So, did you ask the ex-IRA gunman if he’d ever killed anyone?
- Credit: Sarah Lucy brown
Would you seek help from a former IRA gunman jailed for life for attempted murder? Felixstowe’s JM Hewitt did, for her book The Hunger Within
It must have been the strangest of summers. Jeanette Hewitt was writing a novel about The Troubles in Northern Ireland and, specifically, the hunger strikes by imprisoned IRA men that left 10 of them dead. Determined to be absolutely accurate in what she wrote, she sought help from the men who knew best. Those who’d refused food and were prepared to die for their cause.
Some were gone – including Bobby Sands, leader of the 1981 hunger strike – but there was a man who’d been brought back from the brink of death. And he was willing to talk.
Laurence McKeown was 20 when arrested, jailed for life and sent to the Maze. He’d joined the IRA in 1973. Forty years ago, in the summer of 1976, he stepped from a hedge in County Antrim and fired off a clip of bullets at a Royal Ulster Constabulary Land Rover.
Though no-one died, an officer was slightly hurt by a ricocheting bullet.
“In the late seventies, he joined the ‘blanket’” – no clothes worn – “and no-wash protests in the Maze prison, and in 1981 he took part in the hunger strike in which 10 men died,” Jeanette says.
How did she feel when he said he’d help with background information for The Hunger Within? Elated, she admits. Sending her email, she’d hoped to get an insight into what it was actually like during those hunger strikes. In return, McKeown sent not typed replies but audio recordings, “so I listened to him telling me in person, in his own voice, about all of his experiences.
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“These went back and forth over the summer, and when I listened to him describing himself being just one day away from death, I felt oddly emotional.
“It became a real opportunity to learn the story from the other side, and it wasn’t so black and white anymore. It wasn’t a case of right or wrong. It was just listening to a man telling me his story and his reasons why.
“When these prisoners were close to death, the power of attorney passes to their next of kin. Laurence’s mother chose to instruct the medical staff to force feed him against his wishes, thus ensuring his survival.
“There was a very no-nonsense approach to this, which Laurence described to me in a conversation he had with his mother. ‘You do what you have to do, I’ll do what I have to do,’ she told him, I imagine in a typically Irish manner.
“In time I came to know Laurence a little better; how he educated himself in prison, for example. He sent me a copy of his doctoral thesis for help in my research, and he answered every question that I had with a combination of straight talking and a wicked sense of humour.
“For me it was never a case of me thinking ‘You were in the IRA so I despise you’. I never had my own political angle on this particular war. In my mind it was to be an unbiased account of the consequences of a certain group of people.
“As for bottling any questions, I asked everything, some of them extremely personal, and to his credit Laurence answered every single one. The strikes were so raw and honest, and as their weapons the men used their most personal bodily functions.
“There was no sense in being coy, because the strikes – both hunger and ‘no wash’ – were anything but. They were brutal, dark, bleak and almost animalistic, and I hope that comes across in the novel.”
Did she ask if he’d killed anyone?
“I did not; and actually, from the timeline I know of, he joined the IRA in 1973 and was arrested in 1976, and with much of that spent in training and then on the run, I don’t think there were any actual killings that Laurence would have been responsible for.
“Perhaps I am wrong, but Laurence has literally given me his life story, and I am confident that he wouldn’t have not told me.”
Does she know why he agreed to talk?
“From the impression I get, Laurence is still, thirty-plus years later, keen to get his side of the story across.
“Laurence is very much in the public eye to this very day, but in a totally different capacity than the way he was in his youth. Laurence is a playwright, with his own Belfast-based theatre company which was founded in 1994. He is very up on world affairs; just a couple of months ago he was visiting Robben Island, the infamous prison where Nelson Mandela was held for so long.
“Laurence is keen to talk, not only about the IRA but all historical events. He is still a voice – only these days, rather than using forms of protest, he is channelling his opinions through the arts.”
What effect does she want The Hunger Within to have on readers?
“With most of the historical elements of 1980s Northern Ireland, it centres on the men. The hunger strikers and protestors, the gunmen, even the British Army who were drafted in... is all about the men. Which is as it should be, because these were the guys who were in the thick of it.
“But it got me to thinking: what were the women doing while their sons and husbands and brothers were off with their extra-curricular activities? So I wanted The Hunger Within to be mostly told from a female perspective. My protagonist is Bronwyn, a young woman married to an active member of the IRA. Another central character is Rose, a Catholic woman who is secretly dating Connor, a Protestant; and Connor’s mother, Mary, who lost Connor’s Catholic father in an attack two decades before.
“The only male point of view in the book comes from Danny, Bronwyn’s husband, as he details his life from his arrest through to the hunger strikes that he participates in.”
So: where does Jeanette stand on the IRA’s decision to use violence in its campaign for what it saw as justice?
“It’s an interesting question, certainly. Because we are all raised being told ‘violence doesn’t solve anything’. Ideally, this would be the case the whole world over. But it’s not.
“Personally I applaud those who push for a change that they really believe in. Take the recent case of the abortion law in Poland, and the turnout in the form of protest marches and work strikes in over 60 cities across the country.
“But I understand that doesn’t entirely answer your question… Before I sat down to write The Hunger Within, I told myself that I was writing from an entirely non-personal point of view. What I wanted to encapsulate was how my characters felt about the situation from conflicting viewpoints, and I hope I have managed that.”
It’s been a year to remember for Jeanette – or JM Hewitt, as she’s known on the crime suspense scene. Actually, make that a crazy 18 months.
Much of 2015 was spent working on her crime fiction debut, Exclusion Zone. It’s set in Chernobyl – the town, then part of the Soviet Union, devastated by the 1986 nuclear plant disaster.
With no law enforcement personnel willing to enter the exclusion zone, the story runs, a spate of murders goes almost unnoticed.
Realising it needed to be out there in the spring of 2016, for the 30th anniversary of the disaster, she sent an unfinished manuscript to publishers, vowing she’d be able to complete it in time but never expecting anyone to call her bluff. In the middle of November, 2015, Endeavour Press did.
Which is how she found herself juggling her conventional job with the imperative to write 6,666 words a week in six weeks.
And she did it, with a good couple of weeks to spare. Exclusion Zone was launched last spring.
Mind you, there was little time to rest. Last Boxing Day, she started to write the second book in the private investigator Alex Harvey series – while the characters were still fresh in her mind.
Here’s a secret. Sort of. The Hunger Within is a reincarnated version of a story written many moons ago and then called Freedom First Peace Later.
About 10 years ago Jeanette had had two novels published after being offered a contract by a small independent publisher. But nothing much happened after that, so she returned to her computer and wrote a novel called The Intelligence of Ravens, based on the separation of a Jewish Polish family during the Second World War. It was tucked away – a story waiting for its moment in the sun.
Then, the summer just gone, she got back the rights for those initial two books, and Endeavour Press offered a contract. The Hunger Within was rewritten, rebranded and re-released.
And just to prove that good news comes in threes – if you’re fortunate – she also had a “contemporary shocker” included in a new anthology of horror short-stories called Twisted50 just a few weeks ago.
Jeanette’s a huge horror fan. She suspects she got hooked when allowed to watch Nightmare on Elm Street at the age of 11.
Look away now if you don’t want to learn that her short story is about a woman who wakes up in a basement, restrained and chained. No more details from me – I’m squeamish – but its title is Fingers. That’s all I’m saying.
A pretty productive year or 18 months, then, for an author dreaming of doing well enough to write full-time and cracking film and TV. In the short term, there’s certainly more to come.
Presumably, though, Christmas 2016 will be a little less manic than the lead-up to the 2015 version, when she had to finish and polish Exclusion Zone? “Ha! Well, it will be a little less manic, though once again I am on a deadline for The Eight Year Lie, which I have to hand in on New Year’s Eve. The end is in sight, however, so maybe over the festive period I’ll relax a little more than I did last year.
“Work begins straight away again, though. I plan to dust off and polish up the original manuscript of The Intelligence of Ravens…”
Postscript: I told Jeanette to feel free to use my time-consuming questioning as an excuse if that December 31 deadline started to look in danger. “Fortunately not necessary,” she emailed on Thursday afternoon. “I completed the whole manuscript yesterday!”
* The Hunger Within is published by Endeavour Press at about £5.99, paperback.
The JM Hewitt story
Raised in Ipswich
Went to Chantry High School
Dad is a plasterer
Mum a specialist dementia nurse
Maternal grandfather was from Poland. He flew with the Polish Air Force and during the Second World War escaped from an Italian prison camp, made his way to England and joined the British air force
Jeanette lives near Felixstowe with partner Darren
She works at an HGV service centre
‘The job is demanding and very full-on. I do have plot and character ideas at any given moment, so I carry a notebook and scribble notes all the time’
Darren is incredibly understanding, she says. ‘For all of December last year, while I worked to an almost impossible deadline, he never complained about the microwave meals or how for four weeks he only saw the back of my head as I bent over my computer keyboard’
Choose five words to describe yourself: ‘Positive, resourceful, organised, determined and happy’
Potted biography time!
I was born in 1978 and raised in Ipswich. I went to Sprites Infant and Junior School and then on to Chantry High.
My father is a plasterer and has been for over fifty years. Plasterers with as much experience and knowledge as him are in demand, and despite being 70 years old next year, and many attempts that he’s made to retire, he keeps being called back to work.
My mother is a specialist dementia nurse, and has worked in the private mental health sector for around thirty years. My brother lives in Stowmarket with his wife and children. He is very talented musically, and he is also an interpreter for deaf and mute people.
My grandfather on my mother’s side was from Poland. He flew with the Polish Air Force and during the second world war he was interned in an Italian P.O.W camp. He escaped, made his way to England, and joined the British Air Force.
He was unable to locate his family back in Poland, and I recall so vividly from my childhood letters and correspondence back and forth from the forces’ records, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross; anybody who might be able to help us locate the missing family, or at least find out what happened to them.
My grandfather actually died when my mum was only nineteen years old, but my mother’s family never stopped looking. The age of the internet came about, and there became more options to seek missing family members.
In 2005 I received an email, it was written in Polish, and attached was a photograph of a man I knew was my grandfather. There was a telephone number, which we called, and spoke to a woman of around my own age. Her name was Dorota; her grandmother was one of my grandfather’s sister’s.
More than fifty years after the end of the war, we had finally found our family. Dorota was of my generation, and she had moved to England. It was bittersweet when my mother and her sister visited Poland for the first time and were able to present to my grandfather’s sister’s the medals he had been awarded for service during the war.
I grew up with this; my parents taught me historically iconic moments all the time. I knew everything about the Holocaust before I even started school, and I’m certain that is where my love of world events comes from, and why I’m so inclined to pepper my own novels with far flung locations and historical events.
I have the papers that my grandfather, and then, later, my mother, kept so meticulously over the years, and through these and the missing years that have now been filled in my our reunited family, I’ve been able to work out a lot of history.
My grandparents’ tale is quite an epic one, and I know in my heart it’s a story that I’ll one day be telling in a fictionalised account in one of my own novels.
What have you done, jobwise?
Since I was ten years old I’ve wanted to be a published author, so though I’ve been in full-time employment since the age of sixteen, career progression has never been high on my list. Writing was my goal, and it’s taken many, many years to get to the level of success that I am enjoying.
Where do you live?
Around ten years ago I moved from Ipswich to Felixstowe to move in with my partner, Darren. Three years ago we moved to the village of Trimley Saint Mary, and I can honestly say I can’t ever see us living anywhere else. Living on the cusp of the countryside but still so close to the shore, coupled with a train link to London, we really do have the best of both worlds.
Did you read and write much as a child?
As a child, and still indeed now, I read constantly. I devoured books until I’d read everything in my age group in the library, and then I turned to my mother’s bookcase. There I discovered Catherine Cookson, Lena Kennedy and Jeffrey Archer, and so my reading ability made a big leap because of this.
I believe it was because of the fact I’d read all of the books in my age group that I decided I would have to write my own. I was always writing stories. At age sixteen I was sending submissions out to literary agencies, which of course were rejected, but I still kept going.
My favourite books as a youngster were Stephen King. I was probably reading them way before I should have been, and he remains a firm favourite to this day. Reading is like a hunger; I read around sixty books a year, and thanks to the digital age of the Kindle, as well as bookcases that are full to bursting, I’m never without a book on the go.
Memories are also stored within the pages, for me. I recall where I was when I read a certain novel, and one of my most prized possessions is the book The Bronze Horseman, a novel which my grandmother was reading when she sadly died. It still has her bookmark in the exact page that she was reading when she passed away.
When did you start giving writing “a proper go”?
Around ten years ago I had my first two novels published. I was offered a contract by a very small, independent publisher. I signed on the dotted line, handed over the completed manuscripts and sat back. And then, nothing really happened and after a while I returned to the computer to write another novel that had been building in my mind for a while. This novel was called The Intelligence of Ravens, and was based around the separation of a Polish, Jewish family during World War II.
My protagonist, Dorota, is sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp and her brother, David, makes his escape from the ghetto to the underworld of London’s Soho, where he finds work in the Windmill Theatre.
In July 2015 I entered The Intelligence of Ravens in the BritCrime Festival competition. BritCrime is a group of fifty British crime writers, (and one American!) and under the guidance of creator Helen Smith, these authors had come together to create a free online crime fiction festival that everyone could attend via the internet.
The prize for winning this competition was an assessment of my manuscript by a top London literary agent. On July 14 I spotted that the aforementioned literary agent had started to follow me on Twitter. What did this mean? Was I a winner? Was I finally on my way in this industry? I was at work when I saw the Twitter clue, and I frantically emailed my partner to tell him. In his usual, mild manner he calmed me down. ‘She might just like your work,’ he said. ‘Don’t get overexcited until you know.’
‘Pfffffft!’ Was my reply, as I waited impatiently for news.
At 11.29 I received an email from the agent. I had won. I screamed. I even cried a little bit, because when you get noticed by someone of that calibre, it means something. I wasn’t sure what it meant at the time, but I knew it was something.
At the end of July I received my critique back from the agent. It was positive, my writing was strong, but if I wanted to head down the road of crime fiction, The Intelligence of Ravens just wasn’t crimey enough. It was more ‘historical fiction’. But I’d been handed an opportunity; I was now on the radar, and I had to act fast if I were to stay in people’s minds. I had to write a real crime fiction novel, and I had to do it while my name was still being bandied around the industry.
I had an idea. I’d had it for a while, created in my mind from a single sentence: what if terrible crimes were being committed in a place that the law enforcement refused to go? That was the beginning of Exclusion Zone, and the location was Chernobyl.
I began writing immediately, and as I researched the site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, I realised the 30th anniversary of the explosion that rocked the world was only nine months away. Chernobyl and the ongoing issues from the nuclear fallout were always in the news, and I imagined the 30th anniversary would be a big deal. Could I write a novel, find a publisher and release the book in nine months?
Of course I could!
And I did.
In the summer of 2016 I gained my rights back from my previous publisher for my two first novels. Endeavour Press offered a contract on both, The Hunger Within (previously Freedom First Peace Later) has been completely rewritten, rebranded and rereleased in October 2016.
Regarding sacrifices, some have had to be made, but when you’re working at something that you completely and utterly love, they don’t matter. I changed my hours at work, arranging to have Wednesday afternoons off to write, and Saturdays and Sundays are not days of rest. I surround myself with people who get this, my partner, Darren, is incredibly understanding. For all of December last year while I worked to an almost impossible deadline, he never complained about the microwave meals or how for four weeks he only saw the back of my head as I bent over my computer keyboard. He is also very driven and a very hard worker, so he really is empathetic and considerate.
Why did you want to write about Chernobyl?
To me it’s the most fascinating piece of living history. A land, that’s only four hours away from England, that nobody can live in again, ever! I will never cease to be amazed by the things I discovered during my research, not only about the events immediately after the explosion, but what has happened in the three decades since. The cover-ups, the unexpected thriving of the wildlife, the birth defects and the radiation that still shows up as far away as Sweden.
Interesting to read some details of your horror story…! You don’t strike me as a dark and brooding person.
Ah, I am a big horror fan. It was probably sparked in me when I was reading Stephen King before I even reached my teens. It progressed into other areas; films among others. Because the imagination to produce a horror story, either in book or film, is fantastic.
In 1984 Wes Craven managed to tap into our worst nightmare; a boogieman who comes for you in your dreams and if he kills you in your sleep, you wake up dead for real. It’s the ultimate urban legend, the one that is passed around the playground, and when the opportunity came to write a short horror story for a new anthology, I really wanted to give it a go. Mentally I went back to the playground to recall the horrors we would whisper to our friends. I was so pleased when my story was picked to appear in the anthology.
Tell us about partner Darren.
I met Darren around fourteen years ago when we were introduced by my best friend, who is incidentally his cousin. We are very suited; in our personalities we are rather laid-back, but in our work and what we want to achieve we are both very driven.
Despite being together for fourteen years, the tail end of 2015 moving into 2016 was mutually our best year. Around the same time as I was offered a contract for Exclusion Zone, he was made a director of Searon Logistics, a haulage firm in Felixstowe. Both his achievement and mine were what we had been working towards as long ago as when we got together, so to reach our goals at the same time was uncanny and just perfect timing.
What of the future?
It has always been my goal to be a full-time writer. It takes a while - years, really - to build up enough books to be able to contemplate leaving behind a monthly guaranteed paycheque. There are a lot of different aspects to aim for, also, rather than simply writing novels. Many of my friends have had their book rights optioned for film or TV, and of course there are the foreign rights, all of which I am certainly aiming for!
Are you a bit driven? Do you know why?
Why? That’s a really interesting question. This is an ambition I have had for 20-plus years, and it is strange, because most childhood dreams usually fall by the wayside when you grow up and face the challenges of adulthood. This dream has never faded, and I’m so pleased for that, even though I can’t fully explain it!