In “Pursuit” of a Dream by John McAllister

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It’s a pleasure to welcome John McAllister back to the site today. My first experience with John’s writing was in the anthology Requiems for the Departed (2010), which features his short story “Bog Man,” a wonderfully atmospheric murder investigation set in the lowlands of Iron Age Britain. John then disappeared off my radar for a few years, before roaring back with a vengeance with the Sergeant John Barlow novels, The Station Sergeant (2013, Portnoy Publishing) and Barlow by the Book (2015, Portnoy). John’s latest, Pursuit, is out now, and not a moment too soon considering it’s a book that has been rattling around John’s head in one form or another since it was first started way back in 1994. I’ll let John take it from here.

In “Pursuit” of a Dream by John McAllister

“This book is violent, very, very violent. I can’t see why anyone would want to write a book like this.”

So wrote a publisher’s reader, a member of the ‘blue rinse’ (ladies of a certain age) brigade when, rather unwisely, I sent an early version of Pursuit to a boutique publisher about the year 2000.

No, 2000 is not a mistype. Pursuit, as now published, has gone through at least twelve major rewrites. When I say ‘rewrite’ I don’t mean moving a few commas and checking the spelling. I mean major characters have become minor or disappeared altogether. Minor characters are now the main players. Whole chunks of plot has been introduced and then deleted: Paul (the intended victim) no longer uses his accountancy skills to save his employer’s business nor does he have to fend off his employer’s amorous wife. About 40,000 words of Scotland Yard’s involvement in the story has come and gone. Gone but not deleted. I have this idea…

Anyway, I started writing Pursuit in 1994. At a time when Northern Ireland, where I live, was in the middle of its Troubles and I had lost count of the number of times my business premises had been bombed. Living through that period taught you humor and hope. If you didn’t laugh, you’d go mad. And hope that someday it would all end.

So I wrote of my dream: of peace, of having our own parliament back, with our own Prime Minister and MPs, even if they did fight and squabble on the steps of Stormont, our parliament building. Paul was a disgraced (framed) MP, fresh out of jail and travelling in England with his dog. A greyhound of course. The “of course” because I’m a doggy McAllister from Ballymena. One of my Uncle Jack’s greyhounds, Hi There, is in the American Hall of Fame.

In the first draft, Paul had various adventures during his travels and somewhere near the end he gets entangled with Northern Ireland terrorists and Scotland Yard, and manages to clear his name.

An agent with Curtis Brown liked the story and hawked it around some publishers without any luck. We all knew the book needed a severe rewrite and I hadn’t acquired the skills then to do that. The agent retired, his successor dropped me and I went on to other things with more success.

However Pursuit bugged me. This was one of my early children and I knew it had something serious to say about what had caused the Troubles and the resulting carnage. Over my desk came the despair of decent people as to why their businesses had been targeted for destruction. Perhaps even news of their illness or death caused by the Troubles. And the other stories. Of men paying $130 a week for the hire of a rusty saw, or of watching sub-contractors on a building site pay “insurance” for their employees, while a man from the “other” side waited at the gate to share the take.

The story evolved with the changing political climate. Everything is strictly post Troubles. I admit I never saw the Peace Process coming. Our Province is now ruled by two “First Ministers” not a “Prime Minister”, and we have MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly). However they do continue to squabble on the steps of the parliament building.

The lead characters changed as well. Paul is now second-tier, Jimmy was too predictable, but Doc…? Doc doesn’t mind killing people. In fact Doc gets twitchy when he hasn’t a target in mind.

In the book Doc has conflicting orders. He has been instructed by half of the (unspecified) Organization to trace Paul and kill him. However, the other half, led by Doc’s brother Jimmy, wants to interrogate Paul first. Paul proves elusive and, as frustrations build, the body-count mounts.

Then there are the women Doc should kill to maintain his professional integrity. The problem is, Doc has never yet raised a hand to a woman. But just in case you think Doc is a pushover. Doc is short for “Docker” and what he docks you wouldn’t like.

So maybe that long-ago publisher’s reader was right. The book is violent, very, very violent, BUT it is a story that had to be told.

John is married with two children. He is one of the “doggy” McAllisters from Ballymena, Northern Ireland. For almost three decades he worked weekends and holidays on his uncle’s farm, which had eighteen cattle and 70 greyhounds. His uncle’s trophy cabinet contained every major cup, including the English Derby. John’s “real” job was that as an Accountant in Practice in Northern Ireland through all of the recent Troubles. He lost count of the number of times his own premises were bombed – from a ‘good rattle’ to total wipe-out. People used laughter to get them through those darkest of times, a humour that is reflected in John’s writing.
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