A lot of the best things in life start with something simple – in this case, it was my phone ringing.
It was an offer to come and work with young readers and writers in one of my local schools – an opportunity I immediately jumped on. When I was younger, I was very keen on exploring teaching – so much so, that when the time came to organise some work experience when I was fifteen, I called my local school to get some hands-on experience.
Life has a way of sometimes not giving you what you want, and while a career didn’t work out, I still harboured that hope one day I’d get a chance – hence my excitement at the aforementioned offer.
Since these early meetings and conversations, I was thrilled to be offered a role as Writer in Residence, at Beamont Collegiate Academy in Warrington – a role I cherish. Reading and writing meant everything to me as a kid, so to be able to share that with the young readers of today – and writers of tomorrow – means even more.
Last Friday I was given a day with some of the brightest, most promising students I’ve come across. Bursting with ideas and enthusiasm, excited to learn, buzzing with the simple fun of creation – it was a complete blast. We got to share ideas, brainstorm stories, whip up characters on the spot. It was a constant reminder of everything I love about not just writing, but stories in general.
It also gave me the chance to meet two of the most promising young writers I’ve ever come across. They’ll remain nameless here, but if they aren’t published within the next ten years, I’ll be amazed. At the ages of fourteen and fifteen, these young women wrote with such an ease, a confidence, an Elvis-like swagger. ‘Blown away’ is an expression that doesn’t do how I felt justice. Their work is light years ahead of what I was writing at their age – heck, even at my current age.
We chatted over coffee for a couple of hours, and I learned all about their processes and inspirations. One of them actually, on designing characters, draws them first. No words, just, direct from imagination, creates them visually with a pencil. I couldn’t get over it. Conversely, the other creates characters with an easy methodical approach, ending up with a multi-layered creation because she’s gone through every layer personally. I’m sure I learned more during our meeting than they did!
But when the dust settles on my excitement over all their work, and I take stock and perspective, I can see exactly why this has happened. The environment at Beamont (or BCA Warrington, as it is otherwise known), is one of collaboration, free-thinking, encouragement and care. These students have been given the confidence, freedom and backing to express themselves by a staff-room that is full of pride and belief in their charges – and I add that about not just the amazing English department, which is beyond a joy to work with, but the entire teaching faculty and staff behind the scenes. The atmosphere there is nothing short of joyous and buzzing.
Through working with BCA Warrington, I’ve been able to visit a number of schools in the region, and some in tougher areas than others. The same thing is apparent – excellent teachers, creating excellent students. I’ve got a full slate during March of school visits all over the region (never mind World Book Day, I’ve got World Book Month!), and I’m excited – but above all else I feel so lucky.
Keep reading, and keep writing. That’s the key to it all, I’m sure of it – and as long as I have this opportunity, I’ll keep on spreading that message.
Post originally published on Literarily Speaking on 13th November 2017 (link).
The Book That Changed Everything
I grew up in Croft, a small village in the north west of the UK, a stone’s throw from Manchester. Only 3,000 people lived there, and it was a sleepy community bordered on all sides by farms. Once a year, they had a village carnival that the whole calendar seemed to revolve around, and the village sports field was covered in small tents of bricabrac sellers, tombola stands, coconut shies, donkey rides, candy floss machines and a beer tent. When I was 12, I had two pounds pocket money from my Mum and Dad, and after gorging on sweets and pop, I ended up at a charity book stand, where stacks of tattered paperbacks sat, each stickered with a price tag.
I saw a copy of Peter Benchley’s ‘Jaws’ for 25p, and having seen the film, I grabbed it (along with a copy of Tom Clancy’s ‘Patriot Games’, which I hadn’t seen and still haven’t got round to reading). Two years previously, Jurassic Park had come out and had blown my mind to smithereens, and I’d watched all the Spielberg movies I could get my hands on. Jaws was one I’d re-watched fairly recently, so the chance to read that same story was one I was not going to miss. I remember that same Saturday night, reading it in bed.
It changed everything, for all sorts of reasons. It was so apparent from the opening paragraphs that this was a different kettle of fish to what I’d been reading previously (no pun intended but I’ll take it). This was an honest-to-God grown up book, for adults. Not for kids. And at twelve I was reading it – I felt like an utter king. I had never read an adult fiction book before, but I knew my thirst for reading had taken me almost to the limits of what kids fiction at the time had to offer.
Two pages in, and it had gone hugely visceral. There was an unapologetic openness to the blood, the matter-of-factness to the carnage that had me reading it three or four times in sheer disbelief. ‘You can actually write that?!’ I kept asking myself. My eyes were opening.
The story was going off in a different direction to the film too, and the characters were changed. The story was fundamentally the same, and again I was asking questions, knowing that the book had come before the film: ‘was Stephen Spielberg allowed to change things!? Can you do that?!’ My expectations of the fiction world was being blasted to bits.
And then, in the book, Ellen Brody had an adulterous moment with Hooper. I almost dropped the book – that was not in the film at all, but the way that the characters and their relationships had been drawn to this point actually had me feeling a tad sympathetic towards her. I was reading and learning about marital strife and alcoholism, and the darker corners of people’s characters that seldom see light. I am blessed to have had a very peaceful, very reliable and love-filled childhood, and this was eye-opening in the grandest of ways. It’s like the blinds to the rest of the world were slowly peeling back, and I could see certain things for the first time.
And then there was a sex scene. An actual sex scene, with the description of anatomy and actions and good Lord all the rest. As a late bloomer, this was pretty watershed. I hadn’t a clue what I was reading, the quaint images of what I’d learned in the rather stuffy sex education classes at school rendered utterly obsolete by Hooper’s frantic tryst with Chief Brody’s wife. I still shake my head with laughter thinking about reading that for the first time, reading the page with my jaw hanging and my eyes widescreen.
By the end of the story, and Quint had used a dead dolphin foetus as bait for the great white (again, way way more than what I had bargained for), all bets were off in terms of what fiction could give me. I could never go back to reading kids books, never. A new world was
opened to me, a world where darkness was explored and talked about, where happy endings weren’t a given, and the physical, bare reality of life was given voice. I was writing a lot myself at the time, but I know that nothing was ever the same after that. I still have that book, the one that means everything to me, and I’m sure every reader does too.
And you never know – if I had bought an extra stick of rock or bag of penny mix, I might not have had enough coins to take to the book stand in the first place, and may never have even written a book at all.
I think, when discussing the origins of A Wanted Man, it is important to establish a timeline. I’m now 34, and I first put pen to paper on a crime story set in Manchester when I was 17. I was a cinema nut, a real action movie junkie, and I loved to write. My English teacher at the time told me that my prose was too description heavy, and my writing was suffering because of it. That got me thinking about screenplays, and the economical style in which screenplays are written – I felt that the best way for me to tell stories, given my problems with over-description, was to go down that avenue. So age 17 I wrote a screenplay called Murder In The Name, which was a crime caper set in Manchester, with a family at war within itself.
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Can’t believe I’m in a list with such incredible crime fiction heavyweights! So happy to be there, and even happier that people are enjoying ‘A Wanted Man’!
The crime files are over-flowing right now with big-name blockbusters and outstanding indie authors. In fact there’s too many to fit into this round-up of ten intriguing titles, so come back in a fortnight for more gripping criminal activity. In the meanwhile we’ve a superb selection of police procedurals, serial killers, Nordic noir, vengeful vigilantes, ice-cool assassins, supernatural sleuths, mystery, murder… and the long-anticipated new novel from one of the acclaimed kings of crime fiction. Plenty here to read over the summer holidays!
WATCHING YOU by Arne Dahl
Arne Dahl – the pen-name of accomplished Swedish author Jan Arnald – already has one outstanding Scandi crime series to his credit in the shape of the Intercrime series which are painfully slowly being translated into English. But if that’s not enough (and it’s not… well, not for us) a new Nordic noir series starts this summer with Watching You.
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Every now and then a thirst for a scary story rears its ugly head, and I take a break from my usual crime novel inhaling to satisfy it. The last two I’ve read have both been so good, yet so markedly different, in the way that the authors have decided to set up their fictional world, and deliver the hauntings themselves. Sometimes when I read ghost stories etc, I feel a little deflated that the same old tropes have been fallen upon again, and rarely am I surprised. Both of these books elevated way beyond this, were original, fresh, beautifully written and very unsettling, and were the best two ghost stories I’ve read in quite some time.
Dark Matter is set in the 1930s and the period vibe provides an authentic, antiquated setup to proceedings. It’s a very real world, muddling along in between World Wars, the class divides as pointed as they have ever been, before the action moves from London to Norway, up in the arctic circle, where the light is fading fast and months of darkness approach. The haunting itself is gradual, teased, suggested, and ultimately beautifully told by Michelle Paver.
This is the story of a man so gripped by the desire to prove himself to his peers that he’d rather encounter the worst in order to do so, and before long, the worst indeed comes to find him. The spirit or force is a wonderful creation, and the story behind it genuinely affecting. The descriptions of the apparition itself are a wonderful mix of vivid and suggestive, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks around a few very unsettling details. Between a genuinely interesting force of evil, and a unique setting and time period that creates its own set of problems and parameters for our protagonist to overcome. The overall impression I was left with was of an expert, economical, unique ghost story that was unlike anything I’ve come across, told with a near hypnotic control of the reader. I couldn’t look away, nor did I want to. Superb.
On the other hand Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, takes a tried and tested formula (or at least the formula that worked so well for The Blair Witch Project) and throws the reader a monumental curve ball. Yes, the ghost witch exists. Yes, the protagonists know. Yes, the town of Black Spring is haunted.But they all have to get on with their lives somehow, and eke out a modern existence in a small town with a giant haunting secret. The witch could show up at any time, ruining your dinner. If the witch appears in an inconvenient spot, just put a sheet over her and go about your business. It’s a setup that I’ve not come across – one where the characters are almost jaded/bored by being haunted. This isn’t the world of ‘is there anything out there?’ – it’s more the world of ‘we know there is something out there but we just have to carry on’.
As a story set in the modern era, Heuvelt brings a laterally thought approach to how an acknowledged legitimate haunting might work, if people had to accept it and carry on with their lives. It’s the secret of the town and it always has been. If the rest of the world were to find out, all hell would break loose. But the town needs trade – it needs visitors and commerce in the area, and that involves outsiders. So the council of Black Spring have created a thoroughly believable smartphone app, managed by an in-town security setup, that lets residents log witch sightings/behaviour so that the town can plan their lives appropriately. It’s nothing short of genius, and exactly what you can picture happening if this were to actually happen in the real world. In that sense, it’s wonderful to see the story play out in such a well-thought out setting, because everything from there feels real and believable – something not always achieved in ghost stories. The motivations of the witch, and the behaviour of the witch, is as unsettling as anything I’ve ever read I think, yet Heuvelt still manages to make her a sympathetic figure. In doing so, he creates a fable about acceptance, social responsibility, love and bullying. It was another storming read, one which I couldn’t recommend high enough.
So you’ve got Dark Matter which takes a more traditional approach of creating a normal world that has elements of the supernatural invading it, then Hex which takes an all new (at least that I’ve come across) approach by having the supernatural elements very much a part of the world we live in (while it being delivered not remotely like a fantasy novel). Both were enthralling, both hugely believable on their own terms (with the help of a little imagination) and both just what I wanted when it came to scratching that ghost story itch. Recommend them both highly, and would love to hear about more fresh ghost story novels out there.
One of the problems of days only having 24 hours in them is that it doesn’t possibly give you enough time to get everything done. I’m not talking about the mundane day to day stuff, but more like, well… I thought I’d have mastered at least fifteen languages by now, and be a 7th dan black belt in something obscure and dangerous. And it means that oftentimes things slip the net.
Getting stuck into the works of Ian Rankin is one of them, I’m ashamed to say. A name that is essentially a byword for peak British crime writing, and I haven’t managed to get there yet… but thankfully I’ve managed to put it right.
I’m so glad I did. Rankin’s words have been dissected by hundreds of much worthier voices (and much more on-the-ball voices) but I can easily see Rankin’s work nestling in alongside my all time favourites and biggest influences. There is a bravery, a poeticism, an economical forthright darkness that had me enthralled. One of my favourite descriptions of Adrian McKinty’s work is ‘this is hard boiled crime fiction with a poet’s touch‘ (Peter Blauner), and that felt resonant here too – and it was reading Rankin’s praise of McKinty that reminded me I had to get onto Knots and Crosses, the first of Rankin’s iconic Rebus series.
In doing so I have found another mesmerising literary voice whose work I can’t wait to press right through. I have ordered the next ten Rebus books as a start. It’s not often I’ll be so impetuous but on this occasion I’ve no doubt it’s the right move.
Wait, is that the doorbell? Please be the postman with a sizeable book-shaped parcel…