Chit Chatting with Neill McKee

 Chit Chatting with Neill McKee

Interview by: Jill Sheets

J: Tell us about yourself.

N: I guess you could call me a world wanderer from Canada. I was never happy staying in one place, beginning in my early years, as I have described in Kid on the Go! Memoir of My Childhood and Youth. I was a mischievous child and a rebel in my youth, but I began to think differently in senior high school with the help of my English teacher and other mentors. I was rather lost in my university days—didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, until I saw a poster to apply to become a volunteer teacher overseas, much like the Peace Corps in the US, but with no compulsion to escape the draft for the Vietnam War. At the end of the memoir, in 1968, I head off to the exotic island of Borneo in Southeast Asia to teach secondary school, an experienced that changed my life. My award-winning memoir, Finding Myself in Borneo: Sojourns in Sabah, tells readers how it all happened—a maturing experience. It also documents how I started to make 16mm films for my agency, Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO). I borrowed my American Peace Corps housemate’s 16mm camera. That first film, although pretty shoddy, led me to a career in filmmaking and multimedia production.

 J: Why did you get into filmmaking?

N:  That’s a good question. From the time I was a small boy, I loved to go to the cinema in our small town to watch cowboy and other action films. In 1953, when my parents bought a TV for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, I started to spend as much time as I was allowed watching action and comedy programs. I seldom read books and was a mediocre student, mainly because I found school boring. I never studied filmmaking but had a natural ability to frame a good shot. I really learned by editing my first few films, and getting excellent feedback from my supervisor and a woman editor who mentored me in an Ottawa studio. A good part of it was luck, I believe—the right place at the right time. Filmmaking became my key to seeing the wider world.

J:  Tell us about your book "My University of The World."

N: My University of the World: Adventures of an International Film & Media Maker is a stand-alone sequel to the other two memoirs mentioned above. (All three books can be enjoyed in any order you read them.) It is composed of 28 short chapters, an epilogue, and has over 200 images from my career. It covers my years making six films for CUSO in Asia and Africa, and my marriage to Elizabeth, an American woman I met in Japan. Her life with me and her growth as an artist, as well as our children’s lives, are also covered in my book. Chapters 8 to 20 document my time as a filmmaker for Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), when I roamed the developing world and to make about 30 films on many research projects in education, rural development, agriculture, post-harvest technology, fisheries and aquaculture, health care, water and sanitation—the list goes on. Some of my creations won awards. I have written these stories to allow the reader to get a sense of the challenges I encountered as a “one-man crew” at the beginning, at least. I kept the chapters light on technical details and full of humorous and poignant incidents. In each chapter, I also included how IDRC projects made an impact, or not.

After a mid-career change, completing a master’s in Communication at Florida State University during 1987-88 (Chapter 20), the next three chapters document my time as a multimedia producer, leading teams of people in UNICEF in Bangladesh and Eastern and Southern Africa, and how my family adapted to a very different and interesting life. Then in 2001, we headed to Maryland, USA, where I worked for Johns Hopkins University doing similar work, mainly in Asia, until in 2004, when I was asked to take over a project in Moscow, Russia—so off Elizabeth and I went once again to a very different culture and a language we knew nothing much about, while Vladimir Putin was tightening the screws on everything. My final job is described in a rather dramatic way when I was asked to save an even larger project in Washington, D.C., during 2009-2012. By then I had learned a lot about managing people and, I have to admit, sometimes I missed my years as a “lone-wolf” filmmaker at the beginning of my career.

J:  What was your favorite place to visit?

N: I would have to say it is Sabah, Malaysia, on Borneo Island, and the small town, Kota Belud, near the coast of the South China Sea. That’s were I “found myself,” learning Malay language and teaching beautiful students, visiting their kampongs, roaming around on my motorcycle, climbing Mount Kinabalu—the highest in Southeast Asia, having a few love affairs, and making my first film. 

J:  What surprised you most about the places you visited?

N: It was the wonderfully accepting and interesting people I met and worked with—multi-ethnic faces and personalities, who still return to me in my dreams.

J:  Tell us about some of your other books.

N:  The only one I haven’t mentioned above is my travel memoir on tracing my ancestors: Guns and Gods in My Genes: A 15,000-mile North American Search Through Four Centuries of History, to the Mayflower. After I retired I visited my mother, siblings, and cousins in Canada and started to research the many stories I had heard as a child about our ancestors in Canada and my maternal grandmother, who was born in Wisconsin. Through much travel and genealogical research, I found a 9th great-grandfather who arrived on the Mayflower. This book also won awards.  

J: What is your writing process?  Do you outline or just start to write?

N: I do a lot of research and make notes, searching through old letters, trip reports and ask questions by email to family and former colleagues. Then I develop an outline and start writing. (In the case of Guns and Gods in My Genes, I also traveled to the places where my ancestors lived to meet distant cousins and historians, and take photos.) I write chapter and sometimes send them out for feedback. I often reorder the content and sequence of chapters. I recreate dialog, attempting to stay as close as possible to how I remember it, or imagine if I wasn’t there. As a creative nonfiction writer, I can reorganize the sequence of events or combine events, as long as they really happened. When I am ready, I send the MS to my editor who often makes many changes in order and puts in suggestions for transitions or new paragraphs. I either accept or reject these, and sometimes they lead me to write something different. Many drafts later, I send the MS to her again for a final look. (Between the two of us and, we take care of the proofreading. I haven’t had much luck with professional proofreaders.) Then it is off to my great designers! 

J:  What are you currently working on?

N: I have been reading a lot on Southwest and New Mexico history and have started to formulate another book. I can’t decide whether it will be nonfiction or historical fiction, but it will involve traveling around our enchanting state. I’m not in a rush because I have to first spend time promoting My University of the World and my other memoirs.

J: Where can people get more information about you and your books?

N: My website contains summaries, reviews, blogs, interviews and places to buy my books in paperback, ebook, and two as audiobooks. My University of the World is also available as a hardcover. Take a look here: I have also created a website for viewing most of my films and media projects:

J: Anything else you would like to add?

N: I think I have written enough. Thanks for your interest and all the questions!

J:  Thank you for the interview.  Have a great day.


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