I’m really excited to be able to interview author Neill McKee as part of his “Guns + Gods Book Tour”. Many people are fascinated with their family trees and their ancestral routes – and author Neill McKee is no different apart from the fact that he has made his ancestral research into a fascinating 15,000 mile road adventure! I found his memoir “Guns And Gods In My Genes” entertaining and I really looked forward to chatting to Neill further. But, before that, here is the official resumé of the book:
Neill McKee, author of the award-winning travel memoir Finding Myself in Borneo, takes the reader through 400 years and 15,000 miles of an on-the-road adventure, discovering stories of his Scots-Irish ancestors in Canada, while uncovering their attitudes towards religion and guns.
His adventure turns south and west as he follows the trail of his maternal grandfather, a Canadian preacher who married an American woman in Wisconsin, and braved the American Wild West from 1904 to 1907, finding a two-story brothel across from one of his churches and a sheriff who owned a saloon and dance hall, while carrying a gun with 20 notches, one for each man he had killed.
Much to his surprise, McKee finds his American ancestors were involved in every major conflict on North American soil: the Civil War, the American Revolution, and the French and Indian War. In the last chapters, McKee discovers and documents his Pilgrim ancestors who arrived on the Mayflower, landing at Plymouth in 1620, and their Puritan descendants who fought in the early Indian Wars of New England.
With the help of professional genealogical research, he tracks down and tells the stories of the heroes, villains, rascals, as well as, the godly and ordinary folk in his genes, discovering many facts and exposing myths. He also lets readers in on a personal struggle: whether to apply for Canadian-United States dual citizenship or remain only a Canadian.
Print Length: 352 Pages
Genre: Historical Travel Memoir
Hi Neill and a warm welcome onto my blog!
Hello, I am Neill, a creative nonfiction writer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I hold a Bachelor’s Degree, from the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada and a Master’s Degree in Communication from Florida State University. I worked internationally for 45 years, becoming an expert in the field of communication for social change. I directed and produced a number of award-winning documentary films/videos and multimedia initiatives, such as the Meena Communication Initiative for the empowerment of young girls in South Asia, that I started when I was with UNICEF in Bangladesh, and the Sara Communication Initiative for the adolescent girl in Africa, that I launched while with UNICEF in Eastern and Southern Africa. You can see some of these entertaining story-based creations on my YouTube account: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCk3WKK72kYsUNAJSZJmm7sA/videos?view=0&sort=p&flow=grid
In total, I worked and lived in Malaysia, Bangladesh, Kenya, Uganda, and Russia for 18 years and traveled from Canada and the US to over 80 countries on short-term assignments. In 2015, I settled in New Mexico, using my varied experiences, memories, and imagination in creative writing.
Who or what inspired you to write “Guns and Gods in My Genes”?
At the end of 2012, when I retired from my 45-year career, I knew I didn’t want to do consulting in my field, as many of my former colleagues have done after retirement. During my career, I had always lacked the time to properly write the stories of my adventures in Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and more recently Russia. I began by writing Finding Myself in Borneo https://www.neillmckeeauthor.com/finding-myself-in-borneo, the story of my first job after university. It has won three awards and gained over 25 five-star reviews.
During 2013-15, I visited my aging mother in Ontario, Canada, traveling from our homeat the time in Maryland, USA. I began research on my ancestors then, going through some of the files my late father had gathered. He came from a farm-based oral story tradition and was always interested in family history, but he never had the time nor the skills to do much research or writing. I discovered the beginnings of some interesting stories in his old files and began to reach out to cousins, one living uncle, and three remaining aunts. I found many leads on both sides of the family and began to interview family members in person, picking up more stories, photos, and records. That’s when I knew I had another book to write. Also, by getting my DNA tested on ancestry.com, I matched some distant cousins who had done the same, and who had additional stories, records, and photos. But I engaged professional genealogists to verify all the main ancestral links.
I really enjoyed reading your memoir, “Guns and Gods in My Genes”. I loved reading about the lives of your ancestors! My “favourite” ancestor of yours whose story made me smile and I could really envisage the scene, was your Canadian preacher maternal grandfather who braves the American Wild West, who had a 2 storey brothel opposite his church and his sheriff was someone who also owned a saloon and dance hall, whilst carrying around a gun with 20 notches, one for each man he killed. Your grandfather must have been horrified! Were there any family ancestors/descendants that you particularly endeared yourself to?
Yes, indeed. My maternal grandma (Haskins) Neill married my grandfather, the guy you are talking about, in Cadott, Wisconsin in 1895. In the book I describe returning to the very church in which they were married, and meeting a very conservative preacher who I don’t think my grandfather would have agreed with – speculation on my part. Well, after braving the Wild West as far as Wyoming, in 1907 my grandfather, Rev. John Addison Neill, took his family back to the more peaceful Ontario, Canada, where he came from, and where gun control and law and order followed more of the original British model. After Grandpa’s death, Grandma Neill spent her last decade in our house, living with her youngest daughter, my mother, and our large family. Grandma Neill was a peaceful soul and very strong in her faith. She never passed judgment on anyone or interfered with our family life. She didn’t like guns and wouldn’t watch anything violent on TV, but didn’t prevent me from watching those old western movies. There’s more on her in another memoir on my childhood and youth coming later this year, probably titled Kid on the Go! My Life Before Borneo. I didn’t know until I started to investigate that she would connect me to so many people who lived, farmed, fought, prayed, and struggled through the history of America, going as far back as passengers on the Mayflower, who left Plymouth, England, and landed in what they named “Plimoth” on the coast of New England, in December 1620 – 400 years ago.
Looking up the family tree and background is an interest of mine also – my maternal grandad always told me that his side of the family were of Portuguese descent but my uncle, who has been looking up the family tree in some detail, discovered connections with Italy instead! During your 15,000 mile on-the-road adventure, did you uncover any myths?
I found many stories on both my father’s side, the McKees, and my mother’s side, the Neills. I had choose those that were related to the theme I chose: guns and gods (i.e. religiosity.) However, if I just stuck with the lives of my male ancestry lineage, I don’t think I would have had much of a book. Tackling the more difficult job of researching female lineage led me to many great discoveries. It’s not that I found any popular heroines, but by following the families who married into the Neill line, I discovered ancestors who fought in the Civil War, the American Revolution, the French and Indian War (the Seven Year’s War in North America), and the first bloody conflicts between the Puritan settlers and Native Americans in New England. I also found some admirable ancestors who fought the growing fanaticism of the Puritans, and in the book I debunk many myths on the English Puritans who settled in New England. Few of them wore those black and white clothes we see in paintings, and they did not land on a rock. They were pretty militant and few of the original settlers were in favor of full separation from the Church of England. The first Thanksgiving was more like a three-day rowdy English country harvest festival with many games, beer drinking, and eating of venison, fish, and corn—most of it contributed by the Wampanoag Indians who outnumbered the English. The old paintings of the first Thanksgiving we are used to, with the English seated at a table, and Indians standing in the background, while all giving thanks to God, is inaccurate.
Have you made up your mind about applying for dual citizenship yet? What made you feel that you needed to have a dual citizenship?
Having both Canadian and American citizenship gives you the right to vote in both countries. I discovered through my 15,000-mile four-century search that I descend from some of the original American settlers, but not the Native Americans, whose land my ancestors stole. The pro-con debate about becoming an American citizen is a kind of tension with me as I undertake the discovery journey in my book. There is a decision in the last chapter, but I would rather not say. That would be classified as a “spoiler” to those who have not read the book.
Growing up, did you envisage yourself as a writer or did you have other career aspirations?
Not at all. In fact, I was only average in reading and writing and read very few books, besides comics. It wasn’t until near the end of secondary school that I became interested in literature and writing. I was inspired by a great English teacher but didn’t know what I wanted to do while I was in university, so after graduating, I headed to Sabah, Malaysia (formerly British North Borneo) as a volunteer teacher. That’s where I made my first documentary film. I started writing more technical books and articles on development communication midway through my career, but never began writing creative nonfiction until I retired at the end of 2012. I’m still in touch with my old English teacher who inspired me over 55 years ago and he gives me great reviews.
Is “Guns and Gods In My Genes” available to purchase worldwide?
Yes. Here is a link: https://www.neillmckeeauthor.com/buy-the-book-2
You have also lived and worked in Malaysia, Bangladesh, Kenya, Uganda and Russia. Plus you have travelled to over 80 countries on short term assignments. If you could visit any place in the world, where would you go and why?
I’d like to say that I would return to Kota Belud, Sabah, Malaysia where I “found myself,” but I finished that book. I am writing another memoir now on my international career as a filmmaker and multimedia producer and it would be good to travel to some of the places where I lived and worked. More realistically, given the Covid-19 restrictions right now, I will have to rely on old letters, trip reports, and hopefully get to a collection of about 45,000 photos I took, which are housed in a library in Ottawa. That should jog my memory enough, rather than jogging the old body more than required!
You have now settled in New Mexico – what do you enjoy most about living in New Mexico?
I find the sun, mountains, desert landscapes, and ethnic mix of people in New Mexico so interesting. In the last chapter of my book, I mention that it’s something I want to write about, as well. I think about that when I am walking one morning. Here are two paragraphs from that chapter:
As I trudge along, I think of the historic land I’ve moved to and long-ago conflicts among the original inhabitants: the many tribes and linguistic groups of the Pueblo, probably the oldest surviving human culture in North America; the Navajo and the Apache—Athabaskans who migrated from the north about 1,300 years ago. Then, in the mid-1500s, Spanish settlers arriving after the explorer, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, with muskets, cannons, and Catholic priests; followed by Latinos, a few French-Canadians, English-speaking white Americans—so-called “Anglos”—some African-Americans, and more recently immigrants from just about everywhere.
I’m presently reading about all this: How the Anglos, who brought New Mexico a plethora of protestant churches, fought the Navajo and Apache in devasting wars. In the late 1800s, they also created or attracted many characters of America’s gunslinging past—Billy the Kid, Pat Garret, Doc Holliday, Kit Carson, Jesse James, Bob Ford, Wyatt Earp, the Durango Kid, and Wild Bill Hickok—even Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane. These outlaws, killers, frontiersmen, freelance lawmen, sharp shooters, and bounty hunters, who sparked my childhood fascination with guns in the many movies and television shows I watched, had all been here. When I drive through the deserts, grasslands, and scrub forests of my new homeland, I can easily imagine them riding the range beside me.
Links you would like to share e.g. website/facebook etc
Author’s website: www.neillmckeeauthor.com/
NBFS: www.northborneofrodotolkien.org J.R.R. Tolkien joined my society! (Another story in Finding Myself in Borneo.)
Thank you so much for the chat and the copy of your book “Guns And Gods In My Genes” to review. I was so impressed with your memoir that I have already downloaded your first memoir, “Finding Myself In Borneo”!
All photographs have been published with kind permission of Neill McKee.
March 15th @ My Writer Blog