Wednesday, March 30, 2011

PMT

Which, in my case, stands for Pre Manuscript Tension. I suffer from it. I'm fine when I have events and promotion and media to do, but when I am between books, as I have been recently, I confess freely that I am not the happiest camper.
Last year I bumped into Brian Kennedy, the very talented Northern Irish singer and writer, while doing a radio interview in Dublin. We got chatting, as you do, and he used the word hormonal in connection with his own work and in particular his prose. In our sexist society it's a word most often associated with women, but it applies equally to writers of both genders. It definitely applies to me.
Part of it comes down to guilt associated with the infamous Protestant work ethic, which was drilled into me growing up. My Dad (who'll be 80 in a few days) was a prolific historian and scholar, and even now, with his health very bad, he is working on a new book - a biography of James Connolly, one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.
My earliest and fondest memories are of waking up as a boy to the clack-clack, or, more accurately, the hammer-hammer (Dad was a labourer in a sawmill from the age of 14 long before he was an academic) of a manual typewriter being wrestled into submission.
Although writing to me is work, work is a positive thing. I was brought up to believe that one of the most important duties you had was to make a contribution to society. If you had even a small modicum of talent then you used it. So that plays a part in my unease when I am not working.
On the plus side, I am rarely happier than when I've had a good day writing. So it's with some relief that after weeks and weeks, I have finally cracked the opening of my new book. Once I get that part done it tends to flow for the next forty thousand words until I hit the mid-book blahs. But, right now, it's a voyage of discovery. I am productive, and free of guilt.
In other news, if you are in London in May then look out for this poster on the London Underground.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Paradise Lost

I'm fifty-nine-years old, man. I never thought my life was going to end up like this.

The words belong to Steve and they haunt me as I write this, a few short days after I meet him for the first time. We are standing next to Steve's home, a small tent positioned six hundred yards inside a ten foot by ten foot concrete storm drain next to one of the most famous landmarks in Las Vegas, Nevada. Steve has lived here for the past six years. He has bright blue eyes, a neatly trimmed beard and speaks with a soft, articulate desperation. I stand with Matt, my guide to the tunnels, and listen. When I leave, I slip Steve twenty dollars, and while he is grateful, I feel the inadequacy of my gesture. In some ways, I am as much a tourist as the people twenty-five feet above me having their picture taken with Elvis.

Minutes before, I was talking to Steve's neighbour, Michael, as he told me how his descent into the tunnels began with witnessing the woman he loved being killed in front of his eyes by a drunk driver. Death. Loneliness. The fragility of our existence. Never has the phrase 'there but for the grace of God go I' resonated more deeply for this atheist.

I am armed going into the tunnels. I have a big, carbon steel knife with me, sheathed and slung around my neck. The blade is dulled a little by several days use in the high desert of neighbouring Arizona, where I have been living on the land, sleeping under a Juniper tree. There, a knife keeps you alive by carving dead fall traps to trap pack rats and squirrels. Here, it may serve a more direct survival function. People worry me far more than coyotes, or bobcats or packs of wild dogs.

Junkies come down here to get high. Gangs sometimes venture into the tunnels looking for sport, with the homeless as their prey. There is talk of a Wild Man who randomly attacks the tunnel dwellers, descending on them in the darkness. Generally, the Metro police are never seen. There is no cell phone reception. If something happens, Steve tells me, you had best be able to deal with it yourself. He is thinking of getting a gun. Matt and I advise him that in a tunnel like this a gun may not be the best choice.

Despite my initial apprehension, I soon relax as I meet these men. I am old enough, and I have had enough of my own victories and screw-ups, to know that the choices they have made have played a part in their downfall.

They have alcohol issues. They have drug issues. Issues run through them like lettering through seaside rock candy. There is help available to them. Some have gotten out of the tunnels only to come back. Ricky-Lee tells me that he knows sooner or later he will end up back here, 'so why try to leave, man?' He will, in all probability (and the vast wealth of Vegas is premised on the general public's inability to understand that single concept), die here.

After more tunnels, more dragging my boots through dank standing water, past walls plastered with human excrement, and a graffitied quote from Milton's Paradise Lost (see the video), I call it a day.

video


After many hours, I get back to my hotel room. I strip off my clothes and take a long, hot shower. Looking out my window, twenty-five floors up, the neon signs of the Strip shimmer in the darkness.

In the morning there is an email on my Blackberry, bad news from my agent in New York. I'm facing a hefty cut in my income down the line. I feel deflated. It's a juvenile reaction to something, which is, after all, only business.

At this point, I should think of Steve, and find perspective. But I don't. Back home, I wake jet-lagged, and start to write this blog post. I think about how I can harness all the fear I have about being able to maintain the comfortable life I have built for my family, alongside the residue of emotions and thoughts from my research trip, to inform my central character's interior journey in the new book. It occurs to me that this reaction, this thought process, means I'm still a writer. 

Finally, I feel better.



Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Going Underground

Right now I am reviewing copy edits for the third Lock book, Gridlock, which will be released in hardback in August. I'm also hastily putting together a new research trip, which is going to involve learning how to survive in Arizona's bleak but stunning Painted Desert, followed up by some time exploring a side of Las Vegas which the tourists don't see.

The key to organising the research I do is to not think about it. I'll be out in The Painted Desert over at least two days and one night with a guide, and a knife, and little else. Well, that's not strictly true, there will be plenty of coyotes and snakes to keep us company.

Just as I did before I flew off to do my bodyguard training, and certainly just like the morning I woke knowing that I was going inside Pelican Bay, I'm sure I will be nervous as hell. Hence, you don't dwell, you commit.

Of course it would be more pleasant to sit at home drinking tea and eating biscuits and looking up stuff on the internet or reading books, but where is the fun in that? Also, having written three Lock books, I am in need of new details, new characters, and new experiences.*

So, flights are booked, and contacts have been made. New horizons await me. Then, when I get back, comes the really exciting and nerve-wracking part - writing that first draft of the new book - but first I have to go buy a new pair of boots.

*Don't worry, Lock, Ty and the crew will be back, although there may well be a book in between.