When I decided to be a writer at the age of twenty two, I set off to Paris, installed myself in a garret with a typewriter that cost me £19 from Argos and two bottles of wine from the Algerian store on the corner. I even got some writing done, though it mainly consisted of letters to home asking for money. For a long time I imagined being a writer. For a long time it didn’t happen.
Not that I didn’t have an imagination. I imagined being drunk like Hemingway, witty like Wilde and developed a strange affinity for magic realism after a night in Soho drinking absinthe. Life was fun as I waited for the muse to arrive with the idea that would fuel the book I always wanted to write. Unfortunately, the muse got off at the wrong stop and instead, my writing revealed itself to me slowly, in the same way certain virulent and painful tropical diseases do. My imagination shifted its focus from hard living and hard drinking (I made those a hobby instead) to thoughts of what my grubby manuscript might look like as a book. I didn’t imagine it very clearly.
When I started writing the book that would eventually become ‘the Sentinel’, I imagined the main character was going to be a private eye who went against the grain by doing good in a country that was entirely bad, and where corruption was not only an art form but also formed part of the Government’s economic policy. The more I thought about it, the more I started to remove the bits labelled ‘good’ from the plot outline. Instead the story grew darker, much darker and drew out of me the tales people in Spain had told me about their experience of living under Dictator Francisco Franco, the man who even Hitler called a ‘Jesuit Swine’.
I never imagined I was going to write the book. But I did. And then I imagined I would send my manuscript to a brilliant agent who would call me up and send me a contract. Reader, it happened. (There was some discussion of why the manuscript was 750 pages long but still...). After that, I hoped I would find a publisher who would be the exact person for my book. Someone who would understand that a brutal secret policemen could have a wicked sense of humour and that a Nazi on the run, a dispirited dwarf, a Drag Queen from the Dominican Republic, a liberal sprinkling of Gypsy fortune tellers and a devout Catholic sidekick all belonged in the same book. And there was Nic Cheetham and HOZ. A magnificently eclectic publishing house with in-house spaniels with their own Twitter feed. I couldn’t have imagined that.
I imagined the book would sell a few copies but never that it would be nominated for a prestigious award like the Steel Dagger. I’m not complaining: it’s fantastic that life can still throw up some surprises. It has been such a fantastic year since the book came out, just to get the accolade of being shortlisted at all is such a huge honour. I never imagined that all those years ago as I stared at my Argos typewriter through a haze of Algerian red.