Talking To – Wes Brown, author of Shark

In the first of an occasional series, we talk to some of the authors involved in the Big Bookend over the last 3 years. 

By Paul Whittle

I first came across Wes Brown and his novel Shark at an event for the Big Bookend 2013 with Anthony Clavane, at Leeds Central Library. Wes spoke about, and read from, the novel, and despite the choice language, I was intrigued. I later learned that Wes and I were both brought up in roughly the same area of Leeds (bordering Burley Park), though admittedly many years apart. We also attended the same high school, Lawnswood (whose alumni include Alan Bennett, James Brown, founder of Loaded, John Craven, Mark Curry and former Leeds United footballer Noel Whelan; it could produce quite an interesting literary anthology). On reading this novel, it is apparent that while Shark has an identifiable Leeds atmosphere, it transcends its setting in the tale of John Usher, an ex-soldier recently returned to his home town. I asked Wes a few questions about the book, his influences and creative intent.

1. You have spoken about your literary influences being primarily American, but do you also consider Shark to be part of the heritage of English working-class writing – or not?

Very much so. I wrote it under the influence of Alan Sillitoe and the kitchen sink tradition of working class novels and David Peace’s Red Riding Quartet. But I think Britain is a much-changed place since the heyday of those novels. Culturally, economically, industrially. The interest in the Americans comes primarily in the language. But also how well they’ve attuned their styles to the demotic and the mandarin. To modernity, consumption and urban dysphoria. To questions of spirit. I’m thinking of writers like Don DeLillo, Saul Bellow and John Updike.

2. Is there any social comment intended, or is this just a by-product of the characters and setting?

There’s no direct comment as such – I would much prefer that in essay form. But I wanted the whole novel to communicate something. To articulate the inner life and social milieu of somebody politically unfashionable. Of a fast-accelerating sense of drift and the erosion of traditional bonds. The story of John is primarily spiritual.

3. The book has a specific geographical location, in the area that you grew up in – does it draw on a ‘Leeds sensibility’ (which I’d loosely define as hard-edged, at times brutal, but without pretensions?)

There’s a certain ‘Leedsness’. But I think a certain part of that is rejecting Leedness. Being qualified or quantified too neatly. This is also a story about a violent and alienated man. His search for grace, for meaning, to find redemption in the rituals of his masculinity.

4. John Usher could be placed in the tradition of amoral anti-heroes – with his casual relationships, his casual violence – was this a conscious decision, or just an attempt at realism, to capture a rounded human being with all his flaws?

There are two masculine archetypes, usually found in Hollywood films, that I love. One is the classic anti-hero. The guy who does what’s right despite his fallen nature. And the second is the has-been, the washed up guy who comes good for one last fight, to redeem his past mistakes. These are part of the John Usher psyche. Who, effectively, is a cowboy without any stakes.

5. Aside from the literary influences, are there also cinematic and musical influences which fed into Shark and more generally inform your creative process?

Film is a big one. Martin Scorsese. Westerns. Sergio Leone. Shane Meadows.

One of the last scenes in Jarhead was an inspiration for the whole novel. Seeing these hulking men, trained for war, coiled and passive, wandering round the supermarkets and strip lighting of civilian life.

6. How good are you at pool?

I’m potentially the worst pool player in Leeds. Somebody once tried to hustle me, with a big bag of banknotes, and I knew he was trying to because I’m so bad it exposed how he was setting me up for easy shots. I’ll leave the pool playing to the hustlers.

7. What are you up to at the moment?

Wes Brown

Wes Brown

I’m halfway through my second novel, When Lights Are Bright. It’s a day in the life novel inspired by the Shannon Matthews’ kidnap. A day in Leeds in 2008, the EDL are marching, a little girl is missing, and a contrarian Marxist journalist is trying to find her. It’s a bit of a cross between The Searchers and The Usual Suspects.

Aside from that, I’m writing book reviews for Litro,  and Dead Ink,

Shark is available in paperback and digital formats from Valley Press and Dog Horn Publishing.

Shark by Wes Brown

Shark by Wes Brown

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 and the Northern Short Story Festival. She continues to be its Director.

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