For avid readers of all things World War II – fact and fiction – author James Benn’s 10th suspenseful Billy Boyle mystery novel again provides the captivating mix of both in “The White Ghost.”
Benn, a retired director of the Godfrey Memorial Library in Connecticut, didn’t begin writing until he turned 50. A reader of history and mystery, combined with his personal travels and extensive research, made him aware of the ordinary men and women who heroically saved lives, and many who lost their own, on the battlefield and behind enemy lines.
Benn’s skillful blend of fictional characters with such real-life heroes as General Eisenhower and PT-boat Lieutenant JFK, and his ability to weave historic events into his well-plotted novels, add greatly to the popularity of this acclaimed mystery series.
After thoroughly enjoying all ten of James Benn’s Billy Boyle page-turning novels and meeting the author several times, he agreed to an interview with us.
Donald Church: When you started writing novels at age 50, what were the most formidable challenges to get published at that time in your life?
James R. Benn: The biggest challenge was understanding the publishing business. In 2000, while I was still working full time, I was writing “On Desperate Ground” with Billy Boyle being a secondary character. [You can find this book on Amazon.com and other websites in hardcover or on Kindle] I had it half finished and I thought I needed a publisher. I got 200 rejections before it was published.
After writing two Billy Boyle novels I found an agent by targeting 60 agents who represented similar genre. I sent them sample chapters. After 6 months of ‘stick-to-itiveness’ I got a call from an agent, John Baker, in London, who called my writing [using a British term] ‘spot on’ and got me to Soho Press – distributed through Random House- so I signed up with them. You need to learn about the business. Get a copy of Literary Market Place, learn the infrastructure and recognize the need to get noticed.
DC: You’re our choice for poster boy of older folks launching new careers. Who were the most supportive people when you decided to pursue a writing career at 50?
JRB: Deborah [Jim’s wife Deborah Mandel] is always the first reader. She gives a line by line reading. You need someone to give you support and honesty. Someone to say “You need to say this better.” I worked full time for the first 8 books and wrote one a year. Deborah took a graduate course at Wesleyan University in editing. So she’s first to see everything. Author Lee Child liked the first Billy Boyle, and he ‘blurbed’ it. Mystery authors are a friendly group and at mystery fan conferences you get a chance to meet other writers in a friendly environment. I wrote and asked Robert Parker if he would read one of my manuscripts, and he thoughtfully wrote back: “I don’t read unpublished manuscripts. If I did, I would do little else.” Later he did blurb “The First Wave.” [Among many other authors who blurbed Jim’s work are Rhys Bowen and Louise Penny].
DC: Tell us about the creation of Billy Boyle as the hero of your compelling novels?
JRB: [Laughs] I got the idea back in 1972 when I saw The Godfather. Here was this war hero, Michael, at his sister’s wedding, and everybody ignores him. The wedding was more important to the family, it was the flip side – the reverse of war. Michael was expected to go into the family business [As Billy Boyle did when he became a cop]. It was an insular clan approach to the war, much like the Boston Irish American clan to which Billy belongs. I disliked school, so I had Billy disliking school as well. But I’m not the model for Billy. I pictured Billy Boyle in my mind being like the young Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting –smart, full of himself and brash.
DC: Many real life war-time movers and shakers play a significant part in the Billy Boyle series, in your most recent book, “The White Ghost,” it’s the young Naval lieutenant and commander of PT-109 John F. Kennedy. Without revealing plot points, especially the story’s ending, how do you feel about the private life of post-war Jack Kennedy?
JRB: I had lots of letters and emails from veterans and their families asking if I could write a story set in the World War II Pacific war theater. I stumbled on the fact that there was a time-gap in the books in which I could fit Billy Boyle into the narrative. So now I had the Pacific and two Irish-Americans…Billy and Jack Kennedy. Why would Billy and Jack know each other? [You’ll need to read “The White Ghost” to find out]. After Jack’s heroics in the PT-109 incident, the guys under his command loved him for the rest of his life. One of the real guys, Barney Ross, suffered from night blindness. Later Kennedy would always jokingly lie when he introduced him “This is Barney Ross – he was the lookout on PT-109.”
DC: What have the strong positive book reviews, comments from readers online had on your confidence and self-image? Have you gotten feed-back about your books from WWII vets and civilians who were actively engaged against the enemy in the war?
JRB: The reviews and feedback tell me that the [WW II] stories resonate with so many people. I have so many requests from people who want me to talk to their fathers or spouses – “the guys who were there.” When I do meet with them the guys are usually reluctant to talk about their war experiences. Some have never discussed the war before with anyone. They’ll tell me about all the fun stuff, but then when they are comfortable talking with me they get into the pain and suffering and killing. I was fortunate to have talked at length with 92 year-old Ted Cummings, who I introduced at the launch of “The White Ghost.” He gave me a lot of insight for “The White Ghost” into the war in the Pacific. Sadly, he died a few days after the book launch. It’s the veterans like him who contribute realism to the Billy Boyle stories.
Examiner: When will your loyal readers get to read the 11th and 12th books in the Billy Boyle series?
JRB: In next year’s Billy Boyle book [September 2016] Diana Seaton is back. It’s called “The Blue Madonna” and Billy goes into a chateau in occupied France for the underground resistance. The title refers to looted artworks. And, for 2017 I’m researching and writing the story of the French underground guiding Jewish children into Switzerland. The working title for this one is “The Devouring” – a gypsy term for the Holocaust.
DC: Off the record, have there been any approaches from TV or movie producers to put Billy Boyle on the screen?
JRB: [Smiling broadly] On the record, I hope people will forget all about “Foyle’s War” – and think only about “Boyle’s War!”
As New York times bestselling author Lee Child said, “Billy Boyle gets better and better. This is a must-read series.” And we enthusiastically say, spot-on.
James Benn and his wife, Deborah Mandel, live in Connecticut. They have two sons and seven grandchildren. Read more about the author at www.jamesrbenn.com, His books are available through his publisher at http://sohopress.com/store, other online Websites and your nearest book store.