The View From Here Interview:
Jon Haylett won The Bridport Prize in 2003 and The Royal Society of Literature's VS Pritchett Memorial Prize in 2004. Jon's first published novel, Cry of The Justice Bird came out last year with the publisher, Paperbooks. A year later I catch up with him to talk about his journey to publication and his writing.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself?
Born in British East Africa, I spent my early years shuttling between my various homes there and boarding schools in the UK. In my late teens I was a great hitch-hiker. Once qualified, my wife and I worked as teachers on contracts in Africa and the Caribbean. As our children began to grow up we spent many years in the feisty county of Essex. For the last twelve years we’ve lived in a remote village in the western Highlands of Scotland where we ran the village shop which boasted it sold just about everything. So I’ve had the great good fortune to live and work in some wonderful places and meet a legion of unforgettable characters, but the price has been the leaving and losing touch with people we’d come to love.
My writing comes out of those experiences, particularly of the Kenya coast, Rhodesia, and the barrens of the Sahara.
What's your ideal night out/in?
With my wife, eating at a simple village restaurant in the mountains of Greece or Italy, enjoying fresh local produce lovingly cooked and accompanied by regional wines, all presented with pride - as if the staff would be thrilled if you were still there eating and drinking at six the next morning.
What is your favorite book?
Patterson’s Maneaters of Tsavo, in which Patterson, an ex-army engineer, describes how he set out alone, often at night and through impenetrable bush, to kill two man-eating lions that had, for months, been dining their way through the workforce on the Uganda railway. I am in awe of his spirit of courage, endurance and adventure, qualities I feel we do too little to nurture in modern British society.
It’s typical of the sort of books I relish: the stories of the old white hunters, the diaries of missionaries like Robert Moffat, the histories of adventurers and explorers and wars - Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, or Heyerdahl’s Fatu Hiva - or books on African history like Donald R Morris’ great work on the rise and fall of the Zulu nation, The Washing of the Spears.
How did you get your publishing deal with Paperbooks for Cry of the Justice Bird and how long had you been trying before that?
I had been writing for about 18 years, I had, in that time, considerable success, such as winning Bridport and the VS Pritchett short story prizes as well as having two London agents take on novels, but had endured a succession of rejection slips from my novels. I was convinced that my work had potential, it was merely a matter of how I broke through the wall into the market. Two years ago, in that useful magazine The New Writer, I saw an advert placed by Keirsten Clark at PaperBooks looking for ‘Gritlit’. I had no idea what ‘Gritlit’ was but Justice Bird seemed fairly gritty so I sent it off.
What research did you do for Cry of the Justice Bird and how much did you draw on your own experiences?
I rarely do any research. I write about what I know and only checked details very shortly before the Bird was published. I can’t say I’ve experienced everything that Armstrong does, but anything I haven’t I can imagine vividly. So I’ve never shot or tortured a human, but I’ve killed and dissected a fair number of other beasts.
In a way much of the book isn’t down to ‘experience’. Those who have lived in Africa for any length of time know that the dark continent is like a disease that never goes away. It is in the bloodstream, its heat, its vivid landscapes, and in the smell of dust and in its fiery sunsets. As a child I spoke Swahili as fluently as I spoke English, and spent more of my day in the company of Africans than with my parents. Almost all my writing celebrates that enigmatic continent, that raw land of contrasts and the unpredictable, and its wonderful people.
What was the main drive for writing an extreme action/adventure book?
Mike, I like your use of the word ‘drive’, because that’s what I feel about storytelling. It’s an urge, something that’s in one, but an art that has to be nurtured and directed, and it’s taken me years to begin to get it right.
I’d written adventure books for both adults and late teens, I’d written literary and family saga, I’d written mystery and travelogue. Agents kept telling me they lacked this or that, and particularly that I needed to ‘show’ not ‘tell’. So I lost my temper: Justice Bird TELLS a story straight from the shoulder, no holds barred.
How long did it take you to do the first draft and what processes did it go through after that to produce the finished article?
The Bird’s 80,000 words were written in four months. The first couple of paragraphs came to me one evening as I lay in the bath, so I wrote them down and the words kept pouring out. The book had no planning, no composing, no agonizing over plot or characterization, it simply flowed, almost as if the story lay fully formed in my head and simply needed releasing.
In its original form it had no mention of the Justice Bird. I have no idea what prompted his invention. He was based on the corncrake, a summer visitor to this part of Scotland which is, according to the RSPB, endangered. The locals take money off that august charity to keep fields free of sheep for part of the year so the birds can breed, yet everyone hates corncrakes for the dreadful noise they make, often in the twilight of the early hours of our midsummer mornings. His inclusion was one of the few changes I made before I began the editing process with PaperBooks, and even then little was altered.
The second part of this interview is published here.
Jon's book is available at Amazon here. Or direct from Paperbooks here.
For the printed edition of this interview at TVFH go here.