The Road To Here

Let me begin by saying (once again, probably) that I have a new book coming out at the end of March. It’s called The Leaden Heart, and it’s the seventh Tom Harper novel. Safe to say I plan on giving your details before the publication date, and a video trailer is in the works, too. If you’d care to order it, be aware that amazon is the most expensive site currently. I’d suggest here or here – both significantly cheaper and with free UK delivery. It appears that both companies full their proper taxes in the UK.

the leaden heart revised

That’s the self-promotion out of the way. But with something fresh hurtling down the tracks, I found myself wondering just how did I get here? I don’t like the word journey, but it’s been a long strange trip. I probably wrote my first novel when I was 20, its name long since forgotten. I do remember that it was very heavily influenced by Richard Brautigan and Kurt Vonnegut (well, it was 1974) and not very good. By which, of course, I mean derivative, not as clever as it imagined, and piss-poor.

A couple more fairly mainstream novels arrived after I moved to the US. Both naïve, but I was young, those were different times, and I was learning my craft. And then, a detective novel, set in Cincinnati, where I was living. It received some interest, from a couple of publishers and an agent, who wanted me to rewrite it as a young adult novel, as I recall. But in the end it all went nowhere. I was hugely disappointed, but in retrospect, I’m grateful. While some of the idea and characters were okay, it simply wasn’t a good book. Naivete and a crime novel don’t mix, and I still had plenty of growing up to do, even if I didn’t realise it.

My next book was written in 1992/93. Called Career Opportunities, after the Clash song, and set in the London punk scene of 76-78, with the main character an American student over there study. Audacity on my part. I hadn’t been there at the time. I’d already left England. Hell, I hadn’t really been in London much at all in my life.

I still have the manuscript, I remember the general story. I’ve never dared look at it again. I’m sure it’s cute. And that was the problem. My writing was cute. It told a story. Once in a while it could tell it reasonably well. But it couldn’t pierce to the kernel of truth at the heart of a person or a tale. My friend Thom Atkinson has always been able to do that. He’s simply one of the best short story writers and playwrights I know, and we’ve been close for 35 years. Read a piece of his here and you’ll see what I mean. He has it.

I kept writing, of course, but it was mostly music journalism and quickie unauthorised celebrity biographies. They kept me very busy for a number of years and paid well. Important with a mortgage and a young son. But also great writing discipline. By the time I returned to fiction in 2005 I had a clearer vision, even if I was seeing a much older version of Leeds.

I’d become fascinated by the history of my hometown and started to discover it, as best I could on annual trips which involved walking and buying books, and finding old volumes on eBay. Somehow, in all there, I found my soul, my kernel of truth.

The first book I write set in 1730s Leeds was called The Cloth Searcher and featured cloth merchant Tom Williamson and his wife Hannah. A minor character was the town constable, Richard Nottingham.

The setting, the characters, the writing all had something. Just not quite the right thing, though. An agent liked what I was doing, although not that particular book. Try again, I was told.

I did. But first I thought a while. A crime novel, even one set in Leeds in the 1730s, was going to make more sense when someone from the right side of the law was the main character.

That involved a shift. Richard Nottingham became the protagonist, with his family (Mary, Rose, Emily) fairly central, along with his deputy, John Sedgwick. Poor Tom Williamson found himself on the periphery.

I write the book. In 2010 it was finally published (and the road from writing to that is another story). It was The Broken Token.

It might seem that things really started there. It often seems that way to me. But it was had begun 36 years earlier. Just the blink of an eye, really…

The Kernel of Truth

For a long time I was jealous of my friend Thom Atkinson (read about him here). His short stories and plays, justly award-winning, hit a kernel of truth that I couldn’t seem to reach in my own writing (you really should read his work. He’s honestly that good). What I produced was readable, but it was all surface, it didn’t resonate deeply.

Maybe I hadn’t lived enough. Maybe I just hadn’t reached far enough inside. I don’t know.

I had a stack of unpublished novels, six or seven of them. Fair enough.

Finally, though, I did manage to touch that core and find that elusive truth when I wrote The Broken Token. I like to feel that the Richard Nottingham and Tom Harper books all manage that, to a greater or lesser degree. Some – At the Dying of the Year, for instance, or Gods of Gold and Skin Like Silver – have been very emotionally draining to write. When that happens, I feel fairly sure I’ve achieved work that’s the best I can do.

Some of my other books perhaps don’t delve quite as deep. But I hope that they each have their own truth that shines through.

This is a preface to saying I’ve just completed a book that was quite exhausting to write. Currently titled The Tin God, it’s the next in the Harper series, and Annabelle figures more largely than ever. Soon enough it will be with my agent and then, I hope, my publisher, who will give the thumbs up or down. If it’s success then I’ll let you know, of course. But the issues involved are timely. Women running for office – which they could in late Victorian Leeds, either for the School Board or as a Poor Law Guardian – and the problems they face from men.

My publisher will hopefully receive this new manuscript just after On Copper Street appears in hardback in the US, and everywhere as an ebook (obligatory ad!). I was a little stunned a couple of weeks ago when Booklist, an American publication, named it as one of the best crime novels of the last 12 months before its publication. That is heart-stopping and left me immensely proud.

Over lunch last week, a writer friend told me: ‘You own Leeds.’

I don’t (or if I do, where’s the rent?), but it’s lovely to be so associated with a city I care for so deeply, that’s helped me find the heart in my fiction.

I’ll be talking about that on June 8 with a great historical crime writer, Candace Robb, who feels about York the way I do about Leeds. Details are here – please come if you can.

A finally, I mentioned Richard Nottingham before. After four years away, he’s returning. Here’s a little teaser…

RN1