For a long time, the only thing I ever had nightmares about was secondary school. The nightmares would vary in tone and scenario but often had several reoccurring themes. They would include the corridors of the school, the feeling of being stuck within the walls of the building and the rising embarrassment of failure in front of peers. No pleasure was greater than feeling that first taste of a coming cold when younger. It signified not having to go to the damn place. It took a while to accept that the drivers of these feelings and nightmares would likely be good raw material for a book. My third novel Nettles is out today, and is very much that book. It can ordered on the Influx Press website, Amazon and all of the usual places.
In spite of being shorter than both of my previous novels, it’s the one that has taken the most time to write, edit and simply get right. It’s based on a loose collection of memories of school on Merseyside, and looks back upon them, switching between 2001 and 2019. The book was very much a lived experience, both in terms of the schooldays and that final weekend visiting The Wirral armed with a Polaroid camera before my mum moved house a few years ago. It’s still ultimately jumbled up, in the way that any real events are when put into fiction, so I’m loath to say “based on a true story”. The editorial process of any book requires enough fictionalising to make that statement moot at best. Still, there is more truth in the pages of this book than is perhaps comfortable for me to admit.
I’ve always been passionate about the landscape I grew up around in Wallasey, though rarely spoke or responded to it until my mid-twenties. In reality, this strange semi-urban, semi-marshland place is still more interesting to me than just about any landscape in the country. It took writing about other places, fetishizing those that others writers and artists had explored, to realise that the bastard-land of Wallasey was the most important to me. My homage, in the hope of forgiveness from my native land, is to make it the sentient monster of my story. Our homes are always the greatest mystery to us and, in spite of some of the pitfalls of growing up there (some of which are abundantly obvious, even from the book’s opening paragraph), I’m still drawn to etching that landscape of motorway, of weeds, of marshland swallowing shopping trolleys and everything else. I’m always looking for echoes of Wallasey, even in London where I’ve lived for the last six years.
I’m in an in-between world with writing currently. After so many years of unconsciously augmenting my interests and ideas of writing to fit within the increasingly narrow margins of literary fiction and the demands of the industry, I think I’m getting closer to writing for myself. The influence of genre writing, in particular crime and horror, will be abundantly clear compared to my previous novels and should hopefully make it a more page-turning read.
In terms of influence, Nettles has thankfully few conscious ones. Édouard’s Louis’ The End of Eddy and Alan Clarke and David Rudkin’s Penda’s Fen both played an important role when initially considering how to go about putting the story on the page. M. John Harrison’s Climbers and The Course of the Heart played some role during the editing process as well, though I’m unsure as to exactly what that was. And my current reading of what I generally call Creative Populists – P.D. James, John le Carré, Ruth Rendell, Len Deighton, Alistair Maclean etc. – has given me the confidence to drop a lot of the performative intellectual baggage and put my efforts into story, character and atmosphere over form and experiment. But it’s the real times and places that take precedence most of all.
I hope Nettles feels a fitting end to what is a very loose trilogy of books, starting with Mothlight, and continuing with How Pale the Winter Has Made Us. All three use photographs, though I feel the photos in Nettles are the most justified as their creation is explicitly within the narrative. The only difference I feel is that Nettles is a better book overall. The more that I write, the more I realise that I just want to tell a story. And Nettles is, fingers crossed, stronger because of an acceptance of that desire. It’ll certainly show in my next novel, too, a true crime fiction that I’m currently working on.
There’s probably a lot more to say – about the landscape, the relation to the film work I’ve made about the same locations, the Polaroids, the deleted segment about Paul Hollywood (yes, really…) – but I’ll leave that for any interviews I get to do. For now, any events lined up will be regularly updated below, as will links to any nice reviews of the book that come my way.
And finally, before anyone asks: no I did not beg askance of a sentient and demonic Wirral marshland to murder a relentless school bully. Honest.