‘All I think about is making the book as good as possible.’
Disregard with extreme prejudice anyone who says you should never meet your heroes. I recently spent an evening in the company of one of mine, and two weeks later I’m surprised how enthused, enlivened and filled up by the experience I still feel. If it’s taken me that long to write it up, it’s only because I wanted to make sure I did it justice.
I first became aware of David Peace through his extraordinary ‘Red Riding’ quartet – if you’re not familiar with it, imagine James Ellroy growing up in West Yorkshire and writing about 1970s police corruption and the Yorkshire Ripper’s reign of terror. Since then, there have also been two books in his Tokyo trilogy, plus others about the Miners’s strike (GB84) and football managers Brian Clough (The Damned United) and Bill Shankly (Red or Dead). It was these last two that brought Peace to the Quad in Derby, part of a wider series of events to celebrate the city’s enduring football history.
Peace was interviewed with a light and confident touch by BBC Radio Derby presenter Andy Potter, a man who had his work cut out. Peace’s butterfly mind flitted from point to point, leaving sentences half-finished and thoughts half-formed; the speed of his answers also made transcribing my recording of the evening more challenging. But before the interview proper, the event started with Peace reading from his most recent novel Red or Dead. Now, before I go any further, a confession: this is a book that I haven’t yet been able to finish. I’m currently about halfway through it, and haven’t picked it up for several months. It’s a challenging read, one which uses repetition to a high degree to mimic the endless training and matches of the football season – Peace later said he took inspiration from Shankly himself, who described football as ‘a river… when you’re in it, there’s no stepping out of it.‘ The book also (as Adrian McKinty perceptively observed) mirrors the timeless, cyclical chants of the terraces, with the same phrases being repeated again and again and again and again and again. You get the idea.
But what was extraordinary was the extra dimension lent to the book by hearing it in Peace’s own voice, and a passion which made me more determined to go back to it. This was also true of the evening’s second reading from the beginning of The Damned United, Peace’s novel about Brian Clough’s 44 days in charge of Leeds United. Peace described this book as an attempt to write ‘a football mystery novel… why did he take the job, why did they offer him the job, and what happened?‘ The novel’s opening is an ominous one, describing the horrific injury on Boxing Day 1962 that ended Clough’s playing career and set him on the path to management. Two sections were especially unnerving in Peace’s dry, twanging voice:
‘You are afraid, afraid of your dreams; your dreams which were once your friends, your best friends, are now your enemies, your worst enemies.’
‘That’s what you got for Christmas in 1962. You got done.’
Peace’s confidence with his material (I’ve been to author events where the writer and the text appear never to have been formally introduced beforehand) was explained later, when he described his writing technique. Red or Dead began with about a year of research, followed by a year of writing:
‘I write long-hand, and the way I check it is to read it aloud. And then I make the corrections and I type it up and then I print it out and I read it again and I make the corrections. I read it over and over until the rhythm seems right. With this one… we’d Skype my Mum and Dad from Tokyo every Sunday, and I used to read a bit to my dad, so he’s heard it all as well.’
Peace was clearly delighted with the positive response to his readings, and to be in front of an audience at all, talking about his work. ‘Is this the career you always set out to have?’ asked Potter. ‘I never in all honesty thought it would be a career,‘ replied Peace. ‘I never had any expectations… I wrote from a very early age. I wrote a book when I was at Manchester Poly, and I sent it to every publisher – and I mean EVERY publisher – and every single one of them wrote back and said no – and not only did they say no, some said don’t ever send us anything again.‘ Peace’s descriptions of his difficulties at getting published were especially heartening to someone like me, taking their first, faltering steps with their own writing. And even when Peace’s novel was accepted, the reality was rather different from the dream:
‘For the first four books, I was working full-time and writing… When Nineteen Seventy-Four was accepted by Serpent’s Tail I got this letter from them saying yes, we’d like to publish the book, and you do have that moment thinking right, I’ve made it at last – and then you read down it says they’ve given you an advance of five hundred quid and you think ‘I’ll keep up with the day job!’ ‘
Several of Peace’s books have focused on historical events, and much of the evening focused on this aspect of his fiction. ‘I’d grown up reading people like Don DeLillo, who wrote Libra, and people like James Ellroy who incorporate real people – and in America there seems more of a tradition.‘ This approach lead to some controversy regarding The Damned United – the book was not warmly received by Clough’s family, and threats of legal action resulted in some changes being made to later editions of the book.
‘The last thing I wanted was to upset the family,’ said Peace. ‘If you’re going to write about real people, and things that really happened like the Yorkshire Ripper, you have a great responsibility.’ I certainly believed him on this point, and his approach with Red or Dead – sharing a copy of his manuscript with the Shankly family before publication – showed that how chastened he had been by his earlier experience. The discussion was given a little extra spice when it was time for questions from the audience, thanks to the presence of ex-Derby County footballer Roy McFarland, who played under Brian Clough and knew him well. McFarland was cordial enough, and said he had enjoyed The Damned United; but he was equally keen to put across his own picture of Clough, one which differed from the novel’s interpretation. Peace was smart enough not to argue with him. Rather than take a photograph Peace said that, in all his books ‘I’m trying to paint a picture.’ Any reader of The Damned who knew Clough (or any of the other characters) personally was bound to take a different view.
When my turn came to ask a question, I wanted to know more about Peace’s thinking behind the ‘Red Riding’ quartet, a series also based on fact but where the names of the main characters were changed. Peace described Nineteen Seventy-Four – the first in the series – as ‘the most made-up of anything I’ve written‘, as well as ‘a book I don’t like, I don’t like at all‘ – and it’s intriguing to speculate whether the two might be connected. Peace was more explicit about his reasons for continuing with the series – once again, it was his attempt to try and solve a mystery, one intimately connected with the environment in which he grew up. Peace was thirteen when the Yorkshire Ripper was finally caught. ‘Why was it not the Cornish Ripper?’ he asked. ‘Why did it happen here at this particular time, and was there anything about the society in the West Riding at that time that was in any degree culpable? There was that need to know.‘
I certainly wanted to know more, and could have spent much longer listening to David Peace – but as with all the most enjoyable experiences it had to come to an end. Afterwards, I queued up to have my copy of Nineteen Eighty (in my opinion the most complete, most demanding and most powerful of the four Red Riding books) signed by the author, and then spent the drive home with a contented smile on my face. Getting close to a hero is a remarkable thing; finding out they don’t disappoint is even more so. It’s an evening that will live long in my memory.