Billy McErlane is the protagonist of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. I got to know Billy quite well while I was writing the book, and not just because he came into the room where I write (the one I laughably refer to as my office) and talked to me until the book was finished. Between Billy and me we decided to make him (a) a celeb and (b) a photographer. An old friend of mine, who really is a photographer (and a really good one) – his name, if you’re interested, is Jeff Drabble and he’s in New Zealand – asked me this morning why I had made Billy a photographer. I tried to explain how the demands of plot development had required that Billy take pics rather than, say, write novels (which had in fact been his first ambition) but I hope I also got across that it isn’t really that simple. Be that as it may, a photographer is what Billy turned out to be and while I am also a keen snapper (though nothing on the Jeff Drabble scale) I felt I needed to get closer to Billy’s life. So I went with him. This passage appears in the book (which is written in the first person in Billy’s voice):
McErlane’s agent, Jessica Robinson, has assembled a line of prints featuring some of the best of his recent portraits and is making them available through retail outlets at prices that mean no home need be without its McErlane. The example shown here, The Future, is one of these and is available, framed and ready to hang, at only £60.
The picture she’d chosen was one I was particularly pleased with. It showed a man on a hillside, back to the camera, looking into the distance. Nothing of his face was visible, and the idea you got was of someone staring towards what might be. He was wearing a hip-length red coat, black jeans, white trainers and a brown hat with an absolutely flat brim. Two dogs were close to his feet.
That description didn’t come out of nowhere; in fact I had taken that pic on a hillside about 3 miles from where I live. Here it is:
A little later, we get this:
I turned from the track and we walked along a broad belt of grass with trees to the side until we came to a fence, at which point I had to get the camera in both hands again because beyond the fence was a group of buildings in an open field that said everything the editor paying for my trip wanted to know about how the past could exist harmoniously in the present.
Once again, Billy is describing a photograph that I took (very early on a frosty morning):
I don’t know to what extent every writer does this but I can’t write without getting inside the head of my characters and sometimes that means living the lives they lead – walking in their shoes. From time to time, I do wonder whether I’m entirely sane. But, then – who is?