Remembrance by AJ Kirby

This week AJ Kirby shares with us his inspiration for his new novel, Perfect World and how it came to be written. 

I don’t make a habit of reading reviews of my own novels. I’m a little too sensitive for that. But sometimes a review slips through the net anyway. And once in a while I get a tingle of pleasure when the review in question says something great about my book. My favourite review – bar none – of any of my books was penned by the brilliant East Riding writer Cassandra Parkin (The Summer We All Ran Away; New World Fairy Tales). In it, she wrote of my novel Perfect World: “the book gallops along with the speed and dizzying swerves of a racehorse on acid”.

Perfect World by AJ Kirby

Perfect World by AJ Kirby

I wrote the book like that, in a hot fever of activity. Once I set aside procrastination, the story was out of the blocks like Red Rum.

It went like a train, only here my usual bouts of self-doubt left no leaves on the line. And unlike many of my writing experiences, I didn’t dither looking out of the window, playing games on the internet.

The final strait – editing – took some time, and I’m glad it did because it made the story better. But all in all, producing the book, polished and whole, was a very speedy process. I wrote the whole thing in what was, for me, a world record time.

 And yet at the same time, Perfect World took me ten years to write.

One of the major ideas behind the novel had been percolating in my head ever since I visited the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall. These botanical gardens formed a part of the estate of the Tremayne family, and had been popular since the eighteenth century. Eventually the gardens grew so large and complex they required a crew of over twenty gardeners to keep them. But when the First World War struck, many of the staff were conscripted and, with only a skeleton crew left behind, the struggle to maintain the gardens became too much. Nature took over again, transforming the carefully manicured gardens into an overgrown, derelict jungle. A hurricane in 1990 seemingly placed the gardens into the ‘beyond rescue’ category. The decay had simply gone too far.

But a group of determined local folk and volunteers from across the country decided that Heligan’s Sleeping Beauty would not remain hidden forever. They set about restoring the gardens piece by piece until finally they attained something like their former glory.

Perhaps the most affecting aspect of the whole, beautiful gardens, however, is not botanical at all. It’s a barely legible motto etched into the limestone of one of the walled gardens. It reads: “Don’t come here to sleep or slumber” with the names of those who worked there signed under the date – August 1914.

At the time I’d been doing a lot of reading of texts about the First World War particularly in regard to shell-shock and memory. Just as Heligan gives a ‘voice’ and a ‘name’ to the ordinary people who worked in the peaceful gardens before the discordant din of war, members of my family had been trying to find out exactly what happened to ‘Uncle Cess (Cecil)’, who was a member of the 11th battalion of the East Yorkshire regiment (the “Hull Pals”). He died in 1917, presumably at Arras, but that’s all we knew about him.

My Dad said: “Arras is less well known than most battles, but its major historian calculates that it encompasses the highest rate of British casualties of the whole war (i.e. much more intense than, for example, the Somme or Passchendaele). The Germans had heavily fortified the area – it was part of their Hindenburg Line. Continuing to attack was presumably completely hopeless. The British soldiers nicknamed it “the blood tub”.”

Uncle Cess’s death was undoubtedly horrific, and part of me wanted to write his story to make sense of this horror in “the blood tub”. But we still knew so little I felt I’d be doing him a disservice in writing about him; me in my comfortable life with my first-world problems and him, amongst all those others but isolated as he died.

But I still wanted to write about lost people and lost memories and things which are buried, like time capsules, waiting to be uncovered. And when I saw the writing on the wall at Heligan, I thought I could tell Uncle Cess’s tale in an allegorical way. And yet I still didn’t think I had it in me to write the story.

So, like Heligan, it remained dormant.

And it remained so until ten years later, when the idea which had been stewing in my head for a long time suddenly synchronized with another, newer idea, and suddenly I had my way into the story. And in an unexpected way, too. I’d always thought my Heligan/ Uncle Cess story would be straight literary fiction, or at a stretch, an allegory. But one night, as my train was delayed for an hour, straddling the Pennines (leaves on the line) this new idea presented itself and changed the story completely.

As we sat, unmoving, for over an hour, surrounded by the prehistoric-dark of the moors, the story became something else. Everyone else packed on board my carriage shrugged off the delay by plugging in to the virtual worlds of their mobile phones. I’d lost my mobile phone a couple of days before and it felt as though I’d lost an arm. (Me and my first-world problems again.) I was lonely, isolated, despite all of the folk bunched around me. I was lonely, isolated, the only one on board actually experiencing the delay, or so it seemed. Everyone else had blanked out this world and was busy imagining themselves in another one, a better one in which the trains ran on time. Or else they were sharpening their on-line personas, or playing games.

The folk on board my carriage looked like empty shells. Their minds, their souls, were elsewhere.

And I got to thinking about the gardens in Heligan again and I got to thinking about people losing themselves within themselves, and I began to wonder about whether similar restoration projects could be brought to bear on people. I imagined a mad scientist-type working hotly in his workshop of filthy creation, desperate to discover a way to talk to someone who he’d lost. And I began to imagine him creating a space within which such communications could take place. Kind of like Second Life, really. I imagined my scientist reaching out to his comatose wife through a virtual platform which he would call his Perfect World because he could blank out the discordant reality of this one with it.

Though Perfect World is variously described as a techno-thriller, or as a science fiction story, at its heart it is a tale which hungers to “only connect”. It is a story which tries to give a voice and a name to those who are slumbering. It is my attempt to describe how we all reach out for meaning.

I’d still like to write about Uncle Cess. I’d like to tell his tale more faithfully (and maybe not at the pace of a racehorse on acid). But he was given his name back. It was voiced at the Blood Swept Lands And Seas Of Red installation at the Tower of London in November, when a host of ceramic poppies were planted to honour every British or Commonwealth citizen who died. At this garden of the Lost, Cess was remembered.

You can read a review of Perfect World here.

 

About AJ Kirby

Andrew Kirby Author ImagePerfect World was released in paperback by TWB Press in October 2014.

AJ Kirby is also the author of the novels When Elephants Walk Through The Gorbals, Paint This Town Red, Bully, and Sharkways.

His short fiction has been published across the web, and in magazines, anthologies and literary journals, as well as in three collections: Trickier & Treatier, The Art of Ventriloquism and Mix Tape.

He was one of 20 Leeds-based authors under 40 shortlisted for the LS13 competition and his novel Paint this Town Red was shortlisted for 2012’s The Guardian Not the Booker Prize.

All of his books are available for purchase on his Amazon Author Page.

He reviews fiction for The New York Journal of Books and The Short Review.

In addition he undertakes Red Sportswriting, as a regular contributor to The Republik of Mancunia and Stretty News blogs. He has written two books about Manchester United: The Pride of All Europe: Manchester United’s Greatest Seasons in the European Cup, and Fergie’s Finest: Sir Alex Ferguson’s Greatest Manchester United x11.

His official website is http://www.andykirbythewriter.20m.com/

He blogs at http://paintthistownred.wordpress.com/

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend. Fiona is its Coordinator and Marketing Director of the Northern Short Story Festival.

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