A fair proportion of the British Public (me included) find the SAS an endlessly fascinating subject. I’ve delved into the origins of the SAS in the Second World War, discovering David Stirling and Paddy Mayne in the process, I’ve read various books on Bravo Two Zero, watched numerous documentaries, and of course am a big fan of SAS: Who Dares Wins. I therefore jumped at the chance of reading Once A Pilgrim by James Deegan before publication back in January. From my review you can tell I adored it, I watched Once A Pilgrim take off on social media with a big smile, and a certain picture of the book with Tom Hardy didn’t hurt its credentials!
James Deegan MC spent five years in the Parachute Regiment, and seventeen years in the SAS. Twice decorated for gallantry, he retired as an SAS Regimental Sergeant Major. – Liz Robinson
Liz in conversation with James Deegan
Liz – Have you always been a storyteller, have you ever written before?
James – It depends on what you mean by ‘a storyteller’. I’ve never written before, but I’m quite good at recounting stories or events that I’ve been involved in and keeping an audience interested. The actual process of putting the first book to paper initially seemed quite daunting but it was also quite cathartic, and allowed me to escape from the pressure I had at work and find a bit of time to myself. Once I started, I really enjoyed it. I can touch type, which people often find amusing given my background. I taught myself using a software programme during my downtime during the insurgency in Baghdad. It was a bit of an escape from the chaos of what was around me at that time.
Liz – Was John Carr sitting in your thoughts for a while, how did you develop him as a character?
James – People who have read ‘Once A Pilgrim’ and who also know me say that John Carr is me, and it’s true that he’s based on me to an extent – we share the same childhood and professional experiences, for a start. His favourite song – Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’– is my favourite track, too. But he’s more than that. In my old line of work, and in life generally, you meet a lot of very interesting people, good and bad, and Carr contains bits and pieces of lots of people, to give him more colour.
And obviously he’s a lot larger than life – I think my wife would have something to say about some of his escapades, and I also never threw an IRA man over the side of the Larne-Stranraer ferry. I have been asked several times whether that incident in the book actually happened. The answer is obviously no – it would be murder! – but it means I’ve achieved my aim, because I want people to wonder all the way through… ‘Is this real? Did this actually happen?’
The idea is to bring my real work experience and knowledge to the fictional pages and blend the two. Jeffrey Archer read the book recently and gave me a line for the cover of the paperback, which sums that up: ‘You could not make it up, Brilliant.’ I will leave the reader to decide what they think.
Liz – How did you enter the book world? Was it what you expected?
James – I tripped into it. I’d been approached several times to write my memoirs, and I have always declined. It’s common knowledge that SAS soldiers sign contracts not to disclose aspects of the organisation and an autobiography would potentially put me in conflict with a Regiment in which I’m immensely proud to have served, and with people whom I respect and admire.
I also don’t particularly want to be in the public domain as ‘me’. if that makes sense.
I read a lot, and I’d always thought about writing fiction myself but I’d never really done anything about it. The last time I was approached re a biography it spurred me to think harder about having a go, and here we are.
I didn’t have any expectations, to be honest. I was quite prepared for it to go nowhere – we all know that many people write good books and never get published – but I was fortunate enough to secure Jonathan Lloyd at Curtis Brown as my agent, and then Harper Collins, via their HQ imprint, as my publisher.
Liz – What are your writing habits?
James – My writing habits are erratic. ‘Once a Pilgrim’ took around two-and-a-half years from concept to completion, most of it done in my spare time or evenings after work or when I was on trains or planes. I travel a lot internationally with work, and you can get a lot done at 40,000ft over the Indian Ocean! I get advice and help from a mate who’s a writer, and that has made it easier. Book two in the John Carr series – ‘The Angry Sea’, due out January 2019 – took about a year, so I’m getting quicker. But for someone used to setting and achieving objectives, and moving relentlessly onward, it still feels like a long time.
Liz – What has your favourite piece of feedback about ‘Once A Pilgrim’ been?
James – Jeffrey Archer’s endorsement was very nice, considering he’s one of the world’s best-selling novelists. He and I share the same agent, Jonathan Lloyd; Jonathan mentioned the book to him, Jeffrey asked to read it, and twenty-four hours later he emailed to say it was ‘brilliant’. Apparently, he almost never gives cover lines for books, so I was very humbled.
Beyond that, I don’t have any one favourite piece of feedback, I have lots. I enjoy the fact that the people that have read it are from very different backgrounds, mums, dads, soldiers and Generals, civvies, rave DJs, international rugby players… it seems to be hitting chords with a very diverse group of people.
If someone sends me a message via social media I will always endeavour to respond, and I had one from a woman who told me how much she had enjoyed the book. She said she was ex-military, a former Major General. When she told me her name, I knew immediately who she was – she was a princess in a Middle Eastern royal family. (I have verified this!) We’ve maintained contact, but it’s a bit surreal.
I’m also constantly amazed at the reviews I’m receiving on Amazon – some of the reviews are really in-depth reviews, and lots of people have posted pics of themselves with the book. Which is fun.
So in a rambling sort of way my favourite piece of feedback is all of it!
Liz – Are you an avid reader, what are your personal favourites?
James – I read a lot – planes and trains again – and I always have done. There’s a scene in ‘Once A Pilgrim’ where John Carr, then a young Parachute Regiment corporal, is reading ‘Chickenhawk’, the memoir of the Vietnam War helicopter pilot, Robert Mason – that is exactly what the young James Deegan might have been doing during a bit of downtime on ops (and it’s a great book).
I read a lot of military non-fiction, but more about personal experiences than about campaigns. And I’m not interested in hearing from Generals, I want to read stuff by those who actually fought and suffered the hardships at the sharp end.
In terms of fiction, I read a multitude of different genres. My favourite authors, in no particular order, are Bernard Cornwell, George MacDonald Fraser, Conn Iggulden, Simon Scarrow, and Irvine Welsh. Welsh was knocking around Edinburgh as a teenager a few years before me, and I was brought up in the areas he talks about, and I know people like his characters. He captures the manic intensity, insanity and dialect of the city brilliantly.
Cornwell and the rest are just great fun and total escapism.
Currently I’m reading ‘Lonesome Dove’, Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story of life on the Texas frontier in the mid-1800s. It’s brilliant, and the first ‘western’ book I’ve ever read; I’ll probably now read all his other work.
Liz – Which character from books or film do you love to hate? And who melts your heart?
James – I don’t have any single character that I hate, but the actor Christopher Heyerdah who plays the Swede in ‘Hell on Wheels’ and Louis Gagnon in ‘Tin Star’ is a brilliant villain. His mannerisms, how he talks, how he looks, it all brings a character to life, and I spend my time watching those shows wanting him to pay the price every time his character is on screen. He makes me angry!
If any book or movie features a bad guy who creates emotion then the producer or author has achieved their aim. I also like the bad guys to get their just desserts, and that’s where John Carr steps in.
As for having my heart melted…
Liz – Can you tell us anything about book two?
James – I can’t give too much away at the moment, but it involves a major terrorist attack in Europe, a kidnapping and a lot of bloody vengeance!
Some fabulous answers there, thank you James… and I now want to read Lonesome Dove! James Deegan has a gift with words, at drawing you in and telling a story, if you haven’t yet read Once A Pilgrim, do buy or borrow a copy!
James Deegan is on twitter as @jamesdeeganMC and on Facebook as James Deegan MC.
Once A Pilgrim was published in hardback by HQ, an imprint of HarperCollins in January 2018. The paperback edition will be published on the 31st May 2018.