When my daughter was nine, we moved house. For the previous year or so she had told us that her ambition was to be a doctor; she returned home on the first day at her new school and said she planned to be a nurse. I said, ‘What happened to being a doctor?’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Boys become doctors. Girls become nurses.’ I took her out of that school and sent her to one that accepted only girls and they set about the business of reinstating her ambition and sense of self-worth. I mean nothing derogatory towards nurses (and in fact a senior practice nurse is what my daughter became, and I’m proud of her); my problem was with people who limit a person’s ambition for no other reason than that the person lacks testicles.
I wrote The Making of Billy McErlane before Sharon Wright: Butterfly but Shazza was published first for reasons that don’t matter here. Billy Mac is the story of a young man who overcomes the disadvantages of an appalling home background, achieves his ambition and shines in the world. I wanted to write a similar book about a young woman and that book became Sharon Wright: Butterfly.
Like so much else, it’s learned behaviour
It’s true that Sharon puts herself first but that wasn’t always so – it’s learned behaviour. If she had always put herself first she would have taken the opportunity to go to college and lead, far from the place where she grew up, a life of the kind her schoolmates could only dream of. Just like Billy does. She would not have made her sad marriage to Buggy, the Loser’s Loser, and might instead have found someone to love with whom she could share a rewarding life. Just like Billy does. Only when she sees what other people are getting out of life does she begin to plot a better future for herself – but when she does begin, no holds are barred. She plans her wooing of Jackie Gough the way a female mantis might stalk the male, with every intention of having him for lunch when he’s served his purpose.
Sharon: I’m a woman, and I’m blonde. Well, men think I’m blonde
She’s helped by the fact that she understands the men in her life much better than they understand her. She says, ‘Jackie. You know what I’ve learned? Started learning when I first went to school, and went on learning? Men need to think I’m dumb. Because I’m a woman, and I’m blonde, well, men think I’m blonde, and I like to spend a lot of time on my back with my legs in the air, and I like men for what they have that makes them men, I have to be dumb. Well, I’m not dumb.’
And Jackie has begun to realise that dumb is the last thing she is. Then she says, ‘I pretend to be, if that’s the game the man needs me to play. But what I really want is to play the game where we’re both smart and we both know we’re both smart. Think you can play that game with me, Jackie? Please?’
And Jackie says he can. Because Jackie thinks he understands Sharon and he thinks she’s going to play the game his way.
I’m on Sharon’s side. How about you?
Find Sharon Wright: Butterfly here.
How do you choose the next book to read?
If you’re anything like me, it’s a fairly random process – but you do have a small number of authors whose books you know you’re going to want to read as soon they come out. For example, I’ve just finished The Dark Angel, the latest in the Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths. I pre-ordered it the day it was announced, because I’ve read all the earlier Ruth Galloway books and I knew I’d want to read this one. (I’ve finished it now, and it did not disappoint).
There aren’t many authors like that – names that are so reliable that you know the book is going to be a great read. Elly Griffiths is one. Jane Davis is another. I first came to her books when I read, I Stopped Time. On 12 April 2018, she’s releasing her new book, Smash all the Windows and you can pre-order it here at a special price. I’ve never met Jane (I’ve never met Elly Griffiths, either), but we have corresponded a couple of times (she put me onto the designer of the cover for The Making of Billy McErlane) and that gave me the courage to ask about the new book – where it came from, and how she went about writing it. Those are interesting questions in Jane’s case, because – unlike most authors – she doesn’t write the same book again and again. Since winning the Daily Mail First Novel Award 2008 with her first book, Half-truths & White Lies, everything she has written has been a new attempt to tell her own truth in her own way. This is what she had to say.
Jane Davis talking about Smash all the Windows
My advice if you’re embarking on a novel? Stick to fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian fiction, anything. Just don’t meddle in current affairs.
My novel began with outrage. I remember that so vividly. I was appalled by the reaction of the press to the outcome of the second Hillsborough inquest. Microphones were thrust at the families of the victims as they emerged from the courtroom. It was put to them that, now it was ‘all over’, they could finally get on with their lives. ‘What lives?’ I yelled at the television. Were they talking about the lives that the families enjoyed before the tragedy? Because they clearly no longer existed. And neither did the lives that they might have expected.
For those who don’t know about the Hillsborough disaster, a crush occurred at Hillsborough football stadium during the 1989 FA Cup semi-final, killing 96 fans. Particularly shocking at a time that pre-dated the internet was how the disaster played out in real-time in living rooms the length and breadth of the country. The moment the severity of the incident became apparent to senior police officers, there was a cover-up. With no reason to doubt incoming information, sports commentators simply repeated the lies they were fed. Liverpool fans were to blame. From that time onwards, everything done perpetuated a myth, making scapegoats out of victims and survivors alike. It would be twenty-seven years before the record was set record straight.
Elizabeth Strout, an author I greatly admire, warns her writing students, ‘You can’t write fiction and be careful. You just can’t. I think actually the biggest challenge a writer has is to not be careful.’ And I agree. I really do. But none of us exists in a vacuum. The pain I saw on the faces of family members in the aftermath of the second inquest, twenty-seven years after the disaster, was raw. My favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’. Making things up is what I do. And so I combined two of my fears – travelling in rush hour by Tube, and escalators – and created a fictional disaster from which to tell my story.
The previous year, I had suffered a fall on my way to a book-reading in Covent Garden. I was overloaded, having just finished a day’s work in the city. I was carrying my laptop bag, my briefcase, plus a suitcase full of books. The escalator I normally use was out of order. Instead we were diverted to one that was obviously much steeper but I wasn’t prepared for how much faster it would go. I pushed my suitcase in front of me and, holding onto the handle, was dragged off-balance. Fortunately, there was no one directly in front of me. A few bruises and a pair of laddered lights aside, I escaped unscathed. But I can still recall the moment I knew I was about to fall and the recognition that there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it.
Even while avoiding writing about Hillsborough, I intended that my fictional disaster would share many common elements. Because both incidents happened before the explosion of the internet, people’s voices weren’t heard as they would be today. Photographs weren’t taken on mobile phones and posted online. In both instances there was someone in a position of seniority who was new to the job. There were elements of institutionalised complacency. (It’s said that the most dangerous sentence in the English language is ‘But we’ve always done things that way.’) Facilities dated from decades when the relationship between pedestrian traffic-flow and human space requirements wasn’t as well understood as it is today. Risk assessments had failed to consider the possibility that more than thing might go wrong at any given time and how multiple-casualty emergencies would be dealt with. Both disasters blighted the lives of many hundreds – survivors, witnesses, families, friends and the police, doctors and nurses who had to deal with the aftermath. I wanted to reflect the extraordinary pressure endured by the Hillsborough families following their treatment when searching for loved ones. Similar insensitive treatment was seen in the aftermath of tragedies such as Lockerbie/PanAm and The Marchioness). This has led to a report calling for three crucial cultural changes: a charter for families bereaved by public tragedy; provision for proper participation of bereaved families at inquests and the creation of a ‘duty of candour’ for police officers.
But even when writing about a fictional incident, I soon found myself facing difficulties of a different kind. Broadcasts and broadsheets were dominated by large-scale disasters, many of them terrorist attacks. Paris was already on my mind, but Nice, Berlin, Manchester… Then in May 2017 came the London Bridge attack, an incident that took place within the setting for my novel. I witnessed first-hand the bouquets of red roses that spanned the full width of the bridge. Handwritten messages to loved ones gradually blurring in all that London’s weather could throw at them. And the photographs of the victims, all those devastating, beautiful obituaries.
Susan Sontag said, ‘Every fictional plot contains hints and traces of the stories it has excluded or resisted in order to assume its present shape.’ I couldn’t avoid that imagery overlaying my research. There is no doubt that some of will have made subtle inroads onto the pages of my novel, no matter how hard I resisted. But I had to make conscious decisions about if, and then how, I should let these disasters change the shape of the story I was writing. I had already realised that I didn’t want to write a book about blame. I felt this would do an injustice to the many individuals who behave heroically in the most terrible circumstances. Added to which, all of my research about accident investigation told me that any finding that an individual to blame is not only likely be biased, but the investigation will have failed to get to the root of how the disaster happened. Corporate Manslaughter remains an option, but I’m not sure there has been a single successful conviction since the concept was introduced, and there are dangers in blaming organisations. Unwittingly, in setting my disaster in an Underground station, I picked one of the best examples of an organisation that is subjected to crippling external pressures, London’s rapidly growing population being the most obvious. Add to this the inherent difficulties in expanding the Tube network. And nowhere are these problem more concentrated than in the City of London. I certainly didn’t hold London Underground to be responsible for my fictional disaster.
Then in June 2017 came the Grenfell Fire, the most heart-breaking tragedy of recent years, not only because of the enormous scale of the devastation, but because facts quickly emerged to suggest that the spread of the fire and its horrific consequences could have been prevented. Inadvertently, in avoiding writing about Hillsborough, I now risked creating the impression that I was commentating on two London disasters and, given that I live in London rather than Liverpool, wasn’t this more likely? Of course, having made a decision to write about unblame rather than blame, I was also seriously out of step with public opinion.
Fortunately, the focus of my novel isn’t the disaster, but human drama. My real challenge was to translate the emotional fallout onto the page with delicacy and honesty and in a way that gave the characters dignity. That meant capturing all of the guarded memories, the survivor guilt, the hidden sorrow of a man whose wife will no longer leave the house, the man who mourns not only the loss of a daughter but his unborn grandson and the end of his family line, a woman who beats herself up for having been a bad mother, the daughter who must assume position as head of the household, the sculptor who translates all their grief into art, the sheer heroism involved in the act of getting up day after day and going out into a world that has betrayed you. Then there’s the perseverance, all of that drive and fight for justice, getting it down on the blank page and delivering something that gives cause for hope. There always has to be a story. Mine is about human resilience and the healing power of art.
What’s Smash all the Windows about?
It has taken conviction to right the wrongs.
It will take courage to learn how to live again.
For the families of the victims of the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, the undoing of a miscarriage of justice should be a cause for rejoicing. For more than thirteen years, the search for truth has eaten up everything. Marriages, families, health, careers and finances.
Finally, the coroner has ruled that the crowd did not contribute to their own deaths. Finally, now that lies have been unravelled and hypocrisies exposed, they can all get back to their lives.
If only it were that simple.
Tapping into the issues of the day, Davis delivers a highly charged work of metafiction, a compelling testament to the human condition and the healing power of art.
Written with immediacy, style and an overwhelming sense of empathy, Smash all the Windows will be enjoyed by readers of How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall and How to be Both by Ali Smith.
So who is Jane Davis?
Hailed by The Bookseller as ‘One to Watch’, Jane Davis is the author of eight novels.
She spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when she achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she wanted after all. It was then that she turned to writing.
Her debut, Half-truths & White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award 2008. Of her subsequent three novels, Compulsion Reads wrote, ‘Davis is a phenomenal writer, whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless’. Her 2015 novel, An Unknown Woman, was Writing Magazine’s Self-published Book of the Year 2016 and has been shortlisted for two further awards.
Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her Formula 1 obsessed, star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. When she isn’t writing, you may spot her disappearing up a mountain with a camera in hand. Her favourite description of fiction is ‘made-up truth’.
Also by Jane Davis
I came to this book, the first in the Professor and Mrs Moriarty Mystery Series, because I so much enjoy the author’s Francis Bacon historical fiction series. The Moriarty books are different from the Francis Bacon books, as you would expect from such an accomplished writer, and it’s a mark of just how accomplished she is that – with just a couple of niggles, which I’ll come to – she manages so well the switch from Tudor times to the late Victorian age.
This book turns on its head the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty. In Anna Castle’s version, Moriarty is an upright citizen of impeccable moral standing and honesty, while Holmes is a conceited, self-regarding bungler. Holmes is out to get Moriarty and to pin on him a series of murders, the unravelling of which is at the heart of this book. As with her Francis Bacon books, Castle brings us an outstanding heroine who would inspire in any man the thought, “My dear woman, just say the word.” And she does say the word (to Moriarty) and he responds as any red-blooded man might be expected to.
The niggles? They are not enormous, but they do matter. Anna Castle is American and writing a book set in Britain among British people is no easier for American writers than the reverse is for British writers. All the big, important stuff she gets right, but I found myself unwilling to believe that a London club of the quality Moriarty belongs to would serve its members American whiskey – and, sure enough, a few lines later she confirms that he is, in fact, drinking Scotch so it’s whisky and not whiskey. There are a few similar examples and, while they don’t detract from the quality of the book, they are there. There’s also a tendency, when her characters get into a real mess and you are wondering how on earth they are going to get out of it, to resort to the “With one bound she was free” solution. Finally, as a long-time fan of AE Housman, I was delighted in the early stages to discover that – like Housman and the object of his unrequited love, Moses Jackson – Moriarty is employed in the London Patent Office. Sure enough, Jackson turns up quite quickly and Housman immediately afterwards and I had great hopes that they would feature prominently in the novel, but that doesn’t happen. Perhaps in later books? We shall see.
Those are the reasons why I give this book four stars and not five, but I repeat that they do not detract from the enjoyment. I recommend this book without reserve to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, the unravelling of a crime, characters who emerge alive from the page and have completely believable motivations, a good love story, and/or first-class writing.
This is a really good book. I like historical fiction, but – like many other historical fiction readers – I tend to stick with the periods I know, and I don’t know Elizabethan times. Anna Castle obviously does. The details she gives – food, clothing, social relations, office-holders, and much more – are convincing. What turns this from a good book to a really good book, though, is (as it has to be) the plot, the characters, and the motivations. I have to give Murder by Misrule five out of five on each of those heads. I’m not going to provide a spoiler, but I will say that the late scene involving Trumpet was not just an entertaining surprise. It was captivating. I’m delighted to have found a new author to add to my “must read” list.
What has place to do with the novelist?
There was a discussion at this year’s Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival about writers and a sense of place. I wasn’t able to listen to it, because I was engaged in something to do with historical fiction in another part of the festival and I’m sorry to have missed it because I understand the importance of place to the novelist.
What triggered this post today was that I read a review of Sharon Wright: Butterfly on Amazon USA by someone whose nom de plume is “Professor.” It isn’t a new review – he wrote it last year – and I’m commenting on it now because of the thinking I’ve been doing about place. What the professor says is:
“a significant element of the story is set in France. a country that I love and holiday in every year. Lynch clearly knows France well. His descriptions are accurate and appealing and I truly enjoyed the enviable canal trip from Auxerre experienced by three of the characters.”
I was pleased to read that, because I know that canal well; I’ve cycled along it and I’ve made the journey by boat in the same way as the characters do. I fell off my bike at one time on a particularly rough part of the route de halage (it was my fault – I was thinking about something else) and when someone asked how I was I remember being ridiculously proud that, despite the mess I was in, I remembered that the past tense of tomber takes être and not avoir.
Be that as it may – I know Accolay, where they pause for Carver to make his arrangements with Monsieur Arbot. In fact, here’s the very inn where that meeting takes place. I know the closed-in nature of the place, how it belongs to “La France profonde,” and the way it led me to say, “In the Nivernais, no-one watches you – but everyone sees what you do.” And after I’d thought about that it occurred to me that I also know the cafe where Carver sits as he watches Stacey, and where Stacey goes when it’s almost all over, and what it’s like on Eurostar, and…
The thing is that, when I write, I’m writing just as much about place as I am about people. When, in A Just and Upright Man, I wrote about “the wild whinscapes of County Durham,” I was writing from memory. (I don’t think whinscapes was even a word before I used it). I’ve had people who have read Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper say to me, “I was surprised that you managed to get it right when you wrote about sink estates in Newcastle.” Well, you shouldn’t be surprised. I’m not. And when, in that same book, Billy finds himself in Coeur d’Alene and says this:
It’s a strange place, Coeur d’Alene. Americans will tell you it didn’t exist much more than a hundred years ago, which rather rudely ignores the Indians. Now it’s a resort and you get lots of normal people, or people who can pass for normal in the northwest USA, and they have malls and restaurants and stuff to amuse themselves in. There’s sailing in the summer and skiing in the winter and golf most of the time when it isn’t actually snowing. Good old friendly USA.
But it started as a frontier trading post and went into mining and logging and gambling, and the people who did those things weren’t clubbable. Coeur d’Alene was where you got off the steamboat to try your luck at prospecting for silver, and where you got back on the boat to go home, or more likely to drift on somewhere else, when you realised this was not the place you were going to make your strike. There was no welfare state and no safety net and if you didn’t look after yourself in whatever way you could, you starved. It takes a certain kind of person to thrive in that environment and beneath the tourist polish all that independence and egoism is still there.
I’m writing about what I saw. What I experienced. As I am when he describes an hotel bar in these terms:
Take Dan and Vern in Buffalo, Wyoming. We met in the Occidental Saloon. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane all stayed at the Occidental and when you stand in the bar you can see twenty-three bullet holes in the ceiling. It brings back every Western you ever watched.
I know it’s possible to do a great deal of research on the Internet, and the Internet will certainly tell you (with pictures, thanks – among others – to Google Earth) what a place looks like. But how it feels? There’s only one way if you want to write about that. You have to have been there.
For many writers, that means visiting a place to research the book they’re writing at the time. It doesn’t seem to work that way for me. Somehow, when I write about a place, it’s a place that I already know, and I put my characters into it. It’s like all those places have settled into a sort of mental sediment inside my head, to be drawn on when needed.
I said, for example, that I know that cafe from which Carver watches Stacey, but what I should have said is that I knew it, because the cafe was on the road out of Kingston on Thames and it must be nearly thirty years since I was last there. The cafe may well be gone by now.
All of these thoughts were originally triggered by “Professor’s” review of Sharon Wright: Butterfly. The mind, though, does not stand still and my present work in progress is about growing older. I put these two pictures side-by-side:
The one on the left was taken behind the stand at Haynes Oval in Nassau either in 1964 or 1965. The one on the right was taken in 2010 on the pitch at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. On the left, I’m dressed to play cricket. On the right, I’m dressed to watch rugby (I’m leaning against the goal post because the match – Lions v Western Province – was over. Lions won). The fact that in 1964 I played and in 2010 I only watched is not the only change wrought by 46 years of living. Look at the hair. Look at the face. Look at the waist line.
What’s this got to do with place? Haynes Oval. I’ve never written about the time I spent in Nassau, but I remember the place so well. It’s time I brought it back to life. Now… What characters am I going to set down there?
THE historical fiction debate
Should we write about kings or commoners? About nobs or nobodies? I know where I stand on that question — and you can hear my side of the argument here.
The book I talk about in that video is here.
How Sharon Wright: Butterfly came to be written
I just published a new video on YouTube. I’m posting the script here, just in case you’d rather not go to YouTube to watch it:
Hello. I’m John Lynch, and I’m here to talk about my book, Sharon Wright: Butterfly. Writers get lots of questions about their books. Maybe this will answer some of them.
The first and most obvious question is: Where do you get your ideas? I always say the same thing: I have no idea. And sometimes that’s true. And sometimes it isn’t. What is true is that I never know when I start writing a book how it’s going to finish. An idea comes into my head. Maybe it’s a conversation. Maybe it’s just a person. And I put the words down on paper and look at them. Which isn’t actually true – I put them on a screen – but readers like to think about it going on paper. Writers say a lot of things that aren’t true. You might want to remember that while I’m talking. Or while any other writer is talking.
Remember when you were young? And you said something that wasn’t true? And your mother told you “Don’t tell stories”? Well, that’s what writers do. We tell stories. Sometimes they’re true. And sometimes they’re not. If you can tell the difference when I do it, let me know. Because I usually can’t.
Anyway. Sharon Wright: Butterfly. I fell in love with Sharon while I was writing the book. Even though I knew that falling in love with Sharon would be a stupid thing to do. Because Sharon is an interesting sort of young woman. When she woos – as she woos Jackie Gough – She does it the way a female mantis might. Knowing that, when he’s served his purpose, he may have to die.
When the book was written, we talked about covers. And I was sent this picture.
I looked at it and I thought, “I don’t believe it! That’s HER! That’s my Shazzer!” Now, I am to graphics what Wayne Rooney is to the violin. So I left the cover design to someone who designs covers. I’m the writer; she’s the designer. It’s a good idea always to remember what you’re good at. And what you’re not.
And what Sharon Wright is good at is getting her own way. The tagline of the book is: “Nobody gives Sharon a chance. Except Sharon.” Shazzer comes from a very unfortunate background. Men think… Well. Let Shazzer tell you in her own words. This is an extract from the book:
She moved forward and smoothed the collar of his shirt. She kissed him gently on the lips. ‘Jackie. You know what I’ve learned? Started learning when I first went to school, and went on learning? Men need to think I’m dumb. Because I’m a woman, and I’m blonde, well, men think I’m blonde, and I like to spend a lot of time on my back with my legs in the air, and I like men for what they have that makes them men, I have to be dumb. Well, I’m not dumb.’
Gough shook his head. ‘You’re not, are you?’
As I said, while I was writing the book, I fell in love with Sharon. I hope you will, too. You can find out more about her here. And you can buy the book at any newsagent (ISBN: 978-1-910194-10-2). Or, of course, from Amazon.
Why Elly Griffiths, Ann Cleeves, and JJ Marsh are the best British contemporary crime novelists writing today
There’s a huge number of British novelists writing today about contemporary crime. A search of Amazon throws up a lot of them. Some are not much cop, as you’ll find if you open the Look Inside that Amazon so helpfully provides, but some are good. Quite a few British writers of contemporary crime are well worth spending a few evenings with – you’ll get a lot more pleasure and satisfaction from them than you will out of the average evening’s television schedules.
But the best three?
Elly Griffiths, Ann Cleeves, and JJ Marsh
I’d put these three ahead of Peter James, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, and a number of others with a good following. What they all have in common is:
- They write about real people, and however bizarre the plots may sometimes be (and Elly Griffiths has some dillies), you believe in the story as it unfolds because you believe in the people. More than that – you recognise the people. They have characteristics, strengths and weaknesses just like those of the people you know. Just like your own, in fact;
- While the authors may have – in fact, they do have – political leanings, there is no virtue signalling in their books. They know what they think; they don’t attempt to tell you to think the same thing. That is a lot rarer than I would wish;
- The plots are well worked out and none of the three ever leaves you thinking, “You cheat! You hid that from me! If you’d told me that earlier, I’d have known who done it”;
- They are in control of the back story; they realise when they need to reprise something from an earlier book but, unlike, say, Rankin, they ease it skilfully into the telling of the story. And I guess that’s it; they’re on this list because, good as some others are, these three are the best technically as well as in all the other attributes a crime writer needs.
This is not a blanket endorsement. Ann Cleeves has four series in print; Shetland and Vera are both very good indeed, and well deserving of their TV success, but I’m less enamoured by her George & Molly and Inspector Ramsay offerings.
As for the other two:
I can recommend both series by Elly Griffiths (that’s not her real name): she has the Dr Ruth Galloway books about a forensic archaeologist in
Norfolk and the Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens and Max Mephisto books; both series are excellent, but Stephens and Mephisto isn’t actually contemporary, because it’s set in the years immediately following the Second World War. Max Mephisto is a magician, which can lead to some plot points that challenge the reader’s willingness to believe; come to think of it, one of the central characters in the Ruth Galloway books is a druid called Cathbad, so both series have a strong magical element, but that does not detract from the sheer joy of reading these books.
Jill Marsh is a Welsh woman living in Switzerland who writes in a room on the top floor of her home there so that she can gain inspiration from looking into the cemetery next door. Yes, well…we are talking about crime fiction, after all. She is about to publish the final book in the Beatrice Stubbs series and promises that a new series with a new protagonist will follow. Given the quality of the Beatrice Stubbs books, I have every confidence that the new series will be excellent. For anyone who has not yet come across Beatrice, there’s a review of the first book in the series here.
There have been times when I’ve regretted publishing Sharon Wright: Butterfly. I can’t escape the feeling that it needed one more rewrite. I’m a compulsive rewriter, and often more unwilling than I should be to let a book go, but in the case of Sharon, I sometimes wish I’d written a fifth draft and not stopped after four. Why? Because I hadn’t quite understood what the story was.
I realise that probably sounds ridiculous. I’d written the damn book four times – how could I not know what the story was? Well…
It’s clear when I talk to other writers that every writer works in a different way. Some work out the entire plot and write it down, scene by scene, before starting work on the book. We call that kind of writer plotters; I’m a “pantser” because I work by the seat of my pants. For example, when I started on the book that eventually became Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, I wrote the sentence, All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers. Then I sat for half an hour staring at the screen and thinking, “Where on earth did that come from?”
Zappa’s Mam eventually became a 96,000 word novel, and if I hadn’t a clue when I wrote that first sentence what it was going to be about, I knew by the time I’d finished the fifth draft. The fundamental theme of Zappa’s Mam is summed up in a single sentence – only 20 of those 96,000 words:
“When you come right down to it, it isn’t the hand you’re dealt that counts, it’s how you play it.”
That’s what I mean by “the story.” I didn’t know when I set out to write Zappa’s Mam that the theme was going to be that what matters is not the cards life deals you, but how you play the hand – but I did know that by the time I was finished. I understood what the story was. There was all sorts of other stuff in there – a murder, drugs and prostitution, love, a tragic death, inadequate parenting, a dedicated schoolteacher and others who were anything but dedicated – but in the end it all came down to that fraction of a sentence: it isn’t the hand you’re dealt that counts, it’s how you play it.
And what that has to do with Sharon Wright: Butterfly is that I didn’t really know what the story – the theme – of the book was when I published it. I realised later; talking to people about my books at book signings, when I came to Sharon, I would say, “While I was writing this book, I fell in love with Sharon. And falling in love with Sharon would be a very stupid thing to do, as Jackie Gough finds out. Because, when Sharon woos – as she woos Jackie – she does it the way a female mantis might. Knowing that, when she’s done with him, the male may have to die.”
That’s the story of Sharon Wright: Butterfly. Once again, there’s all sorts of other stuff in there; two hired killers, more than one murder, a bent policeman and several straight ones, depressed south London and a canal in the sylvan Nivernais. I thought at one time that the book’s tagline might be:
In the Nivernais, no‑one watches you. But everyone sees what you do.
It didn’t turn out that way; the tagline I ended up with is more suitable:
No-one gives Sharon a chance. Except Sharon.
Sharon is a very damaged young woman and her most pressing need is simply to survive. She’ll do anything to achieve that. And by “anything,” I mean ANYTHING. If letting Jackie Gough think they’ll be together and happy ever after to spend the money he helps her steal, she’ll do it. Why not? Poor Jackie!
It’s all in the book, but if I’d written just one more draft, I’d have made that central theme clearer. I don’t know why I rushed it. I wasn’t bored by Sharon. I did have a signing coming up, and I was keen to have another book on the table. Perhaps that was it. I’ve regretted it many times.
Which brings me to When the Darkness Comes. I started writing The Darkness ten years ago. It’s been through five complete rewrites, and the hands of a number of editors, agents and beta readers. Some of the rewrites have been responses to suggestions those people made. The protagonist is Ted Bailey and one of the questions I’ve been asked again and again is, “Are we supposed to like this man?” And the answer to that is: “I don’t see how you could. What is there to like?”
The response is always: “But you can’t write a book about someone it’s impossible to like. No one will read it.” And I accept that that is received wisdom. But is it true? Are there no popular, successful books about someone deeply unlikable? I can think of several. And while you might say, “Oh, well, but they all have some character aspect that makes us warm to them,” I would answer, “So does Ted Bailey.”
In any case, I’ve decided to publish it. I’ve got one more rewrite to do and I’ve fixed on the second Tuesday in February 2017 as publication day. But what’s the story? It’s a fairly incident-packed book. Drug running, espionage, and an incident that Ted’s best friend (if he had one) could not describe as anything but rape, though it’s fixed in its context in what amounted to courtship in those days; the girl herself, talking about it much later, says,
“I did not feel as though I’d been raped. This is nineteen sixty-two we’re talking about. It’s a world that’s gone, swept away and quite right too because it had very little to do with the way people really are. It was more the end of the Fifties than the beginning of the Sixties and the Fifties in Britain was a very dishonest decade. But it was real then and we all knew what the rules were. The man…what am I saying, the boy, they weren’t men in those days, not at nineteen, they were boys, the boy would push as hard as he could without hurting you, and if you were a decent girl you had to resist him. If you actually got him to the altar without giving in you got extra points for that but if you’d kept him at bay as long as you could and then passion got the better of the pair of you, or of just him if you couldn’t fight him off, then it was a matter for shame, you couldn’t avoid that, but it wasn’t the end of the world so long as he married you. He had to marry you.”
Her complaint was not that Ted had had sex with her when she didn’t want him to, but that he had not afterwards done his duty and married her.
There’s also murder, police corruption (no, I don’t know why I’m fixated on that. And, if I do, I’m not telling you) and, once again, France is there as well as the UK – but so are several other countries.
And there’s a chat show which is unusual in that one of the guests is on the verge of death and at least three of the others are already dead, so that we get this scene:
Dolan is looking more than a little brassed off and it seems that Betjeman has taken control in that effortless Marlborough College way. To the aristocracy of his day he may have been a parvenu, and foreign with it, but to most of us he was what an upper class English gent should be. ‘When we talk about the Church,’ he is saying, ‘we normally mean the people in it. Starting with the Archbishop of Canterbury and embracing all of the clergy and the laity. But when the man on the Clapham omnibus says “the church,” chances are he means his local parish building. Church architecture has influenced the development of the English character as much as the language of the King James Bible, and certainly more than any Jesuitical philosophising.’
Barabbas has been listening to this with an expression of undisguised contempt. He turns sideways and spits on the floor. Not an Italian “pah” type spatter; this is a full blown, greasy hockle, the type of expectoration a miner coming off shift might have used to clear the coal dust out of his mouth and nose before the days of the pit-head bath. Dolan looks at him in silent horror; Betjeman merely wrinkles his nose.
‘What we have to remember,’ Betjeman says, ‘is that the great monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, Islam—took root in lands as harsh and inimical to human life as it is possible to be, where every day was a struggle for survival. Imagine if God had spoken to us through an Eskimo. The teaching we received from the Son of God as mediated through Gospels written…’
’I was the Son of God,’ says Barabbas.
‘Yes, of course, dear boy, in a sense you were…’
‘In a sense?’ I can see rage simmering behind the goatskin wearer’s purple face.
‘As Bar Abbas, the Son of God, of course you were. But I was referring to the Son of God who we know as Jesus of Nazareth.’
Barabbas spits again, as full throated as before, and Dolan half rises from his seat. ‘Will you please stop doing that.’
‘The Son of God who we know as Jesus of Nazareth,’ Betjeman repeats. ‘His teachings came to us first from men for whom every day was a battle simply to stay alive. They are black and white. There is no room for shades of opinion, only what is right and what is wrong. It is the same today in Saudi Arabia. People regard Wahhabism as some form of extremist creed, but what Wahhabis want is adherence to what they see as the pure, original teaching of Mohamed. No shrines, no priests, no mysticism of any kind. They may be seen as simply the Particular Baptists of Islam. There is a difference, of course. If he knows you recognise the authority of a bishop, a Particular Baptist will walk past you in the street without speaking. A Wahhabi meeting a dervish or a sufi will feel entitled to kill him for the greater glory of Allah.
‘And this is how Christianity came to us, at least before the humanising influence of Rome with its wine and its beautiful food and its art and its adultery. But God is an Englishman, and what He wants are English things. Compromise. Tolerance of difference. Politeness. Look at the cathedrals of Ely and Gloucester, the minsters of York and Southwell and you will see God’s will made manifest.’
Barabbas is on his feet, his short hairy skirt swaying. ‘Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew!’ he screams. ‘Like me. The People of God are the Jewish people! You want to know what God wants? He wants this!’ And his clenched fist slams into Betjeman’s face, splatting the nose and shaking loose a tooth. Then Alex says, ‘Oh, my God,’ and I see Haile Selassie emerge from the shadows and stride onto the stage, if a man with such short legs can be said to stride. He is quivering with anger. Barabbas turns to face him, his chin thrust out, looking for a fight.
‘The Jews were the People of God,’ says Haile Selassie. ‘You gave that away when King Solomon violated the Empress Makeda, whom the ignorant call the Queen of Sheba. She was searching for his wisdom, but he was what he was and he jumped her. His own people were so disgusted by the way he treated her, the way he broke faith and his promise, that they escorted her back to Abyssinia and they took the Ark of the Covenant with them. It sits where they left it, on the beach in the Ethiopian province of Eritrea. Which remains an Ethiopian province today, whatever those benighted savages may say. Our province, our beach, our coastline. My province, my beach, my coastline. On that day, the people of Abyssinia— my people— became the People of God. If anyone is to say what God wants, it is me.’
There is something ridiculous about this short man, midget would be only slightly too unkind a word, puffed up like this and Barabbas looks as though he will strike him, too. But Haile Selassie, physically unimpressive though he may be, has more presence than any man I have ever seen and his cold eyes face the old terrorist down. Barabbas turns and stalks from the room, shoving me and Alex out of his way.
Dolan stands. ‘We will take a short intermission while the floor is cleaned of this disgusting mess. Someone get these two out of here.’ And off he goes, no doubt for another cigarette. Hotel employees rush forward to help Betjeman to his feet. As they pass us, slowly because Betjeman is white, shocked and hobbling, I put out an arm to hold him.
‘What a dreadful man,’ he says. ‘Quite without breeding of any kind. And as for Haile Selassie…I wonder what all those Jamaicans with their knitted hats and their strange hair would say if they knew what their beloved Ras Tafar really thinks of them. You know he refused to think of himself as African? He thought he shared a continent with a bunch of monkeys.’
Yes, yes, I think, never mind all that. I say, ‘You talk about church buildings as the embodiment of God. Do you actually believe in Him?’
‘Oh, look,’ he says. ‘Man is a spiritual being. For all the crackpot lunacy of believers in intelligent design and those criminal madmen who think war between Islam and Judaism will lead to the Rapture and their ascent into Heaven, our need to believe in Him goes to the very heart of our human make-up. And as for Dawkins… If he had the brain he’d like us to think he has, he’d have taken a proper degree. The man’s a biologist, for God’s sake. That’s one step up from an astrologer. Does needing to believe in Him mean He exists? How should I know? It doesn’t mean He does not, you may be sure of that. Please excuse me. I need to find somewhere to lie down.’
It wasn’t until I was writing the book for the fourth time that God took that prominent place in it. And that was when I realised what the story of the book actually is. The tagline is:
Bore God at your peril
and the story – the theme – isn’t about murder and prostitution and rape and drug running. What unfolds (and it’s St Peter who explains it to us, so we can take it that it’s correct) is this: You can live a righteous, saintly and unblemished life for seventy years, but if you bore God you won’t get into Heaven. One more quote, and then I’ll leave the subject, at least for now:
God has favourites. Some people get away with murder, and I do mean that literally, and some people live like angels for seventy years and end up discarded. It isn’t just. It isn’t fair. So what? The atheists, which I used to be, are right when they say that Man has created a model of God that suits them. They abandon logic when they go on from there to say that there is therefore no God. One does not follow from the other. There is a God. He just isn’t the God people think he is.
And there we are. That’s the story of When the Darkness Comes. And I’m going to tell it. I’m going to ignore the idea that you can’t have an unlikable protagonist. It will be out in February, and I’ll find out then whether anyone agrees with me.