I’ve been writing – fiction and non-fiction – for a long time. My first sale was an article to Good Housekeeping. I didn’t realise till later that I was starting at the top and would have to work very hard to stay there. If you’d like to hear the very first thing I ever sold to the BBC you can download it here. And I can go back further than that, to the age of ten when I read a story of mine from the stage of Benton Park Primary School in Newcastle upon Tyne to the assembled pupils and parents. Whatever I’ve written has always been full of false starts – an opening chapter or chapters that were only there as scaffolding to get the story going and had disappeared by the time I finally wrote END on the bottom of the last page.
The Making of Billy McErlane was different – and a very odd experience. I wrote the first sentence: All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers. Then I sat there staring at it thinking, “Where on earth did that come from?” Then I wrote the rest of the first chapter. And it’s all still there. I started writing Billy Mac in 2013, it was published on February 1st 2015 and the opening line and chapter are exactly what they were when I started writing. That has never happened to me before.
All the way through the writing, editing and rewriting, the protagonist – Billy – was looking over my shoulder. There never was a Billy, he’s one hundred per cent my invention, but the was there. There. Watching what I was doing. Talking to me. “Tell them about the anger management.” “Don’t forget the bike.” “I didn’t know Regus then – that came later.”
I’ve had this experience of characters talking to me, guiding me, again since then – I’m currently polishing Darkness Comes and I couldn’t have written that in anything like its present form if I hadn’t had Barabbas and Ras Tafar butting in with their comments and demands, but Billy was the first. He took me to a new level of intensity in my writing. I’m grateful to him, though the experience was a bit like banging your head against a wall – nice when it stops.