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John Holliday

Interview with

John Holliday

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Upon retiring from a business career as an entrepreneur who founded nine businesses in Canada and Australia, I decided to document my business experiences in the form of a memoir. I so enjoyed writing 'Toughing it Out: Adventures of a Global Entrepreneur' that I looked for other opportunities to write about other real people and their achievements. I had a subject in mind because my great, great grandfather had been a famous pioneer missionary to China and his biography had not been published. 'Mission to China: How an Englishman Brought the West to the Orient' was published first in England, followed by a Chinese edition in Taiwan. By then, I was hooked on writing.

How long does it take you to write a book?

My first book was completed in less than a year, but subsequent biographies which involved a lot of research, took more than two years.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?

One surprise was that I could actually create an interesting and informative book. I should have started writing earlier in my life. The main thing that I learned was the history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that my books have covered.

Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?

My books have appealed to academics , students and others who have an interest in the period of history and the professions of my subjects. As a result, I have received frequent comments from my readers about shared topics of interest.

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

I have always loved travel and since my research required me to visit places and archives in different parts of the world, I was inspired by these opportunities. Compiling all the information gathered into an interesting and informative manuscript became a positive experience as the project developed. Nothing exhausted me to the extent that a short break from writing did not cure.

What is your writing Kryptonite?

Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

I try to be original and add creativity to my books but as a biographer, I cannot ignore the facts of a real person's life. Just as the picture which an artist paints is dependent upon the composition, then the book which a biography writes is dependent upon the originality of the subject's life. I was fortunate enough to have subjects which required little added creativity to create a book which a reader found hard to put down.

What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?

Writers of historical fiction including Robert Harris, Ken Follett and Edward Rutherfurd.

At what point do you think someone should call themselves a writer?

At the moment when they are handed the copy of their very first printed book.

What do the words “writer’s block” mean to you? 

I have often experienced 'writer's block' and I have found that the best way to treat it is to go and carry out some other activity for a time. In most cases, I come back refreshed and with new ideas.

Are there therapeutic benefits to modeling a character after someone you know?

As a biographer, my role is to interpret each character as accurately to how I think that person would have been seen by others. I try to stick to the facts but often I am reminded that certain characters are similar to those I have met in real life. One added comment about my characters is that I do think of them in the same way as I might towards real people today. During my writing I often dream about being with my characters and there are some who I become very fond of while others I can certainly dislike.

What comes first for you — the plot or the characters — and why?

The first task for a biographer is to find someone who led a life so interesting and achieved so much that they would be a household name but for the fact that for some reason, time has forgotten them. My book, 'Clara Colby: The International Suffragist' was a person who fit this description. She was mentored by the founders of the American suffragists, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and was considered a leader to take over from them when they passed. Partly due to the scandalous activities of her husband, she was overlooked for a leadership role and sadly, she became sick with pneumonia and died three years before the Nineteenth Amendment was passed.

How would you describe your book’s ideal reader?

Anyone who reads biographies and history, especially regarding the period from late eighteenth century to early twentieth century. So many TV series and movies cover that period, which means that the interest in that period is growing.

How much research did you need to do for your book? 

My last two books involved people who travelled the world extensively, which meant that I had to visit some of those places myself in order to describe the atmosphere in which my subjects lived. Fortunately most of the personal papers and documents for those people had been gathered in a central archive which I could visit. During the twelve years that I have been writing, the situation for biographers has been greatly simplified, in that many documents and reports are now available for download over the internet, compared to when I started.

Tell us more about your book/s?

'Mission to China: How an Englishman Brought the West to the Orient.' Amberley Publishing 2017. Cosmic Light, Taiwan 2019.
In 1816, Walter Medhurst – printer, missionary, adventurer – was primed to embark on the mission of a lifetime: to take
the Lord’s word to the people of the exotic Far East, and change the world forever. China was a closed society by order of its Emperor and, even then its trade potential highly prized. Medhurst would spend years working with Chinese communities throughout Asia before reaching China’s shores in 1835. When the Medhursts finally settled in Shanghai in 1843, they were delighted to find – contrary to popular belief – an outgoing and resourceful people more than willing to interact with them.
Dealing with Chinese authorities, however, required great diplomacy and tact and the formidable Medhursts employed every skill in their considerable arsenal to achieve their goal, establishing the LMS Mission Centre in Shanghai.
When he died in 1857, Walter Medhurst left behind a great legacy that included an Orphanage, All Saints’ Church, Jakarta, Renji Hospital in Shanghai, the Shanghai Mission Press and a Chinese Bible that was used for more than 70 years. But Walter’s greatest achievement was surely the opening up of China to the West, a lasting legacy that affects our world even today.

‘Clara Colby: The International Suffragist’, by John Holliday, looks at the life of this British-American
maverick as it’s never been told before.
On 18th August 2020, the United States and the world celebrated 100 years since the Nineteenth
Amendment to the US Constitution, which secured women’s right to vote. It’s in large part thanks to the
work of suffragist Clara Colby, whose life, adversities and achievements are now being unravelled in a
fascinating new book.

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