From the true story of a tragic young Northern Ireland nurse to an ex-prisoner’s change of heart and a biography of Jeffrey Donaldson, meet the ex-headmaster who has penned more than 30 bestselling books
School principal turned best-selling author Noel Davidson's 31 books include tales of triumph and tragedy - and the authorised biography of MP Jeffrey Donaldson. Now, as he plans to retire, the 76-year-old, who lives in Larne with wife Liz, tells Judith Cole about the inspirations behind his work
Noel Davidson is adamant. "This is it, no more books," he says. But then he breaks into a smile and adds: "I think." The prolific writer of Christian books has just launched the 31st and, allegedly, final book of a career spanning decades, during which he has published mainly biographies as well as a number of history books.
His latest, The Fifth Pillar, is the true story of a young Arab Muslim, Nabil, who turned his back on his strict religious heritage to become a Christian. Although Nabil and his wife can never return to his native Syria, because it could cost them their lives, they work as missionaries, spreading their new-found faith.
Noel had intended to retire from writing after his 30th book, Joy Without Measure, came out last year. His wife, Liz, who has been a vital part of his career, proofreading all his books, was recovering from major surgery.
"On the night of the book launch, Liz was in hospital and it was the first book launch that she wasn't there with me," the author explains. I sat in the car outside Lurgan Elim Church, where the event was, and I said 'that's it'.
"Liz has been there with me every step of the way. She has proofread all my books and, if something didn't sound right, she would say so. She has been a wonderful support.
"But then, Nabil, who had published his book initially in 1998, approached me and wanted it updated and, well, I agreed."
Noel was the eldest of three boys born in Banbridge to Christian parents, and he too made a profession of faith, aged 12, after a service in Banbridge Gospel Hall.
The family moved to Ballymoney when Noel was 17 because of his father's work, and it wasn't very long before he met his future wife at his new school, Dalriada.
Noel and Elizabeth McComb, as she was, completed their senior certificate together, entered Stranmillis College on the same day and graduated as primary teachers on the same day in 1962.
While they began work some distance apart - Liz at Linn Primary School in Larne, Noel in Londonderry - they were soon married, in 1964, and set up home together in Larne.
Noel then joined his wife at Linn Primary and, some years later, they both moved to the newly built Antiville Primary, where Liz taught P1 and Noel P7.
"Liz started them off and I saw them out," he jokes.
Life was busy both at work and at home as the couple had two sons, Mark and Paul (and, later, four grandchildren).
Although Noel had gained a degree in English, for which he wrote a thesis on the art of biography, he never thought he would apply it in his own working life. However, his writing career began through most heartbreaking circumstances.
One of his pupils at Linn Primary, Heather Kerr (nee McClure), whose parents were family friends of the Davidsons, was diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of 30. She was a nurse at the Waveney Hospital, Ballymena, and was married with two young children.
The families kept in touch as Heather battled the disease and then, one day, she told Noel that she believed she had been healed.
"I had read another great story about healing, so I said to her 'somebody should write your story'," Noel recalls. "She said 'would you do it? You're the only person I know who could'.
"This was 1987 - I began writing Heather's story over the following months. However, in November 1988, I walked into the kitchen one day and Liz was very upset. She told me that Heather had been on the phone to tell us that she'd received the worst news - doctors had told her that they couldn't do any more for her. Tragically, she died on December 1.
"The book I'd been writing was about healing and triumph, so I decided to leave it. I thought that was the end of it. Then, the following Easter, Heather's husband, Hugh, phoned and told me he wanted to go ahead with the book because he believed the Lord had healed her, just not in the way we had expected. He said that he and her parents wanted the book to be a tribute to Heather.
"Although I'd only got halfway through the book, I took out my files and started again. Heather was a wonderful Christian woman who was full of joy - her faith was tested to the limit during her illness, but I could see plainly that through it all her reliance on God and her deep inner joy never faded."
The book was finished by December 1990, the same year Noel became principal at Antiville Primary. However, he didn't know how to proceed in terms of publishing.
He explains: "Hugh told me to go to a man he knew in a Christian bookshop in Ballymena for advice. In my naivety I set out with my only typed script, in a Wellworths bag, and handed it over to this man in the shop.
"I forgot about it until a couple of months later, when I got a phone call from Samuel Lowry of Ambassador Publications. He said 'Mr Davidson, I don't think we can publish this - it's too sad'. I refused to be put off and persuaded him to have another look. Two weeks later, he said he would publish the book.
"To my astonishment, 3,000 copies of My Father's Hand were printed by May, and they were all sold by August. Another 3,000 were published in September and were sold before Christmas."
Soon, Ambassador was on the phone again with another book idea - this time the story of George Bates, who had overcome terrible struggles in the 1960s to become an evangelical preacher. The book, entitled This is For Real, was published in 1992 and was the best-seller in Christian bookshops over Christmas that year.
Noel's most popular book was Some Party in Heaven, which came out in 1995. This was the story of the Arnold family, whose first and third sons were born with cerebral palsy and died, aged six and three, within nine days of each other. Making their way home after their second funeral in just over a week, the children's father, Hertford, looked at the dramatic sunset that evening and said: "There's some party in heaven today and we have two sons there."
The book, about how the family turned to God to overcome the immense tragedy they faced, marked a turning point in Noel's life. Then in his 50s, Ambassador offered him full-time employment as an author, which he accepted after taking early retirement from school.
He was expected to write one book every year and did so until 2000, when three books were published. One was Out of the Maze, about prisoner Thomas Martin, who left behind a dark past when he came to faith in Christ, and another was Back from the Brink, the story of a drug addict. The third was The Tangled Lamb, the story of Joanna Maciantowicz who was raised in Communist Poland and, in searching for some meaning to life, went on pilgrimages and studied oriental religions. However, at university she became friends with people who met for Bible study and it was through this that she became a Christian. Joanna then met and married Northern Ireland man Colin Tinsley, and the couple work full-time in young people's ministry.
Noel took a different turn in 2001 when he wrote I Believe God, which was, unusually, an 'autobiography' of the Apostle Paul. He put himself into Paul's shoes and wrote his life story as though Paul was the author himself. "Some leading Christian people said it was the best book I'd ever written because it made the book of Acts live for them," Noel recalls. "But it didn't sell very well - Sam Lowry and I came to the conclusion that it was because people thought it was a Bible study book or a commentary."
Noel returned to the modern-day for a book in 2004, the authorised biography of Jeffrey Donaldson MP which was entitled Not by Might: A Journey in Faith and Politics.
"He would give me an hour once every three weeks," says Noel. "Then he'd take what I'd written, read it on the plane and phone me the next day to let me know what he thought."
Another big seller, this time in 2008, was A Little Child Shall Lead Them, the story of Trevor and Esther Gillanders, who came to serve the Lord through the death of their little boy.
Noel faced uncertain times the following March when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and was told that he needed an urgent operation. However, he had planned to visit Sydney, Australia, in May to launch his book Vibrant Grace: The Inspiring Story of Pacific Hills Christian School.
"In June I was back home and had the surgery, but there were horrible complications - I thought my writing career was finished, I thought I would never be well again," the author says. But after a prolonged recovery, Noel was approached in October 2009 to write the story of a young mother, Alison Watson, who had suffered cancer and kept a diary about her difficult journey.
"I had not expected to write again, but I believe the Lord prepared me for this because I'd been to some of the same places in Belfast City Hospital for treatment as Ali had, which meant I had a deeper insight into her experiences," he says.
"We called the book Mummy's Not Sick Anymore because, after Ali died, one of her young sons was walking to school with a friend when he said these words - his father had told him that she'd gone to heaven and therefore would never be sick again."
How did writing about all these tragic situations affect Noel - did his own faith waver?
"It strengthened my faith," he says. "When I witnessed the faith of the parents, the families, and what they'd come through, it let me see how real faith in God was a wonderful thing to have.
"Others in that situation who have no faith have nowhere to turn.
"I've tried to show the amazing grace and love of God in my writing. I always sign Psalm 118 verse 23 on my books, which says 'This is the Lord's doing, it is marvellous in our eyes'. After my first book came out, Heather's husband wrote to me and thanked me - he quoted this verse in his letter and that's why I sign all my books with it.
"It has been proven all the time for me. God has led me in every way. So many people have come to know the Lord as a result of reading the books - and I take no glory for any of that. It is all God's doing."
The Fifth Pillar, Ambassador International, £9.99