the funniest person I know, I’m going to ask you that same question. Why?
You know, I think it comes down to what interests me as a reader. I like the notion of the worst case scenario. I like spy thrillers, so that’s what I’m going to write. I also think that my sense of humor, my irreverence and general outlook on life gets more then its share of outlets already. I write parodies, humor material, and that’s out there. Anyone reading my blogs or comments I make can see that.
At the same time, the humor still finds its way into the book even as I write. The bantering and the chemistry and energy between Stryker and Devon is such an example. There’s a line that I have in mind, for late in the book, and I still don’t know which one of them is going to say it. The two of them are in the middle of a firefight, shots going off all around them, explosions and so on… and one of them’s going to smirk and say, “You know, we go to the loveliest places.”
How serious is that for the situation?
William Kendall. Heaven & Hell. Remember it. This is an author we’re going to be seeing on future bestseller lists. And while you’re waiting for the book, check out his great blog: Speak of the Devil