John as child on beachJohn Pilkington was born in Preston, into one of the oldest Lancashire families. His father, later a hotelier, was then a director of the family’s cotton mill, established by their Victorian forbears. That was in Leyland, more famous for motor manufacturing, where John grew up in the 1950s, the eldest of four children. He attended private schools until the age of ten, when his parents’ separation forced a radical change in circumstances. Thereafter he took his eleven-plus, attended grammar school and emerged in the 60s as a rebellious (and confused) teenager obsessed with pop music. He played drums, then guitar with various bands until the mid-1970’s, before finally accepting that he wasn’t likely to become a rock star. Fortunately, by then he’d acquired an interest in writing, having already scribbled poetry and song lyrics.

Throughout this period, and until he began writing full-time, he held various jobs including laboratory assistant, farm worker, weaver in a carpet factory, garage attendant, shipping clerk, accounts clerk, picture-frame maker and (briefly) cabaret musician. While living in London he had a notion to try script-writing and started attending a writers’ course, which led to his first radio play being accepted by the BBC. Soon afterwards, as a mature student, he took a degree in Drama and English, followed by a master’s degree at the University of London. He helped found a short-lived theatre-in-education group, with whom he acted and directed Twelfth Night for a schools tour. Then, with the acceptance of a second radio play in the mid-80s, he finally committed himself to a writing career. More radio plays led to theatre work, and later to television script-writing (see DRAMA page). He also taught writing courses and ran workshops in London and the South-west.

Since 2000 he has concentrated mainly on historical fiction, having developed a keen interest in the 16th and 17th centuries which he came to initially through their rich vein of drama and poetry. His first novel The Ruffler’s Child (Robert Hale) was published in 2002 and went on to be translated and recorded as an audio-book. Thereafter he has produced at least one book a year, branching into children’s fiction with the Elizabethan Mysteries (Usborne), one of which was shortlisted for the 2010 Young Quills award.


By way of attempting to answer the questions people sometimes ask, he offers the following:

I live in a village on a tidal estuary in Devon with my long-term partner Lisa, a retired librarian and jazz aficionado; we have a son, Nicholas, who is a musician, composer and tutor. I read a lot, listen to music and sometimes travel in order to research my next book (a good excuse for a holiday, anyway). I’m a compulsive crossword solver; I also tinker with carpentry and DIY projects and, late in life, have started taking piano lessons.

My work-room is a small study converted from a back bedroom. One wall is covered with cork on which I pin maps, illustrations, notes, cuttings – whatever helps me with the piece of writing I’m engaged on. I usually work office hours, writing in the mornings and editing in the afternoons before escaping from my desk to walk. I write directly on to the computer and edit by hand from a hard copy.

I do a lot of background reading and research for the novels. I’m obsessed with maps, and need to know the topography of where a book will be set. I build up a file of notes, pictures, character sketches and a timeline from which (hopefully) the plot will grow. I usually set each book in a particular year and research the events so that, as a general rule, whatever happens in my story could feasibly have occurred in that year. I value first-hand research and visit locations, handling period artefacts if allowed. I believe the novelist has a responsibility to historical accuracy, as far as it’s possible.

Among the many authors who have, in one way or another, been an influence, are: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Milton, Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde, D.H. Lawrence, William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac, Graham Greene, John Updike, George Orwell, Don deLillo, Joyce Carey, P.G. Wodehouse, V.S. Naipaul, James Joyce, Henrik Ibsen, Bertolt Brecht, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, John leCarré, Hilary Mantel, Rose Tremain, Alan Bennett and Michael Morpurgo.

Advice for aspiring writers:

I find it hard to give any – I’m not even sure that I should; but here goes. Do you want to write, or do you merely want to ‘be a writer’? If you truly want to write, you will do so anyway. You need to be clear about the sort of writing you want to do: try out various genres to see which satisfies you most. And read a lot, too. There’s no short cut to developing a workable style; as with most endeavours, you get better with practice. Make a regular time to write, somewhere you won’t be disturbed, and don’t let anyone put you off. After that it’s down to application and persistence – and of course, talent.