Mike Lewis turned to writing fiction after a long career in journalism. His first novel If God Will Spare My Life is based on the true story of the only Welshman to have served under Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
My earliest reading memory
Enid Blyton’s Brer Rabbit series. I loved the various ways our hero would find to outsmart the dimwitted duo of Brer Fox and Brer Bear – Brer Wolf was positively scary, however. Blyton was out of fashion for many years, but now her work is enjoying something of a renaissance – vintage story-telling is ageless, I guess.
The author who changed my mind
The Birthday Boys by Beryl Bainbridge (1984) was a light bulb moment. Having been gripped by the story of Scott’s ill-fated quest for the South Pole as a schoolboy I remain captivated by the way Bainbridge breathes new life into such a familiar tale.
Set in five parts, TBB tells the story of the expedition at various stages through the eyes of the doomed five-man Polar party – Scott, Wilson, Bowers, Oates and Evans. Bainbridge captures the five contrasting personalities so well and taught me that historical fiction can only truly succeed if the author manages to convince the reader that this is what actually happened. Bainbridge, I feel, more than adequately achieves this, although for some reason TBB does not appear to be regarded among her most celebrated works.
The book I keep returning to
Herman Melville’s Moby Dick inspired If God Will Spare My Life… whose main protagonist, Welsh US cavalryman Will James, has read the novel’s earlier version, The Whale.
As the unsuspecting men of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry close in on Little Bighorn, James – sweat-stained, hungry, saddlesore and suffering from acute sleep deprivation – is suddenly struck by a chilling thought while glancing across at their leader: “Ahab the sea captain had dragged the Pequod’s crew to their doom on his ill-starred quest to find the great white whale. Would Custer, a fellow so clearly cut from the same cloth, in time lead us all to destruction on his own obsessive chase?”
It has become something of literary in-joke that even some of Moby Dick’s greatest admirers have never managed to read it in its entirety. From a 21st century perspective it is pretty heavy going and Melville tends to veer off on weird tangents – devoting two or three pages discussing the digestive organs of the sperm whale, for instance. That said, Moby Dick is invaluable in demonstrating how working men of the mid-19th century spoke, plus it builds an atmosphere of mounting dread I have endeavoured to replicate in If God Will Spare My Life.
An unexpected pleasure
Discovering I enjoyed writing fiction at the belated age of 60! If there is such a thing as a ‘typical novelist’ it’s not me! I disliked school and left early for the world of work with few qualifications. Having never gone to university nor read fiction my literary knowledge was nil and remains limited even now. My wife, Sue, who did go to university where she studied English literature, eventually managed to prise me out of my comfort zones of sporting biographies and true-life mysteries.
The last book I bought
The Real Story of Flight 19 by Steve MacGregor (published in 2018) was a Christmas present to myself harking back to my teenage years of the 1970s when the Bermuda Triangle – that supposedly mysterious expanse of sea where ships and plains habitually vanished – was all the rage. Central to the legend was the loss of Flight 19, five US Navy Grumann TBM Avenger torpedo bombers who disappeared on a routine navigational hop off Bermuda in December 1945. While most books on the Triangle attribute their loss to UFOs or some paranormal dimension the truth of what happened is more mundane, if no less dramatic.
It appears that having inexplicably concluded that strong winds had blown the flight west over the Florida peninsula, the disorientated flight instructor ordered his students to fly east, therefore further out into the wild Atlantic. Although it appears they did belatedly realise their error and turn around to head back towards the mainland, the Avengers evidently ran out of fuel and were forced to ditch in a dark, storm-lashed ocean at night. I believe they may have made landfall only to crash in Florida’s vast and largely unexplored Okefenokee Swamp. A great plot for an historical fiction novel.
Most recommended book
Tornado Down is the true story of Flight Lts John Peters and Adrian Nicols whose fighter plane was shot down in the Iraqi desert during the first Gulf War. The pilot and navigator were subsequently captured and paraded on television by their captors in what was a huge story at the time. While obviously gripping and revealing – detailing how the hunters can become the hunted – the book is primarily a very human account of the effects of war and therefore will appeal to the type of reader who would not normally favour such a work. It also contains an abundance of laconic RAF humour which produces several laugh-out-loud moments despite the authors’ relentlessly grim ordeal in captivity which, happily, both managed to survive.
You won’t find me reading …
Anything by Jeffrey Archer
I would love to have a drink/dinner with …
Psychedelic visionary Arthur Lee, leader of seminal 1960s band Love whose 1967 album Forever Changes regularly pops up on ‘Greatest of all time’ lists. Seeing as Arthur died in 2006, drink or dinner will obviously now never happen, but I take some solace from the fact that Love’s unique brand of baroque pop was being belatedly acknowledged towards the end of his life.
My favourite writing place
My little office in the extension at the end of the house. Despite being brought up in a house with no central heating, I still find it so cold that I occasionally have to wear an overcoat, but like to think this inspired me in the writing of my second novel The Icarus Ascent about the tragic first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 as related by the dead climbers from beyond the grave.
I wish I’d written …
Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer, his 2009 bestseller on the deaths of Mallory and Irvine on Everest in 1924. While Archer undoubtedly shifts more copies before breakfast than I do in an entire year, I can’t believe how such an epic tale is related in such a perfunctory manner completely devoid of passion. I’d have written it in the first person though Beryl Bainbridge would admittedly have done a better job…
Mike Lewis: The Lowdown
Mike Lewis has been a man of words all his life. He joined a local newspaper straight from school, going on to work for UK national newspapers including The Guardian and The Telegraph.
A lifelong rock and pop music fan, in the 1990s he co-authored biographies on Scott Walker and Syd Barrett, of Pink Floyd. His first work of fiction — If God Will Spare Me — was published by Victorina Press in June 2021.
Having returned to his native West Wales to raise his family, he stumbled across the story of William James, a West Wales farmer’s son who emigrated to the United States, joined the US Seventh Cavalry and ended up fighting at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (Custer’s Last Stand). James’ story forms the basis of Mike’s novel.
He is now working on his second novel, The Icarus Ascent: Curse of the Matterhorn, an account of the tragic first ascent of Switzerland’s most famous mountain in July 1865.