When the coronavirus reached its pointy tentacles across the globe, everything changed. At first it was a temporary inconvenience. Then it became something more deadly than an inconvenience. Then it became something much more permanent, that we’re realising we are going to have to cope with and manage for some time yet.
Everyone has been affected differently. Some have lost friends, family, and loved ones. Some have been liberated by the lost imperative to behave in waves of regular social interaction, to be recognised among groups of people who are really no more than acquaintances. Some have become distraught at the loss of other freedoms, and have fought tooth and nail to regain control over their lives. Some have taken the time to reorganise their lives into something completely new and different. I was one of those people.
During the pandemic, writing this book changed from being something I would spend a few hours a week thinking about, making passing notes on, and writing a few paragraphs at a time one evening a week, to something that very much resembled a full-time job. In fact, half way through the final push to complete Under Western Skies, I realised I’d worked harder on writing this book than I’d ever worked on anything ever before.
The realisation that this was something I was truly taking seriously while still enjoying the process was a real revelation. It made me sit up and take notice of myself for the first time in as long as I could remember. In a way that I now understand the things that were missing from my day-to-day life, and what I wanted that life to look like in the future. It involved a lot of soul searching, which, it transpires, is a much better pass-time than commuting.
Of course, it was still hard work. Late nights and early mornings to meet the Christmas 2020 deadline I’d given myself, were compounded by a self-publishing process that required seemingly endless re-formats to meet the requirements of various distribution platforms, and the need to learn basic design skills to create a cover. But the process itself was still a joy, and the knowledge it would never be this difficult again to either write or publish a hundred-thousand-plus word manuscript, also gave me the hope that completing the trilogy that had sketched itself on my brain might actually happen over a three to year period, rather than taking my whole life as I’d previously calculated.
But to begin with it had never been my intention to write a trilogy. I’ve come across debut titles that state that a release is the first book in a series of nine. First of all, as a reader, it fills me with dread that I might have to read nine books to get to the end of a story, and secondly, as a writer, I find it contrived to put the saleable value of nine books before the literary art of one, to the point the writing becomes lost inside a marketing plan. That isn’t to say that there aren’t lengthy sagas which absolutely justify their size or length (or price), but it isn’t what I’d started out to do.
I first visited New York City at the tender age of twenty-two. I went with my father, leaving my first serious girlfriend behind for the longest time we had been apart. Needless to say I fell in love with the place. I soaked up the architecture and the history and the hidden nooks and the open spaces completely in awe. Since then, I have visited many times. I have watched the same street corners change over the years, and watched its transformation into something cleaner, shinier, but not better.
When I started writing Under Western Skies, it was an ode to the New York I’d first fallen in love with. The inspiring buzz and lights and coffee shops, and people from every corner of the globe all living their lives in this overpopulated petri-dish of seemingly random activity completely caught my imagination. And at that time, with the world still in shock, reeling from the events of September 11th 2001 that continue to shape the social and political landscape, it became the nucleus for my creative thinking from that point on.
But introducing Joe was not easy. I’d started, and abandoned, two other books with characters who lived and worked in New York before arriving at this story in early 2017. But this time, once his path was charted, I knew where he was going. With the coronavirus isolating us, forcing us to spend time with ourselves that we otherwise wouldn’t, this time Joe was easy to write. I realised all I had to do was look inwards, not outwards, turning New York into the backdrop for the character.
It’s been said before that a writer's greatest critic is himself. That was certainly true when it came to my writing, I hated everything I had ever written before starting this book, but it wasn’t the case once I started to scrutinise myself more personally, incorporating something more whole into the central character. With the coronavirus pandemic, and my reflection on my life, the world, and my place in it, I came to look upon the book as a way of directing myself to improving as a person.
During this time, I found that I had become highly self-critical, questioning the route I had taken, the things I had said, my philosophies, the outcomes of my life that I really didn’t like, and became set on uncovering many of the fallacies on which I had lived through my ego since reaching adulthood. And it was rife with inspiration.
Of course, this personal critique was pretty hard to accept, especially as I had decided to to write Joe’s character with almost no redeeming qualities, at least for the first three quarters of the book. It meant I had to live with myself, during the most isolating period in our generation’s history, and bathe in the things that I did not like about the life I occupied.
Joe is grey area. The person that holds things together without ever having a noticeable effect. The person who doesn’t do any harm in the world, but whose inaction and deference often leads to greater harm. He's not a bad person. But he doesn’t make much effort to be a good one either. He’s untrustworthy too, unreliable to those around him, as well as himself. But the greatest challenge was to keep his drives and motivations hidden, because he’d hidden them from himself, even until the very last lines of the book. It was often through the reflection against the characters Perry and Dunk that I learned most about him.
It’s difficult to look at the idle parts of yourself and admit that these really are components of you, but I found solace in the other characters. In the period when I was revising and reading and redrafting the manuscript, I found I had written other more sinister, more hopeful, and more noticable attributes in them, a tonic to the drifting pacifist Joe has become.
Those other qualities, light and dark, were clearly manifest in Perry and Dunk. These characters represented the attributes that had been ignored in Joe because of where he finds himself in his life. He needs them because he needs to find these qualities, and come to terms with them too. They are an allusion to the fact that to understand any central character, they are only complete with the inclusion of other key relationships. While we have found ourselves often alone over the past year, it isn’t our natural state. It’s the people around him who can redeem him, and vice versa. These two people made him whole, and gave him perspective to be the person he could be if only he chose it.
He is a very different person when he’s alone, taking long walks, his mind nowhere, really. But when he’s with the others he highly suggestible. With Perry and Dunk separately, he is steered in competing ways, and is making choices that will lead him down two very different paths. It’s the insights through his interactions with these characters that gave me the clues as to where this man, approaching middle age, is going in the second half of his life.
And that’s the point at which the ‘ode to New York’ became the Bay Trilogy. I even considered calling the series the Bay Trinity, but didn’t as it was much too pretentious, even if terribly apt. But it was also important at that stage to let go of the book’s New York roots. First I considered calling the books the The New York Trilogy, and then the American Trilogy, but decided to plant San Francisco front and centre when I came to understand that the books are not about the past or present, but about where each of these characters are going. We catch them in the here and now, travelling across the United States for various reasons, but they all have one eye on their destinies. They’re all trying to reconcile what they have done, where they have come from, and where they will end up when they finally rest on who they are.
And from that explorative perspective, I really enjoy writing them. So much so that I have already started work on the second book in the trilogy. And, to give you a very small taste, it will focus on Dunk and the news from his own history that he tells Joe in the final chapter of Under Western Skies. He’s a less complicated character, drawn to the easier, and more enjoyable things in the world, but he’s also deeply cynical and prone to misdemeanour. This one is tripping from my fingers easier.
The past twelve months have challenged us in ways we never thought possible. For me, that extended into launching a writing career I didn’t know I had. But I also found the creative process itself was changed by the world as we had known it, that we had so readily taken for granted.
In the period I was writing, as I was watching television shows and movies, reading books, and even seeing photographs from the time before coronavirus, everything started to look wrong to me. Everything I watched posed abrupt, incongruous questions such as: why are people touching, and kissing. Why are people in airports? Why are people walking so closely together on the pier? Why is that shopping mall so busy? At first it felt like a misstep to write a romance novel in which people could be intimate, travel long distances on a whim, and not have to pre-book a table at their local restaurant.
The changes we’ve experienced didn’t simply ask the question of whether every piece of popular culture from now on will have to feature social distancing and face-masks, but whether all works prior to 2020 - and for me, specifically this novel which is set in the mid-2000s - would look and feel outdated. Far-fetched even.
As a writer, I had to wonder whether there’s going to be a raft of books released in the next two years about people’s experiences during lockdown, or whether everyone is going to be so sick and tired of thinking about it, they’ll never want to hear about it ever again. But I did have to ask the question whether what I was writing was relevant anymore.
Ultimately, I was steeled by the fact that this story has been in my head for some time, jinking, shifting direction, introducing me to new ideas and ways of thinking about the world, and becoming more concrete. I decided that if it was a human story, with truth and heart, it did not matter when it was set. I wrote instead with a deep hope that there’ll be a time when we can all get together, hug, sit closely in bars, laugh out loud, and visit those who are important to us again.
I’m looking forward to being able to go to a bookstore again to write while drinking coffee that has been marked up 1000%, watching the enlightened of the world browse art collections and the latest bestsellers and science-fiction titles. I’m hopeful. Maybe there’ll even be a time when I’ll sit and sign copies of this book, and shake the hands of the people who have read or are going to read it. I’d like that very much.