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.
A student at the American University in Amman asked if she could interview me as part of her course work. Of course I said yes – young women in the Middle East need all the help they can get (Etihad Airways emailed its customers in the run-up to International Women’s Day. The email had a lovely picture of a spa in which women could be pampered – no doubt while their menfolk got on with the serious business of running the world. I don’t think they’d quite grasped the purpose of International Women’s Day). Anyway, here’s the interview.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
I’m a man, old enough to have been born during the Second World War, and British. As a child, all I wanted to do was travel and I’ve lived and worked on every continent except Antarctica. I put those things first because they have had a profound effect on who I turned out to be. My family gave me a respect for education. Most of them were coal miners and I was showered with books as soon as they realised I liked to read. The message was clear: work hard at school, learn as much as you can and you’ll never have to go down a mine. The one thing no miner wanted was for his son to go down the pit. I knew I was going to be a writer from the age of ten, when I stood on stage at my primary school and read a story I had written to the assembled pupils and their parents.
What books have you written?
The first book I published was 30 years ago: Managing The High Tech Salesforce. It’s out of print now. The books I have out at present are:
A Just and Upright Man, the first in the five-book James Blakiston series set in northeast England during the 1760s
Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper
Sharon Wright: Butterfly
The International Sales Handbook
What are your ambitions for your writing career?
My writing will go in whatever direction it goes in. What I hope is that I will continue to write books that people want to read. But – let’s be frank – I’d like to see my books made into films.
Who or what is your inspiration?
There are so many. Writers build on those who have gone before and my influences include Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Julian Barnes, Hemingway and so many more. Cormac McCarthy taught me the value of a moral frame of reference and Elmore Leonard taught me to write simply. From TS Eliot and WH Auden, though of course they were poets and not novelists, I learned what value rhythm can add.
Have you ever used real life experiences in your book?
Yes. But please don’t ask what they were because I won’t tell you.
How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?
12 in total, and I wish I hadn’t written some of them. My favourite is Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper because it says what I wanted to say about the importance of taking responsibility for yourself.
Give us an insight into your main character of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. What does he do that is so special?
Billy McErlane is born into an appalling family in the northeast of England – in fact, to an appalling mother because he never knows who his father is. Surrounded by temptation, he falls and in fact spends time in jail, but he knows there’s a better life out there and he works to win it for himself. I suppose you’d call it a coming of age novel. Billy has an IQ of 147, but it is his gift for photography (and the help of other people) that allows him to remake his life.
How did you come up with the title?
Oh, that was easy. When Billy is born his mother registers his name as Zappa McErlane which causes him all sorts of trouble as a child – his peers at school make up rhymes like “Zappa’s on the Crapper” and “Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper”. When he’s ten years old he changes his name to Billy.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Yes, and I’ve already touched on it, but it’s summed up best in an extract from the book. An American priest, the Reverend Humphrey Catalan, is talking to Billy about his past:
There was a cultural thing here. I’d been born with a few serious handicaps and, yes, I’d overcome them but there was still part of me that was ready to accept them as a crutch and what the Reverend Catalan wanted me to know was that that was not the American way. ‘Other people were dealt shittier hands than you, son, and some of them did okay. Come to that, a lot of people got much better cards than you did and some of them are in jail, or bankrupt, or dead. Or maybe a combination of those things. When you come right down to it, it isn’t the hand you’re dealt that counts, it’s how you play it. And what about that maths teacher? What about Regus? He believed you when he didn’t have to. What about those teachers who gave up their time for you and didn’t charge a cent for it? Where do you get off holding grudges?’
It isn’t the hand you’re dealt that counts, it’s how you play it. That’s the message of the book.
What genre of books do you like to read? Do you limit yourself to only the genre that you write yourself?
I read most things. Genres that I don’t and won’t read include erotica, books about vampires and the paranormal. Other than that I read anything that looks good – though I do have a weakness for detective fiction, as long as it deals with personalities and motivations and not with police procedures.
Who are your target readers?
Human beings. Yes, I know, that’s an easy out – but I want to get into a reader’s heart and I don’t care who s/he is.
What compels you to write?
I wish I knew; I’d do my best to get rid of it. I have to write. I can’t not write. And that’s been true since I was a young boy. I still spend a lot of my time travelling and I usually wake up at about four in the morning and start writing. Life would be easier without this compulsion, but what can you do?
Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Getting inside the head of female characters is tough for me. When I wrote Sharon Wright: Butterfly I had to work very hard to understand what motivated her. I think that’s normal – I hear about women writers who write authentic male characters and male writers who do the reverse to perfection, but when I read what they write I find that I don’t agree.
Are you currently working on something new?
Poor Law, the second in the James Blakiston historical series, is due out in August and I’m working on the final revision right now. I’m 50,000 words into another novel – I’m superstitious about saying too much about it till it’s ready to go. And there’s a book called When the Darkness Comes which has occupied me on and off for five years; I simply don’t know when I’ll be satisfied with it.
Do you read much? And if so, who are your favourite authors?
I read in the evenings – two novels a week on average. I have a large number of writers whose work I love; right now anything by Charles Cumming, Julian Barnes, JJ Marsh or Margaret Atwood will get my undivided attention. I just read Unravelling Oliver by a new Irish writer, Liz Nugent, and it may turn out to be the best book I read this year. If you haven’t already discovered it I recommend it without reservation.
What is your favourite motivational phrase or quote?
P J O’Rourke: “The only inalienable human right is the right to do as you damn well please. And the only inalienable human obligation is to damn well take the consequences.”
Where can you see yourself in 5 years time?
Oh, Lord. There have been so many changes in my life I just can’t answer that. But, wherever it is, I’d like to be among friends. And I’d like to be smiling. I’ve told my family that I want my gravestone to read, “He had a lot of laughs”.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write. Write. Write. Follow your own star. Never give up.
Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from your most recent book?
I know this is disgraceful, but I only watch television if there’s rugby on, and I only watch movies made by either the Coen Brothers or Woody Allen. So I just don’t know – I don’t see enough actors, male or female, to have a view.
Do you start with an idea and see where it leads you or do you plot out the complete book before you start?
The currently fashionable division is between planners and pantsters and I’m a pantster (I fly by the seat of my pants). I never know where the story is going till half of it is written. I’ve had some surprises, I can tell you.
How long does it take you to write a novel? Do you work for a set period each day?
Eighteen months. Yes – 4.00 a.m. till 12.00 a.m. if I’m at home; 4.00 a.m. till 7.00 a.m. if I’m on the road.
Most writers have some other thing they’re passionate about, what’s yours?
History. I’m fascinated by the way people lived, and how life was for them.
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Not a sausage. The book went through five revisions and that’s enough.
What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Sometimes my heart ached for poor Billy and what he went through. And I wasn’t alone. An American reader emailed me to say, “You bastard, how could you do that? Hadn’t the poor kid suffered enough?” All through the last third of the book I was thinking about the reader and what I was thinking was, “You think you know where this is going. Don’t you? You think this is a standard boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl back story. Don’t you? Boy, do you have a surprise coming”.
Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
That only a complete damn fool would be a writer :-). But I also honed my understanding of point of view, how to say what you want to say – and how to do it in the minimum possible number of words.
This is one of those passages (see Offcuts and Offcuts (2) (3) and (4)) that didn’t make it into the finished, published book but that I think had some value – or, at least, some interest. This one was originally part of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper and dates from the time when Billy was beginning to establish himself as a photographer.
One of the tabloids was doing an exposé of the escort business and they hired me to do the pics. The reporter was also freelance (I was a beginner in those days. Were they looking for deniability? I don’t know. Seems unlikely, but who can fathom an editor’s mind?) and she and I went round together. Some of the places and girls she found on the Net, or advertising in Yellow Pages, and some were more hidden. These were the high class call girls, mostly, and when I asked how she found them she said her SO was a crime reporter and he’d asked his friends in the Police for phone numbers. I had to ask what an SO was, I thought it must be some rank or office title in journalism I hadn’t found out about yet, but it turned out to mean Significant Other. ‘My Chap,’ she said. ‘The man who gets to remove my drawers.’
When I knew her better I discovered she’d been leading me down the path of misinformation and the person who got to remove her drawers was not a man but a woman but she hadn’t wanted to hold her hand up to that until she knew where I might stand on the matter. Apparently when she’d come out to her parents it hadn’t gone well and now she was cautious. She went by Teddy (the reporter, not the drawers-remover) and she insisted she’d adopted it when Edwina Currie said she’d had an affair with John Major and she knew she couldn’t allow herself to be known by the same name as a woman who would shag such a grey nonentity, but I don’t know. It’s smoke and mirrors all the time, the journalism business. You can’t believe a word anyone tells you.
My job was to take the pics but I listened to the interviews. Obviously.
An astounding number of women sex workers, as Teddy insisted on calling them though the red-top rewrote every one of those references with a less flattering term, had their own website. Someone must have specialised in producing websites for female escorts and I bet they made a mint. (If you don’t believe me, google “escorts” and the name of your county or local town. You’ll be amazed). (I’m also reminded of one of the first dirty jokes I ever heard. I must have been about nine at the time and I didn’t really understand it. “Did you hear about Polo the Prostitute? She made a mint with her hole.” Yes. Well. I did say I’d been nine).
There was a certain sameness about these websites. A lot of the girls had been to “a very good school” and then graduated from Cambridge. I’ve no idea why Cambridge was so popular a part of the fantasy. As opposed to Oxford, for example. They claimed interests like horse riding and theatre and dining out and said that although they had a good sense of humour and were witty and good conversationalists, they were even better listeners. The typical charge for a date was between fifty and seventy-five pounds.
Teddy eyed the clothes one of these girls had on. Carla, her name was supposed to be. ‘You don’t buy those on fifty quid a date,’ she said.
Carla laughed. ‘No. For these you need the extras.’
More laughter, which they both joined in. There was a woman’s thing going on and I was excluded. ‘They know what they want but they can be hopeless at asking for it. They pick me up and we go to dinner and they bore me to death but I keep smiling. You can see them thinking, “Am I going to get my end away?”‘
Teddy said, ‘Does no-one have the gumption to ask outright?’
‘Oh, sure. But those are usually the ones who’ve taken you to a club and kept you rocking with laughter all night. Then they take you back to their hotel and when you get there the guy kisses you on the throat and says “How much?” and you tell him. Simple. But with most, you struggle. I’ve done a menu to make it simpler.’
Teddy said, ‘A menu?’ and Carla handed her a pink card with fancy lettering on it. Twenty-six point Bickley Script Bold on 180 gramme paper, if you want to get technical. It had a list of services Carla was prepared to supply, and how much she charged for each.
Teddy went down the list. She didn’t know what some of the things were and I was ludicrously pleased that I did. Marcie and I had done most of them together.
When we left, Carla took the menu back. She said she didn’t want it falling into the wrong hands. She was a lot quicker on the uptake about Teddy than I’d been. At the door, she said, ‘There’s always a demand for a bit of voyeurism? Girl on girl action?’ Teddy said that was awfully kind but no thank you and Carla said Teddy knew where she was if she changed her mind. To me, she said, ‘You know where I am, too.’ I smiled and she said, ‘Don’t just grin at me. Remember. You don’t pay a professional girl for sex. You pay her to go home and leave you alone afterwards. Which is a little different from marriage.’