Shortly before our music and reading collaboration Born at the right time, the singer Billy Mitchell called me at home. ‘I’ve just finished reading your stories, David,’ he said. ‘You’ve told my life in there.’ I still cherish this as one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever been given as a writer.
Billy was talking about the stories in my collection We Never Had It So Good. Like me, he grew up in a North East mining community and at one level must have seen parallels in the locations and characters I used for the book. His comment seems to go deeper though, and certainly much of the writing is interior, based on the perceptions and sensibilities of a young boy such as he and I were in the mid-to-late 1950s.
Was Billy the reader I had in mind when I wrote the stories? Or was I, in a sense, talking to myself, or rather to the young boy I may have been then? The answer lies somewhere between the two. Did you ever as a child camp overnight (if only in the back garden) with a friend, or have what is these days called a sleep-over, perhaps one of you lying in a sleeping bag next to your friend’s bed? If you recognize this situation, or some variant of it, chances are you will remember too, after the jokes and the horseplay and the repeated calls from downstairs - ‘Do you two know what time it is? Go to sleep’ - how you would lie there talking quietly in the dark together, in a kind of intimacy. That’s the best way I can describe how my writer talks with my reader.
Nor is this confined to semi-autobiographical first person narrative. My thriller 11:59 has the central character Marc getting things off his mind in a confessional way. Though I tell the story in first person present tense for immediacy, I always felt while I was writing that I was inhabiting both Marc and his trusted, listening confidant.
Even the soon-to-be-published Mr Stephenson’s Regret, a third person historical, seems to work best where I can hear the central character Robert unburdening himself to me in the role of friend, perhaps a surrogate of his close friend George Parker Bidder who comes to the fore in the novel’s epilogue. And the articles I write for this blog and various publications are often conceived in the unsleeping darkness and shaped for the unknown bosom pal who is my reader (always one in my head, though I hope there are a few more of you out there).
I don’t consciously set out to think and write like this; it’s the way it comes out of me, as if I’m acting as a medium for my characters, my words, in a one-to-one seance of imagination. When the spirit is truly with me, I would not be alarmed to hear someone say in the dark, ‘That’s him, that’s Uncle Albert, I know it is,’ or maybe the voice of Billy Mitchell: ‘You’ve told my life in there.’