I was 13. I remember it was a wet Tuesday in November. I had just read a book of short SF stories and several ideas for similar stories popped into my head. I wrote 5 stories in a copybook. I still have those stories somewhere.
How long does it take you to write a book?
The Black Orchestra, my first WW2 spy story, took six years from start to publication. The final version is the 27th full rewrite. In those early days I was querying agents, and one London agent took a fancy to the book, but asked me to rewrite it – twice – before giving up on it. My (wonderful) editor, Lucille Redmond had a lot to do with the subsequent revisions.
Each of the others has taken about a year: 3-6 months for the first draft. Lucille generally pretty much tears these to pieces and I then have to put them back together again. I don’t mind, really. She is an inspiration and her corrections and suggested plot changes are always invaluable.
What is your work schedule like when you're writing?
That varies. Sometimes the words flow and I can write 3,000 words in a day, but other times it’s like pulling teeth. At the moment I’m working on the third in The Black Orchestra series and trying to keep my daily word count up to 1,000 words per day. I like to write in the mornings; I’m like a walking zombie after lunch.
How many crime novels have you written?
I’ve written two novels that would fall easily into the crime novel genre: St Patrick’s Day Special and Find Emily. Both of these feature an Irish detective called DI Ben Jordan. My other two books are World War 2 spy stories. I suppose they could be classified as crime fiction if you include the atrocities of the Third Reich within the definition of crimes.
Which is your favourite and why?
Of the crime genre books: St Patrick’s Day Special. This book was the ‘birthing pool’ for DI Ben Jordan. He and I struggled together for months to get his story on paper, and now it feels like he’s a real-life, breathing friend.
Where do you get your ideas?
From the news and from my own life experiences, I guess. I am constantly amazed at what happens in real life, events that confound the mind and that no fiction writer could ever have dreamt up, or if he did everyone would say it was too fantastical and nobody would read it.
In The Black Orchestra books, Kurt Müller, my hero. In the detective books, I’m tempted to choose Emily Carter the feisty 11-year-old abductee in Find Emily, but I’d have to choose DI Ben Jordan who has all sorts of heavy personal issues, but is morally as straight as they come. I wouldn’t last 24 hours as a police detective; the daily grind of dealing with human carnage and the criminal mind would be too much to bear. And boy am I glad they sorted out WW2 before I was born!
Which character from the work of others do you wish you’d invented and why?
John Buchan’s Richard Hannay, Declan Burke’s Harry Rigby, Douglas Adams’ Arthur Dent, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Colin Bateman’s nameless bookshop owner in Mystery Man, Inspector Maigret…
Oh, sorry, you wanted just one. I’d have to go for John le Carré’s Leamas in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a brilliant portrait of a complete spy playing the part of a disillusioned drunken washout, while secretly maintaining all of his humanity right to the end.
If you could have been someone from history involved in crime (good or bad) who would that be and why?
I would have to say a desperado highwayman like Dick Turpin. Was Robin Hood real? If he was, I’d like to be the Sheriff of Nottingham. My wife suggested Charles Ponzi, but I think I’d have to go for Ned Kelly, because he managed to get an Australian resident visa.
What are you working on now?
I’m in the throes of book 3 in the Black Orchestra series. As of today, I have been writing for 42 days and I have 42,000 words on the computer, so I’m on target for 99,000 words first draft by January 1 next. The first book in the series, The Black Orchestra was Historical fiction with a capital “H”, the second, The Wings of the Eagle, is historical Fiction with a small “h” and a big “F”. I’m hoping the third one will have two capital letters – a good strong story firmly embedded in actual historical events.
JJ Toner has been writing more or less full time since 2007. He self-published his first book in 2011. He has 4 novels on Amazon: St Patrick’s Day Special, Find Emily, The Black Orchestra and The Wings of the Eagle. He lives in Ireland, although a significant proportion of his family lives in Australia.