By Jay Stringer
So, I have this whole book thing happening.
My second crime novel -RUNAWAY TOWN- comes out in less than two weeks. It has a theme tune, too, but more on that next week.
I've been going easy on the hard sell over the last few months, but it's time to get the hustle on. Next week I'll talk about one of the major themes that informed the plot, but this week I want to talk about an issue that comes from the setting. Yesterday Mr O'Shea laid down some schooling on how the history of the setting is important. I spent much of the first book -OLD GOLD- establishing my hometown (or home-region, as it's more accurate to say. The Black Country is a collection of towns) as a setting that could carry a crime novel.
One of the obstacles I had to overcome was that the region usually doesn't get to be the setting for, well, anything. It's ignored in the national media. It's ignored in fiction. Hell, the football team I support is on the brink of financial meltdown and a second successive relegation -when teams from "cooler" parts of England have suffered like this it's been national news and the subject of much debate. My team don't merit a mention, it seems. (In this instance that is perhaps a blessing in disguise- why would I want the wound made any more raw?)
I've spoken on this at great length before. I only raise it now to make this point; that was the first challenge. That was one of the thing I needed to accomplish with the first book.
Deal with it. Earn it. Turn up the volume.
I was done telling the world to pay attention to the Midlands, and it was now my turn to pay attention. What was the region trying to tell me? What was the story that I'd fought so hard to tell?
I grew up in a very racially diverse area. Some parts of the UK have remained blind to immigration (they tend to be the areas that produce our government ministers.) Some places have had one or two eras of immigration that still define it (you don't have to be in the west of Scotland for long to see that the Irish diaspora is still a key issue). The Midlands -because of it's place in history as the centre of the industrial revolution and the 200 years that followed- has greeted every wave of immigration to hit the island.
To talk about this in one sense is to embrace multi-culturalism. I can talk of the vibrant parts of the city and of the many positives to be gained from the constant influx. It's a region where you will find countless different ethnic backgrounds all united by being the same social class. But I'm a crime writer, so it's more often my job to look past the surface and see what issues need to be dragged out into the light.
Racism. Racism is often the ugly flip side of the coin to multi-culturalism. Find me an area where successive generations of people have learned to live and work with new cultures, and you'll also find the groups who feel threatened by the very same thing. Hopefully their numbers get fewer with each generation, but that also seems to raise their resolve, and they gather together in pockets of hate. When I moved away from the region I found that other (and frankly 'whiter') parts of the UK had more 'casual racism.' That is to say, I found that people would use terms and hold opinions that were not meant to be offensive; they were based on ignorance rather than hate. I'd grown up in an area where much of this casual level of racism had been worn away over generations. What that process reveals though is the people who mean it. There were people back home who knew that their opinions and words were offensive, and they meant each of them.
In the Midlands you'll find many activists and people willing to stand up and fight for multi-culturalism, but you'll also find the groups on the opposite side, people who want to return their 'homeland' to a mythic state of 'purity' that never existed. And I decided I needed to admit that if my work was going to stay honest. I recall a conversation before I left the Midlands, when someone pointed to a freshly built mosque and said, "how would they like it if we went to their country and started building churches?" There were so many levels of fail in that one line that I didn't know where to begin.
Fortunately, when you write novels, you don't have to know how to begin, because you can spend 70-80 thousand words exploring the conversation. I wanted to do just that.
What becomes clear is that the battleground for this issue is the working class. People who've grown up with very little, and who were conned into increasing that from 'very little' to 'some,' by taking out unsustainable mortgages and credit. Whenever the economy takes a dump, these concerns become even greater, and in these times we all look for people to blame. This is the chance for people to stir up fear and hate and, boy, are they good at it.
Over the past few years I've seen people who I've known all my life, people who have never uttered a racist word or argument, start to fall prey to this fear. They build fences around their thoughts and look to see who is to blame for the loss of money and possessions that they never truly owned in the first place. And slowly the words they use change. Slowly they go from being one kind of person to another, whilst still being the same person in every other way.
As a writer I found that both fascinating and troubling.
In our rush to talk up the positives of modernity, and in our eagerness to fight for the great things to come from immigration and multi-culturalism, we perhaps become afraid to discuss and present the darker side. We want to point to the good and hope that the bad goes away.
I argue the opposite. I think what we need to do is open the conversation up rather than attempt to moderate it. That's what we can do with crime fiction. We can drag the thorny, ugly and troubling issues out into the light and explore them. (While also telling a fun story and occasionally blowing shit up.)
I decided to make sure my writing was a mirror rather than a travel brochure, and that was one of the starting points for Runaway Town.