Ghost Signs – Poverty and the pandemic – An eyewitness account of the impact of the early days of the pandemic on those living in poverty in Leeds, as Stu Hennigan delivered emergency food and medicine to communities that had already suffered 10 years of austerity. It is a blistering exposition of what happened to a community in one of the richest countries in the world.
Stu can be found at:
How hard was it to get your first (debut) book published?
A tricky one to answer. I was lucky with Ghost Signs because I was already in regular contact with Kevin Duffy at Bluemoose, and he was very keen on the idea of the book as soon as he heard I was writing it, so this wasn’t one of those where I was having to hawk it around agents/publishers in the usual way. I think one thing that helped was that I’d submitted a novel to Bluemoose about four years previously; Kev thought the writing was great but didn’t want the story, which was fine, but it meant that when he found out about the work I was doing on the book that would become Ghost Signs, he knew I’d be able to do a good job of writing it. Before that, though, I’d got so sick of rejection letters that I actually gave up writing when I was about 24 (in the mid-00s) and didn’t go back to it until about 2018, so it’s been a long journey.
How long did it take to write?
The whole process from beginning to publication took exactly two years, but not all that time was spent writing. Once Kev and I had started talking about the book as a serious thing, we needed a timescale for what period the book would cover, and we decided on around 8 or 9 weeks. During that time, I made a lot of notes when I was out delivering food parcels, as well as keeping a daily diary of personal events during that time, and also trying to record as much as I could about what was happening nationally with the pandemic. I wrote the first draft in 9 days, getting up at 4.30 every day, writing for three hours, spending a couple of hours with the kids, then doing a full day on the van and another three or four hours in the evening when the kids had gone to bed. Because Bluemoose are more or less a one-man operation, it would take Kev a while to send it back with comments and suggestions, then I’d do another couple of weeks of really intense work and send it straight back. There was a lot of research to be done during this stage too – reading IFS reports, collecting poverty stats, trawling through press releases/newspaper articles for quotes from politicians etc. In January 2021 it went to Annie Warren, my editor at Bluemoose, and we spent nine months working on it but it was a leisurely pace; because the pandemic was still ongoing and we weren’t even sure when the book was going to publish, we had a lot of time to play with, and submitted the final draft in the September, although it still didn’t come out for another 9 months after that, during which time there was proofing, final copy-editing etc.
How many publishers turned you down?
None for this one! After I graduated from uni in 2002 I wrote an incredibly bleak realist novel called A Night In the Cells and had at least 20 rejections for that, so many that as I said, I gave up writing for publication for about 15 years.
Do you have a writing playlist? If so do you want to share it?
Not these days. I like to write in absolute silence where possible, although with two primary age children it’s rare to get this, unless I work at night.
What kind of reactions have you had to your book?
The book seems to have been well-received so far. Pre-publication, ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger commissioned a piece about the book in Prospect magazine, including 3000 words of printed extracts, and that opened it up to a much wider audience. After that, there was a brilliant review of it in Tribune, and a great one in the Yorkshire Post too. The public response has been extremely flattering and pretty humbling too – it seems to have really struck a chord with a lot of people who are pissed off with the state of the country. It’s interesting to note that a lot of people have said they were surprised and shocked at the level of deprivation and extent of the poverty that the book depicts; one of the main aims of the book is to raise awareness of how severe the problem is, and also how widespread, so I suppose based on those kind of reactions it’s doing its job in that sense, although it’s sad that it had to be written.
What’s the favourite reaction you’ve had to your book?
The most pleasing response, I think, has been from other people who have done similar work, or have worked with similar communities. I’ve had a lot of people say that the book captures the communities and people really well, so that’s always good to hear. It’s kinda difficult to celebrate in a sense though, given the content. It’s also difficult to know what to say to readers when they say they’ve bought it – I can’t say I hope they “like” it, or “enjoy” it, because that would be crazy. On a slightly lighter note, I had a message from one person that signed off with “You are a gem in fucking great boots.” I treated myself to a pair of nice boots for doing literary events and they’ve become a sort of running joke on Twitter, so that really made me smile.
What can you tell us about your next book?
I’m currently well into the second draft of a novel with the working title of False Friend. I don’t want to go into too many details but it’s about relationships and how they can fall apart, addiction, loss, death, family secrets/lies, trauma, and how lives can be shaped by events that are almost completely beyond our control. Definitely not a feelgood read, but it’s taking shape quite nicely at the moment and I’m very, very excited about it.
Do you take notice of online reviews?
Not really. I try to reply to everyone who’s kind enough to share their thoughts on the book via Twitter and obviously I really appreciate them all, but I hate A*azon with a passion so never go on there, and I’ve never really been on the GoodReads website either. As a general point, if you look at reviews for anything online you always get complete extremes, so even a book that’s had rave reviews across the board will still get slated by some people, and a book that gets panned will still have readers who think it’s the greatest thing ever. Once you’ve finished creating something, whether it’s art, music, literature, whatever, once it’s in the public domain it’s out of your hands and you can’t control the response, so there’s no point losing any sleep over it.
Which author(s) inspire you?
I’m constantly inspired by other writers. I read an article a couple of years back that compared a writer to a sampler, and I really like that analogy. You’re always looking at other people’s work to see what works, what doesn’t, how you can apply their techniques to your own writing. Ben Myers is a writer who I think a lot of people can learn from – no one ever talks about this, possibly because his stories are so well-told that they don’t notice, but he creates a completely different narrative voice for every book, and you need real chops to do that. He’s definitely someone I look at as an example of a complete writer – he’s technically brilliant, and that feeds into everything else, so his dialogue is great, as is his characterisation, plotting, pacing and everything else. Heidi James is another writer from the current crop who I take a great deal of inspiration from as her work is all about the same themes that pre-occupy much of my fiction/poetry – time and memory, the distortive symbiosis between the two, the mutability of personality, humans as method-actors, the masks we wear. She’s so precise, doesn’t waste a single word and her work is deceptively complex when you start digging. I love the way she weaves ideas from different thinkers into her work but buries them so you’ve got to get right down into it to find them. The great Denis Johnson is someone else I’ve always had a lot of admiration for, and in the last couple of years I’ve been introduced to Percival Everett by the lads at Influx and he’s blown me away completely. Need to get hold of everything he’s ever written, sharpish. The Trees is the best novel I’ve read this year so far by a country mile.
What is your biggest motivator?
Now, my biggest motivator is lost time. I wasted 15 years when I more or less completely stopped writing and I’m determined to make up for it now. There’s a lot of anger in my work too, and that’s another motivating factor, especially with the current shitshow of a government and the untold damage they’ve done to this country. It’s going to take decades for the mess started by that pair of cunts Cameron and Osborne to be cleared up, and by then it’ll probably be way too late. People can’t be allowed to forget that, as odious as Boris Johnson is, those two were the diabolic progenitors of the current clusterfuck and they shouldn’t be allowed to escape responsibility.
What will always distract you?
I have ADHD so am very easily distracted, especially if I forget to take my medication!
How much (if any) say do you have in your book covers?
I had much more input into the book cover/design than I was expecting, although I have Fiachra McCarthy to thank for bringing it all to life. If you’d asked me at the beginning, before the book was even finished, how I’d like it to look, it would have been pretty much what you see in the bookshops now. Fiachra was brilliant to work with and it was a surprisingly easy process – I gave him the gist of what I thought would work, he sent some samples and we went from there. Didn’t take long, and I think it nails the vibe perfectly.
Were you a big reader as a child?
Yes – voracious doesn’t even cover it. I taught myself to read before I started school and was never without a book from then on.
What were your favourite childhood books?
The first series I remember reading that really blew me away was The Worst Witch books, which I read when I was about 7. I’ve read them as an adult with my children, and last week we were listening to the audiobooks in the car when we were on holiday. They still stand up – a masterclass in storytelling and characterisation without any gimmicks, frills or fancy stuff. Miss Hardbroom is one of the best antagonists is children’s literature for me, and Jill Murphy achieves it pretty much singly through the way she speaks to the girls, especially Mildred. Great, great writing, and the illustrations are wonderful too. Children of Winter by Berlie Doherty was another one I loved when it was read to me when I was about eight. Read that with my eldest last year and that was still brilliant too.
Do you have a favourite bookshop?
If so, which? The Old Pier Bookshop in Morecambe is a treasure trove if you like digging for hours through crates of second-hand stuff. I’ve literally spent whole days in there.
Do you have any rituals when writing?
No. Just shut the study door, fire up the Mac and crack the fuck on!
How many books are in your own physical TBR pile?
About 15 at the moment. I’ve never understood when people say they have hundreds of unread books and still keep buying more – it seems pointless to me. I’ve always been a very quick reader and have generally been able to keep on top of mine, but it’s so hard to find time to read these days. I work full-time, have two kids, I’ve a novel to write, plus a lot of other shorter pieces, not to mention events and all the promo/publicity stuff for Ghost Signs. Before I had kids I used to get through about five books a week; after kids it went down a bit, but these days I’m lucky if I can read one, and that’s a source of real chagrin. It’s rare for me to have 15 unread books, and it’s stressing me out tbh, especially as ARCs keep landing on the doormat, plus books from the indies that I subscribe to…….
What is your current or latest read?
I took four books on holiday but I couldn’t get into any of them, and ended up buying a copy of A Brief History of Seven Killings from a charity shop for a couple of quid. Read it before, but loved it all over again. Marlon James is a genius writer, and this book is every bit the same big, bad, beautiful motherfucker it was when it first came out. Essential reading, kinda like a Don Winslow pulp thriller but written like a Faulkner/Tarantino mash-up, in Jamaican patois. Next up is one by Dennis Cooper, a writer who’s been on The List for years but I’ve never had time to check out.
Any plans or projects in the near future you can tell us about?
I’m going to be super-annoying and say that there are lots of things afoot, but I’m not allowed to talk about any of them. I’ve a couple of short pieces (mixture of fiction and non-fiction) coming out before the end of the year, all being well, and you may get a sneak preview of some of False Friend in the autumn, but that’s all you’re getting!
Any events in the near future?
Loads. Won’t list them all here, but anyone in London who’s interested in hearing me speak about the book can see me on Friday 16th September at 6 p.m. at The Social, in conversation with the great Heidi James. It’s going to be a brilliant night, and it’s FREE, so come along and join us if you can.