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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Pieter Oomens talks about the inspiration behind his new book, And All Our Yesterdays.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Pieter Oomens about his life and career, what inspired his new book, And All Our Yesterdays, and his creative writing process.
Tell me a bit about who you are
I am an Australian who has settled in the UK. Not at all unusual you might say, except that I made this decision when in my sixties. My wife and I have two daughters who came to London in 2015 to study and have made it their home. My wife and I decided that we wanted to be where our children are. Something of a gamble of course but we thought, ‘Life is short, let’s just do it’. And so, we’re here. Great timing, but you can’t have everything.
I practised law for more than 40 years. I started in a small firm when I was straight out of university. In due course I became a partner and ultimately the firm’s managing partner. While the firm started small it grew to become a large specialist practice with offices in three states, representing clients nationally and internationally. My area of specialization was commercial litigation. I consulted to the firm after I sold my interest in the business and then set up a management consultancy focusing on law firms. But that also marked the time when I began to write – I mean write seriously – and once I started that, there was no turning back.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
My guilty secret is that I always, always wanted to be a writer. I know that there are plenty of people who have demanding careers and still find time to write but I couldn’t. For more than 40 years I was professionally committed to the law: developing my skills, running a department, marketing, mentoring, networking and then taking charge of the business.
I wrote short fiction for my children and travel stories, but these efforts were never intended for a wider audience beyond family and a few close friends.
When did you take a step to start writing?
I can tell you almost down to the precise time of the day. I was sitting on a balcony of an apartment overlooking Manly Beach in Sydney. I had in my mind the rough outline of the beginnings of a story, which ultimately became the novel And All Our Yesterdays. That morning, I had finished doing some work as part of my consultancy. It was a sunny day. I had nothing else to do but enjoy the view. I looked through the Norfolk pines to the waves beyond and said to myself, ‘If you don’t start writing this very minute. Don’t ever tell yourself that you could have been a writer.’
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
The idea had been in my head for a couple of years as I fantasized about what it would like to be a writer. Originally, I envisaged the narrative would largely take place in Bali following the mysterious death of a young woman. Then I began to think that I could do more with the plot and character development if I wasn’t distracted by the scenery. I started writing in March 2020. I finished the draft by June of 2021. I left it alone for a month or so and then revised it on and off until October 2021. It was then that I was satisfied. It was written at the time of Covid, but it is not a Covid book. The time had come for me to write.
What made you want to write And All Our Yesterdays?
I always wanted to write. That morning in March 2020, sitting on that balcony, with that view in front of me, I had run out of excuses not to write. As to the writing of this particular book, the starting point of how a down-at-heel writer who gets a chance to investigate and write about a mysterious death and reclaim his career, seemed to open up a whole lot of potential for my imagination.
What were your biggest challenges with writing And All Our Yesterdays?
Figuring out the answer to the ‘Why?’ question. Of all the questions you ask yourself (When? How? Where? etc) the ‘Why?’ question – at least for me – is the most interesting, and crucial. You want your characters to behave in a certain way so as to advance the plot. To do that you have to ask yourself, ‘Why would they do that?’ If you can’t find an answer that is believable you will be presenting the reader with something that is not convincing, which simply will not do.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
I have a particular distaste for central characters in thrillers who always seem to have all the answers, who always win the contests they’re in (both physical and mental), who never cease but to make sexual conquests and to do so with ease. Oh and yes, notwithstanding these extraordinary characteristics they often have some troubled mental or emotional hinterland. Maybe I’ve led a sheltered life, but I’ve never met anyone like that.
I wanted to have as the protagonist someone who was believable: someone who might not necessarily be the sort of person you meet every day, but not so far removed from normality as to be an obvious fantasy. In this case the protagonist is smart, sardonic, and flawed. He meets with intellectual and physical challenges, and he overcomes them, but not in any conventional way, and certainly not with a display of superhuman power.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
There are some nasty people in business and some of them use nasty people to do their dirty work. I wanted to show two sides of evil, the superficially smooth and the brutish. (Notice that I’m not giving anything away as to who the real baddie is.)
What is the inciting incident of And All Our Yesterdays?
Late one night, a down-at-heel writer who once had a big reputation is asked to investigate and write about the death of a young man who fell to his death from a second storey window at Sydney mansion. That engagement requires the writer to reflect on the murder of a woman on a struggling Outback farm decades before. His investigation of that murder, itself long after the event, made his name. But somethings happened in that earlier investigation that bear on what he is now about to do.
The inciting incident – the protagonist’s realization that what had occurred in the past would bear on the present – gives the reader the clue to the novel’s title, and the following line in the passage from which it comes: ‘And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death’.
What is the main conflict of And All Our Yesterdays?
There are of course several conflicts in the book, but they are all strands of the principal conflict. The protagonist becomes convinced that he has discovered that a case of death by misadventure was in fact murder. Violence and sexual intrigue are used to try and stop the protagonist finding out the truth. He believes that he has discovered the murderer but the elusive question, if he indeed is right, is why would that person take the step to murder an innocent young man.
Did you plot And All Our Yesterdays in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
A bit of both. I had the idea of how to introduce the historical crime, and the murder which is the immediate subject of the novel. I did not have a rigid plan for how to take the narrative beyond that. I began to ask myself lots of ‘Why?’ questions and came up with how I would end the story. So I had the beginning and the end. The fun was seeing how my characters would interplay so as to allow me to take the reader to the conclusion.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did And All Our Yesterdays need?
I received editing support from my publisher, Cranthorpe Millner, for which I am very grateful. It certainly helped me to refine the text and resolve any inconsistencies.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Don’t panic. You might have an idea for how to start a story but not know where that idea will lead. Just start writing. Don’t rush but do go as fast as your imagination will take you.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I’m about 45,000 words into a spy thriller. It features terrorist attacks and brutal reprisals. However, the resulting destablisation of a society is only incidental to the real purpose of the initial attacks. A foreign power – seemingly uninvolved – has something to be gained from this chaos.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Yes, I’m very proud of the book. It is the most fulfilling intellectual exercise that I have ever undertaken.
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