Catriona Troth, my colleague at Triskele Books, is the antithesis of the bang-out-a-book-a-year philosophy. Ghost Town was not an easy delivery. I followed the gestation of this book and couldn’t have been happier when it finally came out. I asked the author why.
Let’s start with the facts. How long did this book take – from start to finish?
I worked out that, start to finish, Ghost Town had taken me 14 years. My daughter, who was 18 when it was published, told me she couldn’t remember a time when I wasn’t working on it.
What about the genesis of Ghost Town – why did you decide to tell this story?
I actually had in mind an entirely different story – a sequel to Gift of the Raven with Terry as an adult, finding his way as an artist. But I quickly worked out that I couldn’t write about being an adult in Canada in the 80s when I’d left as a teenager in the 70s. So I looked around for a different location, and thought about the time when I’d worked in a night shelter for the homeless in Coventry.
I remembered a little about the tensions that were around back then – as well as the joyous sound of Two Tone that synonymous with the city. But when I started to do my research, I realised that so much had gone on that I had been virtually unaware of. Coventry had taken itself to the brink of an all out race war – and then stepped back and said ‘not in our name.’ I became obsessed with telling the story of how that had happened.
How did you fit in the writing between motherhood and a full-time job?
Actually, I was lucky enough, after my children were born, to be able to go part-time. But I was still commuting into London three days a week. And motherhood was full-time, as it always it. It was the commuting that made it all possible, actually. I’d bought a stack of A5 note blocks from Smiths, and spent that precious 40 minutes on the train filling them with scribbles and ideas and diagrams. Then in the evening, after the children were in bed, I would type up what I’d written, editing as I went.
Can you explain a little about the research process?
My primary resource was the archive of the Coventry Evening Telegraph at the city’s Central Library. They were the only newspaper to cover what was going on. Apart from that, I read everything I could get hold of, from the Scarman report on that summer’s riots, to books (fiction and non-fiction) about the British Asian experience. As it happened, the second inquest into the New Cross Fire (which is referred to at the start of the book) was happening as I was writing, and one of the legal teams was posting transcripts of each day’s proceedings as they happened. I read those from start to finish, even though it was barely relevant to the book, because it helped so much to understand what it was like to be Black or Asian in Britain at this time.
I’ve described before how I ended up with a timeline spread across my wall – with one line for actually events in Coventry, another for events in Brixton and London, a line for story events and finally a line for the progress of Maia’s pregnancy.
When you finally had a first draft, what were the next stages?
Well, before I had a first draft, I had another ‘tear it all up and start again’ moment. About half way through, I realised that the main female character no longer belonged in this story. She belonged to the one I had originally conceived, and now the story was focused on the clashes between skinheads and young Asians, she didn’t fit. So all her chapters up to that point were torn up. Maia emerged, and of course, as she was a different person, that affected the chapters I had written from his point of view too.
But I did eventually have a completed manuscript. I edited it using the ‘triage’ approach recommended by David Michael Kaplan in his book Rewriting (which I would still recommend to anyone, by the way). Basically you start by looking for big problems (whole sections that aren’t working etc) and then work your way down to the minutiae of word choice etc.
Once I’d finished editing and created a submission pack, I started sending it off to agents. The first three or four I sent it to all asked for the full MS. But all eventually turned it down. I’d just started a new job and the book ended up lying fallow for a couple of years.
In 2007, I discovered online critique groups and thought I’d test the waters. It was an eye-opening experience. The first chapters I posted were ripped to shreds and it would have been very easy to give up there and then. But I kept going, posting a handful of chapters at a time, listening to the feedback and acting on it. The hardest thing was the response I had to the female lead character, Maia, who in some ways is quite close to me. Time and time again, I was told she was unsympathetic. To me, it felt as if I were opening veins writing her, but that wasn’t how she was coming across.
That complete start-to-finish rewrite took more than two years. And even after that, a brilliant friend, who is now a distinguished creative writing tutor, took a scalpel to it and encouraged me to cut almost 35 thousand words from the MS.
Back to sending it out to agents. Even though I knew I had a much better book on my hands, the reception was much frostier. In those three or four years since I last tried, the industry had changed. I ended up being kept dangling for two years by someone who would have been my dream publisher, until I finally wrote them a rejection letter and joined Triskele.
One of the things that most impressed me was your thematic use of black and white – it’s a very visual book. Do you think it would transfer well to the screen?
Thank you! Wouldn’t that be nice? It’s odd, because I don’t think I am a naturally a very visual person, but I have written one book with an MC who is an artist, and one about a photographer. Baz takes photos in black and white, and that forced me to look at the world in that way. The conjunction with that, and Two Tone music, and the racial themes, happened organically.
How different would this book be if you’d finished it in a year?
I would have stuck with writing a sequel to Gift of the Raven – so the Coventry story would never have been told at all. But even if I take that as one year from when I started writing Baz’s story, then female lead would have been an entirely different person, the depiction of the background events would have been sketchy, unrealistic and with very little depth. And the writing would have been clunky as hell.
What are the benefits of taking your time over the work?
I wouldn’t recommend anyone to take quite as long as I did. I was basically teaching myself to write, and whereas saner writers have MSS tucked away in their bottom drawer that they have perhaps started and never finished, or written the first draft of then wisely abandoned – because I had become so obsessed with telling this one story, I kept writing and rewriting the same MS.
But it did enable me to burrow into the history of the events and into the characters, to give them a depth I could never have achieved in just a year. It allowed themes and symbols – like the black and white you mentioned – to emerge. And it gave me time to hone the use of language.
And how’s the next one coming along?
Slowly … again. I have three wonderful characters. And I have a premise. What I don’t have at the moment is a plot with enough momentum to drive the story forward. I’ve never been strong on plotting, and this time I don’t have a sequence of real events to piggyback on. Wish me luck.
Photographer Baz—‘too Paki to be white, too gora to be desi’—is capturing the conflict on film.
Unemployed graduate Maia—serial champion of liberal causes—is pregnant with a mixed-race child.
Neither can afford to let the racists win. They must take a stand.
A stand that will cost lives.
Facebook Author Page: https://www.facebook.com/catrionatrothbooks
Pinterest for Ghost Town: http://www.pinterest.com/triskelebooks/ghost-town/