World of Words: From teacher to writer...

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Derek McMillan worked for 33 years as a teacher in East Grinstead, and for 16 years, ran a helpline for stressed teachers in West Sussex. After retirement, he turned to writing full time, mainly short stories, some of which have been published online by and In short story The Mirror of Eternity, he created the character of Xavier Hollands, who is the main character in his novel, Salt Wars.

In no more than 10 words, why do you write?

I can’t imagine not writing. It is like an addiction.

How do your teaching experiences inspire you in your writing?

I always tried to give my pupils the idea that everyone can write. Many children have a brilliant and unfettered imagination.

Nobody has told them ‘you can’t write about that’, so they will write about the most extraordinary adventures. As their fluency grows, their spelling and grammar deteriorate!

Once you have something to say, you can go back and worry about the spelling and grammar. Many pupils write from the heart in a way that adults find difficult and I think that that has inspired me, too.

How did you first come to be published?

Back in the 1970s, I wrote for union journals and for The Socialist newspaper.

Who or what inspired you to start writing?

Apart from my parents, Mr Owen, my English teacher, inspired me to write and to widen the range of my writing beyond the short stories I have always loved.

What do you think is the best thing about the life of a writer?

I think the best thing is sharing ideas with my wife, who also edits my work. At her suggestion, I have various notebooks scattered untidily around the house and ideas for short stories or articles are mixed up with shopping lists and appointments.

What do you consider to be your single greatest achievement?

At the moment, I would say my novel, Salt Wars, which I completed in 2013.

However, the sequel, provisionally entitled The Archbishop’s Torturer, occupies my thoughts at the moment, so that may end up replacing Salt Wars as my ‘single greatest achievement’.

What are you reading at the moment?

Sister by Rosamund Lupton. The book explores the relationship between two sisters alongside an investigation by one into the murder of the other. That sounds an odd combination but Rosamund Lupton makes it work brilliantly.

Can you name a book that changed your life?

The Iron Heel by Jack London is a very unusual book. Jack London wrote it in the early 20th century when concepts like socialism and communism did not mean what they mean now. Jack London was primarily a writer of adventure stories and the book gripped my imagination.

How do you hope that your books will influence your readers?

I hope that what I write will amuse and entertain my readers. In my fiction, I do not have a message. I do not want to tell people what to think but I try to present ideas in a sufficiently interesting fashion that readers reflect on them.

What are your ambitions for the future?

I want to complete the sequel to Salt Wars this year. I also aim to write a biography of Wolf-Dietrich, the Prince-Bishop of Salzburg from 1587 to 1612. I found in my research for Salt Wars that there is no English language biography of him. At the same time, I would like to develop my flash fiction. The flash fiction in has an absolute limit of 1,000 words, others have 500 or 100 as a limit. Flash fiction is an excellent discipline. Ernest Hemingway famously wrote a story in six words: “For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” I aspire to that brevity.

What piece of advice would you give to a writer starting out?

It is wise to have a plan. It is foolish to stick to it. Having an idea of where your writing is going is excellent. However, your pen may very well take you to places and ideas you didn’t imagine when you set out. Write something every day.

This year, 2014, sees the launch of a new literary festival in Sussex – the Worthing World of Words. What’s your favourite word, or words?

‘What are you drinking?’ is definitely in my top ten, but at number one it would have to be ‘Amor Vincit Omnia’, or ‘love conquers all’.