For thirty years I imagined life as a professional writer. Here's how it is for me, after twenty years. There's plenty about publishers, agents and work in progress, a whole lot more about the things that feed my creative process.
Today, three months after starting it, I will be writing the
final short chapter of Chasing Black Gold,
(due out with The History Press early next year). It’s already reached the
target length of 85,000 words, so I’ve been going at a decent lick, but of
course there’s a lot more work to be done before my October 31 deadline. The
more books I write, the more convinced I am that the opening and closing
passages cannot properly be composed until the whole thing’s done and revised. That’s
when you finally know what tone to set, and, more importantly, where you’re
heading as you usher your reader into that crucial first scene.
In this case I have about five weeks in which to look for any
missing components in a complicated narrative; to make sure, once we are
certain where the story ends, that all the sign-posts along the way are
pointing in that direction; and of course to change all the names, lest we provoke
legal action. The story incorporates a lot of criminal and sub-criminal activity,
as well as a great deal of corruption involving politicians, business people
and public servants. At the heart of the book is an account of the early days
black-market oil business, a trade that has blighted the country physically, tainted
its politics and brought suffering to thousands of people in the Niger Delta
region. It will be interesting to see how the book is treated by reviewers and
critics. It’s quite a rip-roaring tale, but it there’s a lot of geopolitical
With the end of this one in sight, although not quite in
focus, I find other projects emerging from that cool, dark place where they’ve been
laid up as I wrestle with this one. It’s only four months now before I travel
to Taos, New Mexico, and take up a three-month residency, courtesy of the Helene
Wurlitzer Foundation. A few weeks ago I booked a return flight to Chicago.
Yesterday I arranged the remainder of the journey which I plan to do by train.
Amtrak have a leisurely service that takes twenty-three hours to cross Illinois,
Missouri and Kansas.
At Lamy, N.M., a shuttle bus takes passengers over to Santa
Fe, where there’s another bus up to Taos.
Even with a night in Chicago, both
outward and upon my return in April, this was a better deal than the journey I
originally planned, by plane to Albuquerque.
Not only is it cheaper, but more relaxing. I travelled that same route way back
in 1980, en route from Toronto, via
Detroit, to L.A.
It’s a different way of travelling, alien to most Americans, but really very
A part of my mind is now throwing up ideas on the work I hope
to do in Taos. The plan is to go
through all the travel journals I’ve compiled over the last 35 years (I mean
travel in the western states), to transcribe a number of audio recordings made
in Nebraska and along the Lewis
and Clark Trail, and to distil a few stories out of them. The Nebraska
recordings relate largely to my interest in Mari Sandoz (above, immortalised in
bronze, Chadron State College), and include two interviews with her sister
Caroline, who died in 2011, another with her biographer, Helen Stauffer.
There’s a remarkable woman of Bohemian origin whose father had worked on the
railroad and knew Old Jules (Mari’s father) in person. As soon as Mari’s
master-work was published he sent his daughter to Hay Springs on the train to
buy a copy. He then read it in a single weekend, pronouncing it a faithful
evocation of the man, the times and the frontier mores.
Among the Lewis and Clark Trail recordings are some
significant statements by Native people: their take, for example, on the
‘celebration’ of what was a cataclysmic event from their point of view. Ponca,
Nez Perce, Mandan Hidatsa, Chinook: they, and several other peoples, are
represented. Quite how I’ll incorporate it all into a series of short stories
I’m not sure, but that’s the challenge I’ve set, and that’s what seems to be
brewing at the back of my mind. But the idea of spending three months with that
material, plus diaries from my time with the veteran rodeo circuit, the
bike-ride across Nebraska, and
the drive up and down the Hundredth Meridian…
well, it’s not a bad way of kicking off the year.
Just now an outing to the countryside is a mixed delight.
Our trip to the Lake District last weekend exposed us to
some gorgeous late summer weather, some of our country’s most beautiful scenery,
and gave us one last chance to sleep under the stars before autumn closes in.
On the other hand, it was a disruption to my current writing routine, and the
truth is that at this moment a part of me resents anything that tears my mind
away from the job in hand. I have reached the stage when this current book is
all suspended in my mind like a huge, unwieldy blob of jelly, supported here
and there by slender certainties, its ultimate viability still shrouded in doubt.
Did I just write that? Very well, then; I wrote it. Maintaining
a grip on all parts of a narrative – and I am now 70,000 words into this one - requires
a mental dexterity that does indeed stretch your abilities as a writer and puts
unusual demands on your intellect. Within a week or ten days I will have reached
the end of the story I’m putting together. The first draft will be done. That
gives me four or five weeks in which to liaise with the subject – the guy I’m
ghosting for – and make sure that we have recorded everything that belongs in the
story, that it all makes sense, that the characters seem real, and that the tone
and voice are as they ought to be. Voice is quite an issue in this book: I am
dealing with a guy who operated almost as a pirate, certainly a buccaneer – in commercial
fishing, in treasure-hunting, in shipping, and in black-market oil trading; and
he smuggled dope, did time in jail, made millions and surrendered millions in
order to buy his freedom. So, in writing in the first person, I am having to
develop a voice which suggests the worldliness, the scepticism, the particular wit
that I hear every time I talk to this guy on the phone. I realise – because he tells
me it is so – that I am getting there in these later chapters. Hey, he says,
you’re writing it the way I see it. My task, when we get to the end and start revising,
will be to go back and make sure that that is true right from the beginning.
However, the Lake District….
We drove to Glenridding, at the southern end of Ullswater,
and hiked up to Angle Tarn. There we unpacked our steaks, our red wine and
potato salad, laid out our beds and made supper as the sun went down.
It was a chilly night, without any wind, the landscape
illuminated by a moon that was one day short of being full. In the morning
there was ice on our packs. On the lake a moist had formed, a mist which soon caught
a faint breeze and swathed the adjoining hill.
We brewed coffee, shouldered our packs and set off on high walk
that would take us back to Glenridding for lunchtime. Along the way we came to the
spectacular pass which connects Windermere with Ullswater.
It’s no good: I cannot summon up the right kind of poetic
language to describe, adequately, a glorious hike. In twenty minutes from now I’ll
be writing words designed to spoken out of the side of the mouth – about cops, and
prison cells, and briefcases full of dollar bills, about guns being dismantled and
hidden under the door panels of a getaway car. I think I’m resigned to leaving the
pictures to do the work for me.
I’ve been making rapid progress with this latest book. Since
I began serious work on 26 June, and despite having had two weeks away in Norway,
I have got 48,000 written. That’s well past the halfway mark, meaning that I'm averaging 1500 a working day. I am reminded of the days when I was writing
corporate histories and could occasionally polish off 3-4000 at a sitting. But
I was younger then….
This rapid progress is all down to one thing: starting each
day with good research material in front of me. The fellow I’m working with
right now has been thinking about his long and adventurous life for some time. I
think he started to reflect, seriously, when he was doing time in a very unpleasant
Federal Penitentiary. As we searched for a buyer for the book we took great
pains to come up with an outline and chapter breakdown. Of course, we have
deviated from the original outline – that will always happen - but they’ve been useful guides, and we’ve
kept in mind the factors that sold the idea: namely, my subject’s early forays
into black-market oil trading in the Niger Delta, a field in which he was the
first operator, some twenty-plus years ago. Along the way, he’s kept up his end of the ghosting deal,
(a) sending me substantial chapter outlines on a regular
(b) whenever I ask a question, sending a swift and detailed
reply - be it a physical description of a minor character, information
on the private banking system in Lichtenstein, where he hid substantial cash
deposits, or an explanation of acronyms like AHTSV (Anchor Handling Tug Supply Vessel)
or VLCC (Very Large Crude Container).
Having now known my subject for four years – that’s how long
ago it was that we first discussed a book about his life in dope-smuggling,
deep-sea fishing, treasure-hunting, deep-sea diving, black-market oil trading and running
shipping fleets in South America and West Africa – I can often flesh out a
chapter purely from my own recollections of the many remarkable stories he has
told me. Some of those won’t find a place in the main story, but it’s always
a great help to have this accumulated background knowledge when you’re writing a biography.
It means that in the course of any narrative section I can get into his head
and have him reflect on matters that may be tangential to the plot but are pertinent
to his own personality and character. Call it light relief.
Would that all ghost writing were this easy, and this
enjoyable. I cannot help but reflect on other projects, when I’ve had to conjure
a 6,000 or 8,000-wprd chapter from half a page of notes consisting mostly of
‘He was a fantastic character’, ‘It was unbelievable’, or ‘We had an amazing
Harrumph. An outline of Chapter 13 has this minute arrived
in my Inbox, and I am promised Ch. 14 in short order. I must to start on my
half of the job.
There’s a lot more I could say about our hike in the
Norwegian Arctic. But really, the pictures tell most of the story.
It wasn’t the greatest weather when we set out; indeed, it
was quite brooding. The trail was marked by a red splash of paint on the rocks
here and there, and with cairns –
not all as visible as this one:
As I mentioned in my last post, the huts are what made the
whole thing practicable from our point of view. Here are the huts at Gappo,
which was almost a village: two residential (or was it three?), an earth closet
and a woodshed. I think we had five other people (plus a dog) staying the night
when we were there. Sometimes we had the place to ourselves.
Here’s an inside shot of a typical hut. Despite the mild
weather we were grateful for the log stove on a couple of occasions after we’d
got caught in a late afternoon thunderstorm.
A feature of day 3, after we left Gappo, was that we managed
to convert a 20-kilometre hike into a 32-km slog. We set off towards this very
recognisable mountain and only after marching 5-6 km did we realise that we
were heading west when we should have been heading southwest. Nothing for it
but to retrace our steps and start again.
We expected to meet reindeer, and indeed we had to move
through one herd that was several thousand strong – and were simply too
exhausted to get the cameras out. But this sight caught our eye: a small herd
apparently grazing on a snow-bank. A.’s theory was that this was the grown-up
reindeer explaining to the youngsters what lay in store in the coming winter.
That evening we met a couple of Norwegian women in a hut who explained that the
reindeer didn’t like the kind of heat we were experiencing and were in fact
cooling off; also, on the snow they would briefly be free of the mosquitoes.
Despite the rocky landscape, wild flowers were everywhere.
It wasn’t always apparent what they were feeding on, but they seemed to thrive.
Here are some harebells, doing well in an unlikely habitat.
… and a teasel:
With no supplies available in these far northern huts (the
Trekking Association have many huts further south where groceries can be
bought, or even prepared meals) we had to carry everything we would need. As
well as having loads of cereals, home-made muesli, nuts, dried fruit, etc, we
took our own dried ingredients for soup. We also made up batches of dry mix for
tortillas and pancakes. At night we’d cook up enough for our supper – greasing
the pan from our little phial of olive oil - and the using the leftovers for
the next day’s meal.
When we got to the huts one of the first chores was always
to fetch water. In the case of this place, with the supply 200 yards away, they
provided a handy yoke. Note that I am wearing me midge veil: a vital piece of
equipment up there.
The area where we were walking was staggeringly beautiful,
but the truth is… there were few more wonderful sights than a hut coming into
view after a gruelling day’s hike.
Actually, there was another very welcome sight we looked out
for each morning, namely a suitable place to bathe after we’d worked up a sweat
over the first hour or two. So here’s your blogger at his daily toilette – at a
discreet 200 yards’ distance. I have a vivid memory of that lake. We’d just
walked through one of the lowest-lying parts of the hike, through a marsh and a
stunted woodland – and we’d been ravaged by mosquitoes. The feeling of cold
water on our skin was sheer bliss.
We crossed rivers every day – sometimes a dozen or more, and
very few caused us any real difficulty. This one, however, was a bit of a
challenge, but with gaiters in place, and using our poles, we got across with
Just back from an eight-day hike in the Norwegian Arctic,
and to tell the truth it’s hard to find the words, yet, to tell the full story.
Let’s just say that in a hundred miles (158 kilometres) of walking over eight
days we saw not a single gate, nor a fence, nor a motorised vehicle; not even a
light bulb. Just mile after mile of superb mountain scenery with the occasional
fellow hiker – perhaps one or two a day.
THE REMAINS OF LAST WINTER'S SNOW
At altitudes no greater than 1000 metres, and often nearer
500, the weather – despite the ever-present snow-banks – was what you’d expect
in an English summer, the temperature varying between 15 and 23 C (60 to 73 F).
At night, with the sun up for 23 or more hours a day, it never dropped below
about 10 C (50 F). We had one thunderstorm, which drenched us, but the joy of
this trip was that, as members of the Norwegian Trekking Association, we had a
key to their beautifully equipped huts.
THE HUT AT VUOMA; I'LL SHOW SOME INTERIOR SHOTS NEXT TIME
Each hut had a four-ring propane stove for cooking on, a
large wood-burner with log-stack, and bunks with mattresses and pillows. All we
had to carry was a sheet sleeping-bag, a change of underwear, some foul
weather-gear, and all the food we would need. (More on that in a day or two)
DRYING MY WASHING
The scenery ranged from grassland to long stretches of
glacial boulders and the occasional woodland at lower levels. The abundant
rivers and lakes provided clean drinking water and a daily opportunity to bathe
and do a little laundry, using a suitably ecological detergent fluid.
ONE OF MANY BOULDER-FIELDS WE HAD TO PICK OUR WAY ACROSS
There’s an awful lot more I could say, but it’s late on a
Sunday night and tomorrow morning I must be a ghost-writer again. So I’ll pick
this up later in the week and throw in a few more photos.
OUR WAY HERE LED BETWEEN THE TWO LAKES AND OVER THE FIRST MOUNTAIN