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Interview: Les Allen talks about If That's What It Takes

Les Allen lives in Blockhouse Bay, Auckland. He has been married to Jenny for 41 years and has five children as well as five grandchildren. He has worked at a variety of law firms and since 1986 has been a partner in Gaze Burt, a medium-sized Auckland law firm.

A lifelong tennis tragic (these days just as a spectator), his interests include law, family, music, gardening (more from necessity than enjoyment), table tennis, reading and now writing books. Les talks to NZ Booklovers.

Tell us a little about If That’s What It Takes.

It's the intertwined story of three people. It starts with Sean McBride, an SAS soldier faced with an agonising choice as he watches from a helicopter far above an IRA funeral in the 1970s.

He moves to New Zealand under a false identity, becomes a private investigator and forms an unlikely alliance with a small-town lawyer, Jim Mansell and Jim's unconventional secretary Kelly Parker. They soon find themselves locked in conflict, first with a client and then with someone much closer to home. Then follows a battle with Jim's nemesis Ivan Franich, a wealthy businessman represented by a mega law firm with far more resources than Jim.

At times Jim is dragged through the courts, taking him out of his comfort zone as he is not a court lawyer. In desperation his unholy alliance sometimes has to resort to Sean's dirty tricks and sometimes to Kelly's lateral ideas. Meanwhile Sean has problems of his own as his past is slowly but surely catching up on him.

What inspired you to write this book?

I felt I had a story to tell. I had seen the best and the worst of human nature in the course of legal practice over 45 years and couldn’t see anything similar in any New Zealand books or movies. I also wanted to show what can happen behind the scenes in a law firm.

Television and movies don't give any idea of what it is like to work in law in New Zealand. They give the impression that every lawyer does court work, handling murder cases. The reality is that the majority of New Zealand lawyers do civil cases not criminal cases and even court lawyers complain that they aren't in court very often. Having said that, there is quite a bit of courtroom drama in If That's What it Takes as well.

What research was involved?

To write about the event set in Ireland I relied heavily on Irish newspapers from the time, as it was an actual historical event that shocked the world. Then I watched the old YouTube video of the IRA funeral, all vividly shot from the British Army helicopter overhead. I also read 8-9 non fiction books on the Troubles in Ireland in the 1970s.

As the book is mainly set in Northland a lawyer friend took me on a road trip, twice, to refamiliarise myself with that area.

A court lawyer friend checked any courtroom parts of the book for authenticity and a judge kindly checked any parts falling within his specialty area.

A barrister friend specialising in intellectual property checked the book, as one subplot involves a large company copying a welding machine invented by one of Jim's clients. I went on-site to watch and video one of my clients welding large metal pipes. I described the welding process in the book and ran the description past my client.

I had to check many aspects of 1980s New Zealand culture, usually by the internet.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I was too tired to write at nights after concentrating for a whole day at work. Eventually I had to write during holidays and weekends. That wasn't much fun but I knew it was the only way that I would finish the book. I admire other authors who who put me to shame by rising at dawn to write their books.

Although I am a dinosaur who still can't touch-type despite a fruitless attempt to learn, I typed the entire manuscript. I ran it past my editor Barbara Unkovic plus friends and family, then did endless rewrites before I was satisfied.

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

I suppose Colin Farrell could play Sean, Sam Neill could play Jim Mansell and Kate Winslet could play Kelly. I await their phone calls. Maybe Taika Waititi will want the film rights!

What did you enjoy the most about writing If That’s What It Takes NZ?

Dealing with old friends and new in the course of my research and our roadies around Northland. Also writing the dialogue. For some reason I enjoy writing dialogue set in heated conflict situations.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

A book launch with friends, family and work colleagues in appreciation of their support.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

The Other Hand by Chris Cleave. I have huge admiration for anyone who could develop fascinating characters in such an absorbing story, sometimes hilarious and sometimes intense.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

As people have enjoyed the characters in my first book, I am starting work on a prequel. (It worked for Star Wars!) The only trouble is that as I take forever to write a book, I'll need to start writing on weekends and holidays again. Still, if that's what it takes...


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