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Sunday, 1 February 2015

Settling in in Taos

My new, temporary abode

So, yes, that was a screw-up. I thought I would start a fresh blog in Taos. Unfortunately, I’m using my laptop over here so I do not have access to all the useful images and other gizmos that are attached to this one – the things that tell any new readers who I am, what I do and how they can access my works. I mean… buy my books. All of which means it’s ‘as you were’.

Okay then, Taos. I arrived here last Monday, 24 hours late and after a journey that took 84 hours in total. Partly that was my doing: I chose to fly into Chicago and take the Amtrak train from there to Lamy (23 hours), thence the shuttle to Santa Fe. There were pluses. I got a night’s rest in the Windy City; I had time to ease myself into the language, customs and complexities of this country yet again; and I got to visit the Institute of Art where, amongst other treasures, I finally met, face-to-face, two favourite paintings: Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic’ and Edward Hopper’s ‘Night-hawks’.

Amtrak should’ve been a plus too. I’m not sure it was. When I made the same journey 35 years ago – and continued all the way to L.A. – the on-board food was infinitely better, the personal attention greater. And on that occasion I didn’t all but sever my left index finger when the paper towel disposal bin snapped shut on me, causing some consternation amongst the on-board staff when I showed up in the café-bar, pale and agitated with blood all over the place. They patched me up and I can report that the wound is finally knitting. The revelation from the head conductor that ‘I know what you did… you aren’t the first… it’s a design fault’ should have had me calling my attorney ‘quicker than Grant took Richmond’ as my old pal from the South used to say, but of course I’m British. We don’t walk around with our lawyer’s numbers on our cell phones.

There were other hiccups along the way – like the phantom shuttle bus at Santa Fe. Either it simply didn’t exist or I failed to spot it. It wasn’t the best feeling, standing in the dark and cold outside a deserted depot with all my baggage, but after a night in a nearby Motel 6 I managed to find a service that brought me to Taos next afternoon.

The casita, or little house, is just that. One large room that serves as study and bedroom – and accommodates a grand piano; a well equipped kitchen (even as I write this I have a batch of dough rising), and a bathroom. Outside is a small area of woodland and the other casitas, scattered along Los Panditos Lane:


So far I have met only two or three fellow residents, among them a New York playwright and an abstract painter from Oregon. But basically I have been busy settling in, making daily trips to the supermarket (about half a mile distant) to stock my pantry, wrangling for hours (I jest not) with Century Link in order to get a basic phone service – and, yes, working. I am now making my latest and final stab at getting an old novel (dating from the early 1990s) into shape. More about that in due course.

Meanwhile I need to get that bread in the oven.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Taking to the skies - and New Mexico

I fly out to the States in four days' time. By Sunday - if the good Lord wills it and the creeks don't rise- I shall bed down in the casita, or little house, in the historic town of Taos, northern New Mexico, where I'm due to stay for the following ninety days. While I do have a plan for the writing I wish to do there I am prepared for surprises. I visited Taos once, thirty years ago, when I lived in the Land of Enchantment as an undergraduate. I am braced for a stunning visual and cultural experience.

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Monday, 29 December 2014

Getting Ready to Hit the Taos Trail

I didn’t expect to go to ground for six weeks. When that completed manuscript went off to The History Press in late October I fully intended to start preparing for my stay in Taos.

Ha. It only took a few days’ rest and a glance back over the past three years to make me see that what I needed was a break. Chasing Black Gold was the seventh book I’d written since returning from the Red House in the autumn of 2011.

Two months later, I can’t say that the desire to put pen to paper has fully returned, but it’s showing signs of doing so; as it ought, because four weeks from now I’ll be in New Mexico – ‘if the good Lord wills it and the creeks don’t rise.’

My original plan, when I was awarded the residency, was to read through the travel journals (travels in the western States, that is) I’d accumulated over the past 34 years and produce some short stories based on what I found. Skimming through them, I was surprised at how flat most of the entries felt. It may simply be that my appetite was jaded, of course, but after a while I put them aside and concentrated on a few domestic tasks. And, as is so often the way when you forget about something important, my subconscious got to work on the problem. Pretty soon it occurred to me that there was one big, unfinished project nibbling at my ear. It’s a project that used to be very dear to me, but one I’d never got around to re-visiting.

Back in the very early 1990s I wrote a novel about a young lad growing up, as I did, on a council estate [public housing project] in outer London and fantasising about a better, more exciting life in the American West. This was in the 1950s, when those Brits who were lucky enough to have a television could watch an imported western just about every night of the week. The novel I wrote was in three parts. First we had our hero acting out western scenarios with his pals in the woods, always seeking a more authentic wilderness experience. Next came an account of the same boy’s adult life as an academic in the field of American Studies, majoring in the myth of the West and confused as to what was real and what was not. Reading through the manuscript recently, I found a lot in these first two parts which still felt good to me – although I can see plenty of ways to improve it. Part three, where our hero travels to the remoter parts of Wyoming to seek out the ‘real’ West – well, that was always problematic, and I was never entirely happy with it.

I did send the completed manuscript out to a number of publishers back in the `90s. An editor at one of the big houses actually promised me that it would come out in a rather fancy literary imprint. For reasons that were never explained, that didn’t happen, but the thing has rarely been out of my mind – and there’s a good reason for that. Son of a Gun, as it was called, debates an idea that’s constantly on my mind as I travel the western states: that despite the deconstruction of the traditional cowboy mythos, the western landscape is still hugely inspiring (of good as well as evil), that heroic acts are still performed daily, but quietly, and that a person can still be re-born in the West - just as he or she might have been two hundred years ago. So… having chewed it over I’ve decided to have one last go at completing the novel to my satisfaction. My three months away ought to give me all the time I need – either to knock it into shape or decide once and for all that it ain’t going to work.

I’ll probably start a new blog in a week or two, dedicated to my stay in Taos – so watch this space for a new link to that. Meanwhile, a happy 2015 to all my readers.

Monday, 17 November 2014

A Tour of Nebraska – and a Link to Buffalo Bill


Having now handed Chasing Black Gold over to the publisher, I am free to turn my attention to plans that have been on the back burner for some time. Highest on my list of priorities has been to think about that rash announcement I made a few months ago, that I would make a tour of Nebraska in 2015, promoting The Red House On The Niobrara through a series of lectures. A road-show, no less.  

Fortunately, a bit of head-scratching reminded me of the cardinal rule to be obeyed when planning foolish ventures in far-off places: work your contacts.

Over the past twenty years or so I have made a number of good friends in Nebraska. One of them is a descendant of the Arent family, the Danish homesteaders who built the red house about ninety years ago. He has been delivering copies of the book to friends, to neighbouring ranchers I got to know when I was out in the Sandhills, to scholars in the field, to librarians and hoteliers and the like. Another contact, whom I met at the Mari Sandoz conference in 2010, has urged me to think about giving talks in Boulder, where she lives, and Denver, also of course Lincoln, where I have a number of contacts.

All this throws up the matter of self-promotion, and how to achieve the biggest splash. As I think about the kind of material I want to get out there I am forced to conclude that I must exploit, shamelessly, the man who first got me interested in the Wild West – namely, William F Cody.

I was about five years old when I became aware that we had in our family a set of autographed photos of him and Annie Oakley. They came from my great-great uncle, John Wiltshire, who captained the ship that transported the Wild West Show across the Atlantic on at least one occasion. We always understood that it was the State of Nebraska, and as my studies led me to the Cornhusker state in the early 1990s, that seemed so very appropriate – as if my love of Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz, and the  country they wrote about, was simply meant to be.

Many years later, when I was deep in my researches, I found that this story was a myth. The ship in question was under the command of one Captain Braes – and, upon its return voyage, of a Captain Bristow.  I was, of course, bitterly disappointed. But while I was living  the red house, out there in the Sandhills, I was shown this passage in a biography of Little Miss Sure-Shot:   

‘Shortly before Christmas, 1893, Annie Oakley and Frank Butler moved into their new house at 304 Grant Avenue [in Nutley, New Jersey]…. Less than a week after moving in, the Butlers had dinner guests, an event that was duly noted in the social columns of the local newspapers. Invited were J. M. Brown, manager of the Atlantic Transport Company of New York; Louis E Cooke of the Barnum and Bailey Show; and a Mr. and Mrs. Cannon of Newark. Mr. Cannon was a noted one-armed sportsman. Also invited was Captain Wiltshire of the steamship Mohawk, which had carried the Wild West home from Europe the year before.’

So it was true, after all. I aim to extract maximum benefit from that as I sit and draft my publicity material.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

On Keeping A Journal

I’ve kept a daily journal now for twenty years (plus a few months). I started when I got my first desk-top computer in 1994. I was forty-five years old. The early volumes are fat, their content exceeding 100,000 words annually. I printed those out and have stored them in the attic. In later years – perhaps as a result of my life becoming a little more ordered – I found I was cranking out a more modest 50-70,000 words. Most of those volumes are stored on the p.c., and backed up on CD.

Since I started writing a blog I’ve found it harder to maintain the discipline of a daily update. Perhaps it has become less important. Let me correct that: the reason these blog entries have become less frequent is that I decided my journal was important to me.

I’m not sure what first motivated me to keep a daily record of my life. Like a lot of people, I had kept some kind of a diary in my younger days, but only very occasionally and erratically. I know that what I have put in my  journals over the past couple of decades has helped me in various ways to work out my feelings about what was going on my life. Some entries, I am sure, would make me go hot and cold all over were I to dig them out today. They fulfil one very useful function, however, that of a providing me with a simple record. When did I work on this or that article, story, script or book? When did I walk a particular footpath? Or last see a certain friend? Visit a certain town?

Beyond those specifics, and because the  journals span the twenty years during which I have made a living as a writer, I find it immensely helpful to have a record of my  endeavours to stay afloat financially. Buried away in their pages are accounts of some pretty difficult times – times of constant rejection, high hopes and broken promises. In 1999, shortly before I was hired as a script-writer on Britain’s number two TV soap opera, Emmerdale, I was indebted to the tune of some £17,000 – a fact that didn’t become clear to me until some time later when I scrolled back, read the evidence and did the sums. I paid that lot back within six months – to the considerable surprise of one or two debtors, who professed to have forgotten about the loans they’d made to me. Maybe they should have kept journals.

The journals’ greatest use, however, has been in providing me with a record of just how difficult it was in the early days. Back in about 1999 or 2000 I recorded – and I remember deciding to record this – a list of some 32 projects which were still supposedly `live`. These included ideas for radio programmes I was discussing with the BBC; feature ideas that magazine editors were considering – sometimes for as long as two years; short and long fictions, written and merely outlined, that I was trying to sell, and of course a number of ongoing debates with corporate entities who were considering my proposals to write their histories. What always intrigues me about these failed ideas is that I invariably seemed to strike pay-dirt after a call from out of the blue – from a place I hadn’t even tried, a publisher I knew nothing about. How else would I get a commission to write the history of The 41 Club? To ghost the autobiography of a cricketer? To write seven volumes on the life of a country policeman? Or, at the other end of the scale, to write a best man’s speech, or some kid’s application to a prestigious medical school?

I suppose I imagine that there might come a day when someone, somewhere, might like to read about one writer’s attempt to work the oracle – to conjure up enough paying work to allow himself to stay home and do the thing any writer loves best, and that that person will have my journals at his or her disposal.