In 1976 15-year-old Barry Dyer wakes up covered in metallic lesions. Living nine miles from Sellafield nuclear plant could be an explanation, but something more sinister is going on. The night before, a girl from Barry’s school was brutally attacked and left in a ditch to die. The girl’s ghost visits Barry and uses the metallic lumps to guide them both into the future, where their purpose is to prevent a real-life multiple shooting carried out in the same town. A novel from the Cumbrian writer renowned for his flash fiction, All the Places I’ve Ever Lived (Urbane, £8.99) combines Barry’s fictional tale with the shootings that were carried out by taxi driver Derrick Bird in June 2010.
Why did you decide the novel was the best form to tell this story?
This is my second novel – my first was called Never Never and was about people with multiple debt problems. Flash fiction is good when you have a lot of very different and compelling ideas you want to explore, but sometimes a longer form allows the reader to live in an idea a little bit longer and soak it in with the writer. I like the way that with a novel you can read a section then look out of the window and think about the world the writer has put you in and then return to it. The short story doesn’t do that so often. With a novel that takes you a few days to read, you kind of become a part of it, and your mood each time you pick it up again has an effect on the way the story hits you. You sometimes remember where you were when you were reading a particular novel – where you were physically and also where you were emotionally – like the way you remember a radio drama or documentary. And you can picture the exact bend in a road that you were going round when a particular phrase was said.
The protagonist is somewhat of an outsider in his local community. What makes these characters such interesting subjects?
I am drawn to people on the fringes and on the outside. They have a kind of separateness and also a sort of freedom to say and think what they like, because they don’t feel the need to conform. In the book the main character asks the ghost in the story why she chose him and ghost says: “Well, we tend to go for outsiders and weirdos when we choose the people we want to work with – it’s a system that works well for us.” Most of my flash fiction is about people on the edges of things.
What inspired you to write about the Cumbria shootings?
I come from West Cumbria and my family still live there. I wanted to write about growing up there in the 1970s, and how isolated and claustrophobic it felt. When I heard about the shootings, which were carried out by a man who was round about the same age as me. I wondered about the causes. Was this feeling of being cut off from the rest of the country and everyone you see every day knowing everything about you – was this feeling maybe part of it? I also wanted to explore how a powerful sense of place is affected by momentous tragic events such as these.
How did you balance the fictional elements of the novel with the real-life events that happened in Cumbria on 2 June 2010?
For the real-life events I stuck to the facts as reported by the newspapers and the police inquiry – I didn’t speculate or try to examine motives. I wanted to just lay out what happened, and I was also conscious of not wanting to over-dramatise the events in an exploitative way, out of respect for the victims and their friends and families and all the people affected by the case
The novel is set in your hometown, Cleator Moor. How important do you think it is for authors to represent the areas they grew up in?
I think that the place you were brought up has an indelible effect on the rest of your life and that writers will endlessly poke and worry at things like that in their work, even if it’s disguised as fictional towns, or if other place names are used. And when you are from a place as uniquely different to anywhere else as West Cumbria is, with its juxtapositions of nuclear plants and thermometer factories next to lakes and mountains, I think you’ll always want to write about it. My first novel was also set there.
Copeland is currently under the national spotlight due to the by-election, but do you feel that the area is generally ignored by central government? And was this reflected in the Brexit vote?
There was a high Brexit vote in Copeland but I don’t think that’s surprising in an area where people can easily feel neglected and forgotten, like many post-industrial northern towns. Copeland is thought of usually only in relation to the nuclear plant Sellafield, which is a huge employer and contributes massively to the local economy. But there’s a completely different story to tell alongside that, a story of people on low incomes struggling to get by, and not many other jobs to do unless you can find work at the plant.
You have led workshops and lectures on how writers can develop flash fiction. What are your top tips to writers?
Start at the end, and end in the middle; don’t have a catchy punning title, aim for something bland which the reader can more easily slip into and inhabit; make sure your last line resonates with the reader; avoid a reveal or punchline ending; don’t allow your characters to tell jokes or be funny, and finally make sure you write a story, not just a description of a premise.