The axiom ‘write what you know’ is a limiting one and fiction, I feel, should be about stepping beyond your own experience. A few years ago, I began writing a novel about social housing, industry and popular culture from the 1950s onwards, and as I was born in 1982 serious research was required. But how much research is necessary to create authentic-seeming worlds? And what happens when the research works against you? When your perfect, pristine plot is ruined because in real life things hadn’t happened that way? Is fidelity to the truth even that important when fiction is, ultimately, you know, fiction?
In one section of my novel Ironopolis, 17-year old Jim gets consumed by acid music during the Second Summer of Love, 1989. I wanted a rush of firsts: of friendship, sex, drugs, music. And the music I chose was acid house for the simple reason that I love acid house. I love the cavernous basslines, the scrappy vocal samples and the squelching Roland TB-303s. I love how it’s simultaneously so warm and yet so brutally relentlessness. This was the music booming in warehouses and fields across the land that year and I wish I could’ve been a part of it, but I was 7 at the time and, frankly, probably more concerned about Lego. Still, I reasoned my passion for the music would surely be enough for a faithful recreation of what it must have been like to have been there, to have been swept away in it all.
In an early draft I had Jim go to a rave…simple enough, but questions immediately crowded in: What rave? How did he get there? Were there tickets, and if so how did he purchase them? These things were illegal, demonised in the press, pre-internet and often in the middle of nowhere. How did you get to the right place at the right time? A story does not always need these kinds of details to succeed, but as mine revolved around the organization of a rave that goes horribly, spectacularly wrong, I knew I did.
Answers came in anti-climactic fashion: I did the research. I consumed everything from first-hand memoirs, to zines and newspapers of the day, documentaries to dry-as-dust academic tomes with titles like: Dionysus Electrified: The Heuristics of Tribal Identity in Electronic Dance Music Culture. I read it all, even though I knew 99% of it would be useless for my purposes: I need to know something in order to know I don’t need to know it. While this is not the most efficient approach, there exists no work-around because sprinkled at a maddingly-sparse ratio through all the endless texts and information are nuggets of pure gold.
For example, the answer to how people got to those far-flung, clandestine raves. Ring a number on a flier left discreetly at a select venue and a mechanical voice would give you directions to a secret location where, once there, someone materialised out the shadows with directions to the site of the rave itself, a spot often miles away again. This three-step approach was calibrated for maximum discombobulation of the law. When I found this little anecdote in a memoir written by an old rave mover-and-shaker, it made all the eye-strain worthwhile. I knew instantly it was destined for the story because it took me one baby-step closer to marrying my passion for the source material—the incredible music and acid scene—with the events as they actually transpired. It was another structural beam on which to hang my story: the artifice I hoped to pass off as real.
The merging of the imaginative and the actual worlds was even more vital when depicting the environment of Ironopolis itself: that of declining social housing and industry in which Jim’s and other’s stories take place. The book tracks the rise and fall of a massive Teesside housing estate from its post-war heyday to its imminent destruction by a modern housing association. The estate is, on one level, pure fabrication—I made it all up—and yet, on another, it isn’t because I have a responsibility to similar places—and people—in real life.
The estate I invented is a composite of many actual estates, including the doomed Hulme Crescents in Manchester, Quarry Hill in Leeds and Queen Elizabeth Square in Glasgow. The Aylesbury Estate, Southwark. Becontree in Barking & Dagenham, and even Pruitt-Igoe in St. Luis, Missouri. I also drew on the one I grew up in, though this was something of a double-edged sword. What I knew to be accurate of working-class life—I grew up in a terrace house on a well-kept estate—would not necessarily hold for, say, an elderly person stuck on the fifteenth floor of a high-rise because the lift has been broken for a month. To map my experiences wholesale onto lives that have faced issues I haven’t would be lazy and wrong. Truth is plural, meaning the responsibility of the writer is multiplied as a result.
Plurality goes to the heart of Ironopolis. It takes the shape of six interlocking sections—six connected characters—that together make up the narrative of the book. There are housewives and hairdressers, petty-crooks and hedonistic teenagers, upstanding members of the community and shifty loners, all of whose lives weave in and out across the estate’s long, weird history. It is—I hope—an immersive, vibrant world that strikes a blow against the tired working-class tropes that hang in the collective consciousness (dole queues, pregnant teenagers, burned out Vauxhalls on the wasteground etc.). People can be ugly and violent, but they are also capable of immense kindness and vulnerability, bursts of happiness and humour. They are the sum of their experiences and their environments. I wanted to undercut working-class stereotypes by digging deeper into the reasons these characters are how they are. Therefore, when writing Ironopolis, I found myself in a three-way contest with these pre-existing images, my own experiences and the frequently startling (and rage-inducing) things I was discovering via my research.
The fates of the characters and their trajectories through the book are all down to the estate’s imminent destruction by a housing association that has no intention of welcoming many of the existing residents back. This social cleansing is enacted via a complex and depressing labyrinth of bureaucracy that ruins lives remotely, dispassionately. It took a lot of research to wrap my head around the intricacies of the housing crisis in the UK, and once I’d done so, I realised that it and not I defined the boundaries of my novel. I simply did not have the authority to tamper. I couldn’t magic up a happy ending whereby the community returned unscathed, their collective histories, folklore and shared culture remaining intact. I tried writing those endings but they were false and a huge injustice to the millions currently living in uncertainty today.
When something doesn’t fit the pre-conceived narrative, what do you do? Ignore it? Cede it to creative license? Or put it front and centre and reframe your narrative around it—let the precedent guide your hand and not the other way around? Should facts serve the book, or the book serve facts? The contest between authorial desire vs. reality is perhaps less of a conflict than it is a compromise, and the interplay between the two propels not just the creative process, but the story itself.
Glen James Brown
Glen was born in County Durham in 1982 and studied English at Leeds Becketts University. In 2013 he won an AHRC scholarship to study for an M.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Chichester, where he graduated with distinction and the Kate Betts Memorial Award. Ironopolis is his first novel. He lives in Manchester.
Ironopolis by Glen James Brown and published by Pathian Books is available to purchase here.
Stranded on the outskirts of Ironopolis — nickname to a lost industrial Middlesbrough — the Burn Council Estate is about to be torn down to make way for regeneration. For the future …
But these streets know many stories, some hide secrets …
Jean holds the key to the disappearance of a famous artist … Jim’s youth is shattered during the euphoric raves of ’89 … A brutal boyhood prank scars three generations of Frank’s family … Corina’s gambling addiction costs her far more than money … And Alan, a man devastated by his past, unravels the darkness of his terrifying father, a man whose shadow has loomed large over the estate for a lifetime.
And then there is the ageless Peg Powler, part myth, part reality: why is she stalking them all?
‘Human nature? Class politics? Whatever it was, it wasn’t us … Deep down we were part of a whole, single energy, and all we had to do was be ready to sink down together.’
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