If you are searching for Christmas gifts here is an author writing about Teesside and the Boro in a very different way. Boro crime writer John Nicholson sets the first of his Teesside crime novels against the back drop of the Boro’s epic UEFA Cup run. Now that is what I call an interesting idea. Box it up for Christmas.
Back in October Fly Me To The Moon and Discover Middlesbrough combined to host a pre-Boro match talk from Three Boro Writers John Nicholson, Harry Pearson and Daniel Gray. The fabulous setting of Middlesbrough Reference Library was pretty much packed to hear the trio talk Boro and books. I thought I would follow this up by throwing several questions in the direction of one of the guys, John Nicholson. Football 365 blogger, author of Footy Rocks, Who Ate All the Pies (longlisted for 2010 William Hill book of the year) and now the man behind a popular series of crime stories, set in Teesside.
Boro fan John Nicholson lives up in Edinburgh these days so I sent him a few questions by facebook and he was good enough to reply the very next day.
Q: John tell me a little where the idea from this Nick Guymer series of crime novels came from?
JN: The very first idea I had was inspired by my dad dying in 1987. I had to go the house 48 hours later and sort everything out. Everything was as he’d left it right down to his last mug of coffee. It was very spooky even though we weren’t close. He lived alone in the house I’d grown up in and I began to wonder what I might find out about him and how I’d feel if it turned out he had a life I’d never known about or that he was a totally different man to what I thought. So I used that as a leaping off point for the first book. Once I’d written one, I just loved the main characters of Nick, Julie and Jeff so much that I wanted to know what they were going to do next and I’ve not been able to stop writing about them ever since.
Q: We’re you nervous at all making the leap from a successful football writer?
JN: Yeah, people tend, quite naturally, to pigeon-hole you and after 14 years, I’m quite well established as a football writer, so I did wonder if people would take me seriously as a novelist. As it’s turned out, it hasn’t been an issue and in fact I’ve garnered a whole new audience of fiction readers who didn’t even know anything about my football writing.
Q: I think it is fantastic that you have set a series of thrillers set on Teesside. Did you enjoy using so many landmarks that we know well but others won’t know?
JN: I was inspired by Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawki novels which are set in Chicago. They paint the city so well that you feel like you’ve been there. I wanted to do that for Teesside, so I do love to set some incidents around landmarks such as Roseberry Topping, Corporation House (as I still call it) or the ICI prilling tower and I also set stories in real places, on real streets. For example a major incident in Tyne Tees happens on Prince Regent Street in Stockton. Local people seem to really enjoy this aspect of the books but, of course you don’t need to be from Teesside to appreciate them. It was always my aim to celebrate the area in some way, to really put it on the map in popular fiction, and I will not rest until I’ve done that!
Q: Do you find Teessiders and exiles very receptive to the books?
JN: Very much so. We all know Teesside is ignored by the mainstream media unless they want a story about decay and deprivation. Most people don’t even know where it is and certainly can’t tell the difference between a Teesside and a Geordie voice. We’re an exotic, obscure breed, so the fact that the area is being recognised in a series of novels has been totally embraced by Teessiders at home and across the world. It’s been very gratifying for me. I sell a lot of books on Teesside but also in Australia and to people living in and around London who love to be transported back via my books, to the streets they grew up on.
I do think when you’ve moved away, you see the area in a different way to residents. Stuff you take for granted when you live on Teesside seems much more exotic to me when I come down to visit because I live in Edinburgh. For example, the way you can see industry like ICI Billingham in the foreground with the Cleveland Hills in the background is incredibly striking but when I lived in Stockton, I never even really noticed it. Roseberry Topping is a backdrop wherever you go but I just used to take that for granted too. That blend of hard industrial architecture and wild nature is very much Teesside’s unique character, I reckon. It’s the grit that makes Teesside’s pearl.
Q: The main character seems to share a few characteristics with yourself, is that fair?
JN: Well, Nick is more me than anyone else, yeah. It’s an open secret that I use him as a form of psychological therapy. His feelings are mine. His worries are my worries. His states of mind are also mine. In fact in almost every way he is really me… or more accurately, how I think I am… which might not be the same thing as how I actually am. I’m no good at filtering myself out of novels. You can tell what sort of man I am by reading them, I think. In that regard, they’re quite confessional and honest. I pretty much mine my own life and lay it bare on the page one way or another. The only major difference between us is that Nick is much more likely to hit you in the face. I’d never do that, not unless I’ve been drinking brandy and you’ve nicked me parmo, anyway.
Q: You have some very strong female characters as well. Was that important to you?
JN: Growing up in Stockton and living in the north of Britain most of my 53 years, I’ve always experienced women to be, what is often rather patronisingly called, ‘strong’ (as though most women are weak). Northern women are generally tough and nobodies fool. That’s just how most women I meet and know are, so it was important to me to reflect that in the books but it’s not like it’s a political decision I’ve consciously made.
Q: Nick is flawed in many ways, he has issues with depression, not the usual hero figure then?
JN: Nick isn’t a hero at all, really. He certainly wouldn’t see himself that way. He’s just a somewhat dysfunctional bloke who gets caught up in situations which he then has to sort out. He’s a football writer, not a cop. He’s just getting through whichever way he can, as we all do, really. He’s got a strong moral compass but finds it hard to see how what he says and does affects other people. His relationship with Julie is the cornerstone of his life, but like many of us, he falls apart sometimes and finds life and people hard to deal with. I wanted to give him some depth and not just be a crash-bang-wallop action hero. As the series progresses he evolves and changes so that readers go on a journey with him. He’s not static as a character and I hope that’s one of the things that keeps people reading the novels.
Q: You have used Boros UEFA run as a backdrop to one drama. If you had scripted that would people believe it plausible?
JN: Well, that’s why I used it in Teesside Steal. I couldn’t have made up something more dramatic. It occurred to me, even at the time, that if it had been written for a TV show, no-one would have believed it. To come back against such overwhelming odds to triumph is the stuff of soap operas and only goes to prove that fact is often less plausible than fiction.
Q: Do you have your plots all meticulously worked out or do things evolve as you dive into the plot?
JN: Oh god no. Not at all. I am a great believer in improvising and just writing from the heart: letting it all pour out without inhibition. I usually have one basic idea to start with, but plan almost nothing, so that as I write it, it’s all a surprise to me. I think this keeps the writing fresh. I never know who has done the crime until the last 30 pages and it can always go either way. It means after the first draft, once I know who has done what to whom, I do a lot of back writing, dropping in clues, red-herrings, details and themes. I’m a big fan of the ‘fix it in the mix’ approach. I want my work to have emotion and passion in it, and to me, planning is the antithesis of both those things, so that’s why I avoid it, plus, I don’t have a logical mind and I’m naturally ornery, even towards my own plans, so there’d be no point in planning out anything as I’d only depart from the plan at the first opportunity.
Q: Am I right in thinking you make yourself work and write as if you were doing a normal job?
JN: I treat it like job, yeah. I believe in hard work. Really hard work. I believe in putting in a lot of hours and not moaning about it. Get the bloody job done. I can’t be doing with an airy fairy, artsy approach to writing. I don’t sit around waiting for my muse to descend, I just get grafting because, for me, it’s 99% perspiration in order to get 1% inspiration. Writing stories and characters is my job, it’s what I do every day of the week and I love doing it. I put in 12 hour days and most days I write at least 3,000 words and sometimes as much as 8,000. I really live the stories and get totally absorbed in them and by doing that I find I can write a lot, very quickly. I see it so clearly, it’s like describing a movie that’s playing on my TV. The idea that it might take a year or two to write a book horrifies me. The way I see it is, perhaps controversially, if it’s taking you a year or more to write a normal length novel of commercial fiction, as opposed to high falutin difficult literary fiction, then you’ve not committed enough time to it or you’ve not got enough ideas. Maybe it’s my background growing up on Teesside, but I can’t let myself indulge in being an “artist” and I fear being pretentious at all times. Maybe that’s why I prefer to see it as labour rather than art. It allows me to do it without feeling massively poncy and self-indulgent. I am not, thank god, part of the linen-jacketed literary middle-classes who spout off pretentious bollocks about their art, darling. Sod that. I’m an insecure, chippy, northern grafter and perversely sodding proud of it.
Q: Do you think your blog experience helps you to write like this?
JN: No, not really. Nothing I’ve done in the last 14 years of football writing has been a lot of help in writing fiction because it’s such a different discipline. The only thing writing blogs and columns online gives you is a thick skin to withstand criticism – which is hugely important – and an ability to express ideas without waffling. But really, in writing novels, you want to stretch out and explore ideas and emotions more, so the brevity you learn in one genre is not often useful in the other. Like I say, it’s a very different discipline.
Q: When will the next book be out?
JN: The 7th Nick Guymer will be out in late January and is called High Tees. The first draft is done, so now I know what has happened and who did it, I can go back and make sure all the pieces of the jigsaw fit. I’ll write four novels in 2015 – that’s the plan, anyway. It might seem a lot but remember, other writers are just lazy! Ha!
Q: Do you fancy Boro for promotion?
JN: Controversially I never want us to get promoted from the second tier. I’ve always enjoyed our seasons in the second tier much more than in the top flight, going right back to the 1973-1974 season. I don’t really like the Premier League that much and I hate the idea of winning eight games in a year and then trying to draw enough to not get relegated which, I fear, would be our fate. I think we’ll make the play offs but I’m not sure we’ll go up. I reckon McClaren’s Derby will beat us to second place.
The Nick Guymer crime series has been described as “the best thing to come out of Teesside since the Parmo.”
Here’s how the very first book, Teesside Steal opens, Nick Guymer’s life is a total mess. His dad has just died, he’s being made bankrupt, he’s getting evicted, his girlfriend has left him and Middlesbrough are 2-0 down in the UEFA Cup…
If you like the sound of this and the interview then why not order a book online or three for Christmas.
There is also a stand of John Nicholson’s Nick Guymer’s books in WHSmiths at Teesside Park.