On Writing Balzac of the Badlands
Balzac of the Badlands began with a voice and the opening lines, “Some writer somewhere wrote something about never opening a book with the weather. And that’s true if you live where I live. I mean, what would be the point?” I had read and agreed with some of Elmore Leonard’s ten rules of writing – I am a huge Leonard fan – and wanted to question his rules while acknowledging his influence. These lines also comment on the English addiction to talking about the weather, so – consciously or not – the novel is at once homage to American crime fiction and primarily concerned with English matters – soccer, pubs, gangs, London geography, the history of immigration.
My reading swings between crime, thrillers, and noir to science fiction and on to what some people would call postmodern fiction. I am just as happy to spend the evening reading a Bruen or an Ellroy as I am with a Ballard, a Dick, a Blanchot, or a Bolano. I suppose some of my favourite writers are those that combine a little of all three – so work by JG Ballard, Daniel Woodrell, Jack O’Connell, Tom McCarthy, David Mitchell, or David Peace. I wanted to write a crime novel that included a certain amount of linguistic and narrative exploration and experimentation and for Balzac’s day to feel out of control, hurtling along; for the events that were controlling him to seem hallucinogenic – a time trip.
There are many influences here – all the above writers plus Derek Raymond, James Sallis, Iain Sinclair, Martin Amis, but the style probably owes more to William Burroughs – the Burroughs of Junky and Queer as well as Naked Lunch. The main events of the novel spring from real events but most of the side stories, jokes, and memories are either mine (real or imagined) or ones I’ve appropriated from friends, enemies and influences.
Characters in Balzac are composites of friends and/or girlfriends. Balzac himself, at least the voice and the mannerisms, I based on an old friend of mine. I didn’t realize I’d done that until I met him for a few beers – I hadn’t seen him for a few years but it seemed like we’d spent a lot of time together more recently, it was only during writing the third draft that I realized – Balzac equals D***. And I do believe we each have these quotidian superpowers – I for one can make a mean watermelon curry.
After two years living in New York, I moved back to London – my hometown – and lived in the area in which the novel is set. Four of my best friends lived on Green Lanes and we would spend most evenings in its pubs and Indian restaurants. I suppose it reminded me of the Lower East Side with its mishmash of Turks, Kurds, Greeks, Irish, and Somalis. I still think London is the most cosmopolitan city in the world – more so even than NYC. I now live in Tokyo…
The language of the novel is as important as the story. I wanted it to be poetic and to capture the London intonation, the speed of thought and wit you find in pub conversations, the repetition and the puns. Although mostly in the first person, the narrative sometimes steps out from Balzac’s vision to that of supporting characters. I thought of changing it to purely third person but didn’t want to lose the rhythm of Balzac’s thoughts and so decided to experiment with viewpoint without, hopefully, losing sense of the story, I wanted it to be funny, and I wanted it to be noir – see Daniel Woodrell’s definition – I hope I have managed these things.