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.
A Just and Upright Man is a crime and romance novel set in the northeast of England in the 1760s. I’m in the process of recording the audiobook version and you can listen to Chapter 2 here.
That’s my voice you’re listening to; the reason I chose to record my own book is that I was brought up in the northeast of England, so I know the accent is authentic 🙂
I am not someone who likes to get up people’s noses. Left to myself, I’d prefer not to upset anyone. Sadly, that isn’t possible. The title of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper comes from a passage in the book – this passage (from the beginning of Chapter 8): I chose the name Billy when I was eleven. It was 1999, I’d had eleven years of answering to the one my stupid mother gave me and I wasn’t going to do it any more. You can imagine the stuff I got. “Zappa’s on the crapper.” “Zappa’s mam’s a slapper.” You can probably make your own up and I’m telling you, I’ll have heard it. Zappa McErlane. I ask you. People home in on stupid names. People in authority. Every time I changed class or we got a new teacher I could see her eye going down the register and she’d be thinking, “Oh, yes. Zappa. He’ll be the one. I’ll have trouble with him.” And if they think they will, they do.
That’s how the book got its title – but a woman told me she wouldn’t read a book with the word “slapper” in the title, and nor would a lot of other women. Well, I hope you can see from the passage above that my use of the word was not meant to be demeaning to women. What’s more, everyone connected with the book so far – three editors and an agent – has been female and not one of them has been upset by the word. And, while I don’t seek to offend, I like the title and I’m not going to change it.
It isn’t only the title, though. You can read the whole of Chapter one here, but this is how it begins:
All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers. I wouldn’t have thought, being honest, that that merited a showdown with her brothers.
I tried to explain. She’s a bit on the chubby side, Kathleen, which I like. Not a grotesque fatty; just a bit of a plumper. Real fatties, I don’t care for. I’ve got a pic I took of a thumper sitting on one chair when three would not have been too many. I took it from behind, which is the only way you could really bring yourself to look at her. Great blue denim bulges hanging down on each side. You’d wonder how anyone could let herself get like that. Jessica made me leave that one out of the exhibition. ‘It’s an interesting eye you have, Billy,’ she said, ‘but it wouldn’t please everyone.’
I said, ‘That’s not what the instructor told us in Young Offenders. He said you should nurture your own unique vision.’
Jessica’s eye twitched. She didn’t like being argued with, and she had this ambivalence towards my time inside—it was what made me a celeb but she said it was her job to publicise it and not mine. Which is all very well, but if I hadn’t been in Young Offenders I’d never have got into taking pics. They’d run this course on digital photography (and how stupid is that? To do digital photography you need a digital camera and how did anyone think a Young Offender was going to get one of those once he was back on the street?) and I’d signed up to deal with the tension of not knowing whether I’d get out. I’d loved it.
No, with Kathleen I’d pictured her sitting on a bed in nothing but a pair of those knickers Marks & Sparks had in their adverts when they were going after the smart young people who wouldn’t be seen dead in Marks, you might as well ask them to shop in Milletts. Everyone remembers those knickers. Every man, anyway. Lot of lezzies, too, I should think. The ones coming a couple of inches down the leg and cut square. Nice patterns, interesting colours and a dark edge to waist and leg. And the models they used hadn’t exactly been short-changed in the upper body department.
Lovely. Kathleen would be sitting on the bed in these and nothing else, one leg pointing straight out in front and the other drawn up under her, arms crossed at the elbow and hands clasped so that you saw nothing more revealing than a bit of flesh squeezed each side of the arms. And she’d be looking straight at the camera and smiling. That’s one of the things I liked about Kathleen—that she was always smiling. That and not being skinny. She had a lovely smile, Kathleen.
Jessica said I had a fantastic eye for a pic, “a real intuitive grasp for composition,” which was exactly what the instructor at Young Offenders had said. And that’s all it was.
But I’d said it out loud and some mischief-making twat had told Kathleen’s brothers and they were offended. Or pretended they were.
So there you are. I’ve probably outraged fat people, thin people, lesbians and who knows who else? Maybe people who don’t smile. But it can’t be helped. It seems to me that a willingness – in fact, an active desire – to be offended has become part of our culture; people go looking for things to complain about. And what I had to decide was: am I going to write what I want to write in the way I want to write it? Or should I tailor my writing to make sure I don’t offend anyone? I think there’s only one answer to that question. It will probably lead to a lot of one and two star reviews from people who want to take revenge for what they see as a slight, but I have to let Billy tell his story his way.
‘A very enjoyable read. The plot is superb and the writing is lively.’ Male reader, aged 43
‘The criminal element of the book, mostly set in Newcastle, is very well described. I liked how the character developed and the ending was satisfying. Billy is a wonderful character to follow, from his life as a kid to life in prison. Often, it’s rather shocking but the author keeps the reader with him till the bitter end. Fantastic cover too.’ Female reader, aged 28
‘Very, very different to A Just and Upright Man. I loved every page of this novel. The pacing is perfect and the message the book sends out is strong and relevant. Although it should be a sad book, it wasn’t; there was a lot of hope in there too. A big publisher needs to sign up this author soon.’ Female reader, aged 47
‘It’s always fun to find a book by an author who knows his readers and what they want.’ Male reader, aged 24
Writing Style 10/10
Of the 32 readers:
31 would read another book by this author.
28 thought the cover was good or excellent.
20 felt the best part was the writing style.
‘A powerful, unrelenting page-turner. Highly recommended.’ The Wishing Shelf Awards
A Just and Upright Man is the first in the five book James Blakiston series of romance and crime novels set in northeast England in the 1760s. The second book in the series, Poor Law, should be published by September 2015; in the meantime I’m recording the audiobook of A Just and Upright Man and you can hear an extract by clicking on the link above.
If you’d like to be informed when the audiobook is completed and available for purchase, email me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Preparing A Just and Upright Man for publication as an audiobook – an audiobook in which I, the author, am also the narrator – has brought me closer to the people behind the text than I’ve ever been. Sometimes I empathise; but sometimes they make me laugh. Take this passage, which is part of what I dictated today:
Blakiston stood in the dark looking out of his window onto the silent, deserted road outside and thinking about the day. The dreadful sight and smell of Reuben Cooper’s burnt body. The strange interview with Martin Wale. Claverley’s account of so many children, all to be investigated if the death turned out not to be the work of malign fate. A man wandering the roads, who might be Irish or might not, and might be a killer or might not, but who at any rate must be found and questioned. The looming shadow of enclosures. A drunken farmer and an idle one, both to lose their livelihoods if he had anything to do with it.
And, underlying all, the painful recollections that never quite went away, of the woman he had expected to marry and the hurt of his loss. He would never allow himself to love again. Of that he was certain.
So, James, you’ll never love again? Listen, mate, this is a Romance. Capital R. Which I am writing. You, my friend, will love whoever I tell you to love.
That Kate Greener’s a nice girl – don’t you think? What? Not your class? Get outta here.
I think this, from JJ Marsh, is the most warming review I’ve ever received.
You can read more about the book here.
You can listen to the opening of Chapter 1 of Sharon Wright: Butterfly by clicking on the link above. This is the beginning of what will become an audio version of the book, but it should also help those who prefer paperback and e-book reads to decide whether this is a book for them. It’s read by Lucy Lowe, who makes a splendid fist of the South London accent – but she does much more than that.
At the Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival, I read an extract from the book that includes this exchange:
‘What did you mean,’ Buggy said, ‘about Carver being peculiar?’
Mitchell stared across the table. ‘You’re right. The man kills people for a living. Nothing strange about that. Just your loveable English eccentric.’
Carver is, of course, as mad as a hatter. He is a hired killer who believes that he is normal and everyone else is nuts. I wasn’t sure how successful I had been in showing that, but listening to Lucy’s reading it comes across loud and clear. I’m also delighted with the way Lucy gets into Sharon’s head – Sharon is another character who doesn’t fit with most people’s idea of “normal” but Lucy gets her perfectly.
I hope you enjoy the reading. You’ll find more about the book here.
Oh — and if you like downloads you can listen to, you’ll find here the first story I ever sold to the BBC.