A Borgesian task then, to distil the essence of a journey in a few hundred words.  The long and winding road to print.  Inspired by so many writers, driven on by family, relationships, alcohol and drugs. The car that brought me here wrecked on so many occasions – and yet still running.  A task Borgese may have been equal to, but alas I am not.  At best I can sketch a few scenes.  I offer some scenes then, from a life half lived, half dreamed.


A box set of five Buddy Holly LPs and an accompanying booklet with the lyrics to every song, an illustrated Life and Times of Davy Crockett, and a dark shadow.  I was six years old, my parents had recently separated, and I was lost in that mother and fatherless land – caught between both, with neither.  That liminal world filled with dreams and nightmares.  Staying intermittently with my two older brothers in a council house my father had acquired in an estate known locally as Chinatown.  We were often left alone for days, a tenner to spend between us, while he travelled to all points on the compass except home.  He was a cabaret singer crooning his way through hotels, social clubs and women – we were children left at the mercy of his means.

All I remember about the spending money my father left was that I never saw any of it.  I do know it wasn’t spent on food, because I remember the hunger.  Our staple – a slice of white bread stabbed onto the end of a fork and toasted at the three-bar electric fire mounted on the living room wall.  Days of drifting through Chinatown like litter and driftless days with nothing to do.  Sitting in an empty house listening for a car that never pulled up, watching a front door that never opened.  Entire days eaten up by hunger – spent searching the house for food I knew wasn’t there.  I did find other sustenance though, three things in particular: That Buddy Holly box set, the illustrated Life and Times of Davy Crockett and a handgun, a genuine German Lugar pistol.  From the first I took the words, learning every song by heart.  From the second, a longing to see the wild west.

I forget all the details of Crockett’s life now, the King of the Wild Frontier, and long ago forgot the lyrics to most of those songs.  But I did go on to travel across America and one Buddy Holly song has never left me, especially not its words.  That other thing, I only saw it once, wrapped in a rag up in the loft.  I’m not sure what I took from it, or what it took from me.  But it still casts its shadow, for even on the brightest day, it is always Raining in My Heart.

The moment

I was sixteen when I first travelled to America.  For six months I crisscrossed the USA alone on Greyhound buses.  I only paid for accommodation once, three nights in a motel in Rio Rico, Arizona while I was on my way to Ruby, a mining ghost town on the border with Mexico.  It had a population of two, which was why I was headed there, I thought I could make it my own.  The last night in Rico a girl I thought I was helping stole half my money.  In a panic the next day, I forgot all about Ruby and never made it there.  The remaining, roughly one-hundred and seventy nights, I slept on buses.  I’d spend the day in a town or city, then choose somewhere twelve hours away and sleep on the bus through the night.  That’s how I found myself days later in Dogpatch, an industrial area on the waterfront in east San Francisco.  It was late evening and I was looking out towards the darkening Oakland Bay Bridge while the sun dipped into the Pacific behind me in the west.  Something about the utter loneliness of that moment combined with sheer geographical immensity of where I found myself tore me apart and I was overwhelmed by such sadness that I broke down and cried tears I could feel.  I was sixteen years old, shit I don’t even think my voice had broken, but when I finally stopped crying I walked along the waterfront and into the first bar I came across – a windowless shack with two or three customers being nursed in dark corners by booze.  I sat down at the bar and ordered a beer, somehow knowing I’d be served.  The barman didn’t miss a beat and put a glass of beer down in front of me like he’d been waiting for me.  I took a few sips then wrote a poem on a postcard to a friend back in Scotland.  I’d written poems before of course.  I’d wanted to be a writer ever since reading those Buddy Holly lyrics.  But that evening all the terrible glory of what it means to have to write, not just want to write, entered my blood and I’ve been writing in earnest ever since.  Listen, I know this all sounds like an unbelievable pile of schmaltzy bullshit, I really do.  But you know what, it’s the truth.

The book deal

I’d never been part of any scene, had stuck doggedly to doing it my own way, perhaps too doggedly, because I’d lost my way.  I hadn’t given up, but after the death of my mother, to whom I’d made a promise that I’d publish a novel, I was finding it hard to write at all.  I was drifting beyond the margins.  Then my son was born and suddenly everything became clear to me and I began to work twice as hard.  In two years, I received an award from the Scottish Book Trust, was Highly Commended in the esteemed Bridport Prize and finished a first draft of my novel.  Each achievement felt wonderful, not the winning, but the validation for what I was trying to do.  But nothing compared to the call from Philip Gwyn Jones telling me he loved the novel and wanted to publish it.  For that I must thank my agent, the fantastic Alexander Cochrane for getting the book to Philip in the first place.  As soon as we heard from Philip, we knew in our hearts that’s where we were bound. Now, even though Philip is moving on to Picador, I know we made the right decision signing a contract with Scribe, and I can’t wait to discover what the future holds with my new editor Molly Slight.

Summing up

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the hard work has only just begun, because it’s not, the hard work was all in the living.  For me, you have to live enough to write enough.  And when you live, you must truly live in everything you do and see, for better or worse, good, or bad.  Sure, you have to put the hours in and sometimes the process is hard going, killing even, but it’s a privilege to be able to write.  And if you don’t feel blessed by it, then you shouldn’t be doing it at all.

Near the end of my first conversation with Philip he posed a question.  Don’t answer me now, he said, but think about it, because you’ll be asked this question a lot and it may be the most important one you’re ever asked.  Why did you write that book?  My honest answer – I wrote it because I had to.  My life depended on it.  I’d been in exile since those days wandering around Chinatown. Since Buddy Holly and Davy Crockett and the gun.   I’d been in exile not from a place, but from myself, and I was desperate to start on the journey back.  Finishing, The Voids, and knowing it will make it to print, is the first step on the way home.

A final thought.  Hold onto to your own godforsaken reasons for writing, whatever they are, and don’t stop.  No matter where you find yourself or what life throws at you, keep going, keep writing.  Even in these dark times, especially in these dark times – keep picking up that pen, because to do so is one of the most wonderful things in the world.

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