Author Interview: Peter Cottrell Explains Why He Made the Move From Non-Fiction to Fiction

You’ve already published non-fiction books on the history of Ireland. What made you make the move into fiction?

I grew up reading swashbuckling adventure stories and absolutely love reading historical fiction. So, after writing a couple of non-fiction books about the Anglo-Irish troubles that followed the Great War, I decided to have a go at taking some of the incidents that I’d come across in my research and string them together to tell a story that captures the atmosphere of being a policeman in the Royal Irish Constabulary.  That way, I thought I could reach a wider audience than just those people who would choose to read straight history with a fascinating, albeit sadly neglected facet of our history.  I really think it’s important to get the details right so I have tried to be as accurate as possible.  Consequently, most of the events and many of the characters in the book are based on historical fact – IRA man Emmet Dalton really did win a Military Cross whilst serving in the British Army; Drumlish was attacked by the IRA; Constable Mullan died in an IRA ambush at Gaigue Cross and DI Philip Kelleher really was gunned down in mysterious circumstances in a Republican bar having a drink with IRA leader Michael Collins’s girlfriend!  Truth is often stranger than fiction and the more I researched for my non-fiction the more I realized that there was a story to be told.

England’s Janissary is about one man’s disillusionment with war. Why did you choose this area for your first novel?

The protagonist, Kevin Flynn, is a war veteran whose experiences in the Great War not only made him a ‘hero’ but stripped him of his innocence.  In a way there are no heroes or villains in this story, just men tainted by violence and unlike many of us, Flynn has no illusions about what he is capable of and the story looks at how he copes with that unpalatable truth.   In a way the book isn’t just about one man’s disillusionment with war but rather his disillusionment with himself.  Although my own experiences on operations don’t come anywhere close to those who fought in the Great War, I decided that it would be sensible to write what I know – so there are elements of me in Flynn, as well as elements of soldiers and policemen that I have known.  Flynn has mixed feelings about violence; as do many of the characters in the book.  He sees violence as a means to an end, but is not convinced that the ends in the story merit it.  Faced with the turmoil of post-war Ireland, Flynn joins the police, partly to try and recapture the sense of belonging the war gave him and peace took away and partially because he his sickened by the willingness of some to turn to violence to get their way.  Whilst Flynn is fictional he is an amalgam of several men I came across during my research.  Ultimately, I chose this theme for my first novel because I wanted to try and bring out many of the problems soldiers have when they come home from war, whether it was Flanders in 1918 or Afghanistan today; and I chose an ex-Dublin Fusilier turned RIC policeman because there few books who tell the story of this period of Anglo-Irish history through the eyes of men like Flynn.

How much is your experience in the Territorial Army; Regular Army and the Royal Navy reflected in the detail of the novel?

To be honest it was crucial in being able to write England’s Janissary.  I always get frustrated when I read books or watch films about conflict that get things wrong and it is easy to tell whether a writer or film maker has actually spoken to a soldier, let alone been one.  Hopefully the fact that I have first-hand experience of military life and operations comes through in the book.  I served as the Deputy Team Leader of the UN Military Observer team in Mostar during the Bosnian war where I experienced first-hand what it felt like to be shelled and shot at.  I also served for over three and a half years in Northern Ireland and based many of the characters in England’s Janissary on members of the RUC and Royal Irish Regiment that I came into contact with.  It also helped that my brother was an inspector in the Metropolitan Police so I based some of the characters on policemen I met through him as well.

What tips would you give any non-fiction authors looking to make the move into novel writing?

I think I would repeat the advice that I was given by an author friend when I decided to write historical fiction. Don’t write history with a bit of a story, tell a story with historical background.

England’s Janissary is out now in hardback.

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