Friday, 2 November 2012

The paperback version of Death In The Sun came out yesterday, published by Faber, and I thought it might interest some of you to see where some elements of the story began.

My love affair with Spain is thirty five years old now, and for the past twelve years the Alpujarras has been home for periods of time. Death In The Sun is set in the Alpujarras and many scenes take place in actual places, or conflations of real places.
Here are some of them.

This is the cortijo of my friend Manolo who is the pastor (shepherd) in real life Almagen, which is largely based on the village of Yegen, home to the Bloomsbury writer, Gerald Brenan. Manolo's cortijo is the inspiration for the shepherd's house in the novel. Using all my powers of imagination, I came up with the name Manolo for my shepherd in the story.

This is the village of Yegen and Staffe's house in the cluster of  houses that you see.

In the novel, Staffe attends a matanza and this is a collection of friends from the Alpujarras up the mountain and down to no good. Recall is dim and fogged by home-made wine and cheap whisky but I'm pretty sure we were in the cortijo on which El Nido is based in the story.

Almagen's church square and a view of the ayuntamiento. Harry's school is to the left.

This is the bridge from which Raul Guitterez plunged to his death. To the left and out of shot is a lower, Roman bridge, beneath the village of Mecina, which is actually based on the real village of Valor, famed for its Fiesta of Moors and Christians, the first week in September.

People talk about the real Spain and the Alpujarras is as close as you will get. Life in 2012 is still very much the way it was when this photograph was taken. The mules are still there, the fascist dictator long gone, save ghostly images here and there in photographs and on cigarette lighters.

This is the grand entrance to Barrington's quite humble dwelling, and where his widow still lives.

The author in Eduardo's Bar Fuente - the real one. Wringing out a scene and sipping mint tea in the comedor until the ne'erdowells drift in for beer and tapas and raucous laughter.

Sad, the things a writer can persuade his family to do - in the name of getting in the mood.

A view from El Nido, with the Silla Montar in the background and Olive trees half way. The village of Mecina can be discerned to the right. The snow seldom lets entirely and it is this which fuels the irrigation system which the Moors designed and which makes this an improbably fertile region . 

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Death in the Sun and Books4Spain

Here is an extract from a virtual interview with Books 4 Spain

Twitter: @books4spain

What inspired you to write Death in the Sun and how much did you know about Spain before writing it?
The villagers in the real Almagen love a rumour and from time to time they refer to a woman being buried up the mountain. And you only have to drive through the dilapidated plastic farms on the Almeria coast to have shivers up and down the spine. It's very sinister. I have been to Spain every year since I was seventeen (that's  lot of years) and have had a village house in the Alpujarras for a dozen years. My understanding of Spain was formed on that first trip when I visited Franco's tomb at Val de los Caidos outside Madrid and sat with battalions of old men in suits weeping on the steps outside. They were weeping for Franco. I didn't understand. On subsequent trips I formed a love for the desolate Extremadura region which is landlocked and produced a generation of sailors who found the New World. With Spain, it is certainly a case of 'the more you know, the less you know'.

What did you learn about Spain, its people, culture and history as a result of writing Death in the Sun.
The taboos around the Civil War are beginning to fade, but very slowly, and as guirris, we are still very much on eggshells, but you can have conversations now that wouldn't have been possible, say, 15 years ago. The war itself, at a local level and forgetting (if we can) the brutality of Franco, had little that was good on either side. The longer history, of Moors and flamenco and bullfighting is still prevalent and an infathomable puzzle to the outsider. 

Would you set another one of your novels in Spain?
I have every intention of doing so. The long story-line of the DI Staffe series requires him to track down and encounter the killer of his parents: an ETA terrorist in hiding in Extremadura - still my favourite part of Spain. I would love to write a history of Spain as told through its fiestas. I would even do all the research myself! 

Do you remember your first encounter with Spain and, if so, what was it?
In Barcelona 1978, a mussel fisherman mistook me for his nephew and insisted on taking me home to his wife, who fed me and told him he was a fool. They kept us for three days. Barcelona was a dusty and dangerous place then, more like Tangiers than its modern self and the only way we could get from Barcelona to Madrid was to stow away on an army bus.  It nearly got us arrested.

Has your encounter with Spanish culture changed the way you live?
I certainly like to hop from bar to bar in England as in Spain, and go out to meet new people and have new conversations, which is how it works in Spain but I am fundamentally reserved in a way that defines me as immovably English and whilst I live to a totally different rhythm when in Andalucia, there is very little of that domestic routine which I bring back with me to England. When I'm home in Derbyshire I automatically become slightly less gregarious and flamboyant and eat more potatoes and less rice, though our intake of Ribera and Rioja is probably above the national average and we always have a Recebo jamon on the go.

Is there one thing in particular about Spain that you love?
Speaking in a foreign language is peculiarly liberating, especially when you lack command. People seem to like a well-meaning buffoon. It's a cliche, but the sun does make an enormous difference to one's life, outlook, and behaviour. Drinking brandy in the village square until two in the morning, watching children play and waiting for it to become cool enough to sleep is the greatest joy.

Is there one thing in particular about Spain that drives you mad?
The middle class of my generation can be terribly snobbish and when you look at how 'far' Spain has come since 1975 that is probably not surprising but often I find it easier to get on with the old and young in Spain. I suspect the racist tendency is a manifestation of this and I was appalled watching the Spain-Italy game in the Prado district of Madrid (like Kensington) to witness the abuse that Mario Balotelli received. Lewis Hamilton gets the same. 

People are always very curious about a writer’s daily routine, do you have a set routine or is it ever-changing?
I prefer the mornings and also like writing on the hoof. When in Spain, I have a routine in which I go for bread and fruit first thing in the morning, then to my friend Eduardo's Bar Fuente where he lets me sit in the comedor. I write 500 words over a cortado, then have a chat. Then another 500 words over a sol y sombra. I know when it's going well because there'll be another 500 words over a glass of his own 'Terreno' wine. Sometimes, the day just drifts straight into lunch. There's a whole section on the Writer's Life on my website (awful plug, I know!)

If you had to recommend one book to someone who knew very little about Spain, which one would you recommend them to read.
Robert Elms' love of Spain is infectious and he wrote a book called 'Spain' about 20 years ago. It is a snapshot of modern Spain in evolution. If that is out of print, it would be Giles Tremlett's, 'Ghosts of Spain'.

What book are you reading at the moment?
'A Late Dinner' by Paul Richardson.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

A new baby, called Flesh

It has been a while and I apologise. By way of excuse, I shall blame it on the baby I have just had. The third book in the Staffe series is done, dusted (for now). I sent it off to my editor last Thursday, just two days before Willing Flesh emerged onto the shelves (it’s out now, £6.99 with Faber). And the feeling is a strange one, having immersed totally in writing the third book (let us call her Pain of Death, for now). It is like a stroll back into time; or going back with an ex-girlfriend.
Two days after I sent Pain of Death to my editor, I found myself on a train to London, for Flesh’s launch and a series of events requiring me to wax lyrical about the ex. And to gild that promiscuity, I hadn’t read ‘Flesh’ in almost a year. I had to move quickly and read it in two sittings. Strange, to read my own work without scribbling in red. It did feel like something ex, but in a good way: a familiar scent, a vividly reminiscent conversation; a glimpse.
Writers often have an ambivalent relationship with their old works. Part of the process and something readers demand and deserve, is that we move on to produce something better, and to do that we have to commit ourselves wholly, exclusively to the new one. But flicking back through Flesh, I was largely happy with what I found. A strange thing, to be surprised by your own words. As ever, there is a word here, a phrase there that you would like to have back but like the artist in danger of overpainting, you have to stop sometime. There is something magical, irretrievable, about the energy that fizzes from early drafts. You run the risk of writing that away if you redraft too much. I was happy with the balance, the way she looked and sounded, still.
Perversely, though, I am already eyeing something up, down the road – it will be fourth in as many years. Say nothing.
The experience with the ex was brought on, in the short term, by readers groups in Redbridge, Liverpool and Beverley and last night, the Redbridge group was wonderful. When we are buried away clattering at the keys, it is easy to forget the people on the other side of the screen, the people the words are for, and the enthusiasm of the Redbridge group* was a reaffirmation of why we put ourselves through it. Readers are hungry for the new stuff. All the pain of the writing felt worthwhile; the joys of the writing not a deceit.
We talked about Flesh, the direction the Staffe series is taking, and the process of writing, then finished off with a really interesting discussion about the coming of the iPad and Kindle. Some liked the look of these tome slates, some were sceptical. I get the impression, having chatted about the new technology earlier in the day with Stephen Page (Chief executive of F&F) that we are going to have to live with digitalisation whether we like it or not. The Americans are probably a couple of years ahead of us and the early signs from there are that digital readers will be ‘switchers’ from books, that the market will see substitution rather than expansion. I’d like to think that the iPad and Kindle could bring a new generation of readers. There are opportunities and dangers. For the writer, it is all we can ask: to live in interesting times.

*special thanks to Nick Dobson and Allan.

Friday, 16 October 2009

I Think I Am Having A Novel

I Think I Am Having A Novel….
…..but I can’t be sure.
This is the worst part. It is like standing on the banks of the river – a raging, torrent of a river that could suck you down and bounce you off rocks then bury you in its silt. It could ruin your career as well as your whole day.
Still, I have to take the sharp intake and go with the flow. Not that I should complain – it is a monster of my own design.

Following through on the idea for a novel is a scary thing. You might have tossed the idea around for years, or a decade, or more. You begin to write it and a voice emerges. A point of view insinuates itself into your nib. The characters twist in ways you didn’t forsee within the plan. It begins to get out of control. This is the joy of writing. It’s what leads you to the desk and away from your sanity.
Before you know it, you are several chapters and a few months in.
You have put off reading the damn thing or, alternatively, you may have tinkered it to death and know each word by heart – or so you think. You put down the pen and begin to fear for the book, for what you have done. If you’re like me, you will behave badly towards the people you love the most and you can’t tell them why. Why? Because they wouldn’t understand.
You realise that you are beyond the point of no return.
You read and re-read those first hundred pages or so. It is difficult to believe you ever thought this might be worth the telling. You have invested in this stupid idea and these fumbling characters and this pudding of a plot. It is worse than the foulest piece of a pyramid you may have bought into in your most desperate and skintest moment.
But it is too late because you have indulged it too far, too long. It’s time to double the losses, time to try to redeem it – as if it were a wayward teenage daughter or son. So you take the deepest breath and you feel the air beneath and then the icy water. And all is dark.
It’s kind of invigorating, and the water isn’t so rough as it looks. After a while, you are returned to the river’s surface. And you float.

I went to see Fish Tank last week and there’s a truly horrible scene on the banks of the estuary of what is, I guess, the Thames. I thought the film had a good heart, and two wonderful performances from Katie Jarvis and the bewitchingly watchable Michael Fassbender, but it was far too long. I would have cut it by half an hour, but that was worth sitting through, for the river scene.
I wonder what might have happened if the child had been left to the river’s devices.
You try telling yourself it’s only a book – but it’s not.

I’m just about committing myself to the third book in the Staffe series that Faber have signed up. I’ve written the first few chapters and it’s taken longer than I wanted. In a way, that point at which you think you might be barking up the wrong pile of pulp, isn’t so bad when writing a series. You know your protagonist must have something going for them, otherwise this wouldn’t be book 3. And the supporting cast are relatively well established.
But then it occurs to you that these characters are there to be broken with your ham fist and muddy mind. And how can this story be as good as the last one, because that sucked the last gram of creativity from your brain and heart.
And of course, you know this book will be published. It will be read. This brings the sweats on. It’s bowel-emptying. Nobody’s going to like it and you can’t sit back and picture it on a slush pile and feel the bitter-chocolate sweetness of being undiscovered and great. This will happen.

Or, you realise that you are a buffoon, because this is a good problem to have. You go back over the early chapters and realise there is nothing insurmountable in a book. It is just one word after another. That’s all it is. The words are out there, you just have to choose them. A glint of light in the black and starless sky above.
Poor, misguided fool.