In this follow-up to ‘Always judge a cover by the book‘, The Crossword Solver author, Andrew Dutton gives us an insight into the novel’s (long) gestation and the inspiration for the book. So, get yourself a glass of what you fancy and join the rest of us in the corner of the bar…
You can’t have a hero called Ken!
I have always ‘wanted to write’, but perhaps my early efforts (as a student and then during an embarrassingly long period of unemployment) are in the best place — one known only to me. Obtaining full time work seemed to put an end to the notion: it was just a phase, eh, and anyway I had no life experience, what could I write about?
A new town, new people, ideas and experiences, it was all quite enough to be going on with; but perhaps the writer, although slumbering, was still taking note, if not actively taking notes. One of the new people was a gentle man called Alan, always there in the pub surrounded by a come-go crowd of friends and acquaintances, always with his pint and his cryptic crossword, talking, discussing, disputing, laughing, nailing those elusive clues. I was only ever a marginal presence at that pub table, but I was impressed by the camaraderie, the variety, the inclusiveness of that circle. When Alan died, suddenly and tragically, it seemed fitting that it should be in the pub with his pint of Guinness, worrying away at an annoying Five Down. A close friend of mine was with him when he died; Neil still holds Alan Day in that pub on the sad anniversary. To him I pledged that one day I would write ‘The Alan Book’. The writing was back.
Its return was problematic: I went through an uncomfortable period of refusing to read novels ‘In case I accidentally steal ideas’, for which I was rightly mocked, but like a musician who can’t shake off the sound-shade of, say, Bowie or the Beatles, I feared writing pastiches which may as well have been signed off by F. George Ernest Faulkner Hemingwell. I got over it, but deep down I still fear the late-night knock of the Ripoff Police.
Letting on that you are writing a book is a conversation-killer and room-clearer par excellence, but before I learned this lesson I set out my half-baked plan to another friend: a book set in a pub, telling the story of a man, ordinary and yet magnetic, who stole his paper every day from the Sainsbury’s next door to the pub, who was always surrounded by interesting characters, who would be the centre of as-yet unwritten adventures. As an ordinary type of hero, his name was to be Ken. “You can’t,” the friend slapped me down, “Have a hero called Ken.” . That was me told.
I began a notebook, working title The Crossword Solver; I asked Neil for his reminiscences, and then character names, chapter titles, an outline of the book began to form. My writer-ego was boosted by a short story prize in late 2009 and it seemed that the Alan Book could be the next step. 2010, however, had other ideas, and the Alan Book joined all the other stuff, in a box, out of sight.
Wind forward seven years; a great deal of writing had gone on, but with prizes, acclaim and, erm, anything at all, noticeably absent. I wrote a short story called ‘Magic Whisky’, in which appeared the character Pilot Ken; he had Alan’s appearance, his RAF-style jacket, playful manner and likeability — not that the central character of the story saw him that way. Within six months I had reopened my old notes, made big changes to the shelved plan, and appropriated ‘Magic Whisky’ as a chapter of the new piece.
The Crossword Solver proper took shape between 2018 and 2020: better nearly twenty years late than never. It was one of the things which helped me to manage the Covid lockdown; thinking, remembering, writing, being in a pub when I couldn’t actually go into one. As a spare-time writer, time is precious, and during the long lockdown evenings, with music booming away or endlessly-recycled episodes of old favourite murder mysteries on the TV and my cats coming to help add a few random words here and there, the new version of the book took its form. Pilot Ken is not Alan, but some things are taken direct from life – the nicked newspapers for instance, and his tales of exotic ex-girlfriends. The people surrounding him are fictional, but they have traits, strange stories, small heroisms, quirky views, based upon many different conversations in many pubs over a span of years.
My brother asked me ‘Is this new one going to have a beginning, middle and end?’. Well, yes and no. It definitely begins and definitely ends. Pilot Ken is at the centre of everything, but everyone’s story is told; most of the action plays out in the pub, some characters are exactly what they appear to be, but secret thoughts and hidden stories, not to mention agendas, also emerge. It’s odd what will sometimes come to light over a pub table. In the stories of Ken and his friends, I wanted to tell some old pub stories, commemorate a man and a time and a place, but also ask some questions, such as is it any longer possible to hold opposing views to the person on the other side of the table and air these civilly without them becoming enraged and regarding you as an idiot, traitor, dupe — and vice versa?
Pilot Ken doesn’t rescue anyone, doesn’t beat the baddies, save the day or triumph in a grand denouement. He is an ordinary man living in a town where the money is running out and the bulldozers are closing in. He is peaceful and tolerant, but he will stand up against the intolerant and bigoted. Like most of us, he can’t change the world, all he can do is look on, make the best of it, get another pint in, solve that wretched Five Down.
We can have a hero called Ken.