Friday, April 13, 2007

Good Time for Charlie

I recently made the acquaintance of one Royston Blake, a professional doorman (don’t call him a bouncer)-cum-force of nature who narrates the three books that form Charlie Williams’ “Mangel Trilogy”: Deadfolk, Fags and Lager, and King of the Road, all set in the fictional town of Mangel, England. Blakey, as he is known, is quite a scary individual--unpredictable, violent, prone to the kind of accidents that leave other people dead. The kind of person someone like me might cross the road to avoid. Although I doubt Blakey would let me get away with that. I came in at the end of this trilogy, with 2006’s King of the Road, but I found it a satisfying standalone read that’s given me an appetite to go back over the previous books and also to catch up with Blakey’s creator, the Worcester-born Charlie Williams.

Roger Morris: Charlie, I know you’re uncomfortable talking about writerly stuff, like the craft that goes into your books. For example, you don’t even like to refer to your work as “my work.” In fact, you like to give the impression, I think, that the spirit of Royston Blake possesses you and dictates the books, with you performing the role of typist. Yet to me, one of the things that’s most impressive about your writing is how crafted it is, and how in control you are of a number of tricky technical aspects. That and the swearing, of course. Is there some kind of superstitious/primitive magic thing going on here? Are you afraid that if you talk about it, you won’t be able to do it any more? Or is it genuinely that you are a man possessed when you’re writing?

Charlie Williams: This is a hard one to answer. I just don’t know. It really does feel like someone is dictating the words to me and that I just write them down. If you met me in person you would see that I’m not like Blakey at all, and that my voice is nothing like his. But his voice spills onto the page as if he were there with me. I know this is probably because I’ve perfected it and it’s become like a “working voice” for me. And I don’t deny that I actively do quite a bit of work in these books. But it’s away-from-the-page stuff, when I’m walking around or doing the day job, figuring out how things fit together. So I guess you could say that I’m the architect, and “the disembodied voice of Royston Blake” is the builder. But thanks a lot for saying I’m in control of the technical aspects. Most of the time it doesn’t feel that way.

RM: One of the things you do fantastically well, I think, is manage that author-narrator parallax and use it to great effect. That is to say you know stuff, as the author, that Blakey doesn’t know because he is narrating events that are happening to him, as they happen. In fact, the whole point of Blakey is that he has an imperfect understanding of what he is at the center of, and the story of the book is the story of him working things out. (Even the reader is ahead of Blakey in places, I think.) It seems to me that this device, if I can call it that, sets up a great dynamic in the narrative. Is Blakey an example of an unreliable narrator? And did you set out to write it like this, or is it just the way it came out?

CW: At some point in the writing of Deadfolk I came across this device. Blakey saw things and reported them on a superficial level. In his reporting there were enough clues to signal to the reader what’s really going on, whilst Blakey has a totally different perception of it and goes off down his own path. I really enjoyed this and, like you suggest, I thought it made the narrative interesting. I also thought it was not too far from real life. We all get images and events reported to us, but we all interpret and react upon them in different ways, depending on what culture we’re in.

As for Blake being unreliable: of course. He’s unreliable in that he’s technically inept at taking you through a story (but in a fun way). But do you mean is he tricking us? Kind of like Nick Corey in Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, is Blake letting us believe he is as thick as he seems? Hmm, there’s a thought ... Other unreliable-narrator stuff: he fails to mention things that reflect badly on him. I forgive him that. I used to know (and still know in some cases) a lot of guys around Worcester who live like that. To meet them and listen to them (and believe me, they talk), you would think they live the life of Hugh Hefner or James Bond, perhaps a bit of Ayrton Senna thrown in there (pre-fatal crash, of course). But the reality is a bedsit somewhere, a bit of cash-in-hand work now and then, and a pile of wank mags.

RM: A lot of people try to manipulate Royston in King of the Road. But, of course, he can’t be manipulated. He’s unpredictable, self-driven--and more than a little unhinged. It seems to me that the only person who can manipulate Royston Blake is Charlie Williams. Do you ever have the sense of yourself as a puppet-master?

CW: I honestly do not. Sometimes I wince at the things Blake decides to do. I don’t think this is me being all superstitious and mystical. I think this is the magic of writing--you can plan and plot all you want, but if your characters are real they will go their own way. Sometimes I’ve planned a character who will come in and change the dynamic of the whole novel, taking it to the conclusion I want. But then I introduce him to the text and Blakey headbutts him within seconds of meeting him, or runs him over, and that character is out of the picture. I love those happy accidents.

RM: Blakey really is a tremendous player. I have to ask this, though I’m sure you’ve been asked it before: Is he modelled on someone? Is there a real Royston Blake, and did you ever have a run-in with him?

CW: As I said before, I have known a lot of men of a certain self-deluding type, young and old. It doesn’t matter what age they are--they never change during their lifetime. These guys must surely have influenced Blake in some way. When I wrote Deadfolk I was living in London. I had been in London for years and hadn’t really been back to Worcester much. Then the book came out and I moved back to Worcester (unrelated events). Within days of moving back I was walking through town and I saw this guy (let’s call him Mr. X) who I used to be friends with. Straight away I looked away and slunk into a doorway, saying to myself, “Shit, that’s Royston Blake. Shit ...” Mr. X is a guy who basically supplied Blake’s physical appearance, without me realizing it until then, so it really was like reality and fiction overlapping. Since then, I’ve re-established contact with Mr. X and I can see that the influence is not that clear-cut. Blake probably would not have existed without Mr. X, but there are also Messrs. Y and Z to consider. Plus all the others. And that’s not even considering all the fictional influences.

RM: One thing I think you do very brilliantly is create a sense of place, and yet there are minimal descriptive passages. It’s all seen through Royston’s point of view anyhow, so it just wouldn’t be right for him to be doing a lot of describing--he knows this place, he takes it for granted. Except of course in the third book, where he comes out of the nuthouse and notices how much everything has changed. But still, it’s done very economically. I wonder if Royston is somehow the spirit or embodiment of Mangel?

CW: Probably. In these books I have tried (consciously or otherwise) to depict the changes to a British provincial town during the course of my lifetime (which is to say the 1970s onwards). Blake is the eyes through which these changes are seen. I see a lot of guys from the old days who have been unable to move on. The ones who never got around to shaking that George Michael “Faith”-era look that they so carefully mimicked 20 years ago ... the mullets and bubble perms that endure ... the moustaches that toughed it out (obliviously) through the years of mustache-ridicule in the wider world ... even the odd quiff. But at the same time, these people adapt and live on. I guess Blake is them.

And thanks for the comment on creating a sense of place. I really don’t go for too much description on the page, and get bored when I’m reading it. I find you can nail the scene by mentioning one or two scenes, or clearly defining the person who we come across in that place. Places reflect their inhabitants, and vice-versa.

RM: Did you always know you were writing a trilogy? Did you construct a story arc to take you over three books? You got a three-book deal, presumably. But was it laid down that it had to be three Royston Blake/Mangel books? Apologies if you have been asked this before.

CW: I only considered carrying it on to another book about halfway through Deadfolk. At first I thought I would just stay in Mangel and take a new protagonist, but I soon found out that Blakey and Mangel are inseparable. You take them both, or you get neither. And then it seemed right to do a trilogy. I’m not sure exactly why, it just seemed right. And when I did just that, it seemed even more right. To me, with my tastes, it looked like a good trilogy was finished. I felt lucky to have come through it, having said what I wanted to say and keeping the writing fresh and entertaining. But you never know. There might be more. Blakey’s voice is still working. You can’t shut it down. There could be more beans to spill, as he would put it.

RM: There’s a lot of humor in these books. But it’s pretty dark, jet-black, in fact. It’s the kind of stuff that as a well-brought up, PC-indoctrinated North Londoner, I find myself laughing out loud at and then feeling terribly guilty about. So thanks for that. But it is tremendously liberating, though I imagine it can provoke pretty strong negative reactions, as much of the humor revolves around people dying violently and casually. None of these deaths ever seems to trouble Royston too much, and that’s part of what’s funny, I think. Do they ever trouble Charlie Williams?

CW: Am I ever troubled by a fictional character dying? It’s easy to say “no, of course I’m not.” These people don’t exist. But I have been troubled on one or two occasions. You get close to the characters and you might want a better outcome for them. But am I troubled by the violent deaths? Not if I can get a laugh out of it. Also, like I say, it’s usually Blake (or the flow of thoughts and creativity, or whatever you want to call it) who decides that someone dies (or accidentally kills them), so I don’t have to feel bad. Of course I feel bad if someone gets killed in real life, or even just hurt. Especially when it’s not even funny.

RM: The JCB-nicking incident in King of the Road is an example of your skill at comic writing, as well as in scene construction. Wonderful stuff, wherein absurdity is piled on absurdity, but I have a feeling it’s based on an incident in Charlie Williams’ life. Am I right, and what are the details?

CW: Your research skills are very impressive, Mr. Morris. It is true that I once commandeered a JCB digger, one crazy night many moons ago. But the scene was nothing like this one in King of the Road, with people chasing him and getting hurt and Blake wearing a box over his head. Then again, I was pissed at the time so you never know.

RM: In terms of British crime writing, give me some recommendations, please!

CW: Two easy ones: Allan Guthrie [Hard Man] and Ray Banks [Donkey Punch]. Both are doing stuff against the grain of popular British crime fiction, and succeeding at it. They crank up the absurdity, don’t hold back and the violence, and take you to bad places. For me, that is where crime fiction should be. Also Robert Lewis, a young and talented Welshman who achieved something great with his first novel, The Last Llanelli Train. His Swansea Terminal is out later this year.

I have to say that most of British crime bores me. There’s a formula that is repeated ad nauseum, and it seems to be the only route to commercial success. Some think it’s great, but not me. Give me life on the other side any day. The genre needs something new. It needs a powerful, steel toe-capped kick up the arse. I like originals, writers who take something familiar and put it where you never thought you’d see it. I like voices. Most of all I like cheeky writers who take huge risks, like pilfering characters from Dostoevsky. We need risk-takers!

Mind you, I don’t obsessively read crime fiction. Crime is the genre I like best, and my writing seems to find a spiritual home there, but a lot of my favorite books lie elsewhere.

RM: You’ve done quite a few events and festival appearances, including one in France recently, I believe. How do French readers get on with the very British world of Royston Blake?

CW: I can’t speak for all of France, but I detect a healthy degree of fascination for Royston Blake. I was interviewed by a journalist over there who compared the characters of Mangel to the grotesque figures of Hieronymous Bosch, which I thought was great because I’ve been obsessed with Bosch since childhood but never made the link. I don’t know if this will follow for Les Allongés (the French title for Deadfolk), but the French have a long tradition of supporting “noir” writing from all over the place. A lot of people over there talked to me of Jim Thompson, and said they saw a lot of him in my book. I thought that was great, but I also didn’t want it to go too far. Jim Thompson is like a god, and you don’t want to be compared too closely with gods. But it’s good to be influenced by them.

RM: What have you been working on since King of the Road, and when might we see it?

CW: I’ve written a couple of things. Two novels, one of which I have just sent off, and I don’t know when you or anyone else will see it at this stage. It’s another Royston Blake/Mangel book, so I guess all that trilogy stuff is now out of the window! The other novel is a bit more of an experiment and needs something. I think it might be the one I have to sit on for a while until I discover that magic ingredient. Other than novels, I’ve written a few short stories and a short screenplay, which is an adaptation of one of the stories. I really enjoyed that format. Not as good as the novel format, though. Novels are what I like writing best.

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