I am both blessed and delighted to count myself among Urbane Publications’ talented collection of writers. Regular followers of all or some of us on Twitter will be used to the phrase ‘Urbane Family’ being given many an airing, but it is never meant at all flippantly. A new member of the family is the spectacularly talented Luke Waterson. Luke is a fellow Slovakophile and has most kindly agreed to write the post below, giving some insight into his motivations for his forthcoming debut novel, Roebuck – Tales of an Admirable Adventurer. You can check out Luke’s website Here. While you’re at it, follow him on Twitter too: @Britinslovakia
Over to you Luke….
Why my Forthcoming Novel Owes a Debt to Slovakia
I was sitting in the klub spisovatel’ov (writer’s club) in Bratislava, notebook in front of me, biting my pen. I often bite my pen when I am thinking (if there’s one around). It was an indeterminate hour of the day in the summer of 2012 (let’s call it afternoon, because I distinctly remember I was drinking). Other than me, the only other people there were the couple of girls charged with running the joint, absorbed in their smartphones to the extent that they’d over-estimated on the measure of slivovica they’d poured me. I’d only just moved to the city at that point and I was wanting to get my fill of defining experiences, of which hanging out in the writer’s club with a glass or two of potent Slovak spirit was certainly one.
It did indeed feel – ah, how shall I phrase it – very Central European. The pictures of the old former patrons (who I imagined had all written great seminal works, moody national identity-defining poetry, treatises on true source of the Danube or somesuch), the trams rattling outside, that mix of terracotta roofs and battered Brutalist tower blocks that only a city like Bratislava can pull off with such bashful charm.
But the esoteric Slovak-ness of it all wasn’t why I picked up my pen (or pulled it out of my mouth) at that moment and started writing the first sentences of Roebuck. It was more the fact that I was slowly coming to realise this – this city, and bars or cafes like klub spisovatel’ov within it – was becoming my life. What I did day in and day out. And that I was OK with it. Peace, or something similar, is how you could term the sensation. And peace I had not experienced in some time.
It’s funny; you travel around, say, South America (as I regularly do); you drink in umpteen surreal bars in umpteen countries and come way with a colourful anecdote or three from each. But that alone, if you are a writer wishing to write something, is not enough. The anecdotes are all well and good. But you need peace to make sense of them all and put the result to paper.
For me, Bratislava came to represent that peace – or, to say it another way, the space I needed, between the hectic research trips I made as a travel writer to Latin America and other parts of Europe, to pause for thought and to collect my thoughts. And in klub spisovatel’ov, generously-proportioned slivovica in hand, girls on their smartphones, sombre faces of former clientele gazing down at me, I jotted down the first couple of paragraphs of the book that would become my debut novel. They always say the first words you write of a book change or get deleted at a later stage but not in this case: the first sentence, They hanged him in the hottest part of the afternoon, and we stood on the deck and watched, that has not been altered since that summer afternoon in 2012.
For a book that is so focussed around the sea (the premise of the story is that a 16th-century gentleman adventurer named Anthony Knivet, determined to win the respect of his father, gets a passage on board the ship of Sir Thomas Cavendish, the explorer who a few years previously become the first man to circumnavigate the globe intentionally, and winds up on the somewhat hostile coast of Brazil) it is surprising, perhaps, that a lot of the inspiration comes from Slovakia, a landlocked country further from the sea than any other European nation.
But one thing Slovakia does have are forests: gorgeous, and rarely trammelled forests (I’d often go out for a walk, soon-to-be-chewed pen and paper in hand, to sit on a treestump somewhere out in the trees in the Malé Karpaty or Biele Karpaty, and come back with a chapter fully worked out in my head). Thus I devised no end of scenes in the novel: those set in Knivet’s childhood home, the boar chase, much of our protagonist’s time alone in the wilderness. Forests feature almost as heavily in Roebuck as oceans, in fact. Knivet is a sailor but he is a sailor that needs to go into hiding for various reasons – hiding from the Portuguese colonists that he has incensed, hiding from the cannibals that would (very literally) eat him for breakfast. So the forest – or rather, the jungle – provides Knivet with that refuge, and turns him into the man he needs to be for the task he becomes convinced he is placed on this Earth to complete…
I’m not going to pretend it was only Slovakia that spurred me on to write Roebuck. That would be just a little too perfect, right? Especially given the blog I keep, someone would probably accuse me of being bribed by the Slovak Tourist Board into waxing lyrical about the country being the fount of artistic inspiration… No, a chanced-upon article in the Economist, six months’ of painstaking research in the British Library, several years of travel through different swathes of the Amazon jungle in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Brazil, London’s Greenwich Maritime Museum, a pavilion full of pensioners on Southend seafront and (don’t laugh) Plymouth all had their part to play in how and why Roebuck got written in the first place.
But Slovakia gave me the space I required to combine everything into a narrative. However many other countries I live in in the future, and however many other books I might be lucky enough to have published, I’ll never forget that.
Luke Waterson’s debut novel, Roebuck – Tales of an Admirable Adventurer is published in December 2015 with Urbane Publications. He lives in Slovakia, where he runs the main in-English online resource about Slovak travel and culture, Englishmaninslovakia and works as a writer/journalist for such publications as the BBC, the Independent, the Telegraph and Lonely Planet.
This wasn’t the post I’d intended to write, BB. The plan was to spend the weekend bashing out some hilariously amusing prose which would have everyone in stiches, marvelling at how charmingly entertaining I am. But then you died, and, while I knew you’d been ill recently, the news took me by surprise and I couldn’t let some things go unsaid. Not today.
You were a hero of mine, BB. Ok, I know an overweight Whovian with foppish hair and dodgy knees doesn’t have too much in common with a Blues Legend from Mississippi, but you played a big role in my own Blues journey, BB, a BIG role.
I started getting into the Blues as a young guy, largely thanks to some woman trouble at the time (long story, it has coriander in it I think. And a forest. I like forests…). In short, when I reached rock bottom, I started digging, but music helped me stop the decent. Not all music, just some pretty specific stuff, occasionally caught on the radio or in the background of old films. And I started to find myself drawn to find out more about this heart wrenching, soul saving black music called The Blues, with its powerful, haunting simplicity and its at once universal and wholly private truth. I picked out a few albums that first day in the record shop; some Elmore James, some Bessie Smith… and something by a guy named BB King.
Words like ‘hooked’ and ‘captivated’ get banded around a lot these days but don’t do justice to how I felt about that music. Your music. And it stayed with me. Through my love of the Blues I started getting into the Mod scene, and pretty soon I had a regular show with a mate of mine on internet radio. We weren’t a bad little team, me and Al, we had good listening numbers and we each brought something different to the show. While Al was very much the authentic Mod, steeped in the Revival movement and with an admirable knowledge of Soul, Beat , Psych and the like, I was always the Bluesman, spinning the tracks of the old Masters, whose tunes were the foundation of everything that came after. I remember you were our Artist of the Week more than once, BB.
And all the time the show was going on, I was trying my hand playing some Blues of my own. We weren’t exactly in your league, BB. Shit, if you were the European Champion’s League Winner of the Blues scene, my little crowd were fighting relegation from the Big Dave’s Pie & Mash Pub Conference, Northern Division. But still, you were the one we looked up to, the one we tried and yearned to emulate. I used to blow quite the mean harp back in the day, BB, a habit I’ve grown out of along with eating healthily and trusting politicians, and I can still remember the time the band and I got The Thrill is Gone just right… We were cramped in Martin’s living room, Martin on guitar, Rick on bass and Big Jon on the sax. Della and Neil were doing their thing and, the singer, was standing behind the clapped out Mike stand and man, everything just clicked. At least, we thought so…
But it didn’t end there BB, no way. You see Al (from the show, you remember?) and his lady friend decided to get married. Back in those days they used to go to Prague quite a lot and eventually planned the wedding there. I was still in a grumpy, unhappy place at that point and didn’t really want to go, but eventually, due to the friendship we’d shared, born out of our love of the music, I relented and booked a ticket.
Talk about Life Changing….
The reception was held in a small Blues bar, just off Old Town Square, which served up some fabulous Cajun food and some of the best Blues this side of the Delta. The staff were more like old friends and though the bar is no longer there I still count many of them as friends to this day, particularly one girl; she was so nice I ended up marrying her. The relationship wasn’t easy at first, being so far apart, but I remember like it was yesterday the first time she came to Manchester to see me and the concert I took her to see. It was you. You were an old man by then, BB and sometimes you needed to have a break during a song and just talk to the audience while the band played on behind you. That was ok; we hung on your every word. And Man, could you still play….
I have a book coming out soon BB, and, now that I think of it, there’s probably more of you in there than I realised. It’s set in Prague, a place I wouldn’t have gone if not for my friendship with my old Mod Radio compatriot, and the Blues bar is homaged between the pages. Then there’s the main character, a chap called Peter. A lot of people think writers inject themselves into characters and maybe that’s true. But I’d like to think there’s a bit of Riley B. King in Peter too, certainly in his love of the Blues. And, if truth be told, if you hadn’t gotten to me all those years back and started me on this journey of love for this music, then maybe Peter might not be between those pages today.
So goodnight BB. I guess I just wanted to say thanks. Thanks for your joy, thanks for your passion, thanks for everything you influenced in my life…. and thanks for playing those damn Blues. I never met you, but I am and always will be thrilled that for so long and for the best of times, I rode with the King.
Notes from Perdition – Why Prague is more than just that place your mate threw up in and Slovakia doesn’t border Italy on the Adriatic Sea
My debut novel, Escape to Perdition, publishes in June through the quite spectacular Urbane Publications Ltd. and Man, am I getting excited. Seriously, gut wrenchingly, having to explain to the wife why the bed sheets need changing so often excited. But the more I think on it, Escape to Perdition – The Finished Article, is a very different beast to what I first sat down to write what seems now like a very long time ago. The basic core elements remain of course, but I originally planned to pen a much more purely historical thriller, with the Czechoslovakia of old still one firmly entrenched behind the Iron Curtain. I had a plan you see, a Grand Design. The book would be the first of a series which would see protagonists move from the days of the Cold War, through the present day and into the future, the audience being, I assumed, all too willing to follow.
But then I started having conversations. Quite often dull conversations. You know the ones I mean; when you’re stuck at a conference somewhere on behalf of the Day Time Employers, compelled to interact with people who hold even less interest in you than you do in them, while the silent thought that someone might actually set fire to your feet in a last ditch attempt to saw through the mutual tedium grips you, and you actually kind of hope they do. The buffet line conversations, where anything other than the briefest of nods to the person alongside you condemns you to a slow, ponderous slog to the disappointing sandwiches, vainly clutching your paper plate and oddly damp serviette as a shield against asinine questions.
Buffet Queue Guy: “You going away this year?”
Me: “Yeah, just over to Slovakia to see family.”
Buffet Queue Guy: “Slovenia? Why would you go there?”
Me: “Slovakia. And to see family, my Wife’s from there.”
Buffet Queue Guy: “Oh right, so your wife’s Slovenian?”
Me: “Slovakian. As in Czechoslovakia, or the Czech and Slovak Republics as they are now.”
Buffet Queue Guy: “Oh right, like Prague! We went to Prague last year on my mate Steve’s Stag Do; he threw up over the Charles Bridge, it was well mental. Are those Pringles?”
At first, conversations like this would irritate me, but then they started driving me mad, I mean really fucking annoying me. These were and are important countries damn it, and they deserve a damn sight more than being mistaken for a place with a different name 280 miles away, or reduced to the status of international spewing receptacle. Even taking just the 20th century, the historical significance of the region can’t be overstated; the Sudeten Crisis, The Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution being just three examples with far reaching, international consequences. Even today, while Russia and NATO wave their militarily attired diplomatic phalluses at each other (#TanksNoThanks by the way), they do so in the faces of the Czechs and Slovaks.
And so I opted to slide up my scale somewhat and make the first book in what will hopefully still be a series a present day tale, with these so often overlooked countries at the very epicentre of relevant, modern day political shenanigans. And in doing so I hope I’ve been able to capture some of the spirit of those countries and their peoples and convey at least a piece of what makes this region Magical and so very unique. The characters might find themselves starting a little further along in their story than originally intended, but they’re still on for a heck of a ride. I hope, come June, that you will be happy to join them on it.