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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.