Thursday, 12 January 2017

Letters Home

At several points in A Life To Kill (and I have to be careful with plot spoilers) I mention letters home from soldiers in Afghanistan. I had learned that many soldiers carried them in their breast pocket so that they would be easily found in the event of their deaths.

I researched these letters and found numerous examples. They were all simply written and full of love. These are probably some of the most truthful documents you will ever find. This link to the BBC website gives a little flavour of the sort of things I was looking at and which I hope I have managed to recreate in the book.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Where Did A Life To Kill Come From? ... Why Writing Is An Act Of Faith

You never quite know where your next good idea for a book or screenplay is going to come from. You can sweat at the desk all you like writing lists of ideas, but it's the one that strikes you unawares that becomes the one that takes light. Try and force things (as we often do in television writing) and out comes something stale, flat and forgettable. 
Before I started writing A Life To Kill I had written outlines for three or four Jenny Cooper novels. They would all have worked on one level, but they weren't setting me alight. I showed them to my publisher, Maria, and I think she felt the same way. She advised me to go off and think about a stand-alone idea that Jenny Cooper could be part of. Somewhere during our conversation I remember her suggesting that perhaps only part of the story should be told from Jenny's point of view.

Maria's steer bamboozled me a bit - my previous six books had all been told from Jenny's point of view - but I let it sit there in my brain while I waited for an idea to strike.

I did what writers do: went to my desk and started trying to force ideas out onto the page. Nothing worked. I worried briefly that the well had run dry, went through one of my not infrequent phases of wondering whether there was any job for a lawyer who hasn't worn his wig in earnest for 20 years, then a little bit of luck, fate or whatever you like to call it came along. 

I describe how the inspiration for A Life To Kill came about in the author's note at the end of the book.
Here's what it says:

A little under two years ago I was due to give a talk at the Bookmark bookshop in Spalding, Lincolnshire, a town on the far side of the country from my home. It involved such a long drive for a brief appearance (and I was to be only one of three writers speaking that evening) that I almost cancelled, but thankfully I stuck to my maxim of ‘turn no opportunity down’. 

When I arrived, late and saucer-eyed from many hours at the wheel, the owner of the shop handed me a note. It had been left for me by one of her customers - someone I hadn’t seen in over twenty years. His name is Frank Ledwidge. In the academic year 1989-90 we had been at Bar School together in Gray’s Inn, London. I remembered Frank as a friendly and irreverent young man with the stubborn and tenacious streak that all good advocates require. After being called to the Bar he went to practice law in Liverpool, and that is where I assumed he had spent his career.

Frank’s note, apologising for not being able to attend my talk, included his phone number and an invitation to get in touch. I called him the very next day, eager for two decades’ worth of news. It turned out that like me, he had dabbled in the law for a few years before wondering if there was more to life. Unlike me, he had been a member of the Naval Reserve and in the late 1990s spent some time as an observer during the conflict in the Balkans. The experience seemed to light a spark in him. He turned his part-time military career into a permanent one. Soon afterwards, he became part of the futile and evidently often comical effort to detect weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Following Iraq, Frank was deployed to Afghanistan where he ended up in charge of justice in the British occupied territory of Helmand.

To say that his experiences left him less than impressed with the effects of British and US foreign policy would be an under-statement. He emerged disillusioned and critical of politicians and military leaders who failed to understand the complex consequences of their actions on the ground. It would have helped, for example, to understand that many Afghans still bear the British a deep grudge dating back to our previous occupation of that country in the late nineteenth century. To such people, all foreign occupiers, whether British, American or Russian, are one and the same. Frank has written three seminal works of non-fiction based on his personal knowledge and experience, each of which I recommend. They are: Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan; Punching Above Our Weight: How Inter-Service Rivalry Has Damaged the British Armed Forces, and Investment in Blood.

Frank also introduced me to a young man called Ed, who had recently returned from commanding a platoon in Helmand. Ed gave me a very detailed and candid account of day to day life in a forward command post. Much of what he told me was revelatory. What struck me most powerfully was just how young our front-line soldiers are. Our wars are being fought by teenagers and very young men, who, while they may be technically described as volunteers, are in reality just ordinary lads often from the most challenging and deprived of backgrounds. The officers who command them can be as young as twenty-one.

After a few conversations with Frank and Ed, I knew I had the subject for the next Jenny Cooper novel. Huge thanks to both of them and whoever or whatever brought us together.

I so nearly didn't go to Spalding that night. Frank's note would have remained unclaimed under the counter and there would have been no book and no chance of discovering the characters that sprung from my conversations with both Frank and Ed while researching with them.

That's how it seems to go in writing. You never know what's going to turn up and each new day is an act of faith that you'll have story to tell and the words to tell it with. The book comes out this week - now to have a little faith that readers will like it.

Frank Ledwidge's books are all available on Amazon and at other good books stores. 

If you're ever in Lincolnshire or thinking of ordering a book from a local business, I heartily recommend the excellent Bookmark Bookshop in Spalding. It's a bookshop with coffee shop and reading rooms. Perfect.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Research In The Ring - Busting Your Nose For Art

January 12th sees the publication of A Life To Kill, the seventh novel featuring Coroner, Jenny Cooper.
It's a book that came about by a chance encounter a couple of years ago with an old acquaintance from student days, Frank Ledwidge, who had been in military intelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I explain in the author's note at the end of the book, Frank told me about his experiences in these two wars he considered dubious, to say the least, and introduced me to a young infantry officer named Ed who had recently commanded a combat platoon in Helmand.
Talking to Ed, I got an unvarnished insight into the reality of combat for the very young men who fight on the front line. Ed was 25 when he commanded his platoon, his men were mostly aged 18 to 23. The average age of an infantry soldier is 20. What he told me became the raw material and inspiration for the story. The factual details of the living conditions of the soldiers is completely real and straight from the horse's mouth.
I like to research my books as much as I can. Talking to Frank, Ed and others, including a very senior coroner with long experience of conducting the most politically sensitive of military inquests, gave me all the factual information I needed to tell an accurate story. There was still a bit missing, though, which was an insight into the minds of young men who, charged with testosterone, are propelled into violence.
Male aggression is a hard thing to explain to those who have never experienced it for themselves. It's a vital energy that when harnessed and directed can be used to huge creative or destructive effect. Most young men fantasize about violence to some extent, not because they consciously wish to inflict it, but because it's part of the elemental animal make-up. The violent instinct is that which can become career ambition, or sporting talent. It's just energy that manifests in a particular way - and it's strong enough to overcome the fear of injury or even death.
I couldn't go to war, but I could try to tap into the experience of being a 'warrior', albeit one who wasn't going to be shot at. I signed up along with a bunch of lads from Bath and Bristol for an intensive boxing programme that ended with a big tournament in front a crowd in an indoor arena in North Somerset. It was billed as a 'white collar' event, but the few of us with desk jobs were heavily outnumbered by the boys who make their living scaffolding, plastering and myriad other ways of working up a sweat. In amongst them were a few former soldiers (though they still looked like boys to me), who proved another useful source of information.
As soon as we started training, whatever we did for our day jobs ceased to matter. It was all about trying not to get hurt while landing a few. I turned out to be very good at getting hit and spent months sporting black eyes and bruised ribs! It was fun, though, and more than that, absolutely exhilarating. To my surprise, even at 46 I had plenty of violence left in me, and during the months of training it found an outlet in boxing: I have never felt calmer or more at ease with the world than during that period. Ed had said to me that there something almost 'zen' about the experience of being a soldier in a forward command post for six months. I began to understand what he meant: everything came into sharp focus. All other cares fell away. Preparation for a big fight in front of a crowd and the feeling of physical fitness and competence that came with it channeled all that churning male aggression into a pure stream. Life had clarity and purpose; the destructive urges which in normal life are a disruptive influence and a disturbance to the psyche found their expression and created, dare I say it, an inner sense of nobility, the like of which I hadn't known before.
There was, strange as it may sound, peace in the middle of this structured violence. There was also a great camaraderie. Except when we were busting each others' noses, we pugilists couldn't have felt more warmly towards one another. All barriers fell away and we became firm friends.
Fight night was a thrill. Terror followed by the adrenalin rush of walking through the crowd accompanied by pounding music into the ring. The punches flew but we didn't feel a thing. I was pipped on points (alright, he kept jabbing me in the nose, and now it's permanently bent), but it was without doubt the most exciting evening I've ever had.
I came away with a bunch of new and perhaps unlikely friends with whom I've stayed in touch, and with a far deeper understanding of myself and of the nature and positive potential of the violent impulses that grip and drive so many of us. There's no question that the experience was invaluable in informing my writing and helped in the creation of many of the the characters who appear in the book - some of whom are even named after my boxing buddies. (Will they read it and find their names? I hope so!)
As for the young soldiers, I feel nothing but sympathy and admiration for them. There's an exchange in the book about the fact that soldiers are volunteers, with the implication that they must accept the consequences. A bereaved family member questions what it means for an unformed teenage boy to 'volunteer'. The soldiers we put in harm's way are lads from the poorest homes and the roughest areas. Many are simply looking for order, structure and a means of channeling that aggression that so can easily become self destructive.
If you get a chance to read the book, I do hope you enjoy it. Here are a few pics from the night of the fight that marked the end of the physical aspect of my research. I'd happily do it all over again!