A while back I was reading Dubliners by James Joyce… And I was inspired. I was inspired to write my own 21st century version… But not in Dublin. I don’t know Dublin… Never been there. I’d like to go though (Next year perhaps?). So I decided I would use a city I knew and knew well… MY city: BANGOR.
I started by taking a good look at the original work by James Joyce. Here were fifteen vignettes about the lives of the people of Dublin during the early portion of the twentieth century. The stories were set in an order from childhood to old age and some of them were even a bit controversial for the time. So I immediately started thinking about how I could emulate Joyce and still make this new variant my own beast. First I came up with the structure. Instead of following a group of people from childhood through to old age I would mix them up and instead use each story to explore different aspects and themes of modern life- themes such as drugs, dementia, depression, conspiracy theories… There would still be a mix of characters ranging from children to the elderly but they would be more randomly mixed. But to add more structure I decided to give each character a surname that corresponded to a different letter of the alphabet- And that set my limit to twenty six stories. But this still allows for the mix of stories to have more a free flowing feel than Joyce’s book did. The stories switch from being about the old to the young to the middle aged without much of a thought. For instance, Thomas Bryn concerns a school aged child of nine or ten whilst Alan Charterhouse is about an aged professor. Likewise, Iolo Fflint is about an old man and Henry Goch is about a man somewhere in his late twenties. It isn’t all going to flip between young and old… In some cases there might be two stories about younger/middle aged/old people next to each other. I don’t know where at the minute but it will happen.
One thing I did copy direct from Joyce was the way he ends his stories… He ends them quite suddenly, without warning. He doesn’t waste time with conclusions. He leaves all that to the reader. So that is what I tried to do as well. Some of them aren’t quite up to the Joycian standard but I think most of the endings work, and some even work incredibly well. Then again not all of Joyce’s endings worked that well either so there is that benefit I suppose. What I think comes out of all the endings though is that they give the reader pause for thought, they make the reader contemplate what they have read… And in some cases (Jack Joyce and Henry Goch in particular) it leaves the interpretation open for you to decide what actually happened for yourself. I’m starting to sound pretentious here and I apologise but hopefully you get the point I’m trying to make here. The openness of the endings adds something to the stories and that is a good thing overall.
I wanted the twenty six stories to cover a range of themes from modern life… Not just the good stuff but also the bad. They cover everything from crime, drugs and depression to sexuality and old age, all played out within the context of this one small city. And knowing the city as well as I do I can also include some more local issues as well.
Bangor is dominated by the university… Both literally and figuratively. One of the thing’s I’ve found when writing these stories is that it always has a tendency to crop up somewhere along the line, either in the form of a building or a student or a professor. It is so interwoven into the fabric of the city that it is difficult to avoid, even when just writing about something totally unconnected. The university and the students are so dominant in Bangor that there is (or at least was a few years ago) a bubbling undercurrent of tension and resentment amongst some portions of the population. There are people who really dislike the fact that the city is so full of students and so university centric and this idea of tension forms the basis for Tomas Bryn. I could have written about this issue from the student perspective, the perspective I know about, but I decided to go the other way in the end. Tomas Bryn is a local boy but his mindset has been twisted by the views of his parents, twisted so much that he sees the students as some sort of strange invading force who have no place in his city. It dances at the extreme end of the spectrum but I still feel it gets to the heart of what is (or was when I was there) a real issue. It still reflects how a small section see the university and the city and how that creates issues.
Some of the issues I’m dealing with are quite dark… Jack Joyce (named in homage to the author of Dubliners) is a very bleak story about a depressed man reflecting on where his life went wrong whilst another story, Olivia Tepes, deals with some very dark and dodgy doings down behind the railway station. Joyce’s original stories were quite grim as well but I’ve found that compared to some parts of modern life Dubliner’s grimness looks positively lovely. Some of what I’m writing about would almost certainly be considered scandalous in Joyce’s day… The whole of Lawrence Sole, for instance, would be considered absolutely obscene back in the early 1900s, especially considering the subject matter. Back in the early 1900’s I would have probably been arrested just for writing it. In fact, even today, the topic could be considered controversial in certain circles. But if there weren’t any controversy where would the fun be? Controversy gets people talking, it gets them debating. Without controversy there would be no progress and society would stagnate. It takes the brave and the bold, those who dare to defy the norm, to change attitudes and beliefs and civilization. Look at Lady Chatterley, for example… In its day that was very controversial but today a book of the same sort or worse can top the bestseller chart and get made into a holywood movie!
One of the things I wanted to do with these stories was challenge myself… One recurring criticism of my work is that everything is far too escapist for some people. It’s not real enough… There’s too much of the fantastical going on. Whilst I don’t think, personally, this is a bad thing and something I need to change (escapism is good and reality is vastly overrated) I still felt that I wanted to make these stories as real and as least fantastical as possible. I wanted to ground as much as possible inthe firmness of reality. I wanted to make it so that you could go to Bangor and walk the streets, easily imagining that these stories were happening around you. Ok… So on one level Henry Goch fails this completely and Iolo Fflint throws in elements that will be incredibly familiar to readers of The Rebels but the remaining twenty four stories, I hope, are very realistic. In a sense this is restricting myself… I have to deal with what is there before my eyes. I can’t fill these stories with gun toting gangsters, ridiculous car chases, mass destructions of entire towns, motorway viaduct explosions or unscrupulous murderous types like I normally would. Every building has to be what it is… A flower shop is a flower shop and not the meeting place for some secret cabale. Writing stories about a place like Bangor, my imagination would normally run wild and there would be evil doers and sinister types behind every door but in the case of these stories I want to limit myself, to see how far I can stretch myself. Everything has to be, in a word, completely normal. And for me this is a challenge as writing about normality is not something I usually do. But, if doing that helps me improve as a writer then so be it.
I also wanted to take myself out of my comfort zone and go beyond my usual experiences. I wanted to write stories from perspectives other than those I would normally write from. Take Tomas Bryn; as I mentioned earlier it is a story that has its basis in the resentments between students and locals. Now the perspective I would normally write from, and the perspective I most know, is the student perspective. So in order to take myself out of my comfort zone I wrote from the other perspective, from the locals perspective. Another such story is Lawrence Sole… I was very much out of my comfort zone on that one. I was on the moon as far as my comfort zone goes. I had to do research and unfortunately my google search results are now a bit… confused as a consequence. In a lot of cases I’m also writing about things I wouldn’t normally be writing about- The stories involving older people like Iolo Fflint and Alan Charterhouse are not my usual territory. I had never written about dementia or old age or the way people feel about things in their twilight years (not properly anyway) before they came about. Depression was another one I hadn’t really touched upon, not properly. The closest I previously came was with Claire’s disappearance at the start of Rebels. But there the actual depression played very little part in the story… It was a consequence rather than a driving force. In Jack Joyce, conversely, the depression takes full control of the steering wheel and the story explores how the central character came to be so depressed and how he ended up where he is. Rather than being a consequence the depression alluded to in Jack Joyce is the central pivot of the story.
Already I’m starting to think that these short stories are some of my best works… They’re much more grown up than anything else I’ve written and they’re deeper as well. One thing I’ve always tried to do is bring depth to my work, add subtext and things readers could get their teeth into. But never before has that subtext been so strong. These can be interpreted in a number of different ways and together they really do present a healthy cross section of modern life. In years to come people will hopefully look at these tales as examples of early twenty first century society… They’ll take select examples and quotations and they’ll point to them as being typical of our attitudes regarding sex or drugs or other moral issues. I think they’re good… And hopefully you all will too.
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