Blog 97 21/05/2020 A LITERARY WORLD: An Interview with JJ Toner
Blog 97 21/05/2020 A LITERARY WORLD
An Interview with JJ Toner
My guest today is JJ Toner, an author I’ve known for a few years now as we both share a passion for writing about WWII. JJ is a man with a fascinating background. He lives in Wicklow, south of Dublin, and for 35 years, he worked with computers, first as a petroleum geophysicist, then with medical and veterinarian scientists, accountants, engineers, and in a variety of industries, from health care through manufacturing to shipping. His work took him all over Europe, and yet he still found the time to marry, build a home, father three kids, and get his golf handicap down to single figures. This background has stood him in good stead for his books.
Welcome to A Literary World JJ, when did you decide to become an author?
I’m a mathematician. I worked in computers for over 30 years. I had always dabbled in writing, but it wasn’t until I lost my job in 1995 that I began to work at it seriously. My most successful book, The Black Orchestra, took six years to write. It went through three professional edits and 27 major revisions.
What are your novels about and where are they set?
Most of my books are WW2 spy stories. They are about a junior member of the Abwehr (German military intelligence) who stumbles across the German Resistance and joins them. The books are all set in Europe, mostly Germany, England and Ireland.
What is it that inspires you to write about WWII?
Can you tell us about your latest novel?
I have a new novella, Liberation Berlin, that was released on May 5 along with five others in a collection called The Road to Liberation. This book of books commemorates the ending of the war in Europe. It’s an outstanding collection.
My last three published books feature a German Kommissar (Inspector) of police in Munich before the war. His name is Kommissar Saxon. The series starts in 1933 when Hitler came to power. Saxon finds his detective work impeded and obstructed by the SS, who are systematically taking over all police functions in the country. Saxon’s wife, Ruth, is Jewish. She cannot believe that the Nazis will inflict any long-term harm on the German Jewish community.The third of these books, The White Knight, is set in Berlin during the 1936 Olympic Games. Saxon is put in charge of sanitizing the city and providing security for the Olympic Village.Then Jesse Owens receives a death threat…
What sort of research did the stories require?
A lot. I read a lot of fiction and non-fiction about the period. I also visited Lisbon, Munich and Berlin and toured the Olympic Stadium.
Are the characters based on real people?
Some of my characters are real people like Hitler, Himmler, Heydrich. The main characters are pure inventions.
What is the most challenging aspect of writing about WWII?
Probably avoiding the worse excesses of the Nazis. I like to tell an exciting spy story where the horrors are touched on but without wallowing in them. Of course, the ever-present threat of the Gestapo keeps the tension high.
Do you think fiction helps us understand the past?
I hope so. For the most part, my historical fiction is embedded in real events. I know there are many who don’t agree with my premise, but the German Resistance movement did exist – the Gestapo dubbed them The Black Orchestra – led by the senior members of the Abwehr. All of these men, from Admiral Canaris, Generalmajor Oster, and the colonels who headed up the main sections of the organisation worked actively against the Nazi regime throughout the war.
What is your favourite WWII movie?
I whittled it down to three: Schindler’s List. The Longest Day. The Great Escape.
Do you have a favourite piece of WWII film music?
The theme from the movie Where Eagles Dare.
When you’re not writing, what do you do? How do you like to chill out?
Editing the books of other indie authors keeps me busy. For relaxation, I used to play a lot of golf; nowadays I watch a lot of golf on TV. I read a lot.
Who are your favourite authors?
Douglas Adams, Patrick Süskind, Marion Kummerow, Robert Harris, Mick Herron, David Corley, John le Carré, Graham Greene, John Steinbeck
Pierre-Auguste Renoir. I’m saving up to buy one of his works.
Favourite piece of music?
I tend to latch onto one piece at a time and put it on repeat, much to the chagrin of my significant other. At the moment it’s: I Want to Know What Love Is by Foreigner
What’s next for you?
I’ve been ruminating over a fifth book in the Black Orchestra series. All I have so far is an idea. It will take a few more months to develop an outline. I also have plans to write a series of science fiction thrillers which I should have started by now.
Excerpt from The White Knight
On Sunday morning, Herr Püttner knocked on his door and told him there was a telephone call for him. He followed Püttner to the lobby. The hotel man pointed to a coin-operated telephone in a wooden booth. Saxon picked up the receiver.
“Saxon? This is Rudolf.”
It took a moment to remember who this was: Rudolf Marcus, Ruth’s cousin in Austria.
“Rudolf, what can I do for you? Is Ruth there?”
“Ruth and Samuel went out for a walk. I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk with you. How’s the job going in Berlin?”
“It’s going well, thank you. How have you been getting on with Ruth and Samuel?”
“That’s why I’m calling,” said Rudolf. “This apartment is rather too small for two adults and a small child. I wondered how long Ruth and Samuel will need to remain here.”
Saxon felt the blood drain from his face. “We have no definite plans,” he replied. “You must know how difficult it is for Ruth and Samuel in Germany at present. I was hoping that they could stay with you as long as necessary.”
Rudolf’s voice hardened. “What does that mean?”
Saxon had no answer to that. “Have you spoken to Ruth about this?”
“We have had some conversations, yes, but her answers are always vague. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy to accommodate them for a while, but I was hoping for an indication as to how long things will continue as they are.”
A bead of sweat formed on Saxon’s forehead. “Would it help if Ruth paid a small rent?”
Rudolf’s voice rose. “It’s not a question of money, man. Ruth pays for her groceries. Haven’t you been listening?”
“I understand, Rudolf.”
Rudolf moderated his voice again. “I am a bachelor, Saxon. I’m used to my solitude. I’m sure you understand. And I was happy to come to Ruth’s aid when she needed me. But it’s been six months now, and there’s no end in sight. I’m not sure if you are aware how small my apartment is.”
The call ended shortly after that. Saxon swore quietly as he replaced the receiver with a greasy hand. Rudolf would have obtained the hotel’s telephone number from the Berlin directory. He wondered whether Ruth had given him the name of the hotel or whether Rudolf had stolen a look at Saxon’s letter to her.
Thank you for sharing your time with us on A Literary World JJ. I particularly enjoyed the insight into the Abwehr and the German double agents and look forward to reading more of your books. I have already started The Road to Liberation and enjoying it immensely. As for your favourite films, I would have to agree with you there, particularly Schindler’s List. On behalf of my readers, I wish you continued success with your writing. And don’t forget to make time for a spot of golfing.