Tuesday, November 8, 2011

White Fangs - Guest Post by Nigel Bird

Author Nigel Bird stops by the blog today to give us a look inside the creation of his novel, Smoke. I'll be back later this week with a review, but for now... let's give him a very warm welcome to My Friends Call Me Kate.

Humans are animals.

Nothing controversial in that statement, however splendid we consider ourselves to be.

We’re capable of great subtleties of thought and have the most intricate communication systems to share them.

In my opinion, one of the greatest creations of the human race is ‘White Fang’.

I don’t think there’s anything controversial there, either.  It’s a tremendous book on so many levels, but fundamentally as an exemplary piece of story-telling.

I first heard the story when I was 11.  Our ageing teacher, all leather face and tweed, read it as our class novel at some point in our final primary school year.  It’s one of those periods of life which remains vividly alive in my memory.

No wonder then that it has always been something I wanted to use in my work at some point.  I almost wrote ‘emulate’ there in place of 'use’; how crazy is that?

Anyway, to take you back a couple of years, I wrote a story called ‘An Arm And A Leg’.  I’d been aiming to submit something to Crimespree for a while and knew that this was it, my first real crime work.   I pressed the send button just before I went to bed.

Jennifer Jordan got back to me while I slept, bless her.  Accepted it there and then.  I’m indebted to the Crimespree team for effectively fanning the embers of my hope in a way that I’d all but given up on.

I was thrilled. Absolutely. Took my kids to the soft play that morning and sat drinking coffee in a daze.

It occurred to me that if the story was as good as it felt, I should use it as a springboard for a novel.  Made a lot of sense.  All I needed was a theme.

Back rolled in Jack London. 

Dog-fighting in Tranent!  Perfect.

All I needed was to follow the life of fighting dog from birth till death and I’d be on to a winner.

A good friend of mine also suggested having some kind of police story in there – let’s face it, pleasing agents and publishers may require compromise, or so I thought at the time.

The angle I decided to take was to look at a spectrum of the human race.  I’d have the dog-fighters and their obvious cruelty contrasting with the middle-class breeders aiming to create the perfect show dogs.  Perfect. 

Research showed me some of the crazy things dog-breeders have done in the name of beauty, creating grotesques who live in pain or are susceptible to illness and all sorts of disabilities.  Horrible.  There are good dog-breeders out there, so don’t flood the comment section in their defence, it’s not necessary, but there are some crazy things also.  Barbaric even.

Animal rights are something I believe in quite strongly in many ways.  There’s a touch of irony then, that ‘An Arm And A Leg’ has a description of the deep frying of a cat.  I could tell you that it was the character who took over or that it was essential to the plot (both partly true), but it was me at the helm.  Doesn’t mean I hate cats.

Anyway, I got to work and wrote my novel. 

From the beginning I was looking forward to describing the dog fights, not with relish for the violence, but as a major challenge to my writing skills. 

I considered reading White Fang for the third time, maybe focusing on the fight scenes to see how they were done. 

When it came to those sections, I changed my mind on that.  It seemed better to give it my best shot and see how it went.

I’m delighted with the result.

Sadly, the same couldn’t be said of the novel as a whole.

I had to get rid of the cop and the cop angle (I just hadn’t pulled it off).  I binned chapters and characters.  The dog-breeding work was all chopped.  The vet disappeared.  My bigger picture was gone.

Thing is, by chopping away so much to create this novella I ended up with a more profound piece, in my opinion.  Less can be more.

White-Fang was a product of his environment, like the characters in Smoke.

The folk who inhabit my stories have been brought up in a tough world.   Outsiders might describe it as hellish.  It’s no wonder they behave and express themselves in the way they do.

The sad thing for me is that it’s only the plot and my creations that are fiction.  The town, culture, environment, abuse and poverty really do exist.  Not just where I work, but around the world.

It can be overwhelming to be involved with.

Even so, Jack London managed to get his novel to sparkle with hope on occasion. 

White Fang was the best, meanest fighting dog there was, yet he was saved from that (and a great big bulldog) to become the most amazingly loyal creature going.

The idea of ‘saving’ people from the cultures and themselves is fraught with difficulty (think religious evangelism or colonisation), but it’s something I want to work with to make the world a better place.

Yes, if you read Smoke you’ll have had one hell of a ride.  It will be a tour of a brutalised folk who brutalise.  At the same time, I’d like to suggest that you’ll find something about the whole thing strangely uplifting; if you do, I guess I’ve passed my challenge.

Nigel Bird is about to serve up a 9 course meal.  As an appetiser, there’s a morsel (‘Sebille’) at Flashquake.  The Starter, ‘No Pain No Gain’ will be in Crime Factory.  There’s something fishy in the form of a surprise.  A visit to France for mains at Voluted Tales.  If you’ve room, it’ll be time for Best Of British Crime Stories. For dessert, Pulp Ink, served up jointly with Chris Rhatigan and / or Blackbird Pie at Grimm Tales.  Digestif is a novel that has all the ingredients and requires a bit more time in the oven.

And cheese.

You can read more about Nigel HERE!


Sabrina E. Ogden said...

Wonderful post, Nigel. You captured of all of this and more in SMOKE.

Elizabeth said...

Well done, Nigel. I look forward to reading SMOKE.

Anonymous said...

Nigel's a tough guy who packs an unusual weapon. It's called hope. Sometimes he brings you to your knees with it. Sometimes he pulls you off them. Sometimes he leaves you cryin'. With Nigel it's pay your money, take your chance, but he'll never let you down.
Good conversation, guys. Cool.

Christine H. said...

Sabrina/Kate, AS ALWAYS, you have enlightened us again and peeked our interest. “You’ve Come a Long Way, BaBY….” Keep up the good work.

Heath Lowrance said...

Nigel is the best at showing us the world, in all its ugliness, while at the same time retaining that essential faith in humanity. I love that about him.

Chris Rhatigan said...

Well, Heath hit on the head there.

This really proves what a smart editor you are -- you took a novel and evaluated honestly, developing it into a smaller, but more powerful work. One of my journalism teachers taught me that you have to "Kill your darlings." (Yeah, I've heard it since then but it really stuck with when she said it.)

nigel p bird said...

So very pleased to be here. Thanks for having me and for the comments. Indeed, Killing off darlings is hard to do, but can be really important - I wonder if that has parallels in life as well as in writing.

Thomas Pluck said...

I loved SMOKE and urge everyone to read it. A great story, that captures the town in stark reality.