Guest reviewer Janine Cobain was delighted to interview Gary McElkerney, whose debut novel Volunteer is due to be published in December 2013. Today as Gary eagerly awaits publication, he gives us an insight in to the man behind the story.
Tell us a little about Volunteer
Volunteer is the story of Chris Johnston, a 22 year old university student, who signs away another summer to lead a team of young volunteers as they travel to Ethiopia on a mission to build houses for charity. After an argument with the other leaders, Chris abandons the team and travels north to work for Medical Aid Africa in a medical clinic close to the Ethiopian/Eritrean border. He agrees to join their make-shift ambulance crew in a bid to search for the adventure he longs for on the frontline, but finds life very different off the beaten track. As fear consumes him, he is terrified and experiences the true horrors of war as his dreams of heroism and adventure turn into a nightmare. This story follows Chris' journey with humour, heartbreak and horror and will leave you questioning your own life, your accomplishments and asking if faced with the same situations... what would you do? And with the mental scars of war carved into your memory, who would save you?"
In the introduction to your debut novel, Volunteer, you say that you consider yourself a storyteller rather than an author, why is this?
I guess I've always been considered to be a storyteller by others, complimented on my ability to tell a good story. I don't see myself as an author for two reasons; firstly, I never planned to be one, it's certainly not where my career path was leading me - I'm a designer. Secondly, I feel that being a storyteller comes more naturally, the opportunity to create drama and emphasize emotions, while feeding off an audience’s reaction during the conversation. With writing, I had to change the way I would normally connect with people, and although I have developed a new set of skills with writing, I feel, to a degree, that I have missed out on the opportunity to engage fully in the way you would through conversation. With a story like this, however, some things are better written, than spoken.
Where did the inspiration from Volunteer come from?
Firstly, from my own experiences volunteering, you find your beliefs are questioned. Books and movies, such as Hotel Rwanda, Blood Diamond and Machine Gun Preacher, always like to show the first world countries as the saviours and I don’t agree with this. Volunteer explores the truth of this, we may have better health systems, education systems, a better way of life but it isn't perfect. Despite all this, when you take someone from a first world country and introduce them to a life in a third world country, at the base of their social pyramid, you'll see how useless we are compared to those that live that every day. They put us to shame. Your mind-set and views on life change as you strip away everything that is materialistically irrelevant, everything that you once considered you'd be lost without. We take life for granted.
Secondly, Aid Work is often brushed over, we see the results of natural disasters and wars on the news constantly, but rarely do we focus on those with ‘boots on the ground’ who are trying to help, the story of their work and diligence is lost to celebrity nonsense, or the next big story. Bad news is bad news, but as a society we will always follow trends, movements and inspiration. I wanted to show what life was really like, that volunteers weren't just people cleaning up someone else's mess, but that they are everyday heroes; they don't have superpowers, they aren't invincible and they do breakdown. We hear of bomb’s going off, but who are the people that carry the casualties to safety? They are not always ‘official’ paramedics – they are ordinary people, volunteers who do this unconditionally, and it is them who inspired me.
Ethiopia in 2005 was your last trip – why did you wait to write Chris’ story?
Life got in the way – after university I got a job, relationships came and went, social life and family took priority. I guess in truth, I needed time to step back and look at the bigger picture. It wasn't about just about writing a novel that was based on experiences and event, it needed to be more than that. I wanted to create a story that would stand out and get people to take notice. Volunteer has taken two years to write; initially it started off as a 28 page memoir. Despite having to learn new skills, and finding it difficult to write at times, I firmly believe it came together for me at the right time in my life. A venture like this is not something you take on half-hearted.
In Volunteer, we see that once Chris has faced his deepest fear – death – he spirals out of control. What’s your deepest fear?
I could say I share Chris' fear of death, even after my own near-death experience while playing American Football 5 years ago, but I think in truth it's the fear of losing out on everything I could have done and didn't. At the same time, if I was told I had only months to live it would scare the life out of me all the same, but from my own experience, I have come to understand that we are powerless, when our time is up - it's up.
One of the reviews for Volunteer stated ‘Volunteer… would make a fantastic film, like Blood Diamonds…without the diamonds’ Do you have any plans to develop a script?
I would love to progress it, simply because, as a film junkie, I believe watching Volunteer visually unfold on the big screen would have a huge impact, especially if the message is kept intact. It's a risky time in the film industry, which is churning out the same movies; X Men and Marvel Heroes etc, which gets boring, but it's what sells. Right now, I'm holding off to see how the book is received, not so much in the social popularity contest of the book world, or materialistically, but more how readers take to it emotional and morally. Volunteer may not be the next Harry Potter, but as a story, for some, it becomes a personal journey. Ideally I'd prefer if someone else could write the script but I am happy to step up to the plate and take on the challenge. It's definitely something I want to do, and I've already had great support and advice from people within the film industry.
Do you have any plans to write another book?
As a storyteller, I have plenty of ideas for books, it's trying to choose the right story. It would be hard to come up with something as real and emotionally hard hitting as Volunteer without the experience. Who knows, I might try to live in Chris' shoes once more and volunteer again.
Give me three words that sum you
Ambitious, creative, and I aspire to be inspirational - without meaning to sound egotistical - I hope to inspire people, not for my own reputation or personal gain, but for them to have the courage to do what they want to, whatever that may be – to show them it’s possible, that if I can – they can.
What’s your favourite;
Book – Embarrassingly, I have to admit I'm not a big reader but if I had to choose a book it would have to be No Angel by Jay Dobyns, Reading this during my recovery after my sudden death incident helped me, it was a book I found meaning in and could relate to.
Film - Forrest Gump -it just has everything in it, and Tom Hanks is my favourite actor.
Song - Music is a big part of my life and I really don't have a favourite song per say, certain songs stand out more depending on my mood, some are associated with memories. My music taste can vary from heavy metal to classical to dance music. I suppose the most played song on my iPod would be Best of You by the Foo Fighters, definitely a song that gets my undivided attention when it comes on.
Follow Gary on Twitter @TUCC2013, and for more details and some great pictures check out his Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/UltimateCreativeChallenge. For more details contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you like the sound of Volunteer you’re in luck, thanks to Gary’s publishers, one lucky reader can win a copy of this in eBook format.
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