Monday, 29 June 2009

A dish served cold

I had a bit of a mini-revelation yesterday. About why I write novels. Seems like it might be all about revenge.

Recently I was one of several writers pitching their new books to some readers in a lovely wee independent shop in Glasgow called Lost in Fiction. (The sadness is that the shop had to cease trading as of today – thanks again, Amazon, Tesco’s et al.) Anyway, my three-minute pitch went like this:

A couple of questions we’re always asked are ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ and 'Are your books autobiographical?' In the case of The Darkness, they're central to how I wrote the first version and how it developed into this one. Many years ago, I was having dinner with my wife and friends at a restaurant just outside Aberdeen. The waiter serving us had a West Country accent – English West Country. I said to him ‘You’re a long way from home’. He said ‘Yes, I needed to get as far away as possible’. I asked why and he told me his wife and two young daughters had been killed by a drunk driver. He’d been caught, sentenced to eighteen months, but got twelve months off for good behaviour. As the waiter said, ‘That’s two months for each life’.

I felt so sorry for him, and the story stayed with me. I wanted revenge on his behalf. And the first version of The Darkness was exactly that. My agent sent it to Piatkus. They liked it but didn’t want a stand alone thriller at that time but said they’d be interested if I had any police procedurals. So I wrote one. They bought it. And I wrote some more.

I started thinking about making The Darkness part of the series, but it was crude. It was me, red in tooth and claw. My own vigilante tendencies bother me. When it comes to capital punishment, imprisonment and so on I’m a liberal, I’ve corresponded with a prisoner on Death Row, and yet I know for a fact that if I could get my hands on some of these paedophiles and so on, I’d do very nasty things to them. And I’d do it knowing it was wrong, but I’d still do it.

So, in the end, I wrote and rewrote The Darkness over and over again, exploring the balance between the law and justice, revenge and compassion. The motives and the personnel changed. It’s now the third Jack Carston novel and it’s taught me so much about my characters and the whole business of crime and punishment that, before I send off the next two, which are already written, I want to change them. Then, there’ll be just one more. I already know its plot and structure and it’ll have an even darker ending than this one.

Given what I’m claiming for the book, it was nice to read in one of the reviews that ‘When you read The Darkness be prepared to be manipulated and have your moral compass reset’. And the same review ended by saying ‘get yourself a copy of The Darkness and ask yourself this; what would you do?’

OK, that was my spiel – and I meant it, and it was true. But yesterday, reading an article about books being made into movies, I suddenly remembered reading First Blood, which is the first of the Rambo stories. I haven’t seen the movies and have no desire to, but that was a well-constructed thriller and a good escapist read. At the end, though, I felt frustrated and cheated by a choice the protagonist made. It was about revenge. But his ‘failure’ to exact the full revenge, while morally ‘correct’, was out of character in the context of the story. This isn’t a criticism of the writing, it’s just my take on the morality involved. I won’t reveal the specific incident to which I’m referring because some people may not have read it so I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending for them.

The point, though, is that it made me want to write a novel in which the revenge impulse was allowed its full scope. Up to then I'd written plays and short stories but it was the anger, the revenge impulse that set me thinking of the novel form. I imagine that many if not most people experience the visceral eye-for-an-eye urge and it doesn’t do to pretend that it’s not there. I’m not proposing a free-for-all, but it’s honest to acknowledge that it’s a factor, even in the most liberally-informed debates.

So there you have it - I write novels because I'm nasty.


  1. That sucks hugely about your waiter friend. I'm going to be thinking about him for a long time to come.

    Does he know he inspired a novel?

  2. Sadly, no. Not that it would help much. But that was a long time ago. I didn't know him. We only saw him there on that one occasion but the sympathy stayed and is still acute, even now.

  3. I doubt that you're inherently nasty, Bill, but I certainly understand your motivation for writing. I'm currently working on a revenge novel that involves an innocent woman hanged in Wyoming Territory in 1889. I was angered by news reports on microfilm while researching a centennial history book some years ago. Then, thankfully, someone wrote a nonfiction book about the incident after 20 years of research, which makes it a bit easier for me to write the novel.

  4. Writing a novel is a healthy outlet for anger. Nasty would be acting out the anger.

  5. Yes, Linda, but indulging it, letting a character act it out on one's behalf, creating him/her in such a way that the reader empathises with him/her - isn't that tantamount to making it acceptable behaviour?

  6. I'm so glad I'm not the only one who takes revenge through my writing. One or two of my more unpleasant characters are based on people I've met in real life - and I do enjoy having them come to a sticky end. ;)

    I feel so sorry for that waiter. The laws governing dangerous/drunk driving are hopelessly inadequate. :(