For the last several weeks I’ve been a woman. Well, not in my daily life, but in my writing. I’ve been changing the main character of my Seattle mystery Emerald City into a female. It’s affected every dynamic in the book and made me much more aware of what women go through – and even more so in 1988 when the novel is set – every day. Seattle has always been a progressive city, and it was back then, too, but it’s never been perfect. In some ways the book is a love letter to the city where I lived for 20 years, as well as to its music scene, life and to The Rocket, that most glorious of music papers. But it’s become a love letter with a different edge to it in the rewriting. It’s now back with the publishers, the people who first suggested the sex change, so I’ll be waiting for their reaction and hoping they love what they read. I’ve even started on the follow-up, set six years later, with the first chapter complete (and I don’t plan on continuing it for a while yet). Right now I feel I can breathe again, if only for a few days until I receive a critique on the new Richard Nottingham novel from my most trusted reader. But I need that little space, as my son arrived – from Seattle – for the summer. For a little while I can enjoy him every day.
For my new Seattle Emerald City series of books, my main character was a male music journalist – something I did myself in that city. I say was quite advisedly: the company that’s publishing the books (simultaneously as ebooks and audiobooks) suggested making the protagonist female. It wasn’t a demand, by any means, and I understood the practical rationale behind it (one of the women behind the company is American and an award-winning ebook narrator and actress – Lorelei King). But it appealed to me. I’m male, think like a man. Now I’m changing the character’s sex and it’s proving to be a wonderful, deep challenge. It affects every dynamic in the book, every interaction with every character, male and female. More than that, I have to get into her head and learn to think, and more especially feel, as a woman. What writer wouldn’t relish? Seattle in the late 1980s was far more feminist than most parts of the US. Gender politics were rife, as were gay politics, which were interlinked. That has to be part of it, and it’s made me think and become more aware of the sexism inherent in everyday life. It was more so then, and quite casual, but it still exists. It was even there in the music scene, not too bad but still there. There were some female music journalists around, but men remained in the majority and they made up most of the musicians. A woman writer said to me that women feel more. That might not always be exactly true, but in general women are more aware of their feelings, and they’ll discuss them, with partners and friends, so that has to becomes part of the equation of character, too. Add to that the fact that I’m inserting this character into a story that’s already written, although there will be some changes and it becomes even more interesting. Am I enjoying it? Absolutely. Will it succeed? I hope so, but you’ll have to read for yourself to decide. That’s your challenge…
As some of you will already know, I’ve just signed a contract for a three-book deal. This is wonderful news, of course, and it’ll give me chance to explore the Seattle music scene from the late 80s up to around 2000. The first book, Emerald City, will hopefully appear later this year. What’s particularly interesting is that the novels that will comprise the series – and yes, they’re all mysteries – will all appear as ebooks. I’ve worked with this publisher before; they put out the digital version of The Broken Token and also my John Martyn biography. But I was in the unbelievable and enviable position of having an offer from another publisher, a small press who would have issued the book in both paper and digital formats. So why choose digital only? In part, because it’s the future. More and more people have ebook readers, and that number is only going to grow. It’s handy, portable, and you can carry a staggering library on one. It’s cheaper for the reader and often more attractive. That’s not to say books will fall by the wayside, by any means. I still read more books than ebooks and it’s likely to continue that way for a while. But I also work as a music journalist and I’ve seen the changes wrought by the mp3. So many labels distribute their music to reviewers in that format. Buying music on mp3 is easy, and for most people any difference in sound quality is hardly noticeable. You can burn a disc of it, play it on your computer, transfer it to your mp3 player – it’s amazingly versatile. Ebooks are still a few years behind the mp3 in acceptance, but the statistics are telling. More ebooks are sold than hardbacks, for example. Giving people the chance to look in the book on a site like Amazon allows people to get a taste of what they might be buying. Granted, most magazines and newspapers don’t review ebooks, but libraries carry them now, and mainstream reviews are only a matter of time (with the exception of self-published). It’s growing, and I’m happy to be a part of it. With production costs spiralling, I think a time when we generally see only paper and ebooks of new titles published is just around the corner. And, no small matter, a writer can earn more from ebook sales than from other methods. That’s important to those of us who are scraping by.
I’m very pleased to say that I’m a signing a contract with Creative Content for a three book series of novels. These will come out as ebooks. They’ll all be set in Seattle, where I lived for 20 years, and set around the music scene. The first, Emerald City, takes place in 1988 as the local music scene that will become known as grunge, is crystallizing and involves the investigation of a musician’s supposed heroin overdose by a local music journalist. That one’s written, and will receive a final polish. We’ve yet to sort out a publication date, but it will be available worldwide.
Why, I wondered last night? What was so different about this? It had been very hard to write in parts, quite emotional, and trying to convey what my characters were thinking without going over the top was a challenge. That was part of it, certainly. But more than that, it’s a book that’s taken me into some very dark places inside myself and forced me to explore them. I’m told that my novels are quite dark, although I’m not sure I’ve always seen it. This time, however, I wanted to look into the shadows, and it appears I’ve succeeded. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There can be plenty of truth in those places. And without truth there’s no point to a novel.
Now I’ve put the book aside for a month. There are plenty of things that need to be changed in it, and small additions, changes to language, and all the other things a revision does. I’ll have a better idea of how well it all works when I read it through. For now, my brain is pretty much on empty. And I’m glad.
I owe a huge debt to my friend Thom Atkinson (incidentally one of the very best writers around today) for pointing me in the direction of the TV series Justified. Set in Kentucky – pretty much bouncing between Lexington and Harlan, it features characters created by the masterful Elmore Leonard in his short story Fire in The Hole and in a couple more novels.
Raylan Givens is a deputy US Marshal transferred back to his home state after shooting a criminal in Florida. But in spite of gunplay here and there, it’s anything but macho. He gets his ass kicked with regularity – usually after a few drinks. But when he’s one his game, which is most of the time, he’s smart and savvy, and very intuitive.
So far we’re partway through season two – a year behind the US – and it all becomes more and more delightful. Wonderfully written, directed and acted, it has the easy, wry flow that typifies Leonard (who didn’t work on any of the scripts). The speech captures the Eastern Kentucky rhythms and vocabulary, and the way life is life there. Or if it doesn’t quite, it’s convincing enough that you believe it.
More than Givens himself, it’s two other characters that are among the great television creations. Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) is a man who likes to blow shit up, someone who finds God and starts preaching when in jail. But is his change for real? Played with a subtle intensity, he’s a character to leave the viewer guessing and wrong-footed, capable of sudden great violence, at times Biblical in his speech and always quietly menacing.
Mags Bennett (Margo Martindale) is head of the Bennett clan, who farm much of the eastern part of the state with marijuana. She’s a powerful woman but down home with the general store. She also delivers the very best speech I’ve heard – possibly up there with anything written and performed in serious theatre – when she gives Walt McCready some of her apple pie moonshine. It’s so perfectly done that you want to hit rewind and play it over and over.
But it’s a series full of wonderful moments, with powerful story arcs, great humour and moments of violence. There’s drama, laughter, tears. It’s everything great television ought to be.
December and January saw three – yes, three – manuscripts depart from here. A medieval novel is now being sent out to publishers by my agent (yes, it’s crime, but unlike the Leeds books, somewhat gentler), the Seattle novel – now a long novella of almost 50,000 words – is being considered by a small press, and my non-fiction book on Studio One reggae is being considered by an ebook publisher.
That’s a busy start, right? On top of that, Cold Cruel Winter came out as an ebook on January 1 (buy it here), and my new Richard Nottingham novel, The Constant Lovers, will arrive in hardback on the 26th; I’m looking forward to having my author copies this week. America, which has really taken to Cold Cruel Winter of the back of some frankly astonishing reviews, will have to wait until May 1 for publication (although Book Depository in the UK will sell you a copy and not charge you postage). I’ve complete the book trailer for The Constant Lovers, now up on YouTube, and yes, I even did the music. The launch event will be in the Exhibition Room at Leeds Central Library on Tuesday, February 7, 6.30-7.45 pm, and all are welcome, with copies of the book on sale.
That’s all topped by the news that the publishers have accepted the fourth book in the series, Come the Fear. My wonderful editor has gone through it and I’m making my final changes now; it will come out in July, so more on that later. But, even as I plough through those words, I’m writing others – the fifth book in the series, provisionally titled Over the Hills.