Magna author Ken McCoy was born in Leeds where he sets many of his family sagas and crime novels.
Ken left school at 16 and worked as a draughtsman before setting up his own building company. He has also worked as a greetings card designer, an actor, and a popular after-dinner speaker.
Have you always wanted to be a writer?
No. It never occurred to me that I could write anything more interesting than an abusive letter to the gas company until I got a computer which came with a word processor. For many years I'd doodled bits and pieces of stories in various exercise books and I thought I'd type them out to see how they read when not written in my hieroglyphic hand-writing. The result fascinated me to a point that persuaded me to extend a short story to a longer one and so on and so forth until, after about 40,000 words, I realised that I was writing a book. I was then beyond the point of no return so I finished it and sent the book, then called ONCE WITH SCRAPS, to an agent, Judith Murdoch. It was some weeks before she replied but her comments were encouraging insofar as she told me I could write and this, coming from a hardened professional in the book business, was good news. Trouble was, my book was a humorous novel and not the sort of book she usually handled as she pretty much specialised in sagas. So would I be interested in writing a saga? Had I told her the truth it would have been that I'd never actually read a saga much less attempted to write one. I said I'd give it a go but I'd need some advice. She invited me down to speak to her in London where she gave me the low down on how to write such a book.
I came home and wrote a saga called COBBLESTONES HEROES, which I set in the early part of my own lifetime as I've got vivid memories of my childhood, and filled it with characters whom I'd come across back then. The story itself came from my imagination of course, although a few of the incidents are based on fact. Judith sold it to a publisher, Piatkus Books, who gave me a two-book contract. That was many books ago. I'm now awaiting publication of my twelfth Piatkus saga, due out in April and called TELL ME IT'S NOT TRUE. On top of these I've had four crime books published by Allison and Busby and two by Severn house, with a third Severn House book, A LONG WAY DOWN, due out in June/July of this year. Besides these traditionally published books I have a further six full-length self-published books out on Kindle, in fact all of my books are published on Kindle, many in both hardback, paperback, large print and audio, with me doing the reading on 13 of the audio books.
Were you ever pressured by publishers to change your name?
Yes, it was suggested that I use a woman's name, but me being green to the book industry didn't see the advantage in doing this, and I didn't fancy going down to the pub and having my pals all call me Doris. My actual name is Kenneth Myers but for many years I'd been an after-dinner-speaker and club entertainer working under the name Ken McCoyÃ¢‚¬€a name given to me by a theatrical agent.
I didn't dismiss out-of-hand the idea of using a woman's name but I did come up with an idea of my own. I was reminded of a sixties singer called Gerry Dorsey who got nowhere until he changed his name to Engelbert Humperdinck. So I thought if I did the same, an unusual name on a bookshelf might encourage a curious customer to take it down and glance at it. I'd read somewhere of a woman called Philomena Thrushbuttock and I thought that's the very name for me. So when I'd gone through all the editorial corrections I sent to book to my agent with the title page thus: COBBLESTONE HEROES by PHILOMENA THRUSHBUTTOCK.
Sadly, neither Judith nor the publisher saw the massive sales potential of such a name so I was advised to reconsider. I was still reluctant to use a woman's name so I told the publisher that I was quite well-known around West Yorkshire as entertainer Ken McCoy, so that name was accepted. Had I used a woman's name my actual gender would have given itself away in the early pages of all my books as I can't write with a woman's voice.
You also write mysteries, which genre do you prefer and why?
I like them equally. With a crime I can plot the whole story before I start writing but with a saga all I start out with is a basic premise, a vague story, and small group of characters around which the story revolves. I find that sagas are pretty much plot driven and that the plot can change course in accordance with the characters' reaction to the obstacles I place in their path - just like real life in fact. Sometimes I'm not sure myself where the story is heading. I give the characters strengths and weaknesses; some are clever some aren't, some are brave, others aren't, and it's these characteristics that cause the story to turn this way and that. All I do is guide them all to an eventual goal like a sheepdog guiding sheep to a holding pen. The trouble is that sometimes sheep escape and have to be rounded up and brought back in line. So it is with my sagas.
You're also a well-known after dinner speaker and clearly have a funny turn of phrase - have you tried to write comedy?
As I mentioned earlier the first book I wrote, ONCE WITH SCRAPS, was intended to be humorous but it wasn't the first book I had published, with humour being a tricky genre. Eventually I sold it to Severn House with the title THE FABULOUS FOX TWINS.
Have you always lived in Leeds? Is it an inspiring place to live and work?
I've always lived in and around Leeds. It's the backdrop for most of my sagas and now my crime books. It's a city with three sides bordering on countryside and the fourth side bordering on an urban sprawl. Where I live is only a five minute drive from the country and it's handy for everywhere. It has all the attributes and limitations a writer needs to bring a story to life and, with me living there all my life, I can talk about the Leeds of yesteryear from personal experience.
What tips would you give to other aspiring writers?
My advice to the aspiring writer is to write about what you know and don't be put off by the fact that most publishers are looking for 100,000 words or more. Just battle on and the book will grow of its own accord. Oh, and don't try to be too literary. Leave the fancy writing to them who think it's their duty to bore the arse off us. All I am is a story-teller, not a teacher.
What are your projects for 2017?
I have a project for 2017 and that is to finish my fifteenth Piatkus saga. It's currently called ELSEWHERE and I think that name will stick. I'm 60,000 words into it so I expect to have it finished in two or three months. After that I plan to write the third in my Sep Black crime series for Severn House. Or maybe another saga. Who knows?
Interview by Nicky Solloway at Magna Large Print Books and Story Sound. Ken McCoy's latest novel Nearly Always is out in large print this month.