A Writer’s Life

I had written a lot, done work of much difficulty; had worked under pressure more or less since my schooldays. Before the writing, there had been the learning; writing had come to me slowly. Before that, there had been Oxford; and  before that, the school in Trinidad where I had worked for the Oxford scholarship. There had been a long preparation for the writing career! And then I discovered that to be a writer was not (as I had imagined) a state – of competence, or achievement, or fame, or content – at which on arrived and where one stayed. There was a special anguish attached to the career; whatever the labour of any piece of writing, whatever its creative challenges and satisfactions, time had always taken me away from it. And, with time passing, I felt mocked by what I had already done; it seemed to belong to a time of vigour, now past for good. Emptiness, restlessness built up again; and it was necessary once more, out of my internal resources alone, to start on another book, to commit myself to that consuming process again.

V. S. Naipaul: The Enigma of Arrival

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Rhythm is Our Business

 

Prose

In her, to me, fascinating book, Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose retells the story of the aspiring young writer who told his agent he wasn’t really interested in what he wrote about, what he really concerned him, what he wanted to do most of all, was to write really great sentences. Promise me, the agent replied, you will never, ever say that to an American publisher.

Perhaps the writer in question, apocryphal or not, had been reading Hemingway’s account of his early writing life in A Moveable Feast – also quoted by Prose.

Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going … I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there.

As Prose points out, that raises the question of what exactly constitutes a ‘true’ sentence. She  thinks it might mean a beautiful sentence, while appreciating that such a concept is equally hard to define. For me I think it would be a combination of sound and meaning: the right rhythm, the most appropriate choice of words, the right sense of balance, all of those combined with the clearest meaning – while acknowledging there are times when that meaning will be purposefully ambiguous.

“All the elements of good writing,” Prose says, “depend upon the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another.” And further, “Rhythm is nearly as important in prose as it is in poetry. I have heard a number of writers say that they would rather choose the slightly wrong word that made their sentence more musical than the precisely right one that made it more awkward and clunky.”

Sometimes people ask me if also writing poetry has affected my writing of fiction; others ask, to what extent has your love of jazz – and the fact that you used to play the drums – influenced your writing? The answer to both is the same: hopefully both have helped me to develop a sense of rhythm. The Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra, pre-eminent in the States in the 30s, had as their virtual theme tune a piece called “Rhythm is Our Business”; perhaps we writers could adopt it for ourselves.

The story Prose tells about the writer and his agent reminded me of an occasion a couple of years back when I was being interviewed by fellow-writer Mark Billingham on stage at the Harrogate Crime Festival. I can’t remember Mark’s exact question – we were discussing my then latest novel, Darkness, Darkness –  but my answer was something to the effect that whatever the strengths (and weaknesses) of the book might be, the greatest sense of achievement for me came from writing one single sentence that seemed to me to be just right. My publisher was in the audience and she said afterwards she’d wanted to ask what exactly the sentence was, but had refrained. Maybe just as well – few sequences of words, taken out of context – because the context within which they occur, is, of course, intrinsic to their meaning – would live up to such expectation.

This past week, labouring over the proofs of both a new novel and a new collection of short stories, I’ve had the fairly unusual experience of reading quite a lot of my own writing, some time, as it were, after the event. In part, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, this can be a fairly chastening experience, one which was occasionally redeemed for me by coming across a sentence or two which brought me up short with a sense of yes, okay, I just might be getting the hang of it after all. The three that follow are from the stories in Going Down Slow, to be published in November.

Melanie Lessing stood in the hallway, the ghost of prettiness hovering about her, anxiety startling her eyes.

Slowly, she uncurled, face turning towards the light.

She left the room and he heard the fridge door open and close; the glasses were tissue-thin, tinged with green; the wine grassy, cold.

All right, nothing to set the world on fire. But they gave me a little chill of pleasure when I wrote them and they still do. The way, in the last one for instance, both parts of the sentence, either side of the semi-colon, balance and match; the repetition in ‘green’ and ‘grassy’; the near-echo in ‘thin’ and ‘tinged’; the final emphasis of ‘cold’. That lovely bloody semi-colon.

Old Coppers Never Die …

… with any luck, they live on into an easeful retirement … Look at Charlie Resnick, for instance, in the final scene of my dramatisation of Darkness, Darkness, which was produced at Nottingham Playhouse last October … The scene is the chapel garden following the funeral of a young woman who went missing during the Miners’ Strike: after a conversation with another officer who is leaving the force and moving away, Resnick moves downstage and addresses the audience.

RESNICK : Difficult things, endings. Goodbyes. Trying to find the right thing to say, the right thing to do.

Barry Hardwick earlier, in the chapel, stumbling over his last few words, tears blinding his eyes. Any anger, resentment there’d been between himself and Jenny, set aside. Maybe some day them as stood either side of the picket line’ll feel the same … and maybe not. Some things too big, happen, to ever forget.

For me now, it’s going to be a matter of going on from day to day. Taking small pleasures while I can. A decent cup of coffee. Saturdays at Meadow Lane. A glass of Scotch. Charlie Parker. Lester Young. (BEAT) There’s this CD I saw in the window of Music Inn. Thelonious Monk in Amsterdam. I might stroll up there later and take a listen.

THE SOUND OF JAZZ PIANO, SLIGHTLY DISCORDANT, RISES UP …

What was it Lynn said? That bloke who plays piano as if he had no arms? Anyone who can play like that without hands – got to be worth a listen, eh?

… AS RESNICK WALKS OFF STAGE AND THE LIGHTS SLOWLY FADE.

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Didn’t think about killing him off, then? someone asked, after reading the novel on which  the play was based. Well, yes. But never for more than the odd moment; didn’t have the heart.

And, of course, for Charlie there’s another life, still happily continuing. A life on the internet: e-books. A life in translation. Darkness, Darkness itself was published in French by Rivages as Ténèbres, Ténèbres in 2015 …

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…and in German as Unter Tage, in a fine edition from Ars Vivendi in 2016.

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And now Donmay Publishing of Taiwan are to publish all 12 Resnick novels in Chinese, beginning with Lonely Hearts, which first saw the light of day in 1989, and finishing with Cold in Hand and Darkness, Darkness in 2022. I hope I’m around to see them.

The cover design for the first in the series arrived today for my approval and what could I say, other than I think it is beautiful. Original and beautiful.

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Yes, I know what I said …

… no more novels after the last, Darkness, Darkness, the final book in the Resnick series that was published in 2014, and certainly nothing more involving retired police detective Frank Elder, who last saw the light of day way back in 2006 in Darkness and Light [bit of a theme going on there] but it seems as if Frank’s retirement is pretty much as water tight as mine, and I’m truly delighted to be able to say the manuscript of a new Elder novel, the fourth, has been delivered and happily accepted, the deal has been done and William Heinemann will publish the new Elder novel, Body & Soul, in April, 2018.

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Listening to Jazz, 4

So, appropriately in the light of the centenary of Thelonious Monk’s birth, here’s the last of four extracts from my work chosen by Sascha Feinstein for the summer 2017 issue of Brilliant Corners. This comes from the novel, In a True Light, which is set partly in New York in the 50’s, partly in London in 2001.

Sloane, skinny in Levis and a plaid shirt, had stood on line at the Five Spot for the best part of an hour and missed most of the first set. Inside, the only seat he was able to find squashed him close to several others on a table right up against the stage. Monk soloing against the rhythm, fingers held stiff above the keyboard then jabbing down, the bright percussive sound chiming through the buzz of conversation, clink of glasses, the occasional shout of laughter from the back of the crowded room.

Monk wearing a pale jacket loose across his shoulders, pale green, silver and grey striped tie knotted snug against the collar of his white shirt, dark hair neatly, recently trimmed, no hat tonight, no hat, goatee beard and moustache, dark glasses shielding his eyes. Fingers rolling a little, feeling  for a rhythm in the bottom hand, rocking back upon the piano stool and then thrusting forward, elbows angled out, playing with his whole body, and the drummer, seated at Monk’s back, following each movement, listening to each new shift and shuffle, quick and careful as a hawk. Monk’s foot, his right foot, skewed right and stomping down, punctuating the broken line as, stationed at the piano’s curve, the bassist, eyes closed, feels for the underlying pulse. And Coltrane, John Coltrane, horn hooked over his shoulder, head down, fingers fluttering from time to time over imaginary keys, stands mute, focussed, waiting his time.

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Listening to Jazz, 3

This is the third of four extracts from my writing chosen by Sascha Feinstein to illustrate his interview with me which appeared in the Summer, 2017 issue of the journal, Brilliant Corners.

The first shot had struck her in the chest, close to the heart, the second had shredded part of her jaw, torn her face apart …

Finally, in the living room, he burrowed through the shelves of albums and CDs, searching, not for something calming, consoling, nothing that might trigger a memory, happy or sad, but this: the Eric Dolphy/Booker Little Quintet Live at the Five Spot, New York, 16 July 1961. Track three. “Aggression.” Sixteen minutes and forty seconds.

Resnick in the middle of the room, listening, slowly racking up the volume.

Louder, then louder.

Still listening.

By the time it reaches Dolphy’s solo, the bass clarinet screaming, squawking, keening – the sound so fierce, so intense – he is no longer capable of thought, just feeling.

Fists clenched tight, absorbing the music’s anger, he takes it for his own: this stuttering expression of anger and pain.

from Darkness, Darkness, 2014

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It Was 50 Years Ago …

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I’m reminded today, with much coverage in the media of this being the 50th anniversary of the release of Sergeant Pepper, that, some good few years ago, I was in a men’s clothing shop on Bridlesmith Gate in Nottingham when one of the assistants came up to me and introduced himself as a former student of mine at Heanor-Aldercar secondary school in the 60s. “You won’t remember me,” he said. And I promptly apologised, because that was, indeed, the case.

One thing I’ll always remember about you, he said, you came into our English class one day with the record player and said, Right, you’ve got to listen to this, and played the whole of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band all the way through.

It would have been around the same time that the Head of English at the school, Gordon Leake, and myself, inspired, I think, by having seen The Mersey Poets – Messrs Henri, McGough and Patten, along with Heather Holden – performing at the Co-Op Theatre,
decided to suggest to the students in our top set of 13/14 year olds that they ask their parents for the money to buy individual copies of the recently published Penguin Modern Poets 10 : The Mersey Sound for themselves. This despite being wary of possible parental complaints about some of the contents once the books were taken home, though, in the event, we need not have worried. No words of complaint were forthcoming. And when, happily, I met up with another former Heanor-Aldercar student, Mel Cox, many years later – 2014 – at a reading in Derby Waterstones, he had brought his well-thumbed copy of The Mersey Sound with him, along with a copy of Prévert’s Paroles, which I’d signed back then and given him as a prize.

None of that would likely happen today, I suspect, at least not in the same way – aside, of course, from teachers begging money to buy books. Plenty of that still around.

Denis Johnson, 1949 – 2017

JesusDenis Johnson, poet, short story writer, and novelist died on the 24th of May.  Although his Vietnam novel, Tree of Smoke – sprawling, busy with moments of brilliance and confusing and difficult to grasp as the war itself – won the US National Book Award in 2007, for me his best work is to be found in his shorter fiction, Train Dreams (2002), set in the American West at the turn of the century, the fast and nourish Nobody Move (2009), and the collection of incendiary short stories for which I suspect he will always be best known, Jesus’ Son (1992), from which these short extracts are taken.

The Vine had no jukebox, but  real stereo continually playing tunes of alcoholic self-pity and sentimental divorce. “Nurse.’ I sobbed. She pour doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of cocktail glass, no measuring. “You have a lovely pitching arm.” You had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom. I saw her much later, not too many years ago, and when I smiled she seemed to believe I was making advances. But it was only that I remembered. I’ll never forget you. Your husband will  beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.

 

It was there. It was. The long walk down the hall. The door opening. The beautiful stranger. The torn moon mending. Our fingers touching away the tears. It was there.

 

And then came one of those moments. I remember living through one when I was eighteen and spending the afternoon in bed with my first wife, before we were married. Our naked bodies started glowing, and the air turned such a strange colour I thought my life must be leaving me, and with every young fibre and cell I wanted to hold on to it for another breath. A clattering sound was tearing up my head as I staggered upright and opened the door on a vision I will never see again: Where are my women now, with their sweet wet words and way, and the miraculous balls of hail popping a green translucence in the yards?
We put our clothes on, she and I, and walked out into a town flooded ankle-deep with white, buoyant stones. Birth should have been like that.

And, finally, a poem …

PASSENGERS

The world will burst like an intestine in the sun,
the dark turn to granite and the granite to a name,
but there will always be somebody riding the bus
through those intersections strewn with broken glass
among speechless women beating their little ones,
always a slow alphabet of rain
speaking of drifting and perishing to the air,
always those definite jails of light in the sky
at the wedding of this clarity and this storm
and a woman’s turning – her languid flight of hair
travelling through frame after frame of memory
where the past turns, its face sparking like emery,
to open its grace and incredible harm
over my life, and I will never die>

Sadly, not true.

Listening to Jazz – 2

 

 

This is the second of the extracts from my writing dealing explicitly with jazz, chosen by Sascha Feinstein to accompany his interview with me which appeared in the Summer, 2017 issue of the journal of jazz and literature, Brilliant Corners.

 

Sloane, skinny in Levis and a plaid shirt, had stood on line at the Five Spot for the best part of an hour and missed most of the first set. Inside, the only seat he’d been able to find squashed him close to several others on a table right up against the stage. Monk soloing against the rhythm, fingers held stiff above the keyboard then jabbing down, the bright percussive sound chiming through the buzz of conversation, clink of glasses, the occasional shout of laughter from the back of the crowded room.

Monk wearing a pale jacket loose across the shoulders, pale green, silver and grey striped tie knotted snug against the collar of his white shirt, dark hair neatly, recently trimmed, no hat tonight, no hat, goatee beard and moustache, dark glasses shielding his eyes. Fingers rolling a little, feeling for a rhythm in the bottom hand, rocking back upon the piano stool and then thrusting forward, elbows angled out, playing with his whole body, and the drummer, seated at Monk’s back, following each movement, listening to each new shift and shuffle, quick and careful as a hawk. Monk’s foot, his right foot, skewed wide and stomping down, punctuating the broken line as, stationed at the piano’s curve, the bassist, eyes closed, feels for the underlying pulse. And Coltrane, John Coltrane, horn hooked over his shoulder, head down, fingers fluttering from time to time over imaginary keys, stands mute, focused, waiting his time.

It comes from a stand alone crime novel, In a True Light, which was originally published by William Heinemann in 2001. Beginning with the release of its central character from prison …

They let Sloane out of prison three days short of his sixtieth birthday. Three years for deception, reduced on appeal to two; six months in Brixton, the remainder in Ford open prison.Naturally lean and wiry, Sloane walked out through the gates a fitter man than when he’d walked in.

A painter, the particular deception of which Sloane was found guilty was that of forgery; of late, he had found other people’s work, in his own exact interpretation, more saleable than his own. The novel works on two time frames, one in the present, following Sloane to New York in search of the daughter he never knew he had, the other tracing him back to the late 50s when he was a young, aspiring abstract expressionist painter in Greenwich Village – which is where and when he gets to listen to Monk.

In my opinion, it’s not a wholly successful novel – I’m not sure now well the different parts fuse together, the contemporary crime scenes in particular – but it does have some scenes of which I’m very fond and even, dare I say it, some writing of which I’m proud. And, of course, it gave me the opportunity to think and write about the art, jazz and poetry of New York during a period that has long held a strong fascination. Frank O’Hara, Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, Thelonious Monk.

“Lonely Hearts”: Resnick at the Beginning

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A quick check on AbeBooks.com suggests that copies of the Viking Press, 1979, first edition of Lonely Hearts, in fine to very fine condition, signed, can be snapped up for between $350 and $450. Whereas, anyone wishing to read the same novel on kindle, can do so, from today until June 26th, for a mere £1.99, thanks to Amazon’s Start a New Series promotion.

You pays your money, as the saying goes …

One of the questions I used to get asked quite regularly in those far off days when my publishers used to send me out on tour, my American publisher Henry Holt especially, was did I always think Lonely Hearts was going to be the first of a series? The answer being, well, yes and no. Yes, in that most of my formative pulp days had been spent working on series so it was what I was used to. [Even the novelisation of Herbie Rides Again sprouted Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo.] And no, in that it had been hard enough to get this one book published, how much harder was it going to be for a bunch of them? Also, I should add on the plus side, the two most obvious [to me] and relevant inspirations for the novel were both television series, the long-running Hill St. Blues and my own relatively short-lived Hard Cases, which was, in most respects, Hill St. relocated to Nottingham and centred around the probation service rather than the police.

Which sort of takes me to a second frequently posed question: who, if anyone, is the character of Resnick based upon? To which the response used to be, he’s a lot like Captain Frank Furillo from Hill St. Blues, but dressed like Peter Falk in Columbo. A more specific model, following the Peter Falk example, would be the wonderfully fallible, hard drinking and sentimental Sgt. Valnikov, as played by Robert Foxworth in Harold Becker’s film The Black Marble, based on Joseph Wambaugh’s novel of the same name.

Like Furillo, I saw him initially as a kind of middle-management copper, holding together, through a mixture of firmness and inspiration, a fairly disparate group of younger officers. As the series developed, however, Resnick stepped out increasingly front and centre, in part due to the fact that I was increasingly enjoying writing about him, and in part down to the positive response to him from readers.

But here’s a little taste of Charlie as he initially appears at the beginning of chapter two …

Standing under the shower, Resnick massaged shampoo into his hair as vigorously as he dared: eyes closed tight, face tilted upwards, he lowered the temperature of the water until it reached minimum. When he looked into the mirror, his breath came back to him a mixture of German beer and sweet pickled gherkins. He was the usual eight pounds over on the scales. Cats swayed around his bare legs, slid under his feet as he pulled on his dark grey trousers, dark grey socks.

And this is the first impression of him from the social worker, Rachel Chaplin, with whom he becomes involved …

He was an overweight man in his early forties, whose narrow eyes were bagged and tired, and who couldn’t find the time to drop his tie off at the cleaners.

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