While the cover contest poll has been running over the last week (winner to be announced soon!) some friends have asked me – is Amsterdam Rampant about you? Is it a memoir loosely dressed as fiction?
The question makes me uncomfortable. Why, you may ask? Well, if you’d read the novel and rephrased the question thus: “Hey Neil, this book packed full of sex, substance abuse, disreputable characters, black comedy, and occasional violence – is it about your life?”
It may come as a relief (or a disappointment) to those friends when I say that practically all of the novel’s content is fiction, but it got me thinking about this unusual process of creating a ‘realistic’ novel. If you write fiction about a grizzled private detective or a plucky boy wizard, you never get quizzed if your writing is actually about you – nobody asks JK Rowling if she spent her childhood (before the sex change) as a speccy wee lad with magical powers. But if you write fiction that aspires to convince the reader that what they are reading is believable, then inevitably people start to enquire about the fuzzy borders between your own experiences and events in the book.
So how does a literary or ‘realistic’ novel creep into being? My impression is that firstly there is a collection of experiences, a ragbag of second-hand stories, and the writer starts to mentally build a connected narrative in his or her head. At the beginning it’s like getting a random jumble of different bits and pieces in an IKEA flatpack, without any instructions. Does any of it fit together? Can a recognisable structure be built? Probably not. So then it’s a case of getting entirely new parts, finding screws and nails that’ll do the job of holding it together, watching it fall apart a couple of times, sanding off rough edges, adding layers of paint to change the appearance. And the end result is often utterly distant from the experiences that sparked the idea for the novel.
All these years later it is actually quite difficult for me to trace the novel back to its specific sources. But of course it started with my move to Amsterdam in 2002, which was one of the most transformative experiences of my life. One week I was living in a bedsit in smalltown Scotland, driving through the rain to my workplace in the middle of nowhere. The next week I was living in an apartment in Amsterdam’s canal district.
It was the first time in my life I’d lived on my own. In those heady pre-crisis days, the boom years of 21st century globalisation, the company didn’t blink twice to pay for an apartment for me for six months. I felt luckier than I’d ever been in my life. I have always been a walker, and in the evenings and at weekends I wandered around the city, down its backstreets and alleys, soaking up its atmosphere. As touched on in the previous blog, the city combined beauty and ugliness to an extent that was breathtaking. A twenty-minute dander could encompass the majesty of the Prinsengracht – golden age townhouses overlooking shimmering canals – and the trashy, toxic, sleaze n’ junk food buzz of the red-light district. Every day was full of new people, new sights and sounds. But it was lonely too – while my work was very social, there were times outside of working hours when I was more alone than I’d ever been in my life. Which was not always a bad thing.
The idea for the novel slowly grew out of that first couple of years in the city.
When friends (male and female) came to visit me in Amsterdam they typically only wanted to do one thing: go for a look around the red-light district. Even if there was an acceptance that it wasn’t exactly a zone full of happy human beings, there was an inexhaustible fascination with the idea of a small part of the city given over to explore taboos. On a few occasions revellers visited came on consecutive weekends, meaning that I was dragged around the red-light district area and Belgian beer bars from Thursday through to Sunday; and then my friends would depart, leaving me to pick up the pieces back at work on Monday morning, before it all started again four days later.
As the months went by, I began to realise how paper-thin the dividing wall was on the expat scene between ‘normal life’ and a taboo-breaking life of sexual and narcotic indulgence. In an attempt to make some friends in Amsterdam I’d joined various expat groups. One night I was out with two other British guys around my age, and we were sitting in a tiny (and famous) Belgian beer bar called Gollem. We’d quaffed three glasses of Kwak, a potent beer served in a test-tube-shaped glass, when one of the others started talking about the red-light district, before swiftly moving on to the very specific windows he’d visited. Upon which my other drinking buddy hooted with laughter and revealed he’d also visited a couple of the same windows and indulged himself with the occupants. I was a little shocked.
Then a colleague told me a story that finally made me put pen to paper. He too was bombarded with regular visitors from Scotland. One Monday night, after his friends had left following four days of partying, his doorbell rang. He opened the door to find a young man dressed in tight clothing standing on his lobby. The young man explained that he was here for the appointment, which puzzled my colleague further – until he clicked that his friends had booked him a male escort as ‘a joke’. The joke almost became even unfunnier when, upon realising that he wasn’t going to be paid for his services, the rent boy pulled a knife. Luckily my colleague was able to scare him off with some loud Scottish swearing.
The seed continued to gestate over the next 3 years while I worked on finishing my first novel. By 2007, the idea for Amsterdam Rampant had crystallised – the new novel would be about a guy called Fin McPhail who gets caught up in the city’s dark side, has somehow kicked the trapdoor open to its underworld, and at the same time a crowd of old friends invades his life for a weekend of partying. Two worlds colliding. How did Fin get into this mess? How is Fin going to get out? These were the questions I needed to answer.
A writer friend, upon seeing some early chapters, told me I was being too mild with the subject matter – what it needed was more sex, bolder storylines, faster pace. I realised he was right. My previous novel, The Vodka Angels (a literary novel exploring the 20th century history of Lithuania) had failed to find a deal, the most common feedback being that it was not a commercial prospect. There could be no holding back this time. My new novel would need to be like an HBO show set in Amsterdam – uncompromising, outrageous, a rollercoaster ride through neon and darkness.
The story gathered momentum the more I wrote, until I reached the tipping point that many writers talk about – when the characters develop a life of their own, and suddenly you are no longer sure who the story belongs to and how it’s going to end. That summer I would occasionally go to a pub called Mondo on the edge of the red-light district, sit on the terrace and watch the human traffic go by – my novel taking shape in the shadows, fiction slowly stealing reality.