The guy who asked me was a railway inspector. It was... 38 years ago. I was a freight train guard, and he was telling me to apply for a clerical job, because that was the way to climb the railway ladder. I knew he was right. Trouble was, I didn't want to climb it. I loved my job, sitting at the back of a freight train with a fire roaring in my cast-iron stove as the Yorkshire countryside clattered past. The long lonely miles between one freight yard and another - sometimes stretching to eight or ten hours when things went wrong - allowed me ample time to read books, reflect, and write a record of conversations, jocular exchanges, and my own observations of railway people and railway scenery in my notebooks. It was a privileged life on a very modest wage. I am so very glad to have experienced it for four years.
The other reason why I didn't want to climb that particular ladder was that I cherished a secret ambition - even though at that age I only confided it to my journal. It seemed so preposterous, this idea that I might one day be living in the country, writing books for money.
So, as frantically busy as it gets - and right now I'm mostly too busy to find half an hour for my own blog - I try not to complain. I had a dream, and here I am living it out.
Today I crossed a threshold. I have gathered together the 80,000 words I need in order to start shaping the story of the British guy who went out to the States and earned a crust as a bounty hunter for twenty years. In a sense, the hard work starts here: I mean the construction of a narrative trajectory, the adoption of a consistent voice and the delineation of so many ill-defined corners of the overall material. At the same time as dealing with that I am preparing a third Great Plains travel piece for publication. Between The Rockies and a Hard Place ought to be out within a week or so. I have a cover, it's been copy-edited, and the formatting fairies (yes, they do exist: they have billed me, so they must do) are fixing the text.
That book needs to be ready, and soon. In two weeks' time I fly out to Nebraska to promote The Red House on the Niobrara, 'There Used to be a Guy... But He Died' and this latest one. The first few days I will be at Chadron State College's wild writing event, a four-day blend of workshops, instruction and creative retreats based around historic Fort Robinson and the college itself. My active role is scheduled for the final day, Sunday 12th June, when I talk about the many and varied ways in which I have managed to earn a living at my trade. Later I have a radio interview lined up in the state capital, Lincoln, as well as a presentation at the Willa Cather Memorial Foundation in Red Cloud. In between engagements I will be visiting small-town bookstores and libraries promoting my wares. Stand by for a new slant on tales of a roving salesman.
While juggling all this I have had news within the past week or two that we have hooked a publisher for the history of the York Brewery. That is very pleasing indeed. When I took that job on my client wanted to know 'What do we do about publishing it?' and I could offer no promises, only that I would produce the best narrative possible and hope for the best.
With luck and a following wind the bounty hunter job will be done by the autumn. I then have one giant editing job - on the 160,000-word life and times of Eric Knight, the man who wrote Lassie. After all the years (yes, years) of having to put that off while I dealt with paying propositions, it will be a huge pleasure.