This interview is for the It Never Was You blog tour 04/25/13 – 06/15/13. It has been written by Mike Harris, William’s grandson and publisher. William is unable to contribute to such interviews because of his illness, so Mike is undertaking promotional work on his behalf.
William Edward Thomas was born in West London in 1925.
He left The Brompton Oratory School when he was 14 and started work as a messenger at the BBC. When war broke out, his mother insisted he left central London and went to work with his father at a factory in Harrow. While still a teenager, William joined the army and was soon recruited in to the parachute regiment. By the time peace had been declared in Europe in May 1945, he had been “dropped” in to a number of key battles and become a much decorated soldier. He was still only 19 years old.
Following the war, William served in Palestine until 1948.
He has always believed passionately that education leads to opportunity. He has studied part time for both a Bachelor of Science and a Bachelor of Arts degree and was one of the first students to enrol with The Open University.
William has six children. As they were growing up, he was working and studying in shifts as a merchant seaman and an engineer, working his way from factory shop floor to management. In his mid fifties, he decided to work full time as a lab technician at his Alma Mater, The Open University and remained there until his retirement. It was during his retirement that he decided to set himself the challenge of writing a novel. The Cypress Branches is the result.
William’s health started deteriorating shortly after finishing The Cypress Branches and he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2006. Shortly after the book’s launch in the summer of 2009, his health deteriorated to the point where he could no longer live at home. He is now cared for at a home in central Milton Keynes where he is visited on a daily basis by family and friends.
What inspires you to write?
William wrote his books partly as a project to keep himself occupied during his retirement, but also as an aid to exorcising some ghosts from his past. As a paratrooper, he witnessed first-hand some of the most appalling sights of the Second World War and its aftermath. After he was demobbed from the army, he saw much of the world as a merchant seaman.
But instead of writing his memoirs, like so many of a similar age do, William decided to be more creative and invented a set of characters to inhabit an epic love story set amongst some of the most dramatic and devastating events of the twentieth century, some of which he witnessed himself, others which had an impact on his life in other ways.
William’s experiences in the war (and in Palestine, where he was stationed in 1946-48) had a devastating effect on him, and he didn’t talk about what he’d seen for decades afterwards. He joined the army because he hated fascism and felt that there was no other way of defeating it than fighting. He wasn’t proud of what he had done – what he had been ordered to do – in the name of that fight, but knew that it had been necessary.
Writing the Cypress Branches trilogy helped William come to terms with the most troubling of his experiences and allowed him to express his feelings about how the war had affected both individuals and to the world.
Tell us about your writing process.
William wrote the Cypress Branches as one large volume in the early 1990s, just after he retired.
After buying himself a (then state of the art) word processor, he locked himself away in his study to begin writing the book. Day in, day out, he could be heard tapping away at the keyboard, pouring out a seemingly endless stream of words. He was incredibly disciplined, only taking a break to eat, sleep and share that day’s writing with his wife, my nan Sheila.
After two years of non-stop typing, he ended up with a 350,000 word epic! We were all astonished by what he had achieved.
When I first read the finished book, I asked William how he had done it. He explained that he simply started at the beginning with the prologue and two years later finished up with the epilogue. Surely he’d gone back over it and edited parts to make sure it all flowed, I asked. Apparently not – he told me that he’d known where the story would begin and where it would end, but had no idea how make his way from one to the other. But as he wrote, the plot became clear in his head as the characters acted out their scenes in front of him, and thankfully it all made sense.
For Fiction Writers: Do you listen (or talk to) to your characters?
My nan, William’s wife Sheila, vividly remembered many occasions during the writing period when William could be heard talking to his characters. Although talking is probably a tame word to use!
William explained that his characters became very real to him as he wrote them. He would write dialogue as he heard the characters talking to each other in a scene – almost as if he was secretly recording conversations he was over-hearing from across the room. To me, this makes a lot of sense, because I believe the dialogue is one of the strongest aspects of his writing.
There is a lot of comedy in the books, and every so often, a deep belly laugh could be heard from the study when he wrote a particularly funny scene or a character came out with a hilarious one-liner.
He became very attached to his characters. One occasion Sheila remembers vividly was when he suddenly appeared from the study, stormed down the stairs and clattered his way in to the kitchen, obviously distressed. When Sheila asked him what was wrong, he replied, “They’ve only gone and bloody killed him!” He was referring to a beloved character who meets a violent and unforeseen death. He must have seen it coming himself, but it must have still taken him by surprise, as he was distraught for some time afterwards.
What advice would you give other writers?
I’m coming at this project from an unusual point of view, as I’m not a writer myself. But I have interacted with many wonderful authors over the past year, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for them all. It’s a tough world out there for authors. Despite the fact that it’s now easier than ever to get your book into print, it’s probably harder than ever to find an audience, with so many other authors vying for attention!
My advice is this:
1. Be patient! Success is not going to happen overnight. It’s a long, hard slog to get your book into the hands of readers you know will love it. Don’t expect too much too soon…it will happen eventually if you work hard enough.
2. Help other authors to achieve success. Don’t think of other authors as your opposition – they are your allies! Contact other authors in your genre (and even those in others) and offer them a guest spot on your blog, or re-tweet their tweets. The indie author community is incredibly supportive and you’ll be amazed at how many will offer something in return.
3. Don’t give up! Don’t get despondent if at first your efforts come to little or even nothing. Not every tweet will go viral. A glut of sales can then lead to a drought. It will take time to build an audience, so just keep trying different things and keeping a constant presence online. Take the advice of others on board and keep going – it’ll be worth it in the end!
How did you decide how to publish your books?
I decided to publish my grandfather’s books because I knew there was a large audience out there who would appreciate them. They really are some of the best books I’ve read (and I’m a keen reader!) and it frustrated me that I couldn’t talk to anyone else about them because they weren’t published!
I decided to take the self-publishing route because of William’s illness. Alzheimer’s has taken away his ability to read, write and even communicate with his family, so it would be impossible for him to contribute to the inevitable editing process that would take place should the books be picked up by a conventional publisher. So, I decided to take on the task myself, vowing to stay as true to William’s original vision as I possibly could, and creating a series of books he would be proud of.
I am a trained copy-editor and proofreader, so felt comfortable taking on these jobs for William. Even though the books were very well structured already, and William had edited them once himself, they did contain a large number of mistakes which needed correcting, from spelling to grammar…and even an inconsistent name or two! It proved to me that however good a manuscript is, it will always need editing and proofreading, and it is always worth employing someone else to do it for you. You can’t do it yourself – you’ll be too close to the words to see the obvious mistakes!
What do you think about the future of book publishing?
I’m tremendously excited about the future of publishing. Over the past 10-20 years, we have seen a resurgence in reading which I can only see continuing. Whilst others are bemoaning the rise of the ebook and heralding the demise of the printed word, I see things very differently.
The ebook won’t see off the print book. Far from it, I believe printed books have a great future, and people will continue to read both on screen and on the page, so it is important that authors make their books available in both formats.
The ebook revolution has not only given authors a powerful new platform to exploit to their advantage, but they are also a great way for readers to discover new talent, which is what they’re doing in their droves.
William’s illness took away any chance he had of finding a publishing deal, and without the self-publishing revolution, his work would never have found the audience it deserves. Thanks to platforms such as Kindle Direct Publishing, Pubit and Kobo Writing Life, I’ve been able to put his books into the public arena, and for that opportunity I am extremely grateful.
What do you use?
Professional Editor, Beta Readers
What genres do you write?
Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
What formats are your books in?
Both eBook and Print