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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author John H. Bunney talks about the inspiration behind his new book, Eltham Lodge, and his writing process.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed John H. Bunney about his life and career, what inspired him to write his new book, Eltham Lodge, and his creative writing process.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I grew up in Edinburgh in a somewhat unusual professional household. My father was a celebrated musician and for 50 years Master of the Music at St Giles’ Cathedral where inter alia all the Royal State services in Scotland were held. My mother was a leading Dermatologist whose later research into the cytology of carcinogenic genital warts led directly to what we know today as the identification and treatment of the HPV.
After University (Oxford) and a couple of post-graduate gap years teaching English as a foreign language in Senegal, I joined the Foreign Office where I served for 30+ years. I became a trained Arabist (speak it, read it, write it) and spent the great majority of my years working in or on the Middle East. I retired from “the Office” in 2000 and took up an Advisory job in Vienna for the Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – the “world’s nuclear policeman”. On return from there, I set up a small consultancy services company dealing principally but not exclusively with Middle East clients.
One of the underlying themes of my non-professional life has been golf which I have played since I was about thirteen. In the 1980s, I was elected a Member of the Royal Blackheath Golf Club – an originally Scots exile club that is the oldest in England and one of the oldest in the world. This leads us conveniently to the answer to your second question.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I still remember the impact that my first sight of the Lodge made on me – and does to this day. I wanted to know about it but everyone who I thought ought to know didn’t and what I did get was conflicting and unreliable. The only consistent feature was grumbling from Committee Members about the cost of maintaining this Grade 1 listed building – an obligation imposed under the terms of the lease from the Crown Estate.
So when in 2008 we were about to celebrate 400 years of golf being played on Blackheath which overlapped with my election as Captain, I thought I had better do something about completing the history of the Club by writing about its present home. So began my researches.
When did you take a step to start writing?
Essays at school and University, then thirty years of Foreign Office drafting meant that I had got language and the discipline of writing clearly under the belt years before I started writing the book.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
From first detailed outline in 2009 until publication in 2021. Work on the Eltham Lodge book had often to be parked for lengthy periods because of work or other priorities so I really only got down to it seriously again around 2018 when I was scaling back on my business activities.
How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?
I started work on my present book – a biography of “Aunt Ben” one of the remarkable characters to emerge from the book on the Lodge – in late 2021. It is now being gone over by my “unofficial” Editor to check that it is fit for purpose. I await that professional expert opinion with bated breath since it is 270+ pages of effort.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Eltham Lodge?
As with the Eltham Lodge book, the absence of primary sources has been a major challenge. Another challenge has been that many of the characters are West Country non-Conformists. This means that while birth and most death records are there, there are often gaps about marriages and subsequent children.
What was your research process for Eltham Lodge?
Painstaking slogging through all the usual Open Sources with rigorous cross-checking a “factual” statement.
How did you plan the structure of Eltham Lodge?
A real challenge. I changed things around a lot because in essence our leading lady, Aunt Ben, does not hit centre-stage until the middle of Act 2.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Eltham Lodge need?
Yes. From two expert sources who were my informal editors for the Lodge book followed by the formal editing process with my publisher and the team. For that book, the editorial changes were few – mostly to clarifications and the removal of redundancies. There were very few, if any, asks to make substantive changes. The process did provide an interval during which I took a fresh focus on some passages, re-shaping – and I believe improving them.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?
In non-fiction, be sure that the chosen subject matter will bear the weight of the detail and that the result will engage the reader and retain their attention. It also helps greatly to feel very comfortable with your use of language.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
Apart from the biography – still work in progress, I am toying with the challenge of a different genre - Historic Fiction. That book might be based around the British businessmen working out of the European trading houses set up under the Hanseatic League system – such as the Shaw’s business in Antwerp of the British “Factories” in Portugal were. These were in effect early Free Ports but they were dominated by individual Merchant Venturers not by Corporates.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
The Lodge book is something that I am inordinately proud of. I am hugely grateful to my publisher and designer who have produced what anyone who has picked the book up has said “Now that’s a real book”.
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