Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest Roger Higgins, author of Billy Gogan, American and Billy Gogan, Gone fer Soldier. He is currently working on the third book in the Billy Gogan series Billy Gogan, Sheltered by the Enemy.
Roger immigrated to America from England when he was 6 ¾ years old. After wearing his British school uniform to class on the first day, he decided it was better to try to look more American. Roger grew up and joined the Navy, then retired to become a lawyer. He dabbles in law, while writing books to his heart’s content.
Norm: Good day Roger and thanks for participating in our interview.
Roger: Thank you for inviting me.
Norm: How did you get
started in writing? What keeps you going? As a follow up, what do you
think most characterizes your writing?
Roger: I wrote a bit while I was a high school and college student. But I put my pen down over a sense that I didn’t yet have anything I wanted to write about, and that I should live a little before sitting down to seriously write.
In the meantime, life took over. A naval career, then a career as a bankruptcy and restructuring lawyer, along with raising four wonderful children with my wife, Pat.
About ten years ago, as I was transitioning from life at a large law firm and starting my own firm with my then-partner (who subsequently became a judge), I sat down to noodle out a few pages on an idea that I had had for many years.
This noodling led to my writing Billy Gogan, American, my first novel, and an early draft of the sequel, which is coming out on February 28, 2019, Billy Gogan, Gone fer Soldier.
I am now working on the third book in what I am projecting will be a four-book story cycle that will take Billy Gogan, an orphaned fifteen-year-old boy on the cusp of manhood, through his emigration to the United States, his enlistment in the U.S. Army, and his adventures during the Mexican-American War.
You asked me what keeps me going. For this project of telling Billy Gogan’s story, I am simply not done yet. There is a lot more to come, and I’m not going to stop writing until Billy’s story has been told.
Another aspect of the Billy Gogan project is to bring to life a part of U.S. history that very few people know about – America in the mid-1840s, as the country not only grappled with its first huge wave of economically driven migration, this one from an Ireland beset by the Great Hunger, but also engaged in a war with a neighboring country, Mexico, which resulted in the U.S. annexing about half of pre-war Mexico and for the first time becoming a nation that truly stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
I have found that when I ask people how the U.S. came to include the Old Southwest and California, most people don’t appreciate the fact that the U.S. went to war with Mexico over it – and to finally settle the question of whether Texas was still part of Mexico (which it claimed until the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which is named for the village (now a part of Mexico City) where it was signed).
It’s important to me, in these days of border walls and questions of immigration from Mexico and Central America, that people better understand the history of that region, and of the United States and its sense of being “special,” whether as a shining city on a hill so eloquently evoked by two recent presidents, or as a country in the 1840’s that was fulfilling its manifest destiny.
You also asked me what characterizes my writing. In my mind, it’s all about the story, whether it is fiction — as with Billy Gogan, or in a legal brief that seeks to persuade. Billy Gogan’s story is one of a journey that begins in Ireland on the last day of his childhood, and has thus far taken him to the beginning of America’s first war of invasion of another sovereign nation (not to slight Benedict Arnold and his failed attempt to capture Quebec in 1776).
Norm: What did you find most useful in learning to write? What was least useful or most destructive?
Roger: I have always had a hankering to write, since I was a young man in high school and college. But it was my training and practice as a lawyer many years later that really helped me to learn to write. My legal training also enhanced my research skills, and I am a firm believer in the notion that good research is critical to any successful writing project. My editor, Larry Habegger, was also absolutely critical in taking the early drafts of these first two books and turning them into something much better.
What was least important, or even destructive? There are more books on how to write than any one human being has time to read. Many of them contain little insight and, if followed slavishly, could lead a novice writer down the proverbial primrose path to perdition. As I began to write fiction, I sought out a few well-known books on the topic, beginning with E. M. Forster’s Aspects of a Novel, and those books have helped me immeasurably.
Norm: What would you like to accomplish as an author that you have not?
Roger: Two things. First is to finish the Billy Gogan story cycle. Second, I want to develop a larger following for Billy’s adventures. If I do say so myself, I think Billy’s story is a great one, a story all of us as Americans can learn from. I want more people to get to know him. I also have some other writing projects that I want to tackle once Billy’s story has been told.
Norm: Many people have the skills and drive to write a book, but failure to market and sell the book the right way is probably what keep a lot of people from finding success. Can you give us 2-3 strategies that have been effective for you in promoting your books?
Roger: Well, I see the marketing project as a work in progress. What’s more, it has been, and continues to be, a team effort from the very beginning, with my wife, Pat, my publisher and editor, Larry Habegger, my publicist, Scott Lorenz, and Deanna Spear, who has helped with everything from editing to every aspect of marketing, all being critical. Without them, the book would not have been published and it would not have been read by a soul.
Another part of the team has been my website developer, CC&G. They worked with us to put a wonderful website together, which we have been told is one of the best book websites around.
A third marketing aspect has been entering book contests, where Billy Gogan, American has been fortunate enough to win quite a few awards. Deanna Spear has been critical to our success on this front.
Scott Lorenz has been instrumental in getting me radio interviews to talk about my books. We have been able to track jumps in sales with those interviews.
The books themselves are available on both Barnes & Noble’s website and on Amazon in paperback and e-book. Gone fer Soldier will be available in hardcover as well.
Finally, I think that perseverance is critical. Pat and I are always marketing the books in one way or another, by talking to folks whom we have met in our travels around the country.
Norm: For your writing, does the story come first, or the world it operates in?
Roger: The story and the world in
which it operates are inextricably tied together. Billy Gogan’s
story comes from a very particular time and place, which occurs at
the beginning of Gone fer Soldier.
Billy is marching post atop
a sand dune on the southern end of St. Joseph’s Island, which is
one of the barrier islands along the Texas gulf coast, guarding the
encampment of the Fourth Infantry Regiment, which was part of the
expeditionary force sent under the command of Zachary Taylor in the
summer of 1845, at first to guard Texas against any threatened
invasion by Mexico and then, later, to train and ready itself to
invade Mexico, which it did in the spring of 1846.
Billy Gogan, American tells the story of how he got there, and Gone fer Soldier and its sequels tell the story of where Billy’s journey takes him from there.
Norm: What motivated you to write the Billy Gogan series? What were your goals and intentions in your first two novels, Billy Gogan, American and Billy Gogan, Gone Fer Soldier and how well do you feel you achieved them?
Roger: I wanted to give my readers a rollicking good story about the Mexican-American War, a war critical to the development of the United States as we know it today, and a war that nowadays few people know anything about. Along the way, other themes came bounding out at me, including immigration, slavery, the beginning of the modern feminist movement, and the early days of an era, that while nearly two centuries removed from our own, is nonetheless quite recognizable.
I think that these two books have achieved those goals. I have had quite a number of people ask me about each of those themes, particularly immigration, and how they relate to the present day. It will be interesting to see as people read Gone fer Soldier what their reaction is to the beginning of the Mexican American War and the effect of first the American army and then all the other Americans who followed to south Texas on the existing Tejano and Norteño culture.
Norm: How much research went into your novels and what are some of the references that you used while researching the novels?
Roger: I did, and continue to do, a lot of research for every aspect of the Billy Gogan books, from the ships that brought emigrants to America from Ireland to the smoothbore muskets carried by U.S. Army infantry in the Mexican-American War and the technological edge that the Colt Paterson revolver gave the Texas Rangers vis-à-vis the feared Mexican lancers. I cannot mention them all, but two of the more interesting books I used in researching Billy Gogan, American are:
J. Frank Kernan’s Reminiscences of the Old Fire Laddies and Volunteer Fire Departments of New York, which is one of the only original sources written about the Five Points,
Tyler Anbinder’s The Five Points: The Nineteenth Century New York City Neighborhood, which is the single most important scholarly book on the Five Points.
In Gone fer Soldier, the memoirs of officers and the occasional enlisted man who served in the Mexican-American War were critical. Two of them are:
George Ballentine’s Autobiography of an English Soldier in the United States Army is just about the only memoir written by an enlisted man in the U.S. Army in the Mexican-American War. Other than this book, Ballentine is almost entirely lost to history, but he left a rich source for Billy Gogan.
Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs is perhaps the best memoir by any American president, written as he was dying of cancer. His descriptions of his experiences in the Mexican-American War were the source of more than one of Billy’s adventures.
There have been a number of outstanding books written about the Mexican-American War, and I have consulted them all at one point or another, including:
Justin Harvey Smith’s magisterial work, The War with Mexico, remains a “go-to” source, despite its having been written more than a century ago, and being fraught with all the issues that one might expect.
Richard Bruce Winders’ Mr. Polk’s Army: The American Military Experience in the Mexican War, is another invaluable resource.
Norm: Did you write your first two novels more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Please summarize your writing process.
Roger: When I first visualized Billy Gogan marching post on the sand dune on San José Island, I quickly asked myself where he came from, because Judge Renato Beghe, for whom I clerked some 20 or more years ago, once told me to “start at the beginning” when I told a story. It took me a while, but I came to realize that Billy’s story—and his journey—began outside the bog at St. Patrick’s College for Young Men, being confronted by his adversary.
Any beginning requires context, and the beginning of Billy’s story was no exception, with it taking place in the wake of the failed Repeal Year led by Daniel O’Connell and just before the horrors visited by the Great Hunger. So I learned about both. Then I started to write, and I kept going, one page at a time.
Norm: How did you go about creating the character of Billy Gogan?
Roger: As I mentioned earlier, Billy is the soldier marching post on the sand dune on San José Island, and he is also the narrator of the story, an old man who had served long ago in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of brevet major general. His character and the first book, Billy Gogan, American, arise from the question I asked myself about what sort of origin such a man would have? As I pondered that question, I thought about what Ireland was like in those days of the failed Repeal Year and the incipient Great Hunger. I also remembered my own youth and how my children and their friends were in their later teenage years, and as I began to write, Billy began to take on a life of his own.
Norm: For those interested in exploring the subject or themes of your books, where should they start?
Roger: Readers can start with the Billy Gogan website, which has a lot of background about the historical context of the first two books and lists some of the more important sources, both secondary and primary, that I used in researching the books. Of course, they should also read my books! There’s a lot of history to be learned along with enjoying a great adventure story.
Norm: What projects are you working on at the present?
Roger: I am currently working on the third book in the Billy Gogan story cycle, provisionally entitled Billy Gogan, Sheltered from the Enemy. A teaser from the first chapter is at the end of Gone fer Soldier.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and the Billy Gogan series?
MY WEBSITE a website with a great deal of information about the historical context of the books, along with links to television programs about the period.
Norm: As this interview comes to an end, what question do you wish that someone would ask about your books, but nobody has?
Roger:There are two questions that come to mind. First, nobody has ever pressed me about how Billy’s father, a respectable and seemingly wealthy solicitor in Cork, Ireland, could have come to die in a Sassenagh jail, which is a question rich with possibility. All I’ll say for now is that we’ll have to see what the old general has to say about his father’s terrible fate when Daniel O’Connell was able to survive his time in Richmond prison.
The other curiosity to my mind at least is how few people have focused on the man in black, who plays such an immense role in Billy’s forced departure from Ireland. One thing I can promise readers is that they will come to know the man in black very well in coming books.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
Roger: Thank you for having me.