Not much of my fiction is autobiographical. After 10 novels and three novellas (and counting), it would be awfully repetitious if it was. Probably the story truest to my own life is the Paul Seaton flashback section of The House of Lost Souls. Outside a Blackfriars pub in the summer of 2005 I was reminiscing with the painter Peter Doig about our little group’s antics in the early 1980s and he suggested I write a novel about it. I didn’t quite do that. What I did instead was give Paul my idyllic early ’80s London life and then snatch it away from him in THOLS. Peter features in that story as the character Greg Foyle; there on the flat roof of the old Charing Cross Road St. Martin’s building with his battered beat-box and his Hank Williams tapes.
It was a decade later before I’d write autobiographically again. Probably because I wrote it in the first-person, I decided to give my character Michael Aldridge of The Going and the Rise a concern with which I’m personally familiar. His daughter Molly is the same age in the story as my own. In common with Avalon, she suffers from Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis. The disease has prevented her lower jaw from developing since Molly’s infancy. It’s done the same in real life with my daughter. This photo of her is probably the last taken before the symptoms began to show. I felt that I could communicate Michael’s distress and worry because they’re feelings I’ve had myself ever since Avalon’s diagnosis in the Spring of 2014. It wasn’t in any way therapeutic to write about this, but it was authentic. And I was pleased when a surveyor wrote to me on facebook to say how convincing an architect he thought Michael Aldridge was, if only because tech drawing was easily my worst subject at school; beating off stiff competition from maths and French. My character Ruthie Gillespie debuts in that story. Michael is a total invention, but for those of you interested, Ruthie by contrast was inspired by someone delightfully real.
Avalon has her third and most serious operation, a genioplasty, at Great Ormond Street Hospital in Bloomsbury on Thursday. She is under the care of someone widely regarded as among the world’s leading maxillofacial surgeons. He invented the particular procedure she is about to have. I await Thursday with conflicting feelings of anxiety and hope so intense and of such enormity that I could never adequately put them into words. It’s a profound and humbling lesson to me in the distance between fiction and fact. It might sound trite to say this, but it’s nevertheless true to say that right now, I’m just praying for a happy ending.
My brother and myself prior to playing tennis at the courts on Victoria Park in Southport one summer in the early ’90s. I’m the modestly attired one on the right of the picture. It looks to have been a lovely day, though I can’t remember it specifically. Judging by the colour of our legs, it was quite late in the summer. Didn’t bother much with sunscreen back in those carefree times.
When I look at this snap I can just make out the highest bit of the Cyclone to the left of Haydn’s head. That was the wooden big dipper, sadly demolished now, that dominated Pleasureland back then. Pleasureland’s still there, I took my daughter last summer, and it still has some good rides, especially for a ten year old like her. But the Cyclone, like the old outdoor pool, is no more than a wistful, fading memory.
If you’d said to me back then that I’d one day set a novel in my home town I’d have laughed out loud. I was confident that I’d one day attempt a novel, but the actual accomplishment was still several years and many distractions away. I wouldn’t have had a clue as to what sort of fiction I was likely to write. I like to think I’ve made up for lost time to some extent since, something I’m still doing, if I’m entirely honest.
I remembered this photo yesterday, thinking in the early spring sunshine, walking along the river, that I’ve played nowhere near enough tennis over the past couple of years. I’d like to think I can still hit a decent ball, though admittedly not wearing shorts quite as short as those I’ve got on here.
In other – more recent – news, I’m ruminating on the first stand alone novel to feature my character Ruthie Gillespie. She debuted in The Going and the Rise and is heavily involved in both sequels to The Colony, but I enjoy her company enough to give her the independent, full-length story I think she deserves. She has some bad habits to conquer, some questionable people to meet and some scary experiences to endure. That’s my challenge for this spring/summer, when I’m working rather than swinging a racket in the sunshine.
Me and Gabriel on the coast of County Wexford in Ireland in the summer of 1999. Last night I had a beer with him and his friend Callum before they set off to see a mate of theirs perform in a band in a Twickenham pub. We drank laughing at Christopher Walken and Will Ferrell in the classic ‘More cowbell’ Blue Oyster Cult sketch from Saturday Night Live on Youtube. It’s a terrible cliche but time really does fly. And time has been much on my mind recently because there’s only so much of it and as a writer, I want to put it to the most productive use I can.
The next few weeks will be taken up with editing the third book in my Colony trilogy. When I’m not doing that, I’ll be writing a fourth Jericho Society novella. I’m going to dwell on that during my towpath run this afternoon. I’m counting on a serene 7 miles of exercise with a beautiful river view endowing me with the necessary inspiration. I’ll have to ignore my sore achilles tendon and concentrate on plotting, knowing it’ll be worth it. The tendon can suffer in silence. Like the rest of me, it’s knocking on…
I’ve been pondering on sequels not just because I’ve now written two of them, but because some of you actually request them. The most popular candidates among my books for follow-ups are The House of Lost Souls and The Waiting Room. I don’t think that’s coincidental. There’s a strong redemptive theme in both of those stories. Protagonists Paul Seaton and Julian Creed emerge from their contrasting ordeals not just different but vastly better men than they were at the outset. I’ve sometimes wondered myself what happened to them next. And I could live with either again. Creed was pretty odious company at the outset, but by the end of the story he’d grown on me.
One of the crucial keys to any kind of creativity is to be open-minded. That lesson’s been taught me by a couple of gifted painter friends who’ve had the nerve to follow their instincts and to experiment. I’m not ruling anything out. The blank page at the start of a story has never intimidated me. I’ve always seen it as a fantastic opportunity. I’d be the first to admit that some of my novels are flawed; but that doesn’t diminish in the slightest the ambition to do something better in the future than anything I’ve managed to achieve in the past. If anything, the opposite is true. I’ve probably run that towpath distance as fast as I’m ever going to run it. But I still think there are stories in me yet to tell, better than any I’ve so far told.