From The Fourth Estate To Flights Of Fiction
Former journalist and newspaper editor James Debens just published his first novel, Where Is Your God Now?, and here he talks to Tripwire’s editor-in-chief Joel Meadows about it…
TW: What was the genesis of Where Is Your God Now?
JD: It all came about from the last line of the song Tangled Up In Blue – “we always did feel the same – we just saw it from a different point of view”. I always read that as a criticism of memory, its falsities. We all have different methods of remembering the past, and we cherish them dearly – a photograph, a safe space, a memento itself. Whose truth is it anyway? And also how does your memory align with mine? Anyway, what the hell have you been up to? Even your best friends are people you might not see for years, especially in these times of restricted socialising. For me, music and film summon up my memories and act as comforters. A guy at HarperCollins was very interested in the original idea of a kind of “Rashomon In England”, but I was not ready to write it; I thought the three chapters were execrable, and so did my novelist friend. However, I continued on the theme of individual memory. I remember the past through songs. As the character Tommy says, music is transcendental and it’s transportable. I don’t possess many photographs more than a decade old, not from before I met my wife, but I can instantly be carried way back into the past with the right song, and it’s even more so with films such as Withnail & I or The Magnificent Ambersons. I can actually fully relive how I was when I saw those masterpieces for the first time. How that fits with the recollections of my friends and family, I don’t know! I had the locations from my own experience – I grew up in Brighton and Kent, and I’ve always been attracted to older architecture and its stories. A town like Folkestone is loaded with history and therefore has a very tangible spookiness. Italy is one of my favourite countries, and I could see an opportunity to carry on the theme of interconnectivity and also explore how relocation affects memory – time and distance can be its enemies. Turin is a faded grande old dame, it’s interesting as a powerhouse that is not as well-explored as Naples or Milan or Rome. With remarkable serendipity, the head waiter at the coffee-shop in which I wrote the bulk of the novel was a former tour guide in the city. He told me Turin is wreathed in black magic and dark forces that daisy-chain around the globe, and so Councillor John’s elementary energy and nihilism came to life. I won a Classics prize and used the money not to investigate Roman ruins, but to inter-rail around Italy with my best friend from school looking for a Maradona Napoli shirt. You still feel on the right night that Garibaldi and his men will charge down the streets on horseback and disturb the mounds of leaves! Turin was at the heart of Italian unification; its history feels spooky. Luca is obsessed with it, because he’s away from it, far from home. In the book, he and Milena, from Italy and Poland respectively, struggle because of the tenets behind what Luca says – the king in one country can be seen as a fool in another, simply because of the need to earn money, or, say, the difficulties of communicating in a foreign tongue. Post-Brexit, I hope we’re all kinder to those trying to make new lives for themselves.
TW: The title is a reference to the old testament. How much significance does the title hold?
JD: And it’s a popular meme! The title just came to me when I was watching Wolf Of Wall Street, which I didn’t particularly enjoy, unlike most of Scorsese’s work, even Silence. During WOWS’s repetitions, I started thinking of those characters chasing money, believing in the phrase “follow the dollar”, and committing debased acts for a quick buck. In the book, it’s a taunt made to the most sympathetic of the main character, as I see it. As Catholics, Luca and I share the view that whatever happens, there is a wider plan and a greater power than your own agency. The title seems to have appealed to the worldwide Christian community, but the novel itself is not religious. Catholicism acts as another comforter in the book, and God is very much present for Luca and Milena in their hour of need.
TW: How did many years in journalism help you with writing fiction?
JD: I was extremely lucky to spend years editing writers such as the reviewer AA Gill and the art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, whose prose really seemed like a treat to work on. I wrote a very long first draft of the novel in six months and then I spent two years whittling away at it before handing it over to proper book editors. Journalism qualifications teach you (hopefully) to put across a point, an idea, as sparingly as possible – facts should be relayed as if you’re talking to a mate down the pub. I like the Matthew Arnold quote – “journalism is literature in a hurry”. I hope Where Is Your God Now? is a meaty, polyrhythmic read, but easily digestible.
TW: You created a kickstarter campaign for graphic novel series Sir Ronald Timberlaine Clutterbuck. Were there any transferable skills you picked up running and publishing that you could apply to Where Is Your God Now?
JD: Truthfully, my friend, the fabulous illustrator Christophe Gowans, whose work lights up The Guardian, did almost all of the publishing legwork and Kickstarter duties for Sir Alec & I. I remember looking at the confused faces at London Comic Con – people didn’t know what to make of a 7ft nude cut-out of the aged, gluttonous lead character Sir Ronnie Timberlaine Clutterbuck. We sold zilch there, but thankfully we did quite well online. I decided to make Where Is Your God Now? at least slightly marketable, especially as I didn’t have Christophe’s brilliant artwork backing me! We didn’t have to compromise on a thing with Sir Alec & I, and it truly helped us then and me with the novel.
TW: You decided to publish the book at KDP via Amazon rather than the traditional publishing route. What were your reasons for this?
JD: I was offered two traditional publishing contracts in autumn last year, but the pandemic meant that everything would have to be digital anyway. The bookshops are still closed; the fairs won’t happen for a while. The publishers wanted me to push the book on social media – I am on Facebook most months, but that’s it – and the percentages of net sales were not too attractive! Amazon has the infrastructure to do everything – the delivery, the publishing, the pairing-off with far more popular books, and so on. It’s a one-stop shop. I couldn’t actually see what a modest traditional publisher would bring in this environment, especially when their marketing strategies included flyers, book signings and other outlawed sales devices. When the bookshops finally reopen, Where Is Your God Now? will be available in Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, and the usual outlets. I’m doing a Seinfeld-like double-dip.
TW: What would you say were the biggest influences on Where Is Your God Now when it came to writing it?
JD: The biggest influences were multimedia. I wasn’t interested in writing a generic crime novel because that is an intricate art – the likes of Val McDermid are really tremendously skilful watchmakers in the way that they create complex plots where every component must be exactly so. So, I looked to the many thousands of films I’ve watched. I used them for mood and so on – the freewheeling genre-busting of The Long Goodbye by Robert Altman; the wonderful dialogue of Withnail & I; the darkening themes of The Third Man; even In The Mood For Love and The Hairdresser’s Husband, where the characters lose themselves in a romantic revelry as Sam and Nena do. I wanted WIYGN? to have its own internal logic and to go at its own true pace, escaping time in the way of those jazzy Altman films, or a Coen Brothers classic like The Big Lebowski. The dialogue is digressive because the central three characters are idle topers, but then man-of-action Councillor John comes along and livens things up. I tried to shift not only the perspective from first-person to third-person and back, but also the pacing. I don’t read many contemporary authors beyond James Ellroy, Philip Roth and Zadie Smith, certainly not breeze-block-sized attempts at The Great American Novel, but I took a great many cues from Du Maurier’s sense of mystery and her doomed returns, and especially Patrick Hamilton. He grew up a couple of streets along from where I lived in central Hove, and the world-weary wit and booziness of his novels were touchstones for my own book. The dear chap deserves to be more widely read, especially in these claustrophobic months!
TW: How many drafts did the book go through?
JD: About nine. If Jaws was saved in the editing, then so was WIYGN?, although that’s the only parallel, apart from the coastal locations and thirsty Quint figures. I was just trying to get everything down as fully as possible – the first draft was like a long, continuous piece of vomit. I returned to it like a dog and then spent years making it more readable, chucking out the bits that didn’t ring true to me. I always think the editing should take up the most time. The book had been through six drafts before the pros came on board. After 20 years on newspapers and magazines as mostly a copy/page editor and chief sub, I was terrified the copy wasn’t clean. The last three drafts involved a great deal of plot adjustments. That’s where the editors saved the day, I think.
TW: How did you find your editor for the book?
JD: I called on a few favours with friends who are book editors or reviewers of novels. To get an unbiased view, I entered WIYGN? into several competitions and paid for the feedback of 2000 words or so each time. Then, of course, I had the constructive criticism of the two traditional publishers, which greatly helped to make the book much more commercial, before I turned my back on them and went on my own wandering way! The novel was probably read more times before publication than it will be after, although the good people of Canada are proving me wrong so far.
TW: Has writing prose given you a taste for writing more?
JD: I absolutely love living in my imagination, so writing prose is something I do all day, even if it’s just messing about on Facebook. I have more than 12,000 words written of my second novel, provisionally titled Enter Through The Exit Door. The title mirrors that of the Banksy documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop, which to me is fitting as the book is about art sales, as well as Nazi-hunting and family feuds. The last two themes are not part of my experiences, thankfully, but my wife is a fine-art consultant, so that has acted as a handy starting point. Hopefully, a good old glimpse into that world will intrigue people, along with the slayings, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. This time around, I’ll sign a traditional contract, if offered again, now we’ll hopefully soon be out of this sadly necessarily weird life of Amazon-dependent lockdowns.
TW: What do you hope publishing this book will do for your writing career?
JD: I’m very easy about what happens next – as Cadwick says in the book, “be floppy and cast your expectations into the deep blue sea”. I nearly always worked in the backrooms of newspapers, and I turned my back on news reporting and reviewing, so I’m not someone who is drawn to centre stage. The art world is one of secrecy, on the hush-hush, and that suits me.
Where Is Your God Now? is out now on Amazon