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Interview: September 2010

September 2010

Johnny O’Brien makes his highly-anticipated return with the second installment of his Jack Christie series, DAY OF DELIVERANCE, which follows Jack and his buddy Angus as they travel back in time to stop Dr. Pendleshape’s latest plot to rewrite history: joining the Spanish Armada and assassinating Queen Elizabeth I.

In this interview with’s Usha Reynolds, O’Brien discusses the events that inspired Jack’s most recent adventure, elaborating on the appeal of counterfactual history and the differences between 16h-century Europe and the present day. He also sheds light on the qualities that help make Jack such a compelling and likable hero, unveils his plans for the rest of the series, and speculates on the authenticity of England’s most prominent playwright. DAY OF DELIVERANCE is a well-researched suspense novel that features time travel back to 16th-century London. What inspired you to set your story in this particular time period of English and world history?

Johnny O’Brien: It's a brilliant period of history --- not only do you have this amazing renaissance in creative art and thought, evidenced by the work of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Bacon and many others, but it is also a period of conflict and political intrigue. The English secret service was more or less invented by Walsingham during this period, and it was a time of military and religious contests. In fact, there was so much going on that it was difficult to know where to start! 

TRC: What is VIGIL’s interest in Jack? What are their long-term goals for him?

JOB: VIGIL sees Jack as a lever for controlling his father and the Revisionists. But they are also interested in Jack's abilities and see him as having an important future, supporting the VIGIL cause. But Jack increasingly has his own views, based on his own experiences of meddling in history. 

TRC: Dr. Tom Christie has fallen out with both the Revisionists and with VIGIL. Is there any hope for him and his son Jack to be reconciled, and perhaps work together towards a common goal in the future?

JOB: Deep down Jack is searching for a way for his father and the leadership of VIGIL to be reconciled. This reconciliation starts in earnest in Book Three, which is called DAY OF VENGEANCE and is set in France during the 1940s. But I'm afraid you'll have to wait for Book Four to see how the final reconciliation takes place!

TRC: Jack is not a typical dashing adventure hero, yet he makes a compelling and likable central figure all the same. What characteristics make him a good hero, in your opinion?

JOB: He's clever and resourceful, he's got a lot of fight for a “wee man,” and he thinks hard about “doing the right thing.”

TRC: Miss Beattie tells the boys that Shakespeare gave us “the essence of humanity.” Are you a fan of Shakespeare’s as well, and if so, which of his plays is your favorite and why?

JOB: I am no expert on Shakespeare, and I think that sometimes a lot of people get put off Shakespeare at school because of how it is taught and the inaccessibility of the language, which takes a bit of getting used to. But if you have a good teacher who can guide you through this, there is a whole world of invention and magic there. But I also like the idea that, at the end of the day, Shakespeare was probably in some ways just an ordinary guy, trying to make money in the hustle and dirt of late 16th-century London. Marlowe, who plays a bigger role in DAY OF DELIVERANCE, is in many ways even more interesting, probably because he was a double agent as well as a playwright and was murdered when he was only 27 years old. My favorite Shakespeare plays are The Tempest, just because it is weird, and Hamlet, partly because of the brilliant way Hamlet's character is drawn out --- angry, filled with angst, and all that good stuff.

TRC: Weapons and machinery, both ancient and modern, play a big role in this story. Do you have a particular interest in weaponry, or was it something you researched just for this story?

JOB: Yes, there was quite a lot research involved, but I really like the idea of putting the characters in these difficult and unusual situations and working out how they will get out of them. I think I took a few liberties in DAY OF DELIVERANCE, but hopefully no one minds too much! One of my favorite “machinery” bits is when Jack gets stuck in the gun on the HMS Dreadnought in DAY OF THE ASSASSINS --- that was why I had to make him reasonably small, and some of his character was driven by that…probably not the best way to define a character, but hey, once he was on the Dreadnought, I just had to put him in that gun!  

TRC: As a history teacher, what would you most want your readers to learn about the Elizabethan period? 

JOB: I think the best answer can be found in "Why History Matters," an essay published in THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR by William Cronon --- and kindly supplied by my friend Jamie Warren. He says, "What history should our children learn? They should learn what is not at all obvious to them: that people now long dead were once profoundly and passionately alive. They should learn that the past is the place from which we came, each of us arriving in the present via different pathways, even as we and our ancestors eventually found ourselves sharing (and sometimes fighting over) the common ground we now inhabit together. They should learn that the past is a foreign country, a land whose inhabitants made livings and spoke languages and held ideas far different than our own --- indeed, so very different that only a great act of historical imagination can help us see the distance we have traveled in our journey away from their time...Most of all, though, they should learn that the past was a place so vibrant and full of possibilities that one can spend one's whole life wandering its corridors without exhausting the stories and meanings it has to offer. They should learn that worlds gone by and now seemingly vanished nonetheless still haunt our own, and that we cannot hope to understand ourselves if we fail to remember the many contradictory lessons those ghosts hold out to us. They should learn that history matters." And this applies to the Elizabethan period in spades.

TRC: Can you talk a bit about the value of historical fiction as a way for people to learn more about history?

JOB: Historical fictions are a great way to get young people interested in history. I am a particular fan of the “what if” type of history, or counterfactual history to use the academic jargon. It’s a lot of fun to spot chance or minor things that could have made a big difference. History is a great subject that teaches invaluable skills, whatever job you end up doing.

TRC: Do you think life was harder 400 years ago than it was today? If given a choice, what place and time period would you like to live in?

JOB: Yes, it was a lot tougher then, but I guess expectations must have been very different as well. It gives me some comfort that the human race must have some pretty tough genes to have gotten through what it has!

TRC: How important was the real Battle of Gravelines to the downfall of the Spanish Armada and the eventual dominance of English naval power?

JOB: Although important, Gravelines was probably not as much of a key turning point as it is depicted being in DAY OF DELIVERANCE. The Armada campaign went on for many weeks, and it was fundamentally flawed in its inception, leadership and planning. The English had many advantages: superiority of tactics, ship design, gunnery and “home advantage.” In reality, the weather was what finished off the Armada, but the damage caused to the Spanish ships from Gravelines and the skirmishes before it meant that they were much more poorly prepared. A little known fact about the Armada is that many members of the English crew were treated badly despite the victory --- they were not paid and some starved --- whereas those Spaniards that did return were generally treated well by King Phillip of Spain.

TRC: In the book, Shakespeare’s prodigious output is explained by the fact that he purchased and edited other writers’ work rather than creating all of it from scratch. Is that an idea that has been presented before, or is that something you came up with for DAY OF DELIVERANCE?

JOB: It’s not a new idea, and there are loads of theories about who might have written Shakespeare's work. It is well known that, during the Elizabethan era, there was a lot of plagiarism and “borrowing” from other and earlier writers --- and Shakespeare was no exception.

TRC: Of all the London sites that Jack visits, do you have a particular favorite?

JOB: Hampton Court --- not really central London, but fantastic. Go there if you get the chance!

TRC: Where will Jack and Angus’s adventures take them next?

JOB: They are flying in a Spitfire to France in 1940. There, they will bump into Hitler during his famous visit to Paris following the French surrender, and will become embroiled with the Vengeance program, so hold on to your hats!