Why I Wrote 'Blowback'...

Druggies from Leeds and Ukrainian heavies: a match made in heaven.
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Druggies from Leeds and Ukrainian heavies: a match made in heaven.

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When I published Hot Knife, my 2008 novel about Leeds druggies, there was never meant to be a sequel. Somehow, though, there is, and now it’s out there in the big bad world, otherwise known as Amazon. That it had its origins 1400 miles away in my mate Sean’s house in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, is a tale in itself.

I was there with my partner, my brother and my mother, an unlikely foursome in the wilds of Eastern Europe. As we sat down to dinner, servants hovered at our shoulders while Sean’s wife’s portrait gazed down on us from the wall and his Rottweiler slobbered around our legs. The other guests comprised middle-aged British men and glamorous Ukrainian women, a motley collection of Steely Dan fans, international deal brokers and confidants to the Tymoshenko dynasty. Oddly, my mum, a school cleaner from Garforth, was fitting right in.

I’d brought some copies of my book, and after dinner everyone in the room seemed to be holding it and talking about it. I’m not generally good at being the centre of attention, unless it’s at the front of a classroom, but it felt exciting. Nothing was probably going to come of it, but you never knew. I’d never have imagined right then that the evening was going to shape a second novel about the same Leeds reprobates that peopled Hot Knife.

The other guests comprised middle-aged British men and glamorous Ukrainian women, a motley collection of Steely Dan fans, international deal brokers and confidants to the Tymoshenko dynasty. Oddly, my mum, a school cleaner from Garforth, was fitting right in.

The second stage in its genesis came in London at a meeting with Ciro Orsini. Ciro was Sean’s business partner and owner of a global restaurant chain, Ciro’s Pizza Pomodoro. Whether it’s the pizzeria in Kiev or the one in Knightsbridge, LA or Beijing, the theme is the same, plastered over every inch of wall space: Ciro and the celebrities he’s met. Starting up years ago in the States, his trademark gap-toothed grin and tattooed biker look can be seen draping the arms and shoulders of everybody from Pamela Anderson and Clint Eastwood to Kylie Minogue and Stevie Wonder. One way or another, they’ve all eaten at Ciro’s, especially his coterie of close buddies, Armand Assante, Al Pacino and Pat Morita, aka Mr Miyage from The Karate Kid.

So two months later I’m on my way to meet this eccentric Italian at his brother’s West London eatery because it turns out the pizza maestro is also in the film business, and has got hold of one of those copies of Hot Knife that I’d let loose in Kiev. I just have time to order a beer and a chicken salad before he’s steering me towards Yvette Hoyle, his movie producing partner, and instructing me to ‘sell it to her’.

Almost from the get-go, I sense disaster: I’m a writer and teacher, not a mover and shaker, and there isn’t a hustle-bone in my body. Yvette doesn’t like the word ‘knife’ in the title. Even though the story features no knife violence, it doesn’t sit well with the prevailing moral climate. She likes the Leeds setting, but I’m just not selling it to her at all. As my sales pitch slumps further, I get the distinct impression that what she really wants is a rom-com – Living and Loving in Leeds, perhaps.

How to transform a bunch of Leeds 6 speed freaks and Chapeltown Yardies into the Russian mafia.

I manage to rope Ciro back in from the next table, where he’s chatting with his nieces. I reach for him like a comfort blanket, and soon, thank goodness, we’re hatching a plan as to how the story can be remoulded to fit their movie requirements. Above all, they want parts for Russian actors, to attract their backers in Moscow. If I can adapt the plot accordingly, their interest in the project will stay alive.

So I go away and work on it. How to transform a bunch of Leeds 6 speed freaks and Chapeltown Yardies into the Russian mafia. After an aborted attempt at writing a film treatment, I revert to type and start writing it in prose – a novelisation of the screenplay buried in my head. Pretty soon, however, the truth dawns on me that I’m writing a new book altogether. Some of the characters are still in there but they’re older now, they’ve moved on, while new characters are emerging and taking on lives of their own that can’t be pulled back into the plot of Hot Knife. What I’m writing now, I realise, is taking on the trappings of a sequel.

The break comes, ironically, when I take a year off work after being struck down by illness. Suddenly I’ve got the space I need to crack on with the book and see it through to the finish. Whatever else came or may still come out of that dinner party two years ago in Kiev, Blowback is out there now, with its strange gallery of Ukrainian heavies rubbing shoulders and trading blows with the spotty underwolves that I still love from Hot Knife. I still wonder if it’s the sequel that readers of the first book would’ve wanted, but that’s something I can worry about at my leisure as I write the next instalment.

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