The Library of Life and Death

“The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”   William Faulkner

At the age of seventeen I developed an obsession.

It started, like most obsessions, with questions nobody could answer.  One November morning I got on the train to Edinburgh, nervous about going to the city, unsure what secrets I would uncover.

New Register House was easy enough to find – hidden in plain sight just behind a burger joint on Princes Street, a proud Victorian building caged in by spiked railings.  Once through the main door and past security, into that sanctum of quiet punctuated by the sound of rolling trolleys, the building had a feeling of mystery and magic that was instantly addictive.  I still remember taking my allocated desk and looking up past the row upon row of stacked records towards the skylight dome high above.  Knowing that on those shelves, where porters shuffled around retrieving records, the secrets of my family history were carefully stored – the scrawled signatures of my ancestors inked onto birth and marriage records, the only evidence that they had once lived.

On that first day I sketched out the bare branches of my family tree and uncovered enough sketchy information to say with some confidence – I know who I am.  I know where I’m from.  There were no aristocrats, no famous people, just a family story common to the vast majority of Scots – some lives lived in rural poverty scratching a living from the land; but many, many more lives lived in the suffocating grip of heavy industry, in the shadow of pit bings and smoking chimneys; immigration, migration and emigration; typhoid and tuberculosis.  The Cockers came from Aberdeenshire, farm labourers who moved to Motherwell to work on the railways.  My paternal grandmother’s side all went back to Northern Ireland.  My mother’s side were entrenched in the industrial communities of the Falkirk area for two hundred years, the ironworks and mines, but also with an offshoot that reached back to an unknown part of Ireland.

Despite several further trips to that library of life and death, there were two mysteries I never solved.

The first: my great-grandfather Jimmy Burns.  The black sheep of the family, a violent alcoholic who had served with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the First World War.  There were family whispers of military prison – the suggestion that he had in fact spent most of the war in prison – to go along with the known tales of his drunken terror campaigns once he returned from France.  The records yielded no information.

The second: my great-great-grandfather William McAldin, an Ulsterman who disappeared from all Scottish records after 1905.  No further records of him appearing at subsequent family weddings (he had five daughters) and no record of his death.  Where did he vanish to?  The library racks remained silent.

I drew up the family tree and gave copies to relatives.  It felt like I’d got as far as I could go, and those blind alleys would remain dark forever.  I left school and went to university and soon enough developed another obsession: writing fiction.

Fiction writers, just like genealogists, are usually obsessed with the past.  I started writing, like most fictioneers, with a slightly glorified diary of my own recent past.  First up were scribbled fragments about my experience of working in an Aberdeen dairy factory in the summer of 1992.  The factory still haunts my dreams to this day: a dark and cavernous Edwardian building with clanking machinery, blasts of refrigerated air, and swirling milky puddles underfoot.

Next was the summer of 1993, working on a summer camp in Maine.  I wrote a sort of travelogue when I returned, which strived mainly to capture feeling and sensation – the oppressive darkness of the Maine forests, offset by the orchestra of crickets and the brilliant dark blue star-filled skies; a train journey through West Virginia in heavy fog, houses appearing suddenly through the mist; the ragged angles of the Rockies, the scorched panorama of the Nevada desert.  I wrote a bad short story about my trip to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s house in Saint Paul, but again it was mostly fragments and fleeting impressions.

Next came Lithuania, which I blogged about previously, and then Amsterdam (multiple blogs).  As I ponder what to write about next, I feel myself drawn again and again to these fleeting glimpses of place and atmosphere rather than sitting down with a concrete story in mind.  One of my favourite pieces of writing of all time is a sequence in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, in which the main character, living in a warehouse apartment in the depths of the New England winter, catches hypothermia.  It’s a stunningly beautiful piece of writing that adds little to the story.  But it makes for beautiful wallpaper.

A few years ago I read The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and in it he discusses what he calls the Narrative Fallacy.  In simple terms, this is about how we tend to construct stories around unconnected facts – a good example being the causes of the First World War, where historians have tended to line up a chronological succession of events and have built a narrative around what Taleb argues was just a collection of things that happened.  Similarly we do this in our own lives, the kind of “how I met your mother” stories which tend to be embellished and expanded as the years go by.  Both of my novels had their roots in this kind of reflection – the first being “Young Scottish guy goes to Lithuania to teach English”, the second being “Thirty-something Scottish guy moves to Amsterdam to work in whisky business.”  I started with those basic facts of my existence, the fleeting glimpses of experience, and then eroded anything factual through the process of writing and re-writing, like the slop and hush of the sea gradually erasing a coastline.

This attraction to the atmosphere and experiences of my own past is probably one of my flaws as a writer.  It doesn’t exactly make sense to decide “I want to write a novel which somehow captures the feeling of walking down an Amsterdam canal-side in late October with lights reflected in the water” but in the end that was pretty much what I did, and the multiple drafts were a kind of punishment for my initial lack of focus.  So the next time, will I do things differently?

Well, my worry is, probably not.  Instead of thinking about stories with a beginning, middle and end, perhaps moored in a standard genre, the ideas creeping into my head are again those fragments of atmosphere and experience – a weekend I spent in subzero Berlin five years ago; my summer in Maine; Edinburgh immersed in sea-fog.  And also, my family history keeps resurfacing when I think about the next project, and in particular two stories.  Because, thanks to the internet, in the last couple of years I solved those two family mysteries.

The first?  Jimmy Burns, the black sheep.  I found 16 pages of his military records online, water-damaged scans and barely legible.  Slowly I pieced together the story of his First World War.  Signing up for the Royal Dublin Fusiliers on the 2nd of December 1915 at the age of nineteen.  The block capitals ‘RC’ stencilled at the top of the form, revealing the recruiting officer’s – and Scotland’s – oldest prejudice (as a Roman Catholic, obviously the Dublin Fusiliers would be his regiment).  The other blotted, torn pages tell the story of his next three years.

Wounded twice; hospitalised due to pneumonia, flu or diarrhoea three times; his regiment disbanded and reformed twice due to the scale of losses; deprived of pay twice for absence from parade.  And then, one month after the war ended, court-martialled for “offering violence to his senior officer” and sentenced to 18 months in the military prison at Boulogne, of which he served six.  All of this by the time he was twenty-two.

The second mystery – William McAldin, who vanished after 1905.  I found him on a ship’s manifest in 1906, travelling from Glasgow to Montreal.  The two words under destination already hinted at his fate: ‘Sydney Mines.’  A few minutes of Googling and I found his name listed in the Nova Scotia 1910 death records.  It would cost me ten pounds to find out how William died.  I keyed in my credit card number and the PDF downloaded onto my desktop.

The 1-page certificate showed three deaths stencilled into narrow columns, the first of which was William’s.  His occupation was listed as “shot-firer” – the specialist who rigged up explosives to expand mine workings – and his cause of death: “Compression of brain caused by fall of stone in mine.”

So there it was.  The vanished William McAldin, lost in a mining accident and buried at the Brookside cemetery in Sydney, a grave which has never been visited by any of his kin.  And I wondered – why didn’t anyone in the family know this story, or pass it down?  Had he run away?  Or did people just keep this tragedy quiet?  I imagine that Nova Scotia landscape, the boiling Atlantic ocean nearby, those thousands of immigrant lives that passed through the mine’s black mouth – the Scots formed the largest immigrant group, followed by English, Russians and Italians, but there were also French, Poles, Lithuanians, Caribbeans and others.

And when I think of that cemetery on the coast, and that faded, unvisited gravestone – or Jimmy in that recruiting office 99 years ago – I think to myself, there is the next novel; there, in that fleeting glimpse of a boy soldier, or in that tumble of stone in the Canadian underground blackness.



Fishing Shacks & Skyscrapers


Another month roars by, and sales of Amsterdam Rampant have spiked yet again…

Rampant September

My sales chart looks a bit like one of those upstart Chinese new cities – a row of fishing shacks mixed in with the skyscrapers.  What’s the story behind September’s towering obelisk of 146 sales?  I can’t say for sure, but it’s probably a combination of three factors.

Firstly, as mentioned in last month’s blog, I ran a Kindle Countdown promo which boosted sales at the beginning of September (76 sold in 3 days).  Secondly, following the obligatory 2-week price freeze after my promo (price fixed at the £1.90 mark) I decided to cut the price below one pound to see if this boosted sales.  Thirdly, at around the same time I started to realise that I was becoming part of a miniature scene.

Now, I should point out that this scene I’m involved in does not involve me dressing in fishnet tights and a rubber thong and playing volleyball in a basement nightclub (yes, I lived in Amsterdam too long).  Sorry to disappoint you, but this scene is purely literary.  Those of you who shop on Amazon will be familiar with the scroll-bar “Customers who bought this item also bought…” underneath the product description which helpfully lets you know that people who bought your beloved Barry Manilow Greatest Hits CD also purchased the Engelbert Humperdinck… Best Of.

Underneath Amsterdam Rampant, three British indie writers are prominent – Escobar Walker, Ryan Bracha, and Mark Wilson – and a bit further on, well-established big-sellers such as Irvine Welsh and John Niven.  Click on Escobar’s book Bowling Ball (Glasgow’s rough n’ ready answer to Trainspotting) and you’ll see that his customers tend to buy Irvine Welsh books.  Click on Irvine Welsh’s books and a few scrolls through the “Customers also bought…” and you will see Escobar, Ryan, Mark and myself.

So I have become part of a minor virtuous circle of Northern British cult fiction, where one sale pinballs into the next, up, left and back again.  I dropped Ryan a note via Twitter and he had spotted a similar pattern.  Following our entertaining Twitter chat I sold 9 ebooks in one day – a record outside of launch and promos.

Shortly after this, the Liverpudlian fanzine editor, blogger and counter-cultural revolutionary Phil Jones – a big fan of aforementioned Ryan Bracha – posted a generous review of Amsterdam Rampant on both Amazon and Goodreads and kindly recommended it to his Goodreads friends.  I dropped Phil a note and another entertaining exchange was had.  Sales have since edged upwards to average 5 per day.

I understand better now why the big monolithic publishing houses are so terrified of Amazon.  It’s a little like the Catholic church and monasteries losing the monopoly on alcohol production during the reformation – suddenly all these creative revolutionaries are setting up illicit stills in their back yards and brewing the booze of the future.  Or a little more recently (!) the rise of punk music in the late 1970s, when the big record labels were gorging themselves on traditional rock and sugary pop, and up came punk through the still waters like a ragged and bloody shark – stitched together in bedrooms and garages by the disenfranchised, but propelled forward by an energy of such force that it ripped a huge hole in the business model.

So, another amazing month.  The brave and lonely followers of this blog know that I tend to finish each blog with a rambling and tortured metaphor on my latest experiences – so here goes.

When I first epublished Amsterdam Rampant, launching my novel on the internet felt like arriving in a dark and foreboding city late at night – spilling out of the train station into a rain-slicked street, traffic screaming by, intoxicated citizens arguing in the shadows, the sound of breaking bottles and the dull thud of techno all around.  And standing at the empty taxi rank, my bag at my feet with everything I own inside – wondering if I will make it through the night unscathed.

Now I know the city is not so foreboding.  Lights are flicking on in the skyscraper windows; the dingy bar-fronts hide welcoming interiors smelling of soup and freshly ground coffee; the citizens’ rowdiness is just an over-the-top friendliness.  The trick is to step out into the traffic and stride across the road towards the heart of the hubbub.

Like a Rolling Stone

After a really good June and July, things keep getting better on the sales front for Amsterdam Rampant.  Check out how sales improved in August…


Things were already going well in August (I had surpassed July’s sales two-thirds of the way through the month) and then I ran an Amazon Countdown Deal from 28th August to 4th September.  Here’s how it works – if you sign up to Amazon’s KDP Select programme (in doing so you agree that Amazon will be your sole sales platform) you are allowed to run one promo every three months.  You can choose from a 5-day free promo, which I ran in April/May, or a Kindle Countdown – this is a 1-week discount with a countdown clock next to the reduced price-tag indicating how much time is left before the price reverts to its standard.

In the 7 days prior to launching the Countdown Deal I sold 11 ebooks.  During the 7-day promo I shifted 110 ebooks on Amazon UK at a reduced price of 0.99 GBP.  This jump in sales shot me up the Kindle charts for ‘Literary Fiction – Mystery, Thriller, & Suspense’ and at one point I reached no.27, overtaking Scottish heavyweight Ian Rankin in the process:


I also scraped into the top 3 thousand ‘paid books’ on Amazon UK, which was exciting as there are supposedly more than 2 million ebooks available on the site.  So it was yet another amazing experience on the epublishing journey.  In September things are continuing to go very well (I’ll tell you more next month).  The only downside so far has been my first troll review – ‘Craig’ gave Amsterdam Rampant 1 star on and reviewed it thus: “Piece of worthless trash.”  However, considering that he also gave 1 star to the complete works of Charles Dickens (“Absolute garbage”!!!) and Levi’s jeans I’m not too concerned about his global influence.

The last few weeks have been hard going as I’ve been working on an MBA assignment and also preparing for my corporate finance exam – I do this on Saturdays and Sundays, while of course Monday to Friday I’m putting in the usual long hours in the day job.  Which leaves only the odd half hour here and there to work on my epublishing project.

A couple of weekends ago I had a rare weekend away – I jumped on a train down to Augsburg, Bavaria.  I was only there for a couple of days but it felt like being transported to a different dimension.  On the Saturday night we sat on the terrace of a pub in the eerily quiet city centre and ate schnitzel and sauerkraut washed down with the excellent local beer.  The next day we wandered the city, its ancient buildings glowing in the late summer sunshine; when it got too warm we ducked into the tranquil shadows of one of the city’s churches, or – much more satanically – went to a cafe to continue our burgeoning relationship with the local brew.  Finally, on Sunday afternoon when the sun was mellowing to fading gold, we stumbled across the Riegele brewery and next to it a beer garden.  There was a canteen serving traditional German food and the brewery’s tipple (from all of 20 metres away).  Century-old chestnut trees provided a canopy overhead; we sat down at one of the many picnic tables and sipped the amazingly clean beer while chestnuts dropped from the branches above, splitting open as they struck the gravel – and at one point, a black squirrel liquidly dashed between tables and clawed its way up a tree trunk.  At moments like that – sitting in the balmy afternoon, hazed in golden sunshine and woozy with a beer buzz – it feels like all the hard work is worth it.

The trip refreshed me greatly.  With all the work and study I feel pretty beaten up at times but it’s great to have my ebook project running in the background, a reminder that if you put in the hard work upfront and discipline yourself to do a little every week it is still possible to achieve things – even when your schedule seems totally overwhelming.

Halfway House

In the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town there is a famous alley called Fleshmarket Close.  From the top end of Cockburn Street you enter through a granite gateway to be immediately confronted with a dark and shadowy staircase plummeting down in the direction of the train station.  For a first-timer it looks dingy and uninhabited, potentially dangerous, but after a few steps down into the gloom you will see a greasy spoon takeaway, a barber shop, and further down the alley’s glacial slope, first one pub, then another.  The second pub is called The Halfway House.

Back when I lived in Edinburgh, I used to drink in the Halfway with my brother Ian.  It’s one of those hidden gems in the city – a beacon of hospitality in the unlikeliest of places.    My abiding memory of the pub (possibly fabricated by my nostalgic subconscious) is on one of those damp, foggy Edinburgh nights, when the haar (a sea-mist unique to Scotland’s east coast) was hanging thick over the city, its tendrils slithering around the buildings.  On those haar nights you feel like the city has been untethered from Scotland and is drifting off into the clouds like a cumbersome granite Zeppelin.

On this particular evening Ian and myself were on one of our habitual tours of the traditional pubs, swapping stories and banter in a succession of silent howffs.  Drowning in haar, we tumbled into the close and made our way down steps slippery with greasy drizzle, ahead of us the golden glow of the pubs burning through the fog.  And through the door into the Halfway, into a gentle hubbub of light and chatter and music, taking seats at the bar from where we could look out the window and watch the haar solidify, tightening its grip on the city.

On my epublishing journey I have reached The Halfway House – 6 months in to my 1-year project.  So while I’m safely entrenched at the bar, pint of hoppy IPA in front of me, what are my thoughts before stepping out into the fog again to complete the rest of my journey?

Well, as the brave and lonely few who follow my blog know, I set out to sell 1,000 ebooks of Amsterdam Rampant.  With slightly more than 6 months gone, I’ve sold 226.  So, while I’m some way off the 500 target for the half-year, there are many reasons to be optimistic.

A couple of months back I added a new indicator to my statistics page – ‘Readers Reached.’  The reason I did this was that I thought again about what I really wanted to achieve and decided that finding readers who liked the book was more important than simply shifting units.  While selling my ebook is a great feeling, I’m also delighted if someone out there in cyberspace decides to download Amsterdam Rampant during a freebie promo, or also borrow it via Amazon Prime.  So my ‘Readers Reached’ figure basically adds up sales, freebie downloads and borrowed ebooks to come up with a number of how many people have downloaded the ebook.  So far 1,235 readers have been reached, and considering that I will run another free promo at some point I will hopefully break the 2,000 figure by the magic 12-month mark.

From a business point of view, I’m so far making a loss of -291 GBP.  However, given that my expenses at the outset were 643 GBP, I am making progress in clawing that outlay back, and should be back in the black by the end of the year.  Also, I bought two covers with a view to doing a regular switcheroo to see which cover shifted most units.

Amsterdam Rampant Final black red FA (5)      amsterdam_DEF_1 (1)

After publishing with the black and red dangling man cover, it really felt right for the book, and now I’m not sure if I’ll use the blue floating townhouse cover.  I love both but I had underestimated that feeling of ‘fit’ that I would get once the project was underway.  If I had only bought the first cover, my current loss would be -88.34 GBP.  Anyway, while I may incur other expenses (eg. at some point I will try out some marketing services) overall it looks like I will break even for the year, and hopefully even make a small profit.

Away from the financials, I’ve had a total of 19 reviews on Amazon (12 on UK and 7 on dot-com) and 6 reviews/ratings on Goodreads.  The engagement with readers has been really encouraging.  I benchmark myself against other Scottish novels published in the last year and it seems I am a little ahead of the average in terms of review numbers.  It’s another sign for me that self-publishing is an eminently viable option.  The supposed advantage of traditional publishing is that you get some kind of marketing machine chugging away in the background, but my impression is that these days most publishers kick a novel out into the wilds to fend for itself.  In these austere times most authors are expected to invest a chunk of their time marketing the novel they wrote but that someone else published – why not publish it yourself and own the entire end-to-end process?

Another thing I’ve mentioned before is that liberating feeling of release.  Prior to self-publishing I’d been tinkering with Amsterdam Rampant for more than three years, going through multiple versions in the hope of finding the magic formula that would appeal to a publisher.  Instead, self-publishing forced me to confront a far more important audience – the faceless mob of unknown readers – and edit it into something that I believed would please readers rather than publishers.  It feels like I have finally let go of the novel, unloaded it, and by telling the story I am finally released (much like the ancient mariner in Coleridge’s poem, which takes me clumsily back to the whole fog metaphor).

So now, I gaze out into the haar from my comfortable position at the bar, bracing myself for the next stage of the journey.  Six months ago it all seemed quite daunting.  Now I know there is nothing to be afraid of.  I tip back the dregs of my pint, say a cheery farewell and head back out into the unknown.


Major Uptick

I spend a chunk of my day job ploughing through company financial reports, trying to sort the facts from the spin.  My passion for fiction is useful, because most companies have a knack of wildly exaggerating the story of their progress.  Rarely do you see business-speak and reheated mince blended together and rearranged so spectacularly on paper.  Gloriously meaningless words such as ‘cascading’, ‘re-profiling’, ‘scalability’ and ‘uptick.’

So in honour of this smoke-and-mirrors gobshite, I would like to confirm that there has been a major uptick in sales of Amsterdam Rampant in the last month.  While JK Rowling and James Patterson can still sleep soundly in their beds (for now anyway, although I am doing ninja cartwheels in their back gardens at night) it’s been a very nice bounce indeed.  Check it out (you can click to enlarge):


What is encouraging is that people I don’t know are now buying the ebook in reasonable numbers.  In the first couple of months I was bombarding all my social networking connections with endless spams and many of them took mercy on me and bought it.  After this you see a downtick [Neil glances off stage to where a corporate gimp nods encouragingly] during the next few months when I was running freebie promos and working out how to reach a wider audience.  And now, finally, the momentum I mentioned in my previous blog seems to be building, the snowball trundling down the hill and gathering a light dusting of ice powder on the way.  In February, my launch month, 40 people bought Amsterdam Rampant from Amazon UK – I knew most of them, probably.  In July, 41 people bought Amsterdam Rampant from Amazon UK.  I don’t really have a scooby who they are.

My feeling is that all manner of connections and inter-relationships are slowly coming together, like rusty machinery grinding into life.  As mentioned in my previous blog, my Goodreads profile has been growing.  Also, Amazon seems to understand Amsterdam Rampant better – the novel appears now on all manner of “also bought” links, most notably Irvine Welsh’s latest novel The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins (yes, my mother is very proud.)

The whole experience continues to be a total eye-opener.  I always assumed I wrote Scottish Literature, when instead it seems I actually write booze-sex-gangster-supernatural thrillers.

Anyway, I’m enjoying the uptick.  And now, as I dance off stage in front of a crowd of euphoric shareholders, an overly optimistic song kicks in…



So, another few weeks whizz by.  Strangely, despite being too busy with work and study to dedicate much time to my ebook project, sales of Amsterdam Rampant are picking up.

At the end of June I ran another free promo – as a member of Amazon’s KDP Select programme I have access to one promotion every 3 months, and I opted for the freebie, which gives you an allocation of 5 days to run the promo.  Back at the end of April I ran a 3-day free promo and 781 people downloaded it – this time round it was a more modest 216 downloads over 2 days.  During the promo I broke into the top 50 free ebooks on Amazon UK and hit no.2 in the Amazon UK Kindle charts for free literary thrillers…


After the first two months of publication (during which I sold around 100 ebooks) sales had tailed off to around 15 per month, ie. only one every other day.  But immediately after the June promo ended, sales bounced, and I sold 12 in the next 5 days.  In July it’s now stayed pretty constant, with 24 sold after 15 days.  So while not exactly flying off the virtual shelves, it’s encouraging to see momentum building a little.  On some days I’ve scraped the top 10k paid books on Amazon UK (usually I’m in the 50k-200k zone).

I’m not exactly sure why sales have picked up.  It could be down to a number of factors.  Firstly, the Dundee Book Prize recently published its 2014 anthology on the Kindle Store, and in my ‘keywords’ on Amazon I have included ‘Dundee Book Prize’, so anyone searching for this would likely see Amsterdam Rampant pop up.

Another possibility is that I’ve started to get a presence on Goodreads.  For those of you who don’t know Goodreads, it’s a social networking site for book-lovers, and owned by Amazon.  In recent weeks I’ve got 5 ratings and 2 reviews – again, not many – but enough to perhaps get me popping up in recommendations and in search engines.  So far all ratings/reviews have been in the 3-5 star zone, giving Amsterdam Rampant an average of 3.6.  The reviews have been interesting too, discussing the novel’s flaws as well as its strengths, but with an overall positive tone which I think has helped build credibility.  I’ve also signed up to the Goodreads author programme, and will need to do a bit of work to build a profile, link to the blog, add novel extracts and so on.  Another little scrap of cyberspace to plant my flag on…

So let’s see what the next few weeks hold.  If momentum continues and more reviews filter through, things could really start moving…


Lithuanian Homesick Blues


Twenty years ago, I stepped through a portal into an alien world.

I had tried to find such a portal throughout my childhood.  Inspired by The Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe, I had climbed inside my grandparents’ wardrobe, pushing through coats and dresses, probing for a hidden passageway.  I still remember the disappointment when my fingers hit against hard wood at the back of the wardrobe.  There was no frosty lamp-lit world waiting for me, no goat-man or Turkish delight – instead I emerged back into the bedroom to smells of lentil soup and distant chatter, a council house with a claw of damp on the kitchen wall, the grey skies outside hanging low.  Not Narnia, but Stenhousemuir.

I finally found the portal to another world in an Aberdeen University newsletter in 1994.  A small advert, headed with three words – TEACH IN LITHUANIA.

I knew more about Narnia than Lithuania at that point – the latter had only been a country again for less than three years, since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.  I was weeks away from finishing my degree, 21-years-old, itching for adventure and desperate to become a writer.  When my dad was in his early 20s he had spent two years as a military policeman in Berlin, seeing the wall go up; the generation before had lived through WW2, the generation before that WW1.  I lacked such big experiences to fuel my writing.  After a couple of days of reflection, I applied for Lithuania.  In my naiveté I imagined it would be the perfect place to write a novel – scribbling away in the shadows of a Soviet tower block, the strange world around me informing my masterpiece.

In late August I flew out.

My new home was Ukmerge, a town of 30k people at the crossroads of Lithuania.  Apartment blocks clustered together across the town, interspersed with farm buildings, bunker-like shops, and forest that sprawled everywhere, filling in the gaps.  I stumbled through the first few days, utterly lost, more dislocated than I’ve ever been in my life.

School presented yet another new planet for me – a compact building painted in fading pastel colours, each bell heralding the thunder of feet on wooden floors and a babble of incomprehensible voices.  The school syllabus was still emerging from Soviet pedagogy and was perplexingly incomprehensible for a westerner; English textbooks were based around ‘approved writers’ deemed to be socialist enough – Shakespeare was a socialist, Robert Burns was a socialist, Hemingway was a socialist, along with various others who had faded into obscurity in the west.  I already knew after a couple of weeks that this would be an incredibly difficult year, and not the writer’s holiday I had foolishly imagined.

As summer faded into autumn, I moved into an apartment with James, the other Scottish guy in town, both of us part of the same teaching programme.  In the evenings we sat listening to the BBC World Service and lived off curry soup and beef stew.  Sometimes we went to the bars in the town, much to the outrage of the local teachers; these shadowy pubs were frequented by the local mafia, yet the goons left us alone, or occasionally bought us beer and asked us questions about heavy metal bands.

Winter struck.   I have never really recovered from the astonishing melancholy of snowfall in Lithuania – imagine being hundreds of miles away from everyone and everything you’ve ever known, standing on a quiet street with fairytale wooden houses, a lone streetlight casting a puddle of brilliant yellow light, the only noise the almost soundless kiss of thousands of snowflakes patting the roofs and road.  Letters from home were precious in a way that’s hard to imagine in the super-connected 21st century – my family and friends would send me newspaper clippings, magazines, mix-tapes of the latest music.  To this day, I still find it hard to listen to Portishead’s first album, because it sound-tracked the winter for me – Beth Gibbons’ ghostly voice lamenting a lost love, strange beats looping and twisting, a beautiful confusion pouring into my ears to match the one I was experiencing all around me.

At weekends I rode ancient buses around the country to attend parties thrown by expats; at these events we drank too much, said the sort of stupid things only young people far from home can say and get away with, and traded books.  Like letters, books were incredibly precious.  Years later, I read about a famous gang of Lithuanian folk heroes – the Book Smugglers – in the so-called Forty Years of Darkness in the late 19th century.  At a time when the Russian imperial authorities were trying to eradicate the Lithuanian language and culture, these young patriots slipped across the country and swam rivers under cover of darkness, smuggling bundles of books to be passed between the people so that the Lithuanian tongue would not perish.  I still love the story of the Book Smugglers because it reminds me of that winter, that feeling of carrying a new book across the country to be read in the shadows.

Spring came – and with it, change.  The first supermarket opened in the town, along with the first pizzeria, the first burger joint; America crept into the corners.  The entire country seemed to shimmer with greenness.  I made some Lithuanian friends and learned a little of the language, and soon was spending the evenings sitting in gardens eating grilled shashlik, drinking the malty local beer.  At the weekends the expats got together in Vilnius parks, the brewery town of Utena, and the coastal town of Klaipeda.  The exam period began, and classes wound down.  I had got through the year.

Finally, on a hot June day, Lithuanian friends drove me to Vilnius airport.  I bid them farewell and got on the plane.  In my luggage was a scruffy handwritten draft of my first novel.

It’s one of my enduring regrets as a writer that I wrote that novel and didn’t simply keep a diary of my time in Lithuania.  It took me two years to realise that what I’d written out there (a thriller about a Scottish terrorist group) was actually crap.  After coming to terms with this revelation, I knew what I had to do next: write a novel about Lithuania.

My Lithuania novel took seven years to write, during which time I wrote five wildly different drafts while working full-time.  There were various elements of my experience I wanted to get across – the huge change the country underwent in my year there as it continued to transition from communism to capitalism; the fact that almost every town had a mass grave from the Holocaust which was barely mentioned or talked about; the energy of the young people and their hunger for a new world.  I wanted to get all of that across but wasn’t sure how to package it into the narrative arc of a novel.

The early drafts were shapeless, heavy on description, a vague storyline about a group of English teachers in Lithuania and their unusual lives.  The early title – Ghost Town Winter – accurately summed up its problem.  Lots of moody atmosphere, attempted Booker-winning poeticism, the story confined into my experience of living through an intense winter of greyness and snow.

This time I gave extracts and drafts to friends for feedback, and they were mostly encouraging.  I recently browsed through an early draft and was surprised to quite like it.  Sure, it lacked a strong storyline and there were far too many metaphors and similes, but it accurately captured a world in flux.

I sent my friend Jonny one of the early drafts (at which stage I felt the novel was almost complete) and, when I visited him in London and after a night out in the local pub, he told me what he thought.  He was gentle.  Jonny skilfully talked me through the central problem of the draft.  The writing was good – needed work in places – but there was no real resolution.  The main character lacked a problem, lacked conflict.  The main character had no real reason to be in Lithuania, and he hadn’t really changed by the end of the novel.

So I needed some conflict, some drama, and as it happened I had some in my life at that time.  I had split up with my long-term girlfriend.  I stumbled through the days at work and lived for the evenings, when I would push the start button on my PC and escape back into my alien world.  I wrote and wrote and wrote, mixing in tales about three generations of one Lithuanian family.  I chipped off pieces of the novel and packaged them as short stories, entering them into competitions.  I kept writing.  And then, just when my life had got worse with the loss of my grandfather, something amazing happened.

The fast beep on my work landline told me I had messages on my answering machine.  Three messages.  The first two were work related.  I still remember slumping bored in my chair, looking out the window to the skyline of the Ochil hills, granite crags and blue sky beyond.

“Hello Neil, this is Francis at Canongate.  I have some good news for you.  Your story KGB Hairdressing has been selected as a Canongate Prize winner…”

I played the message back several times.  I scrawled down Francis’s number, called him to confirm that it was in fact true, and then went to an empty meeting room, closed the door and jumped around a little bit.

The experience was life-changing, partly because it validated my little secret.  I could now justifiably call myself a writer – I had evidence.  The Canongate Prize Anthology was published in August 2001 and launched at the Edinburgh Book Festival.  My story was a chapter from the Lithuania novel, and Canongate – the coolest publisher in the UK – were interested in the novel.

The most important outcome of the experience was not the publication itself, but getting out of my self-imposed garret.  At the launch party I met other writers, and soon joined Stirling Writers Group.  I attended weekly for around a year, during which time I brought in various chapters of the Lithuania novel (now called ‘The Vodka Angels’).  People were positive but it seemed I was still missing the mark when it came to a clear storyline.  Canongate had made positive noises when I sent them the first few chapters, but had reservations about the multiple points of view.  The tutor at SWG, Magi Gibson, summed up the problem quite neatly one evening when she asked, “whose story is it?”

In 2002 I packed up my life in Scotland and moved to Amsterdam for a new job, taking the novel with me on a floppy disk, but leaving my desktop PC behind.  My new life and lack of a PC delayed my work on The Vodka Angels, and soon I was only occasionally tapping away at it, intimidated by its growing size (already 120k words) and spending my time on short stories instead.  Another chapter was published in an anthology, scoring the title piece in New Writing Scotland’s ‘Milking the Haggis‘, a short piece based on me cooking a haggis for my Lithuanian students on the birthday of Soviet-approved writer Robert Burns.

Another two years passed before I got back to another draft, and eventually in 2006, feeling that I’d finally managed to write a version that held together, I sent the first few chapters to an agent in Edinburgh.  She emailed back quickly to ask for more.  I sent it, and a couple of weeks later I got the call saying she’d like to represent me.  I flew back to Edinburgh for my stag party and on the day I arrived I signed a contract with the agent.  In the pub that evening, friends around me, it felt like all aspects of my life were coming together as I’d always hoped.

My agent tried to sell The Vodka Angels for around a year – I think in total we received around 15 rejections.  The feedback tended to follow a similar theme – “Beautifully written, fascinating premise, but lacks narrative drive”; “Not a commercial prospect.”  My agent told me that two or three years previously she’d have sold it no bother, but now things were getting tougher for literary novels.

It was hard to take: seven years of work with no end result.  I felt strongly that I’d written a good story that had something important to say about the world.  But it was not by any means a happy book.  And it seemed that this was what readers wanted in the Noughties – happy books with feelgood endings.

Last year I scrolled through The Vodka Angels and had a brainwave.  One weekend while my wife was in Poland visiting family, and ably assisted by beer and black tea, I bashed out a new 2k word epilogue in which the main character Kyle returns to Lithuania in 2012, seventeen years after his trip.  He goes to the country through his work, meets an old friend, and reflects on all that came to pass.  This new ending has completely changed my idea of the novel, because enough time has passed that the book can almost be considered historical fiction, capturing a time and a place that will surely become more important to historians as the century progresses – that brief moment of chaos between socialism and capitalism, a fleeting pre-millennial moment where one half of Europe was unknown to the other half; a time when ‘history was over’ and western neo-liberal values had won, despite the turf still healing on Europe’s new mass graves in the Balkans; a time which foreshadowed the Europe of the 21st century, a continent where shiny facades of prosperity hide burnt-out interiors.

Just as epublishing Amsterdam Rampant gave me closure on one project, this late add-on has brought The Vodka Angels to a neat end for me.  I’m not sure if I will ever publish it, as it feels somehow too personal now.  It nestles on my hard drive, 90k words needing a good edit, but ultimately it’s an original novel that tells a story nobody else has.

Last year I was in touch with a Lithuanian friend now living in Dublin.  Messaging each other on Facebook, he wrote this about my time in his home town: “I don’t know if you realise, but to us you were a guest from the cosmos.”  It was funny to suddenly see it through his eyes – I had been the alien, not them.