Contrary to Morrissey's assertion, I rather like it when my friends become successful. I'm not necessarily talking successful in the sense of gaining great riches (though I am standing by to help spend spend spend when that happens) more that they are successful in doing what they strive to do. And I loved it when I saw Danny Leigh on the cover of Time Out a couple of weeks ago.
I've known Danny Leigh for 10 years or so, since our early days of involvement in making records and playing music. A couple years ago Danny told me he was writing a novel and then the novel was finished and distinguished UK publishing house Faber snapped it up. Danny won a Dazed and Confused/ Egg award and the novel, The Greatest Gift was published to some acclaim.
Since Danny moved out of London we've drifted in and out of contact. I didn't even know he had another book due until I got mailed a copy of his new novel. And not because I knew him, it came from a very indirect source who hadn't made any connection. I was mailed it because somebody thought I would like it. They were right.
The Monsters of Gramercy Park uncovers what happens when a fading crime writer, Lizbeth Greene seeks out Wilson Velez, an imprisoned gang lord in the hope of leeching a career reviving bestseller from the mentally imbalanced inmate. Woven throughout is a children's story, Monsters of Gramercy Park, that the psychopathic Velez wants the crime writer to help get published.
It's a great book.literate, precise, engaging.and last time I emailed Danny I asked a few extra questions so I could tell you outsidelefters about this book...
KL: So Danny, you are right in the middle of publicity for the book. How's it going? Are you having to do readings? That's always a little painful... I mean you're supposed to write it, not read it out too. I remember going to see Stewart Home and he had just memorised huge chunks and just went at it... pretty dull though.
DL: Painful to watch or painful to do? Both would be the answer, I think. If I'm being frank it's not something I take a great deal of pleasure in, although at the same time my inner showbiz trooper is always quick to remind me that people have paid money to see you do this rather than rent a DVD or have a nice meal out or whatever - and as such you owe them your best shot, a noble attempt at pepping up one's adenoidal drone with the odd bit of inflection or dramatic flourish. Personally, the ones I've appeared at have always had a pretty big streak of tragi-comedy about them, but that may have more to do with me than the nature of the exercise.
KL: The new book is great. It really rips along. Did you find it easier to write than the first one?
DL: Thank you. The short answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no. The long answer (people with flawed attention spans and busy lives can skip ahead now) would be: On a moment-to-moment basis, the new book was certainly a lot more fun to write, and easier in as much as when I was writing the first one, I was pretty grimly fixated with the idea of writing each sentence as perfectly as possible, and of the actual language itself being immaculate - whereas with the second book I just wanted to tell the story, so I was a lot less chewed up and angst-ridden about every... last... word... I... wrote... . Having said that, the structure of Gramercy Park was far more complex and intersection-heavy, and that kind of mechanical aspect of the writing was every bit as migraine-ish (and I mean that in a good way). But I'm glad if it reads quickly - the intention was always to produce something that kept the reader's eyes moving across the page but might also, if they were so inclined, drag 'em back for a closer look.
KL: I wanted to ask you about the setting of the books. Of course you're English and living in England but the book is set in the USA and the characters are American... Did you ever envisage it being a UK based book... I am thinking that its difficult to write books set in the UK because there is so much baggage attached... you have to break down a lot of stereotypes before you get to character and story. I mean, lets face it, the vernacular of contemporary literate culture is American for better or for worse.
DL: It was never going to be set in Britain, but that decision wasn't even as involved as the (valid) reasons you've mentioned. What initially got me started was wanting to write something about the very specific prison culture you've seen blossom in America, and the main characters I was drawn to were both quintessentially American, I think - a Hispanic gang leader (gangs being the crucible a lot of that prison culture has been forged on) and a big-league crime writer inspired in part by various models whose names aren't important but whose success could have only happened in quite the way it happened in America. So given that these were the kinds of ideas that were floating around, it would have just been completely dishonest/pointless to relocate the characters to Sheffield or Ipswich or Cardiff in order to write something that was more "honest" to me as a British passport holder. I think there are great novels still to be written about Britain - as a reader rather than a writer, my problem is that the Britain I find whenever I dip into whatever "the must read book" is at the time is hardly ever one I even halfway recognise... but that's another story...
KL: When we first met you were involved with playing music and making records. Did you always plan on writing?
DL: As I remember, my band broke up because the aspects of it we loved (usually fleeting and illusory) were rapidly getting outweighed by the aspects we hated (poverty, arguments, record companies). At that stage writing was pretty much just a vague glimmer of something I could do once I'd got my life post-band something like in order. Having said that, the crossover between the two activities is a lot more common than you might think - I guess the same grubby exhibitionist streaks runs through both
KL: And are you still listening to music now?
DL: Of course, all the time. As soon as I stopped playing music, I rediscovered why I liked it in the first place, even if my buying/listening habits have since veered horribly into the 30something swamp of remastered old favourites and tarted-up "rarities" collections... Using the last mini-disc I made myself as a reference point, I like Television, Black Flag, early Who, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Talking Heads... in terms of new stuff, The Arcade Fire seem to have a lot of spunk (Is that what the kids are saying now?)
KL: And between the music and the novels you had a fairly successful career as a film critic. Do you think that had any effect on how you created the books?
DL: Only in as much as watching 5+ films a week probably made me even more attuned to cinematic storytelling (or however you want to put it) than most of us are already... which isn't something I think of as a bad thing. One of the dullest aspects of your average commercial movie is its formula-driven nature, but equally, one of the dullest aspects of modern fiction is the absence of anything even slightly resembling a narrative, and the apparent indifference of the writer to that problem... so a dose of studio exec-approved capital S Structure is, in moderation, not unhelpful I think.
KL: And how has it been since you moved out of London?
DL: Well, I left London almost two years ago, and there's times when I miss it like crazy - but to be honest, what I miss is the geographically specific area of about a mile square where I used to live, Fitzrovia... and the sad thing is while part of me misses it because I'm not physically there anymore, another part of me misses it because a lot of what I loved about the place is quickly disappearing in a fog of Pret A Mangers and new "apartment" developments for media scumbags... So coming back to London wouldn't help. Anyway, I'm in Hove now, just across the coast road from the grey and churning English channel, and that's great. We've got Brighton next door, which is, for me, the same Mickey Mouse town it always was, but Hove's a law unto itself spiritually if not administratively, so I just ignore everything east of Palmeria Square and keep breathing the sea air...
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