Nigel Bartlett, author of King of the Road
Tell us about your latest creation:
My debut novel, King of the Road, was published by Vintage (Random House) in February 2015. It’s a fast-paced crime thriller that follows David Kingsgrove’s descent into hell after his 11-year-old nephew, Andrew, disappears from under his nose.
The novel is based in Sydney and New South Wales. It takes David to places he’d never believed he’d have to go and leads him to carry out acts he’d never imagined he’d have to do.
It wasn’t meant to be a crime thriller – the first draft was meant to be a somewhat literary examination of what happens to a family when your responsible for the loss of a child that’s not your own. The way it changed halfway through the first draft is one of the mysteries of the creative process.
Where are you from / where do you call home?:
I arrived in Sydney in 1995 and became an Australian citizen as soon as I was able to, in 2003. I live in the inner-city suburb of Redfern, which I’ve been proud to call home for the past 10 years.
When you were a kid, what did you want to become? An author?:
Growing up, I dreamt of several possible careers.
The earliest I can remember is wanting to be a car designer (at the age of 11 or 12). In my teens I wanted to be a social worker (age 14/15), then an architect/interior designer (16/17), but I was no good at maths or art, and eventually I settled on journalism, which has allowed me to explore many of my interests.
I first articulated my dream of having a novel published when I was 22. It took me a further 28 years to achieve that goal. King of the Road was published on my 50th birthday. A very happy coincidence (or possibly something else, if you believe in general spookiness).
What do you consider to be your best work? Why?:
King of the Road is my debut novel. I’m very proud of it, and delighted with the reaction it’s received so far. It’s had excellent reviews on 2GB radio and in Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph, for example, and reader feedback has been outstanding. It’s extremely gratifying to hear people say they’ve picked up the book in the morning and not put it down until the evening!
Describe your writing environment to us – your writing room, desk, etc.; is it ordered or chaotic?:
I write at a desk at one end of my large combined living room/kitchen/dining area in my flat in Redfern.
The desk becomes quite disordered when I’m not writing, but I have a pre-writing ritual in which I clear all the papers and other junk that gather during the week around the keyboard and stack them either on my kitchen table or on the filing drawers next to my desk. I don’t like to write surrounded by clutter, although I can probably write anywhere.
This leads to the situation in which all my bills, articles to read and other bits and pieces of junk end up in a neat stack, which I never go through until I’m forced to find something I need. It’s not ideal, but it means I can write unhindered by jobs to do. And usually after a while I forget most of the articles and so on that I think are so essential, proving to me that what I think is important really isn’t.
One or both of my cats (Marcus and Will – they’re brothers) will often join me on the desk while I’m writing. When that happens I have to wait for them to settle on either side of my keyboard so they don’t disturb me with their demands for attention. Snoozing cats are very conducive to writing.
When you’re not writing, who/what do you like to read?:
My all-time favourite author is Anne Tyler (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Saint Maybe, Digging to America, etc etc) and I can read anything by her repeatedly.
I’m also a huge fan of Nick Hornby, especially About a Boy (my cats are named after the two main characters).
However, most of the books I read these days are crime novels or crime thrillers. It’s hard to name favourites, but here are a few I love: Kate Atkinson (the Jackson Brodie series), PM Newton, Ian Rankin, Peter Temple, Michael Robotham, Dennis Lehane. I’ll read any crime author to see how they do it.
What was the defining book(s) of your childhood/schooling?:
In my young childhood I was a huge fan of Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five and Secret Seven series, and it’s only now that I realise how much I loved the mystery element of those books as much as their carefree existence and enormous breakfasts and high teas.
In my teens I felt a huge need to struggle through DH Lawrence novels and Somerset Maugham, but I remember devouring Agatha Christie novels whenever I was on holiday. They felt like a guilty pleasure when I “should” have been reading something more worthy.
(I turned to DH Lawrence again in my 30s and was able to appreciate him much more fully. Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Sons & Lovers remain two of my favourite novels.)
A book that has always stayed with me from my school days is Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves. It gave me my first glimpse into the horrors of the First World War, in an eminently readable way.
Most importantly, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee left a profound impression on me. I’ve never forgotten Atticus Finch’s advice to his daughter, Scout, that you can never truly understand a person until you “climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it”. Every kid should be given that advice when they start school.
If you were a literary character, who would you be?:
Um, very hard to decide. I do like Will Freeman in About A Boy, largely because of the transformation he goes through in the novel. He’s not especially nice at the start, just like many of us (or is that just me??), but he becomes extremely likeable by the end. He shows there’s hope for us all.
I’d love to be Miss Marple, because she lives in a quaint English village and spends time in such beautiful parts of Britain. And she seems never to have had a day job. I’d prefer not to have a gender reassignment though.
I’d very much like to be Jack Reacher, because he’s completely fearless, has no qualms about not changing his underwear and is very tall, handsome and strong. He’s a bit screwed-up, but aren’t we all? (Or, again, is that just me??) And I’m not sure what his political views are. I’d need to check those out first before I swapped places with him.
Apart from books, what do you do in your spare time (surprise us!)?:
I’m an avid gym goer and love exercise in general – lifting weights, cycling and running. They’re all great mood-changers and endorphin and seratonin boosters. Plus, they help counteract the effects of long hours at the computer. Having recently turned 50, the challenge is to keep neck and shoulder injuries in check after spending most of my adult lifetime staring at a screen.
I love television, in particular British crime series (Happy Valley and Scott & Bailey are brilliant – Sally Wainwright is The Best TV Writer On The Planet).
I can watch The Great British Bake Off until the cows come home. At one stage I had three series on the go, thanks to a DVD of the most recent series sent over from the UK and two previous series being aired concurrently on Gem.
What is your favourite food and favourite drink?:
My culinary tastes are not highly refined. I enjoy posh restaurant meals from time to time, but I can think of better things to spend my money on.
If it’s a Friday or Saturday night, I’m very happy when any menu has lamb shanks or chicken schnitzel and mash on it, with a thick gravy or mushroom sauce. Monday to Friday I generally avoid sugar. I have to, believe me.
Favourite drink is easy: tea, tea and more tea. Very strong English breakfast (often with two teabags). I drink around 10 mugs of it a day. I’m sure it’s the reason for the arthritis in my big toe.
Who is your hero? Why?:
Once upon a time I would have said my hero was Lance Armstrong, because of the way he fought back from cancer, overcame enormous physical challenges to become a winner once again and dedicated his life to helping others to Live Strong. Sadly, he’s blotted his copybook.
I have heroes who perform amazing physical feats, whether they be everyday “unknown” people who transform their weight or shape despite huge setbacks or bodily challenges and disabilities, or well-known people who’ve set records, inspired others or gone to extreme lengths to achieve their goals.
Other heroes are people who’ve been able to forgive those who’ve committed terrible acts against them or caused them profound heartache. Examples that spring to mind are the parents at the end of Dead Man Walking, or Philomena Lee, as played by Judi Dench in the movie Philomena.
I have no idea whether their real-life counterparts were as forgiving as they were portrayed in those films, but if so, they’ve set a high bar that I don’t think I’d ever be able to reach.
Crystal ball time – what is the biggest challenge for the future of books and reading?:
The greatest challenge lies in persuading people to put down their smartphones and pick up a book or e-reader instead. Unless, of course, they’re reading books on their phones. It’s hard for me to tell without wandering up and down the train carriage and peering over their shoulders. Occasionally I do that as I make my way to the exit.
This challenge, by the way, applies equally to me. Facebook and Instagram are like crack cocaine as far as my brain is concerned.
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