Creating complex characters: Bo in Exquisite

Creating complex characters: Bo in Exquisite

This A-Z of characters blog series is looking at memorable narrators in novels and what has made them stick in my mind. It’s all based on the three Cs of character that I teach in our online courses and at various events and writing festivals. The novel characters that people never forget are complex, contradictory and consistent, just like real people.

In the first of these blogs I looked at Adam in The Imposter from Damon Galgut. Today’s complex character is Bo in Exquisite by Sarah Stovell, who visited the blog to chat to Sophie a while ago about this novel and her writing. Read the interview here.

So who is Bo?

Bo is a novelist, living the dream writer’s life in her beautiful Lake District home with multiple bestsellers in her backlist. She’s got a lovely family and a happy marriage. Bo shares the narration of this beautifully written and compelling novel with Alice, an aspiring writer that she meets when teaching at a writing retreat. The two women instantly feel a connection and an intense relationship quickly develops, with Bo playing the part of the older, wiser mentor who sees traces of her younger self in Alice.

What makes Bo such a complex character?

It’s the different sides of her personality that contradict each other; and that she’s so difficult to suss out. Is she nice or is she nasty? I’m not going to reveal the answer to that but instead look at her character traits.

On the one hand she is caring, nurturing, supportive and on the other she is manipulative, dishonest and ruthless. She’s a great mother to her children and a popular member of her local community. She’s playing games with people’s emotions and twisting the truth to suit her own ends. She’s altruistic and donates to charity. Like the image above, different elements of of her personality were reflected on the surface but at the same time all the other sides of her were still there behind that reflection.

It was really hard to tell who the real Bo is. And this is true of humans in general. We never know what’s going on in other people’s minds and they often do and say things that are in direct contradiction to beliefs they have previously professed to hold. But at the same time they are usually consistent in how they go about things.

As writers it’s our job to decide what goes on in people’s minds, to share that with readers and show how that makes them act the way they do. One of the things I’ve learned through reading and writing a lot of fiction is that it’s the contradictions and the moments of inconsistency that make novel narrators stand out, make them memorable.

Which literary characters have you never forgotten and why? Let us know in the comments below and we’ll pick someone at random to win a free place on our online course, the Creating Complex Characters masterclass, in which I look at the using the three Cs in detail to write your own memorable characters. The winner will be picked on 27th June 2018.

Writing exercise:

Write a list of 3 positive character traits and 3 negative ones. Then create a new character for a short story that embodies them. Think about why they have these traits and how they manifest in their behaviour.


Up next in the A-Z of complex characters is Cassie in As Far As You Can Go by Lesley Glaister…

Kill your Darlings


Kelly kicked things off last time with her blog, ‘Give your Characters a Birthday’. (You can read it here). For my first blog on Retreat West’s 8 Month Novel Course I would like to share some of my experiences to date and talk about my attempts to rediscover a passion for my novel.

I don’t have time to write every day. I need to edit what I’ve already written before I start on the next bit. I write science fiction, writing about what I know doesn’t apply to me. You name a widely accepted piece of advice; the chances are I’ve ignored it. Working on a series of short stories, I’ve SLOWLY begun to mend my ways. And from time to time I think about returning to that novel I started a while back and a piece of advice I haven’t been able to follow, yet.

‘The Negatives’ is about a ragtag collection of government-employed operatives using their dubious super-abilities to carry out secret tasks; tasks so secret no one understands their purpose. The protagonist, Carl, struggles to escape the secretive programme he was pressured into joining, while simultaneously getting pulled into a disturbing series of events. There are twists and turns, and I think it’s pretty funny, but I’ve struggled with plotting some of the later stages.

Before starting the course, I had a good idea of where the problems lay (too many subplots and overcomplicated character arcs) but didn’t have the discipline to ‘kill my darlings’. What if, in giving up parts of my story, I lose what’s good about it? And if I take something out, what do I replace it with?

My antagonist is an oddball named Richard Sellner who has a bizarre secret plan. Richard’s arc involves falling in love with a shop assistant named Rita. Rita is a secondary character, used to give the reader a better understanding of Richard’s motivations (and his strange plan).

Initially, Rita finds Richard’s quirks endearing, even exciting, but the more she learns about him the more she is surprised to fall into agreement with his outlandish views. Perhaps, you can guess where I ran into problems with these two characters? After, the pair’s initial meeting, their scenes ran out of steam: there was no conflict. To overcome this, I had introduced needless subplots and got lost in them.

Through various exercises undertaken during the course, all designed to make you really get to know your characters, I re-examined Richard and Rita and how they fit into the overall story. I didn’t want to lose the nature of their relationship (as this is their appeal) but their lack of conflict had made scenes between them a chore to write, and laborious to read. In fleshing out these two characters I’ve come to realise that, while there is minimal outward conflict, they have internal struggles… Prior to meeting Richard, Rita has a controlling mother and financial concerns. Richard brings change (often calamitous) into Rita’s life and forces her to face her problems for the first time. Richard in turn, must decide whether to go through with a long-held deranged plan or pursue his new relationship with Rita. The changes are subtle; both characters will end up at the same place I’d originally anticipated, however their journey is now more interesting, and their motivations more clearly defined. More importantly, I’m energised to write their next scenes.

This is what I’ve enjoyed most about the course so far: being able to think about my characters as real people. I’ve dabbled in writing exercises in the past but examining my characters in a range of ways over several weeks has revealed details about them that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own. I feel more confident about sitting down to write new scenes. More than that, I’m eager to get back into it, and to spend some time with these misfits.

In addition to the 8 Month Novel Writing Course, Retreat West runs a range of writing retreats. If you’re looking to deepen your writing skills it’s worth looking around the website to get a full picture of everything Retreat West has to offer. Author membership gets you discounts to courses and retreats, copies of the books we’re publishing, and includes entries to the themed flash fiction and other competitions.

8 Month Novel Course BLOG – Give your Character a Birthday


If you’re reading this the chances are you have a couple of characters, elusive and half-formed or irritatingly real, chasing around your mind all day. You may be able to picture them, you may know how they sound and what their most annoying traits are, but how well do you actually know your characters? Have you given them a birthday? It seems simple, but I know I hadn’t.

I’m Kelly, one of Retreat West’s social media marketing interns. As part of our internship, Phil and I are embarking on Retreat’s West’s ‘8 Month Novel Course’. This remote course is a mix of creative writing course with 1-1 mentoring and editorial reviews. It’s a month in and we are loving it! Phil and I plan to share our writing journey with you, giving you a blog article every three weeks which shares what we have learnt and gives you a sneak peek into the course.

Before starting the course I had a very basic draft of my WIP ‘Lily Trap,’ based on my own experiences with a neuro-functional disorder. I like to think of it as a coming of age, fantasy thriller. I’m pretty sure this is not a genre so, as you can tell, I still have a long way to go. Anyway, back to the birthday thing. ‘Give your character a birthday’ was part of an activity provided during the second week of the course. When you sign up to the course (which you can do on our website) you are sent weekly course material with complementary activities that really get you thinking. I’m no writing expert but I have been to numerous workshops and read plenty of articles, and yet no-one had ever encouraged me to think about birthdays.

During my drafting I had given my main character Lily a birthday, 9th February 1999, a date which I had plucked out of the air when I needed it. To be honest, I was thinking of skipping this part of the exercise; suspecting it to just be a matter of plot-device. I’m very glad I didn’t. Now, I’m not a horoscope kind of person and I’m not saying you should confine you character’s traits to them. However, exploring the different characteristics associated with each star and zodiac sign made me realise that I didn’t know my main character well-enough at all.

I knew Lily was sweet, altruistic and un-emotional. What I’d never considered was her level of independence, what factors most affected her decision making, and what enriched her life.  As I read on I found myself thinking about how she would react in an argument, an aspect  that will add so much depth and flavour to my dialogue. I also found myself wondering how she would react in circumstances which my narrative didn’t see her encounter, like her reaction when she found out her Mother had died. Even though I purposefully don’t write about it, it’s still an important part of her life story and thus gives an insight into her character. I even ended up wondering about silly things. For example, would she leave the rest of her apple if she found a hole in it or just eat around it? Now I’d really started to get to know her I wanted to know everything.

Browsing the descriptions for each sign made me more aware of the true complexity of our personalities. In the end I did change Lily’s birthday too, just because it felt right. It is important, as writers, that the personality’s we create on paper are no less complex than those which exist in real life. Readers need to relate to our characters, and to do this we need to know everything about them, including their birthday.

This blog article has given you a tiny insight into Retreat West’s wonderful ‘8 Month Novel Writing Course.’ Find out more here. If this doesn’t sound like your cup of tea then check out the short and sweet six week ‘Start your Novel Course’ on the same page. Also, don’t forget you can receive 5% – 20% off with the ‘Retreat West Author Membership’ packages. More details about membership are here.

Author interview: CM Taylor on the transformational arc

I saw CM Taylor (aka Craig) deliver a workshop on Character is Destiny at the York Festival of Writing and was hooked on the ideas he introduced in it. So much so that I invited him to come and teach an expanded version at a retreat. The Character is Destiny Retreat took place in March 2017 and there were two 3-hour workshops expanding on the ideas that intrigued me at York.

Delighted to have Craig here on the blog today talking about character development and the transformational arc.

Craig, you co-wrote a horror film that’s coming out soon about writers retreating to a remote island and terrifying things happening (I’m sure our retreat won’t be like that!) – can you tell us how writing characters for the screen and novels differs and also how and where it crosses over?
Yeah, that’s correct. The thing which makes a writers’ retreat an apt subject for a horror film is the same thing which makes it appropriate for advancing yourself creatively. You take yourself out of a normal environment, and put yourself in a situation where you can go into yourself, and, with the help of others, engage with your emotions and creative truths.

But about characters, and how writing characters for screen and prose differs, well, one of the main differences I would say is that in screenwriting you need to leave room for the actor and the director. In prose, you are the writer, the actor, and the director, and how you portray the character is the totality of that character’s portrayal. Whereas with screen, you are merely providing the ingredients which the director and the actor will cook up between them. You need to leave room for actors to act.

Plus in screenwriting you work a lot with sub-text. For example, the character can say the opposite of what they really feel and the actor’s face will convey this duplicity and conflict. Like in a film someone can say, “Yes, my Lord”, but their face and tone and body-language can mean, “I will kill you tomorrow.” So in screenwriting you don’t write the, “I will kill you tomorrow” bit, but in prose you kind of have to, because you do not have a twenty-foot high actor’s face to show the concealed meaning. So prose is more of a spoon-feeding kind of medium in a way, the sub-textual elements are fewer.

Now, there is all this stuff in creative writing teaching about showing not telling, and prose writers can learn a lot from screenwriters about that skill, but fundamentally, prose is obliged to be a slightly telling sort of medium. The kind of radical, bone dry showing-only that screenwriters trade in will just not work in prose. The reader does need to be told a little bit.

The unique strength of the novel as an art form is that it can slide behind the eyes of a character in the way that other mediums can’t. We can fall into the mulch of consciousness in the novel. It it is the closest thing to mind-reading humans have invented. Yet. So it’s concerned with interiority and the depiction of moment-by-moment consciousness in a way which the screen is just not. We can say almost exactly what is happening in the mind of a person in prose. But in screenwriting we have to convey what is happening in the mind of the person only through those things which can be seen. Actions, speech. Music can hint at unseen feelings too. And there are the techniques of voice-over, or a character writing a diary, say, or something of this nature. But in terms of the narrative arts, the totality of the un-mediated interior life is available most directly in prose.

The similarities between the two forms of narrative art is that their subjects are themselves subject to the same forces. In the novel and on screen, character is subject to the forces of personal history, subject to the forces of relationships (love, family, tribe, work), subject to the forces of the wider world, (what we might call history or society or war or the environment), and, (although many stories leave this aspect out), they are also subject to cosmic and religious impulses. Those are the four nooses which story tightens around a protagonist. So in both screen-writing and prose writing these same existential human pressures come to bear. And the goal of the writing is the same, to show a person in the grip of events and time, and to show how they change or do not change with regard to their experiences.

That really is narrative art. The depiction of the effects of time upon life.

The focus for this workshop is all about creating an emotional transformational arc for your characters alongside the main narrative arc and plot – can you tell us why you think this is so important to master for novel writing?
Well, psychologically, I think that there is a profound, subconscious, didactic element to stories, and the reason why we consume them with such unrelenting gusto is because they teach us how to live. We see a character in a transitional moment in their life, we see a character forced by life to make a tough choice, and we are desperate to see what they will do, so that we can judge if we would have done the same, so we can judge how different they are to us, or how not different at all.

We gulp down story so that we can see how characters negotiate the changes and horrors of life which await ourselves. On a subconscious level, characters are our avatars whom we scrutinise for advice about negotiating painful change. Stories are wiser than their tellers. They are our elders.

But as to why transformational screenwriting models of how best to depict moral and emotional change – be that heroic or tragic change – in narrative art are particularly pertinent to prose writers, well, a lot of writers of prose are perhaps overly attached to individual words and sentences, and paragraphs, at the expense of scenes and sequences and plot outcomes.

Screenwriters think more structurally on the whole. Prose writers tend to be hacking through the story jungle with a machete, while screenwriters are above the jungle in a chopper, burning that mother down. And I think if you were to honestly recall a favourite novel, years after you have finished reading, what you would probably remember is the fate of the character, or an amazing scene. In short, what happened to them. How they struggled under which forces.

The beauty or not of individual lines, or words, or purple passages, while perhaps paramount to the writer when they are writing, is not that which most readers take away. Narrative is concerned with fates, with what happens to a person when they are put under certain pressures. The pattern of choices a character makes which taken together results in a fate. So it is very important for writers of prose to deal with structure, to understand the underlying shapes of structure. And that’s where I go to screen-writing to steal that structural knowledge. There is without question an underlying structure to narrative art, in particular in the instance we are talking about here, with regard to how characters can be shown to change or not change under external and internal duress over the course of a story. There are real, teachable working models for this.

Which novels do you think have nailed this and why?
Well first of all, different types of novels, different genres of novels, deal with this in different ways. A geopolitical thriller will not trade in heavy emotional transformation, but if it wants to hook more readers in, readers who are interested in human meaning and not just the mechanics of plot, if it wants to add feeling to action, then it can in some unobtrusive simple, structural way deal with emotional transformation. Similarly, a literary novel may be almost exclusively concerned with the emotional development or transformation of the hero or heroine. There’s a whole genre of this – the bildungsroman, the novel of spiritual progress. So any genre can trade in the transformational arc.

A couple of novels I love that work well on the scale of human transformation and in very different ways are Staying On by Paul Scott, and The Van by Roddy Doyle.

Now The Van is a work of humorous social realism, set on a working class estate in Dublin and it concerns male friendship. Two unemployed guys, listless, low in self esteem, decide to set up a fast food van to sell to people coming out of the pubs after World Cup games. Brilliantly simple. Now because it is working on the level of social realism, the transformation here is going to be similarly realistic and small. We are not talking Macbeth here. So, through running a chipper with his mate, the main character gets the respect of his wife back because he’s been active not passive, and he loses his friendship with his partner who becomes bullying and domineering, and he gets his own self-respect back because he’s done something.

So it’s a very small plot. But it takes our hero from a passive moment in his life, through to a wiser sadder place where he holds knowledge of his friend’s character, but where he has a better marriage and more self-confidence. An irreversible change has been made in his character. It’s brilliantly done.

Now in terms of emotional change, Paul Scott’s Staying On concerns a timid wife, obliged to stay on in colonial India by her stubborn and uncommunicative husband. Now in the story he ultimately dies – in fact it is stated on the first page that he does – leaving her stranded. But he is ill first, and during the course of the illness she establishes a timid – to some extent imaginary – relationship with a friend from England, allowing her to confess her difficulties with her husband, and she works up the nerve to force her introverted husband to finally state their financial realities.

So that is again played out on a very micro level. Yes, the illness and then death of the husband is the huge external thing, the change, but the real meat, the emotional transformation, is internal, and comes from her pursuing a friendship in which she is able to gain support for her neglected emotions, and being able to ask her husband for some financial accountability which she never has felt entitled to do before. So she is bereaved and stuck but emboldened at the end. It’s a beautiful book.

What can the writers who take this workshop with you expect to learn?
Well I aim for very practical outcomes. There is a method that I use which fosters a writer’s theme, what they care about most, integrates that theme with character transformation, and then integrates character transformation with plot development. So the three main aspects of narrative art – theme, character and plot are all treated as part of the same moving concern and the same evolving structure. And it’s done in a way which privileges theme, and in such a way that character change is the glue which holds theme to plot, and we treat character change as a process which can be learned and mapped and replicated.

Many models of story are top-down, plot first, and they have their place, but the one I teach here is particularly interesting for prose writers because it privileges the writer’s emotions and themes and seamlessly integrates those with the structural aspects of writing. So what I expect everyone in the class to be able to do at the end of this retreat is have a replicable system of linking theme to character to plot. Now intuition can be great, but it can also be awful. Sometimes if you rely on intuition and inspiration you will be right and sometimes you will be wrong. So what I hope to do is offer a simple, repeatable method whereby you can test the usefulness of your inspiration against a system for unifying the three main aspects of writing.


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.