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Thursday, 25 September 2014

Coming to the end of another book

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 of Nigeria’s 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 there’s a lot of geopolitical content.

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 pleasant.


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.


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