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Interview: Author of John Lennon Series defends her style in books on ex-Beatle

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Jude Southerland Kessler, author of the John Lennon Series, has published three out of nine projected volumes on the life of John Lennon, written in the style of narrative history. “She Loves You,” the third volume about the former Beatle’s life, was the most recent, published in 2013. The John Lennon Examiner talked to Ms. Kessler June 24, 2014, about the genre; she defined it, shared the history of it and explained why it used to be so revered in the days of the Greeks. But most important of all, she explained why it is a factual genre, a legitimate biographical form.

She also talked about the criticism she’s received by people who believe she’s writing “fiction,” driving her to work harder to document her sources diligently for the reader to see. In a world where even the most diligent biographers still struggle with getting Beatles' history straight, Kessler perhaps takes the most heat for her approach. Since she is writing this in novel form, some conversations are created to paint scenes for events that occurred. Even so, the reader feels they are right in the middle of the event.

The first two volumes, “Shoulda Been There” (2008) and “Shivering Inside (2012) chronologically cover the events of John Lennon’s life from his birth October 9, 1940 to April 13, 1963, when Julian was born. The third volume picks up April 30, 1963, on the infamous trip John and Brian Epstein took on holiday to Spain, and ends February 22, 1964 as the Beatles head home to England after their first trip to America. This volume deals with the Beatles’ extraordinary rise to fame.

(The John Lennon Examiner has been given the exclusive right to print one chapter from the book. You can read this chapter by clicking on the article entitled "She Loves You" under suggested reading below.)

Here is our interview:

Examiner: Jude, what is the genre you use for the John Lennon Series?

Kessler: The John Lennon Series is narrative history. It tells John’s story in dramatic form, without altering in any way what actually occurred. ‘Narrative history’ is a genre that has been all but lost. The Greeks prized it, and Thucydides, “The Father of Scientific History,” wrote some of the most outstanding ones (including The History of the Peloponnesian War). Another noted Greek historian, Titus Livius, also mastered the art.

Another noted Greek historian, Titus Livius, also mastered the art. Narrative history is simply this: history written as a story. (Also see “The First Egyptian Narrative History”)

In his noted 1852 work, The Dignity and Importance of History, Shewmaker stated: “History sometimes assumes the dialogue, or dramatic form, and without departing from truth, is embellished by…colloquies or speeches.” In the world’s earliest civilizations, this was an historical art form, much in demand. Why? Because narrative history does not change or add to the truth in any way but tells the exact story of an event in such an interesting way that people want to listen!

Examiner: What about the term “Historic fiction?”

Kessler: The offshoot of the “narrative history” in modern times became the historical novel. In the historical novel, events are supposed or created by a gifted writer who takes real people and then assumes fictional scenarios. In narrative history, each scene actually happened, is documented and footnoted, and is not altered one iota.

Examiner: You do have to create many of the conversations, though, right?

Kessler: Well, some of the conversation is created...because as you'll see in the chapter, a great deal of the conversation is footnoted, so it's actually what they said. In the recording session chapters, ALL of the conversation is exactly what they said, taken from the EMI tapes. So, as much as possible, I use their real words; only some of the conversation is created.

Examiner: Why do you think you’ve gotten so much criticism for your books in the past?

I began The John Lennon Series in 1986, spending 20 years researching Volume 1, “Shoulda Been There.” Seven of those years, I spent flying back and forth to Liverpool, doing interviewing with scores of John’s friends, family members, early band members, and business associates. Each of their personal stories was recorded. Each fact was checked and double checked. And in those 20 years, I collected, read, and took extensive notes from over 500 books on John Lennon and The Beatles; I spent 8 hours a day in secondary research.

But once I released “Shoulda Been There,” I encountered some skeptics who thought it “fiction,” those who thought it was not an historical record. So, in Volume 2, “Shivering Inside,” my work was cut out for me. I began documenting more heavily the myriad facts collected from biographers, historians, and primary sources (John’s contemporaries). Over 300 footnotes within “Shivering Inside” made it clear that the work was not a product of fiction but a serious biography about a serious subject.

By the time I started Volume 3, “She Loves You,” I had grown a solid reader base, but realized that I still had to convince the uniformed that these books were, indeed, historical biographies – not tales – so the number of footnotes and end notes dramatically increased. Obsessively, I supplied the reader with 4,000 footnotes and 22 pages of supplemental documentation. This serious work, I tried to explain, was designed as John’s ultimate biography, not as some “make believe story” about what his life might have been. (Bill Harry dubbed my work as “factional.”)

My uncle, Charles Pierce Roland, a noted historian/author on the Civil War with 12 books under his belt, tried to warn me that I would have an uphill battle in convincing readers that the “narrative format” was concrete history. He advised me to use my degrees in history and English to write yet another biography on John Lennon, in the same manner in which Ray Coleman had written his. But that, I thought, had been done to death. (And since then, it has been done yet again by Spitz, Norman, and others.) I respectfully disagreed and stubbornly persisted in telling John’s story in the revered Greek manner, via the narrative history.

Examiner: What kind of feedback have you gotten recently from fans?

Kessler: This morning I received a telephone call from a reader in New Orleans, Louisiana. The caller said, “I’ve just this minute finished your book,” he said, “and I had to call and tell you that for the last two months, I’ve been with John. I hated to read the last page, because since the first of April, I’ve been there…alongside The Beatles for Sunday Night at the London Palladium, for that crazy tour in ’63, and for the trip to America. I really hated to see it all come to an end. I just loved every page.”

That is what I had hoped for when I began this project 28 years ago. I had always dreamed of bringing John’s life story to life and perhaps – along the way – interesting a few people who might not have otherwise picked up a traditional biography and waded through fact after fact after fact.

Furthermore, I wanted to tell John Lennon’s story not only to Beatle fans but to those who weren’t part of that era or that mania…I wanted to tell his story to anyone who longed to hear about the little boy whom the world battered, the little boy who never gave up.

Many thanks to Jude Southerland Kessler for this interview and the use of her chapter on "Sunday 13 October, 1963, the London Palladium".

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