LitFest Digs Deep into the Mind of Local Author Rob Watkins

Interview by Tina Williams

Local author Rob Watkins has recently published his first novel, How to Kill a Minority Shareholder and get away with it. Last week one of LitFest’s committee members, Tina Williams, held a candid interview with Rob where she quizzed him on its publication, his writing and his future projects.

LitFest wishes Rob every success with the publication his first novel and hope to see him at our future events. You can read Tina’s review of the book here. For now though, over to Tina for the interview with Rob!

The title of this book really intrigued me from the off as did the synopsis as I am partial to tales where the underdog fights back and triumphs.  I invited Rob to tell us about himself and what prompted him to write it. Rob explained that although he has worked in many different roles throughout his working life – his current occupation is that of a painter and decorator, not once did he envisage that he would write a novel!

It is clear that the inspiration and compulsion for How to Kill a Minority Shareholder and Get Away with it was very much a personal one. Rob acknowledges that the first third of the story flowed from his experiences of witnessing someone very close to him suffer the crushing blow of having their successful career brought to an abrupt end, due to what he describes as the deliberate and questionable actions of others.

The novel’s main themes are pretty dark: greed, jealousy, bullying, mental cruelty, violence and revenge, reflecting human nature at its worst. When questioned further about these themes, Rob stated that he finds it difficult to comprehend how the legal system can do little to protect employees subjected to situations such as those experienced by Deb, the heroine of his novel. He stressed how he wanted the book to serve as a warning to those in the corporate world, so that they take any necessary steps to prevent a similar event befalling them.

Although the issues raised in the novel are serious ones, there is a great deal of humour peppered throughout, much of it dark. Rob stated that the final two thirds of the book, where the hero Bob begins to contemplate and exact his revenge upon his wife’s persecutors, allowed him more scope to introduce humour into the narrative.

One of my personal favourites is the passage where Bob dreams of exterminating his wife’s persecutors, in bloody technicolour glory! It comes at the point when I believed that those who destroyed the professional reputation and the life of Bob’s wife deserved to meet a grisly end!

Rob underlined how he enjoyed injecting humorous elements into his novel, believing it important to lighten the mood for the reader. The passage in the novel where Bob attempts (with comical consequences) to secure the pontoons in the Venice canal so that his victim is forced out of his water taxi and onto dry land was one of Rob’s favourite passages.

Rob maintained that he endeavoured to illustrate to the reader how and why Bob was spurred on by a desire to avenge the wrongs that had been done to his wife. Before reaching this point Bob had tried to seek assistance from every avenue available to man or woman; personal entreaties; legal assistance and media coverage, but to no avail. Indeed, events soon spiral out of control and lead him deeper and deeper into darker actions and questionable moral behaviour.

Rob stated that he was inspired by some of the scenes portrayed by the character William Foster played by Michael Douglas in the 1990’s film Falling DownI remember this film well and think that he succeeded in doing this perfectly. Throughout the novel I was constantly torn by the question of whether I believed Bob to be the hero or the villain of the piece! I will not say which side of the fence I opted for – you will need to read Rob’s work and navigate the moral dilemma it presents for yourself!

Rob Watkins - Author
Rob Watkins – Author

The metamorphosis that Bob goes through, from supportive husband to master avenger fascinated me and I was particularly interested in how adept Bob became at planning and executing the technical aspects of his ‘hits.’ Rob stressed that he tried to inject realism into his work, especially with regards to the systematic and ordered way Bob eliminated those who had wronged his wife. Rob explained that his penchant for crime thrillers helped to fire his imagination, particularly when it came to ensuring that Bob’s activities left no traceable clues for forensics to link him with a particular crime scene.

As much of the book was autobiographical Rob stated that he rarely experienced writer’s block. The challenge was not writing too much rather than too little. Rob reported that once he had the rough outline worked out, the main task was to weave the various elements of the narrative together, to create a book that offered an enjoyable reading experience but at the same time conveyed Rob’s message about how those in the corporate world should take care not to fall prey to the jealousy and greed of others.

Rob makes us look at our own friends and acquaintances and begs the question “how much would it take for the people you know and trust, and class as best friends, to betray and denounce you to get a share of the pie or increase the size of their slice?” Even when they know the “pie” is only there thanks to you? The answer, and how small the amount might be, may make you look at your closest friends and people around you in a new slightly sinister light and will shock even the most cynical of readers.

The book is Rob’s first published novel, taking four years to write, and I asked him if he had any experience of creative writing prior to penning it. Surprisingly, given the literary quality of the work, Rob stated that he had no prior experience, although he conceded that he has always been artistic, having attended art college in his youth.

Although the characters per se are purely fictional, they nevertheless reflect Rob’s own experiences of a lifetime of people watching! Rob is particularly well traveled, often to places off the main tourist map and writes with authority about a number of these far flung places in the novel. Thailand in particular features heavily, and it is there where he met a number of acquaintances who inspired many of the characters in the book, including the Lady Boy owner of the brothel and the expat ex-military personnel whose activities sail close to the wind!

Rob explained that as this was his first novel he wanted to find an established publisher, rather than self-publish, partly because he felt it would validate the book to himself and also because the world of publishing and book marketing was very much outside his realm of experience. He feels very fortunate in that he found a publisher in Book Guild (now part of the Troubadour publishing group) and a very supportive and enthusiastic editorial team.

What of Rob’s own reading material and future works? Rob’s favourite genres to read are sci-fi, fantasy and crime and thriller books, although he laments that since becoming a writer he does not have he chance to read as extensively as in the past. He confirmed that he has another work in the pipeline, also set in the corporate world, involving a character who is being blackmailed and set up to be the fall guy. This work he explains contains more humour, although it too deals with questionable morals and business practices. He hopes to progress this further at some point.

As to all the readers out there, Rob very much hopes that they have as much fun reading his novel as he had writing it; that they laugh and cry at what he writes and that they learn something from it.

Disclaimer: All the characters mentioned in the above interview and in the author’s work, How To Kill A Minority Shareholder and get away with it are purely fictitious.

How To Kill A Minority Shareholder And Get Away With It – Rob Watkins

Book review by Tina Williams

I am drawn to tales of where the underdog fights back and triumphs, and this gripping read fits the bill! It dramatizes how Bob, after witnessing how his wife’s business associates deliberately destroy her credibility and career, avenges her by making them pay with the ultimate price, their lives.

The first third of the novel illustrates how easy it can be for those in the corporate world to destroy the life and reputation of another human being. Bob’s wife, Deborah, a brilliant and successful businesswoman, has dragged herself up from her humble beginnings to reach top management.

How To Kill A Minority Shareholder

If Deb has a fault it is that she is too trusting of others. She is secretly resented by all around her, who use her to further their own careers, at the same time despising her for her competence and intellect. This hatred and jealousy goes so deep that one woman, the villain of the piece, Summer Ponsenbury actively sets out to destroy her, urging others to wield the knife on her behalf or sit passively on the side-lines.

In many regards, the reader is presented with a very negative version of the human condition, delving deep into greed, jealousy, bullying, mental cruelty, violence and revenge. Yet the read is not devoid of humour, albeit much of it dark! Bob’s metamorphosis, as he goes from supportive and angry husband to avenger extraordinaire is at the heart of the final two thirds of the novel and the author executes the narrative with flair.

It is up to the reader to decide whether or not the central character, Bob, is the hero or the villain of the piece. Many of the descriptions are very visual and this aspect coupled with the personal drama and humour make the book ideal for  TV adaptation.

The read will appeal to thriller readers who are looking for a satisfying read which delves deep into the psyche of its characters, is peppered with dark humour and which contains a serious message on human nature for us all.

Please note, a copy of the book was given to me by the author for the purpose of a fair and honest review.

Find the author on goodreads, Amazon and FaceBook.

Tina also interviewed Rob for LitFest. You can read the interview here.

Jo McMillan Reading

An Evening With Jo McMillan

By Tina Williams

Local author Jo McMillan addressed a packed Tamworth Town Hall on Monday evening, at the launch of her debut novel Motherland.

Jo, interviewed by LitFest Secretary Philip Hall, beguiled the audience, which included the Mayor of Tamworth, with her poignant, informative and often humorous recollections which inspired her to pen the partly autobiographical novel Motherland, which she touchingly described as ‘a love letter to my mum.’

Jo’s reminiscences drew on her experiences as the ‘only young communist in Tamworth’, her visits to East Germany whilst accompanying her mother, a passionate Communist Party member, and the profound personal impact the fall of the Berlin Wall had on her marriage, her relationship with her mother and her political beliefs.

As the novel is partly autobiographical part of Jo’s address focused on her own life experiences (the characters of Jess, the young girl in the novel and Jess’ mother Eleanor are based very much on Jo’ s own reminiscences). Moving to Tamworth from Hemel Hempstead with her mother in the 1970’s, Jo explained that she very much felt the outsider. She not only had to come to terms with a whole different vocabulary – ‘cobs’ instead of ‘rolls’ and ‘pumps’ instead of ‘plimsolls’, but more fundamentally had to contend with living where she was the only young communist in town.

School history lessons were particularly challenging, the version of the Cold War she was taught being at odds with the one championed by her beloved Communist Party. Whilst other girls in her year group entertained themselves by singing along to the latest hits from Top of the Pops, Jo regaled the audience with how she herself sang along to Communist Party songs from Nazi concentration camps and focused on how she might die heroically for the Revolutionary cause.

Jo McMillan
Jo McMillan – image courtesy of Rob Morgan

Keen to find kindred spirits, Jo explained how, through the pages of the Morning Star, she secured a number of pen pals from East Germany, one of whom she modelled the character of Martina on in Motherland (although as characters invariably do, Martina soon developed a will of her own as the plot unfolded).

Jo explained that Communism was in her family’s blood and that she joined the Young Communist League at a very young age, immediately being made Minute Secretary. She also attended the Communist Party Branch meetings in Tamworth, ran by her mother, meetings which were often so poorly supported that her own attendance was crucial in deeming them quorate.

Jo described her visits to East Germany, accompanying her mother who, at special invitation from the Ministry of Education, attended summer camps to teach German English teachers English. She remarked upon the beautiful surroundings of Potsdam and eating ice cream – to her, as a teenager Socialism seemed to have it all!

The fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 was a profound shock to Jo and her mum and represented a major turning point in her life. Jo explained how it brought both her dreams of a career as a party official and her marriage to a Party member to an abrupt end. It also drove a wedge between her and her mum: whilst her mum stayed in Berlin, in denial at the collapse of Communism, a disillusioned Jo remained in London, embracing all that Capitalism had to offer. Jo stated that she drew on her experiences of disillusionment with the Communist ideology in Motherland, through the character of Jess, but that in the book this disenchantment and Jess’ own rift with her mother Eleanor occurred before the fall of Communism in 1989.

Feeling that she had been sold a false promise, Jo ignored politics for a couple of decades. It was not until 2009 (the year after the financial crash indicating perhaps that Capitalism too was not a perfect ideology), when Jo broached the subject of her past with her mother, a past which Jo describes as feeling ‘almost dreamlike’, that the rift between mother and daughter began to heal. Jo explained that she recorded these discussions and when she read the transcripts the story that was to become the novel Motherland took shape. The pain of the past dissipated and the distance between mother and daughter was breached, the book being poignantly described by Jo as ‘a love letter to my mum.

Jo delivered three separate readings to the audience: the first where Jess is tasked by the Young Communist League to think about who are the peasants and workers in Tamworth; the second where Peter, a Party member visiting the UK from the East, is given a guided tour of Tamworth by Eleanor, Jess’s mum and the third where Jess’s mum moves out of Tamworth and does her final sale of Morning Star newspapers

There were a number of questions from the audience which gave rise to a lively discussion on the following themes:

Jo’s experiences of visiting Berlin after the fall of Communism:

Jo explained that in 2009, when she first visited Berlin to research Motherland, she initially found it extremely difficult to cross into the East, as her past was so tied up in what it represented. Once there, Jo explained how she was able to ‘become’ Jess and tried to think and believe as a teenager would when entering Communist East Berlin. Jo stressed that she had to try to ignore the fact that Capitalism had replaced the Communist ideology and the physical changes this had brought, so that she could immerse herself in the character. Jo sated that after travelling back and forth to Berlin, she now lives there.

The integration between the West and East Berliners:

Jo stated that she was not there when Communism fell but that her mother’s reaction was to immerse herself ever more fully in life in the East. The impression that Jo gained from others was that whereas many of the young embraced the fall of the Wall and Capitalism, celebrating the opportunities it gave them, the older citizens felt a great sense of loss. Jo stated that her mother remained in East Germany until the end of the 1990’s, when it became clear that Communism there had gone, she returned to the UK.

What Jo is currently working on:

Apart from publicising Motherland, which Jo informed the audience is to be translated into German and launched there in 2016, Jo stated that she has plans for another book, with a similar protagonist to Jess from Motherland, which draws on her experience of living in China.

Images from the evening: