“If you don’t write it, Grandad’s story will be lost forever,” My daughter said.
I’ll never forget the yearning in her eyes. That was 17 years ago. Grandad was 80 at the time. The family had heard his war stories over and over again. Fascinating tales of trials and tribulations. As a young Yugoslav air force pilot, he was coerced onto the wrong side of WWII with the German invasion of 1941. The Germans dispatched him to the Russian front – from there to surveillance over the Adriatic Sea where he would parachute into the frigid waters with 3 bullets lodged in his body – after that, unsanitary Italian hospitals, North African detention centers, and finally POW camps in Illinois and Louisiana where he would spend the rest of the war. Yet, his troubles were far from over. Upon repatriation, he became an enemy of the state in Tito’s newly-created communist regime.
The circumstance for nodding to my daughter’s request for a biography was compelling. Following months of research and interviews with Grandad, I printed enough copies for the family and a few generations to come. I thought I was done with writing. But then another circumstance hit me like a ton of bricks. My career as a corporate CEO came to a sudden end with the sale of the company to Kraft Foods. On my back as I bailed from the corner office was another type of parachute, a golden one. Though financially secure, I was too young to retire; I decided to reinvent myself as a corporate strategy consultant. That career shift resulted in plenty of travel and lonely nights in hotel rooms.
How would I use all of that down time? I began blogging about leadership, strategy, and branding on my website CEOafterlife.com – pumping out a blog every week. Three years and 150 blogs later, I thought back to Grandad’s story. Could I fictionalize it into a thrilling novel? Maybe. But after penning a few chapters of what would become The Circumstantial Enemy, I was struck by my naivety. I knew zilch about fiction-writing. I didn’t write another word for a year having thrown myself into books about how to write fiction. My next mistake was penning a manuscript of 225k words. When everyone and their brother said it was too long, I cut it back to 180k. Then another 40k went into landfill before literary agent Eric Nelson agreed to help.
Though Eric loved the story, he thought I needed better structure and focus. He also said he was shifting his own focus to the lucrative business book market. I said that I could write a business book for him. Nine months later, Do Less Better: The Power of Strategic Sacrifice in a Complex World was released by Palgrave Macmillan USA.
Do Less Better was an easy transition from blogging. Writing fiction was another story. It became the biggest challenge of my professional life. Eight years ago, as a retiree, I began The Circumstantial Enemy. I had the first draft complete in 2 years. I needed another 3 years for rewriting and editing as well as checking the historical facts and all those little details of the 1940s that had to be correct – a 100% correct. And then there was another 3 years of trying to persuade bona-fide publishers to take on the project. In the end, my persistence paid off.
More than 20 years have passed since I left the corner office. It seems like half that long. Much has changed, including me. Somehow, I reinvented myself. Transformation is never easy. Reinvention never happens without passion, determination and hard work. At 71, I am a rookie historical novelist. More importantly, I’m just another example of an everyday guy getting out of life what he’s putting into it.
About John R. Bell
John Richard Bell was born in Chigwell, UK and now resides in Vancouver, Canada. Before becoming an author of historical fiction, he was the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and a global strategy consultant. Based on a true story, The Circumstantial Enemy is an energetic journey to freedom through minefields of hatred, betrayal, lust and revenge. Rich in incident with interludes of rollicking humor, it’s a story about the strength of the human spirit, and the power of friendship, love and forgiveness.