Quill and Quire

James Heneghan

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Humbly yours, James Heneghan

James Heneghan enjoyed the Second World War. And he can’t think of anyone at the time under the age of 14 who wasn’t caught up in the intense excitement and camaraderie of it. “We didn’t have TV or computer games,” he says over the phone from his apartment in Vancouver’s West End. “We’d walk to school after a bombing and see who got the best and most souvenirs – bits of shrapnel and parachute silk….”

James HeneghanBorn in Liverpool in 1930, Heneghan has mined these childhood memories for his latest novel, Wish Me Luck. Written in a vital first person that resonates with a Liverpool cadence, it is a thrilling account of young Jamie Monaghan’s experiences during the Luftwaffe’s air raids over Liverpool, and then aboard the doomed ocean liner, City of Benares, which was torpedoed while carrying 100 child evacuees to Canada. “Jamie was my alter ego,” Heneghan admits, and the similarity of their names seems to corroborate this.

Wish Me Luck has won rave reviews (including stars in Quill & Quire and Publishers Weekly) , a GG nomination, and foreign rights sales, to date, in England, France, and Germany.

Ironically, the novel was originally turned down by Viking Press in New York, which had published Heneghan’s previous novel, the acclaimed Torn Away. Heneghan himself isn’t quite sure of the reason – some mumblings about historical fiction not selling well – but Viking’s loss was the gain of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which published it under the imprint of editor Frances Foster.

“She was excellent,” says Heneghan, noting that Foster helped to trim the novel, urging him to cut a whole chapter at the end, after the Benares has been torpedoed. Heneghan says he’d been striving for a “real-time” effect in the book’s climax, wanting the reader to be in that heaving, waterlogged boat with the heroes. Pruned, the section achieves an understated and horrifying objectivity as the stunned narrator watches people snatched off by the waves.

One of Heneghan’s chief interests in writing the story was exploring the notion of what makes a hero. Unconventionally, Heneghan’s narrator, Jamie, is not the hero, or even the protagonist; he is an astute observer, the emotional camera through which the reader watches the book’s true subject, Jamie’s schoolmate, the coarse, tough-as-nails Tom Bleeker. It is Bleeker who forwards the story, and distinguishes himself as a true hero in the book’s harrowing climax.

For a man whose fictional creations tend to be strident loners who would sooner swallow glass than admit defeat, Heneghan comes across as genial, laid-back, and remarkably humble. When asked about his working habits, his reply is, “I’m Irish, I don’t have any habits.” He insists he’s not a disciplined person, and writes because he enjoys it. His afternoons are for writing, and his mornings given over to exercise. What kind of exercise? At 67, Heneghan walks, jogs, and then pumps iron at his local fitness club while talking politics with his friends. “You’ve got to rest in between sets,” he explains. He can’t imagine a better lifestyle.

Interestingly, his fitness regimen inspired him to write an adult crime novel, Fit to Kill. As yet unpublished, it involves a killer in Vancouver’s West End bumping off people, all of whom, it turns out, happen to frequent the same gym. Heneghan’s interest in crime goes way back, to his own childhood reading: the detective stories of Richmal Compton (which be came the inspiration for Heneghan’s O’Brien Detective Agency series) and then the Saint books by Leslie Charteris.

However, Heneghan also has hands-on experience with the world of crime: before immigrating to Canada, he worked as a policeman in Liverpool, and then served for 12 years as a fingerprint specialist for the Vancouver police, in the identification squad. “Fingerprints are very distinctive,” he comments dryly. “They get to be like faces: ‘Hey, I’ve seen you before.'” For three years, Heneghan worked the 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift so he could obtain a university degree during the day – not bad for a man who describes himself as undisciplined. After that, he decided he needed a change from working with whorls, and became a school teacher. “I always saw myself as a bit of a performer; I liked being in the limelight.” Heneghan trod the boards of the Canadian public education system, teaching English in junior and senior high, for the next 20 years.

Though he’s been retired for the last six years, Heneghan still makes appearances in schools to do readings and talk about his books, but he finds that “not a lot of kids seem well educated or well read nowadays. They’re culturally deprived.” It may have been a similar point of view that sparked his first attempt at writing in the early 1980s. With fellow teacher Bruce McBay, Heneghan wrote two children’s books to try to seduce reluctant readers. And the four titles in his O’Brien Detective Agency series were also meant to be light, fast-paced reads. “I think Goosebumps were great,” Heneghan admits, “because they got kids to read.” He expresses disappointment that his own O’Brien books aren’t taken more seriously – and wonders if the climate in Canadian children’s books isn’t just a bit too earnest and slavish to literary writing. At the moment, Heneghan has no plans to do any more young detective stories, partially because they haven’t sold outside Canada, unlike his more recent young adult novels.

Right now, Heneghan is working on what he calls “another Monaghan novel,” this one set 34 years after Wish Me Luck, and featuring one of Jamie’s relatives. Again, the plot involves a true historical incident, this time the 1974 discovery of a mass grave just outside Liverpool containing over 3,500 bodies. The bodies were incinerated by order of the British government, but to this day, no explanation has been given for their presence, or cause of death. Fortunately for all of us, Heneghan has a theory.