Year of Indie Debuts: Eden Burning

Delighted to welcome fellow Urbane author, Deirdre Quiery, to the blog this week to find out more about her excellent novel, Eden Burning. Set in Belfast in 1972 it tells the story of two families – one Catholic, one Protestant, and how they try to get by in such troubled and violent times.

Deirdre, you get inside the minds of characters on both sides of the Troubles really well to show the blind belief in ideologies that are ripping communities apart – how did it feel when writing this to return to those times and mine your memories for things that you probably would rather forget?

I think that pain faced and deeply experienced can be transformative. Pain repressed distorts the present moment. I wanted to explore that in the novel with the characters – Cedric in particular. I am quite an adventurer into the world of the psyche. In the physical world I am afraid of heights, flying and Water Park slides. Yet I fly internationally to be able to work, have abseiled and went to Acqualand here in Mallorca this summer. Mind you I only managed one water slide!

So in writing Eden Burning and returning to the reality of those terrifying times, I approached it with an adventurer’s mind knowing that what I would find would be fascinating and new. I believed that the emotional experience in writing would inform me at a new and deeper level of a reality that lay beneath the turbulent surface. This would allow me to create three dimensional characters. I wanted to feel, not only rationally understand, the full range of human experience – the moments of horror and terror with the moments of joy, peace and connection. So I wanted to adventure into everything that was terrifying to learn what it means in the present.

One of my school reports when I was 14 at the time of setting of Eden Burning was from the Science Teacher – Miss Hawkins – who said that I had “an open and inquiring mind”. The interest factor of exploring the past and believing that something could be learnt from it was much more significant for me than a trembling fear of not wanting to remember.

At the same time you also showed the more balanced individuals who tried to live as normal life as possible but who also didn’t judge and hate people on the other side. Would you say from your memories growing up there that there were more people like this than the extremists we associate with those times?

Yes. Absolutely. These were the ordinary people who never made it into the News, yet who were remarkable in their tranquillity, forgiveness and support for each other. They formed a true community. They were the forgotten people and were the majority. I wanted to show how they existed on both sides of the “Peace Line”.

An Uncle of mine was murdered. The mother of the murderer walked around the corner and found my Uncle dead before the Police arrived. She was horrified. Only years later, when the investigations were completed, did she realise it was her own son who was involved in the murder. This happened to people. They were caught up in the violence of others and yet found the courage to stay true to deep human values of love and forgiveness.

You explore the psychology of hatred and also redemption in this novel – do you feel that the hope and belief in the good of human nature that imbues the novel is a true reflection of that time, and of humans everywhere?

Yes. I know that may seem possibly naïve when we look at the levels of violence currently in the world. On reflection I think as human beings we find ourselves in a predicament. We want happiness. It is natural. But we don’t really know what makes us happy. We grasp at things we believe will make us happy. Some of those things may be the identification with a group or a culture. We look outside of ourselves to see who we can blame for this deep seated sense of dissatisfaction with life. When we identify who or what it is – we rationalise our violence. I see this only as a result of not knowing what love is.

So when we are touched by forgiveness and find ourselves loved unconditionally – our true nature can break through. We all have that responsibility to ourselves and others – to forgive and to grow in love. I think we are all capable of it. I wanted to explore that through the characters and plot in Eden Burning. Is forgiveness for terrible crimes really possible? If it is what is the impact on the person forgiven? Forgiveness for me heals the forgiver every bit as much as the forgiven. There is a oneness that happens – a melting of boundaries. I have tasted this from personal experience and know it to be true.

One of the earliest writing classes I ever attended the teacher said first novels are almost always very closely related to the writer’s life. You lived through the Troubles so this is definitely true of yours – but what are you writing now? Is it also very close to your life or are you going in a different direction this time?

I think life closely observed by the writer is love in action. Love is attention to detail. This is always inspirational. This week I was out walking and a couple were walking along the path with me. The woman looked sad, holding the man’s hand. They had three small dogs with them. The dogs were all old. One was like a small terrier – rounded tummy – filled with energy. As it ran along the path its back legs shot up into the air and at the same time its ears fell forward in total synchrony. It made me laugh.

The second dog was taller and ran along and with every third step its back right leg shot out. It was again extremely amusing. I thought that these are animals in old age with flaws but they are infinitely loveable and extremely amusing to be with. The reason I share this with you is that my second novel Gurtha is set in Mallorca. It opens with a cliff path walk in which Cornelia a key character is planning to push Angelina off the path – to murder her. Angelina slips accidentally off the path and catches hold of a bush growing out of the cliff edge. Cornelia reaches down instinctively to give her a hand and is pulled over the edge. They are both dangling there and three men come around the corner – Todd, Barry and Gurtha. What happens next? We find out how the five are connected, why Cornelia wanted to kill Angelina but there is one character not present – Paddy – Gurtha’s father. Paddy has dementia.

In the thriller which unfolds we see the beauty of the island contrasted with the decadence of an expatriate community and Gurtha’s growing understanding of what love is – within the twists of a murder plot. I so enjoy taking the human condition with all its frustrations as a starting point and then exploring how we struggle to make sense of life. I am very much enjoying writing a novel set in Mallorca in 2013. I am also fascinated by exploring how Gurtha learns about love from his father with dementia and his rather unusual platonic relationship from university with Cornelia and her ex-pat scene.

So real life continues to inform my writing (I live in Mallorca and my father had dementia for 10 years before he died) but so far I haven’t known anyone desire to push another person off a cliff path!


Many thanks, Deirdre, and I share your belief in love and redemption and that there is much more good in the world than bad, we just don’t get told about that in the media too often. You can buy a copy of Eden Burning here – and it really is a great read.

Next up in the Year of Indie Debuts is Helen MacKinven and she’ll be talking about Talk of the Toun, her coming of age novel set in 1980s Scotland.

Novel review and critique winners

Thanks to everyone that entered the First Chapter competition during the extra competition week. The random number generator has done its work and chosen the winners of the free novel reviews and 5,000 word critiques.

And the winners are:

  • Free Novel Review #1 – Virginia Moffatt
  • Free Novel Review #2 – Andrew Stevens
  • Free 5,000 Word Critique #1 – T.L. Sherwood
  • Free 5,000 Word Critique #2 – Thomas Liddle
  • Free 5,000 Word Critique #3 – JM Hewitt
  • Free 5,000 Word Critique #4 – Michael Carey
  • Free 5,000 Word Critique #5 – Chris Williams
  • Free 5,000 Word Critique #6 – Clare Hawkins
  • Free 5,000 Word Critique #7 – Sally Thoms
  • Free 5,000 Word Critique #8 – Nemma Wollenfang
  • Free 5,000 Word Critique #9 – Ines Amado-Harris
  • Free 5,000 Word Critique #10 – Jules Waters

There’s still time to enter the competition to get your work reviewed by top literary agent, Susan Armstrong. Get all the info here and make sure you submit by 6th December 2015!

Win free critiques and maybe get an agent!

The First Chapter competition deadline is not that far away now and there are just over 7 weeks to get your entries polished and sent in and be in with a chance of getting your work on the desk of top literary agent, Susan Armstrong at Conville & Walsh, who represents lots of exciting authors and loves discovering debut novelists.

Recently she took on Joanna Cannon and her debut novel, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, comes out in early 2016 and has been sold in multiple countries. Joanna said: “It’s such a privilege to be represented by Sue Armstrong. Not only does she have the flair and skill of an amazing agent, her kindness and support have been invaluable to me as I set out on my journey as a new author.”

Read the interview with Sue to see what she likes and how to impress her with your submission. And if you’d like Sue to be your agent then enter this competition. All 10 shortlisted entries will be read by Sue and the winner will get to bypass the slush pile, or talent pool as Sue prefers to call it, and send her their first three chapters, synopsis and covering letter and she will provide detailed feedback. You never know she may even want to read the full MS.

In the competition judged by Jo Unwin earlier this year, she asked to read more from 4 of the shortlisted entries so it’s not just the winner that wins!

And for 1 week only, I’m running an extra competition alongside this one. Everyone that pays the entry fee between 14th and 21st October 2015 (you still have up until the deadline to send your work in though) will go into a draw to win one of the following prizes:

  • There are 2 x full novel reviews up for grabs
  • There are 10 critiques of 5,000 words available

The winners will be picked by random number generator and everyone that enters will be assigned a number. So enter now to be in with a chance for these great prizes!

Year of Indie Debuts: The Last Pilot

Benjamin Johncock is here this week talking about his novel, The Last Pilot, which was published by Myriad Editions earlier this year and has received critical acclaim and love from book bloggers far and wide. It is a remarkable book and so assured for a debut, and I’m adding my recommendation to all the others that it’s received.

Ben, as a writer one of the things that impressed me most about your novel is how you’ve placed yourself in another culture in a time and place so significant in history but have got the voice, the idioms and the feeling of that time and place so spot on you’d never know you weren’t an American who lived through it. How did you manage to immerse yourself in this character so completely to manage that?
“Immerse” is a great word to describe the process – I immersed myself in the world of test pilots and early astronauts as much as I could, and I was very lucky that there is so much material available to use – less so with the test pilots, but it wasn’t too hard to get my hands on useful stuff. So I just soaked it all up over a long period of time whilst writing the book – old astronaut autobiographies and biographies, interviews, flight transcripts, documentaries, historical footage, magazine articles, newspaper cuttings – and what a privilege it was to have people like Mailer writing about the psychology of astronauts!

But I never really thought of it as “research”, which, to me, sounds like such a dry, formal process: a writer, locking themselves in a dark library for two years making notes, then emerging into the daylight to then sit down and write a novel. To me, that approach produces bad stories. The writer is putting the research at the top of the pile, even if they do their best not to. I did the opposite – I started writing and researched when I needed to. Now, that might mean I had to stop three times in one sentence, but it ensures you get things the right way round.

As a reader, I was emotionally drawn into the marriage of the main characters but never in a way that felt sentimental – the prose tends to be spare but the impact the writing has is big. How did you feel when writing such emotional scenes and did you consciously reign in the language you used?

I just left out as much as I could. And it was hard writing the more emotional scenes—you need empathy to write truthfully.

Although the space race is a major element of the story for me it is was all about the relationships and, in particular, Jim’s inability to properly connect with people and his own emotions. I think you captured this so well. Who would you say has inspired you to write this kind of story?
I’m not sure anyone inspired it, to be honest – it grew out of something that reached way back to when I was a little boy of three or four. My dad had this old book on the Apollo missions, called Moon Flight Atlas by Patrick Moore, that he used to read to me. Not a traditional bedtime story, but I loved it; I was utterly captivated – but it wasn’t the rockets and spaceships, it was the men. I remember pouring over illustrations of Jim Lovell, Apollo 13’s commander, in danger, hundreds of thousands of miles from home, staying calm, working the problem, as Dad told me how little oxygen they had, how much danger they were in. Lovell, Swigert, Haise. Real heroes! So focused and cool under pressure. That stayed with me a long time.

When I was 26, I became very ill with an anxiety disorder called Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder and obsessive, intrusive thoughts. It was a hellish period of my life. When I eventually started to get better, I started writing fiction again, and found myself turning back to those men, those heroes of my childhood; men who (unlike me) could control their emotions, who were so calm and collected under pressure (unlike me). That’s where The Last Pilot came from.

Some of Florence’s story was inspired, in part. by Neil Armstrong, who also lost his little girl, Karen, when she was only two years old. It devastated him. But Armstrong was such a closed guy that colleagues didn’t know he even had a daughter. And, when he died, none of Armstrong’s obituaries mentioned Karen, or made any reference to this terrible loss. As a novelist, I found that interesting. It was very difficult to write though, because I wanted to be extremely respectful of Armstrong’s family. So The Last Pilot is, in some small way, a tribute to Karen’s memory.

Which other writers have influenced your work and really captured your mind as a reader?
So much influences you as a writer, from so many places, and so many mediums, it’s hard to pull out one or two things to highlight. As a reader, here’s a list of my favourite books – all of which have had an impression on me. I also watch a lot of movies.

Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on now?
I’m just finishing up a short story – a slightly surreal LA crime story set in the early seventies – and then heading back into my next novel, which I started earlier in the year. It’s set in Mississippi in 1901, about a 12 year old girl who embarks on a dangerous journey north through the Mississippi Delta when her father goes missing. What she discovers there will profoundly affect her for the rest of her life. It’s sort of To Kill A Mockingbird meets Deliverance meets Danny The Champion of The World meets Huck Finn meets True Grit. It’s about the bond between father and daughter, the nature of evil, and the redemptive power of forgiveness.


Thanks for coming, Ben, and for your honest account of finding the way into the story through your own illness. I find it very interesting that all of your stories you mention are set in the US – a place that obviously holds a great fascination for you!

You can get a copy of The Last Pilot here and connect with Ben on Twitter.

Coming next in the Year of Indie debuts series is Deirdre Query talking about her novel, Eden Burning, which tells the story of two families in Northern Ireland, one Catholic the other Protestant, and how their lives intertwine.

Character & Conflict: Driving the story forward

Richard Skinner (novelist, poet, creative writing teacher and head of the Faber Academy fiction programme) hosted a workshop at a character and conflict retreat in 2015. He focused on conflict being the heart of your novel and what drives the plot, character development and the entire story.

Richard, why is conflict so important in creating characters that readers can relate to remember?
If plot is the engine of a narrative, its heart, then the idea of ‘conflict’ is the heartbeat. Put simply, without ‘conflict’, there is no story. If the fact that a character will find success is never in doubt, there is no interest or involvement for the reader. The gap between desire and its fulfillment is what drives the story and keeps us glued to the page.

Does conflict in novels have to be on an epic scale?
The conflict doesn’t have to be on a grand scale—war, for instance—and every decision doesn’t have to be life-or-death. Conflict can be internal and much quieter, existing on a quotidian level, small scale, as it does in Anita Brookner’s Hôtel du Lac, but it must be there.

Which novels do you think use conflict really well to develop character and drive the novel forward in synch with each other?
Conflict within a novel can work on many levels. First of all, there is ‘personal’ conflict, the fight a person has with themselves. This may be the struggle for spiritual enlightenment, as in the case of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, or it might be the result of a dissatisfaction (as it is for Emma Bovary), or a ‘disaffection’—Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, for example.

Secondly, there is ‘interpersonal’ conflict, the conflict between two people who, for whatever reason, do not see eye to eye. This kind of conflict is at its most heightened when it is based on a protagonist and antagonist who have mutually exclusive goals, so that, if the protagonist achieves what they set out to do, it is at the expense of the antagonist, and vice versa. One very common example of this kind of conflict is the story of the ‘hunter and the hunted’, which is the template for countless Boys’ Own adventure stories. Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, for instance, or Hugo’s Les Misérables, in which Javert mercilessly and relentlessly pursues the reformed convict Valjean.

A more recent novel that is a good example of conflict is Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing (1994). During the novel, Billy Parham crosses the US-Mexico border three times: the first time to release a wolf back into the wild; the second to recover his father’s horses; the third to search for his brother. Each time he crosses the border, he loses something—the wolf, the horses, his brother—and he returns home empty-handed. In turn, each loss necessitates that he cross the border again. It is a magnificent novel and one of the best embodiments of pure conflict that I know.

Finally, there is ‘social’ conflict, which arises between one person and a whole community. In general, this type of story is the result of differently held views, whether it be an individual’s non-conformist approach to life (Crime and Punishment, for example), or the result a person maintaining their integrity in the face of great hostility, as in Twelve Angry Men. The permutations are endless, but all stories with this level of conflict have in common the idea of ‘one person against the world’.

There is another level of conflict, namely that between man and his environment, but as the subject of these stories is usually some form of natural phenomenon, they typically don’t pay much attention to character. This kind of conflict is to be found in movies such as Twister, Volcano, Armageddon, etc.

What does your teaching focus on to help writers get deeper inside their characters and develop different levels and layers of conflict?
I look at ways of putting obstacles in the character’s path to make life difficult for them. When placing obstacles for the characters to overcome, one important point to bear in mind is to ensure that those events don’t just happen to your characters, but that they happen because of them. It is easy, and tempting, just to hurl random impediments at characters, but they should in some way be the result of a character’s actions and decisions.

If something ‘just happens’ to a character, and they are not seen to act on or react to it, your character will be cast merely as a passive victim of circumstance rather than being an active generator of incident. In this instance, you need to ensure that character determines plot, not the other way round.

What are the three key things writers should know to develop conflict?
1) If you want a character to become rich, the first thing you do is rob them. 2) A character should achieve their success, not just acquire it. 3) Characters must pay some kind of price for what they desire and that cost is our investment in their story.


Year of Indie Debuts: Billy and the Devil

Welcome to Dean Lilleyman – this week’s indie debut author who is here talking about his novel, Billy and the Devil, which I really liked a lot. I completely engaged with the troubled narrator, Billy, who we stay with from childhood to middle-age, and was swept away on a wave of different emotions as he self-destructed and ruined all that was good in his life. As I said to Dean – I wanted to shake Billy then hug him. Despite how dark the novel is, it also had moments of real laugh-out loud humour and a vein of hope running through it, and it’s one that’s going to stay with me for a long time.

Dean, despite some of the terrible things he does I found myself unable to dislike Billy. How did you approach writing a character that remains sympathetic when behaving really badly?

That’s encouraging to hear. I don’t think Billy is one ‘self’. Especially when the story gets past the halfway mark. Young Billy sees the beauty in things, is happy in his own company, and despite what’s happening around him, there’s an unquestioned hope. Then comes the drink, an ever-increasing habit that sets up a rhythm of separation, a pattern that to begin with retains some glimmers of the real Billy. And then, over time, Billy becomes split from whatever he was.

Throughout, there are repeated images of him seeing himself outside of himself, a dark mirror. For me, that’s what alcoholism did. The night-before version of me, hurtful and inexplicably uncaring towards those I loved, who loved me, this self-destructive cycle that filled the morning-after version of me with absolute disgust, with self-hatred, which is certainly the main thing I wanted to show in Billy and the Devil. This is why ‘when behaving really badly’ as you put it, I wanted to make the reader feel the same sense of disgust that I felt for myself back then, and while Billy’s acts are not necessarily my acts, the truth is in the repulsion, which is why I chose not to turn the camera eye away. And yes, I understand that this might put some readers off. But it was a gamble I was prepared to make.

When I came off the drink for real and started reading, watching films, I leant towards stories that featured alcoholics, maybe to try and understand something about myself. I got very frustrated with some of these stories. It was mostly a tell through a prettied lens. Oh dear, they’ve lost their job. Oh dear, they’ve lost their husband or wife, etc. The frustration was, of course, that there is so much more to it than that. The disgust, the self-loathing, the losing of self-respect, the losing of self. Because, what do you have left if you lose yourself? I wanted to show that, as vividly as I could, and if it meant people stepping away from me for writing this book, not seeing the reason for using such a device, not understanding the importance of gambling on such a fiction based in truth to tell a truth, then so be it. Thankfully, there are people that have read Billy and understand, that see what I’m doing. And for all the possible misunderstandings of such a ‘dirty’ story, the responses I’ve had so far from people who have had similar experiences, or have lived with alcoholics, has given me much armour.

There are elements of us as writers in every character we create so which characteristics would you say you share with Billy? 

There’s a lot of me in Billy. But Billy isn’t me. We share our alcoholism, obviously. Our waves of depression. Which for me is near-manageable now I’m not drinking. But for Billy, as it was for me back then, these waves get massively exacerbated by drink. Up, down, up, down, and on it goes, until he hits the point, like I did, of down, down, down. In terms of structure, the novel is certainly built to emphasise this cycle, these concentric circles, much in the same way Dante’s Inferno travels. What else? A love of the woods. Of nature. A cynicism of gang mentality. Of self-appointed hierarchies. Of not dealing with rejection too well. But perhaps unlike Billy, this seems to act as petrol for me now, pushing me further to do my own thing anyway.

Geographically, me and Billy share much. All of it, really. And yes, that self-destructive nature. This has caused me trouble at times. But then again, sometimes it seems to work for me. Smashing things up puts me in a place where I have to put things back together again, and more often than not these things get put back together better, stronger. But that’s the thing with Billy, isn’t it? He doesn’t put these things back together. It’s an anger that’s fired outward, but really, it’s always inward, towards himself.

Once, I read such a chapter out at a spoken word event in Sheffield, the chapter where Billy pours scorn on the people of a working men’s club in the pit village where he lives. He’s pretty hateful towards them, really petty and self-righteous, arrogant. He takes the piss out of them for playing bingo, for living under the cosh of working class life. Of course, he’s stereotyping them terribly. The chapter ends with him climbing on a table and telling them they’re wrong and stupid, and that he wants something better than they have. The irony is of course, that he’s falling to pieces, that the hate he pours upon them is hatred for himself, at their contentment, a contentment he sees as a subservience to a lesser life.

After the reading I was cornered in the toilet by an angry ‘poet’ in a flat cap, who shout-asked me if I’d ever been to a pit village, insisted sideways-on that I had no idea or experience with what it means to be working class. I couldn’t answer him. He was too angry to listen, had already made his mind up, had already decided that the writer was the character, that Billy’s opinions were my opinions, mistook show for tell, missed the point that his anger meant that I’d done my job right, that I’d made him feel like he was there, listening to this gobshite drunk stood on a table ranting against himself. And you know, here’s the thing. Like Billy, I come from a poor working class background. You can’t fib that stuff. I spent the first few weeks of my life sleeping in a bottom drawer because we were so skint. I still have no money. And frankly I don’t care if I ever do. Happiness is the single most important thing to me. And happy is writing, making, my family and friends, my cats and chickens, a book, music, a movie, home. This is where me and Billy differ considerably. But really, it’s all that Billy wanted, happiness, love, and it was right there in front of him, waiting, but drink took him away from that.

I recently read about a study done on addiction that argued that it stems from emotional need rather than a physical addiction to the drugs, or alcohol, themselves. Do you think love is all Billy really needs?

I haven’t read that study so I can’t really comment on that. Instinct, experience, and from what I’ve read, would lead me to disagree with that statement to some degree. But saying that, I would probably agree that the two, the emotional, and the physical need, are linked. My own feelings on the matter are that determinism is the biggest factor, in all senses of the word. We know for sure that genetics play a big part in addiction. I think I can vouch for that. Unless of course, it was all just a bad joke of fate, a trick played by some fuck-awful prankster gods. My terrible drunk of a grandfather did indeed stick a knife into my grandmother’s chest, as happens in the novel. From everything I know about him, from the outside looking in, he was an erratic mix of wanting her and wilfully destroying their relationship, along with that of his kids. I do not believe for a moment that he would have been so destructive without the drink.

Thankfully, such dark violence wasn’t in my make up, but I believe, through reading my grandmother’s diary, that I inherited both his condition and his hurtful mouth when pissed. Was there some emotional need in him? I don’t know. I never met him. But I know for me, drink became a way to a more confident self, initially. As a kid I kept myself to myself. As a teenage drinker I became loud and centre-stage. I enjoyed this. Flash-forward ten years and I’m coming downstairs in a posh hotel after a works do, and my co-workers are eating breakfast, avoiding eye-contact with me, mumbling into their bacon and eggs, because, apparently, Dean climbed on the buffet table last night, dropped his trousers and underpants, did some improv hip-shaking, karaoke tipping the table up, landing bare arse on the MD’s wife’s lap knocking her flat to the floor, before pelting the room with assorted desserts. Funny. From here.

I’ve been incredibly lucky. I hit a point in my thirties where I was waking to drink. Where life was wholly the bottle. Everything else emptied out. Sound clichéd? I’ve been incredibly lucky. I did what Billy did not. I came to in my bed after an apocalyptic three-day walkabout, my wife and two kids stood looking on, a doctor mouthing words at me I didn’t understand, and I knew that was it. Done. I had to stop. Emotional need? Well, for days the walls crawled with small insects, and I tried to pull my tongue out because the itch wouldn’t stop. And then I sat in the garden. And then I started writing. If this thing was an emotional need, then the writing, the reading, filled something of that need. And love? Billy loses sight of what he’s got. He sees love as a fuck. That’s his bridge to a lie of love. Which is why the sex in the book isn’t sexy. It’s a fake paradise, a palace on sand. Like the drink. A loveless fuck isn’t making love. Fifteen barley wines isn’t the path to real happy. I’ve been incredibly lucky.

The story is written as prose, poetry, screenplay and transcripts – is this how it came out at first draft?

It is, with a few exceptions. I decided early on that the format for each episode should declare itself, should be the most effective way to present what’s happening, what’s being said, and let the whole go on and form itself. For example, in the Punch and Judy scene, apart from the bookended descriptive passages, the main thing was what was being presented on that little stage in front of Billy and his daughter, a time-tested puppet show about domestic abuse that slips so easily into our culture that we laugh when the wife gets beat with a stick, ha-ha, funny isn’t it. No. And in terms of format, the script does all the work here, adds a dark sense of threat to the stories around it, no need to dress it further.

Likewise with the sometimes short poetry-driven episodes, the form chose itself. How to describe something that is near impossible to describe logically, in concrete prose? Like depression. Sylvia Plath’s Sheep in Fog says nothing of logic, of a concrete ‘this is how it feels’. But it does. Because it’s the thing itself. And it carries.

Which writers’ work do you enjoy and who would you say has been the greatest influence/inspiration when writing Billy’s story?

The first writer that started me off was Raymond Carver. Clean, unadorned, to the point, and very selective in what he shows. Less, is more. Suggestion everything. Leave on the half-step and let the reader walk it from there. He opened a big door for me, and several of the pieces in Billy are heavily influenced by his writing. Another big influence was Hubert Selby Jr, especially Last Exit to Brooklyn. Not afraid to show the vulgar realities of things, of how the ugly can produce the beautiful, that Disney morals are not the way to get the reader thinking for themselves.

Likewise Robert Browning. Put the reader in that space, let them listen to this speaker, let the reader decide what’s going on. For the music and travel of some of the more ethereal passages, most definitely Dylan Thomas. Clashing concrete un-fussy words together to make a hard poetry that has the music of a bird in flight, the imagery very clear, yet the whole a dense undergrowth that spits. And on that same note, Allen Ginsberg. Dangerous, risky, truth-telling writing that has no fear of an authoritative naysayer stood over his shoulder, the music, the music, say it out, no censor.

Novels that had a big influence on me and Billy were Camus’ The Outsider, Kafka’s The Trial, and most definitely Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Camus for the stripped back stark defiance of alone; Kafka for the gnaw of guilt from a source unknown; and Sherwood Anderson, a novel of short stories, all interlinked, all with a heavy profundity that’s delivered almost fairy tale light at times, all the dirt of what it is to be human, to be driven by animal needs, a massive influence. Aside from these, there are quite a few other influences: Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Sillitoe, Nabokov, Bukowski, John Fante, Jayne Anne Phillips, Ali Smith, Kelman, Knut Hamsun, Henry Miller, the British new wave films of the late fifties, the films of Lars von Trier. I also read deeply into devil folklore and scripture, of which several of these tales are riddled broken glass scattered within the Billy stories.

What are you working on now?

I’ve just finished writing my second novel, which is due out next summer. I’m very excited about it. An isolated Derbyshire village, carnival day, two timelines, 1979 and 1999, characters crossing over, nothing quite as it first seems, a complex shape that reads surprisingly easy. At the core is a love story, with several other strands bouncing off it, all coming into dialogue with each other as the story progresses. The whole thing reads in pseudo real-time, one day, morning til just gone midnight. And there’s disco. It’s strong.


A huge thank you, Dean, for your unflinching honesty and telling emotional truths both in the novel and in this interview. I’m very much looking forward to your second novel.

You can buy a copy of Billy and the Devil here and connect with Dean on Twitter.

Next up on Year of Indie debuts is Ben Johncock talking about The Last Pilot.