Monday, July 2, 2012

Not only books inspired me to write

I've been rewatching the great BBC TV series Our Friends In The North recently. For those not in the know, it charts the lives of four Newcastle friends across three decades. It's intensely moving: an angry polemic on the moral decay of the British political landscape in the post 60's era, taking in everything from the Miner's strike to the stock market crash of 1987, focusing on the fragmentary effect it had on ordinary people. It's superbly acted, featuring a gallery of before-they-were-famous young actors (the most famous surely being Daniel Craig, who plays the tragic Geordie Peacock). But more than that it's completely gripping, utterly unflinching in its depiction of issues such as police corruption and, in this powerful segment from the first episode, domestic abuse:

I was 13 years old when it was first broadcast, and it had a profound impact on me. It awakened me to the fact that crookedness and dishonesty in politics was not a boring thing that had nothing to do with me. It had everything to do with me, my friends, my family and my loved ones. Many of its scenes stayed with me, and rewatching it now has reminded me just what an amazing program it is.

Returning to it 16 years later, as an older, hopefully wiser, and definitely less impressionable adult, I've found that a lot of it has actually had an influence on my writing. Now, I'm not claiming to have the ability to write such a staggering piece of work that 'captures the zeitgeist' or 'defines a generation' (insert your own cliches if you like). But certain dynamics of its storytelling, plotting and characterisation have unconsciously informed the way I write when I write novels. The domestic scene included here, for instance, definitely influenced the opening scene of  my (temporarily) discarded second novel. When novelists like me talk about their influences they tend to talk about the influence of other novelists. This seems so reductive to me: I would say that Our Friends In The North is probably more of an influence on my novel writing than most actual novels are.

It applies to other artists working outside my sphere too. Take this guy for instance:

If you don't rate this guy then you have no taste obviously. No, seriously, he's an acquired taste, but he's possibly my favourite musician ever. I've included the particular song I have here because it's one of my favourite lyrics of his, and the lyrics are very much the thing with Tom Waits. He's been described as a 'poetic volcano', and reading the lyrics to the song here tells you just why. He documents the sleazy dark side of the American dream: how Bruce Springsteen might have turned out if his parents locked him in a cellar till he was 16 and kept him alive on a diet of peanuts and whiskey. His pitch-black funny lyrics are ugly, deformed and bruised...but they have a raw beauty to them as well. Only he can sing about a yellow moon punching a hole in the night time mist as the first line in a love letter and make it sound beautiful.

He's still going, is our Tom. I can't claim to have been a lifelong follower, but his rheumy eyed take on the wrong side of the tracks has been another formative influence on me as well. His artistic style, both belligerent and sadsack, does it for me. It really does. And whilst I never, ever try to imitate his narrative voice, I'm sure to keep the diamond of his work in my mind (another lyrical reference there).

To return to Our Friends in the North, I was intrigued to read how it nearly didn't get made the other day. Now there's a lesson in persistence for us novel writers if ever I heard one.


  1. Good post, Joe! Inspiration is a tricky thing for me. Kind of one of my hot buttons. I don't know how to answer people when they ask where I get inspiration. Nowhere. I just make this stuff up wholecloth.

  2. That must be wonderfully liberating. I can see how you'd be able to go down that avenue, writing fantasy.

  3. It's historical fantasy, which means cultures and whatnot are loosely based on real-world civilizations like Rome or Egypt. In that case, sometimes I have to do my research first!