Tess Makovesky is a fantastic British author whose sly, wicked sense of humour courses through her crime novels. Her Gravy Train is one of my favourite books of last year.
She’s here to talk about Joel Lane’s noir novel, From Blue to Black, which was published back in 2000.
Hi Tess, which book are we talking about?
I’ve just finished re-reading (for the first time in almost twenty years) the noir gem From Blue to Blackby Birmingham author Joel Lane (who sadly died a couple of years ago).
What’s the premise?
The book is set in Birmingham’s alternative music scene in the early 1990s and centres around bass-player David, who joins local indie band Triangle when one of their other members drops out. He falls in love with Triangle’s talented lead singer Karl, but as the band begins to take off, their relationship, and Karl’s mental health, suffer a corresponding tailspin into chaos. Or, as the book’s cover puts it (much more lyrically), “‘From Blue to Black’ is a story of passion, blood and alcohol, broken strings and broken lives – a piercing voyage through our recent musical and political past that cuts to the bone.”
It’s difficult to evoke music through the page without sounding like a Melody Maker journo. How does From Blue to Black manage it?
Hmm, good question. And in a way, I think Joel Lane does make it sound like a Melody Maker journalist – but I also think that was entirely deliberate. The descriptions of the music are less about the emotional response to it (from, say, a listener’s point of view), and more about the techniques of producing tracks and songs and even specific sounds. Which is entirely in keeping with the book’s narrator being a professional musician, and a very technically-minded one at that. So there’s quite a bit of prose that details gigs and recording sessions and drink-fuelled writing sessions in backstreet pubs, all of which comes across as utterly authentic and adds to the raw power of the book.
Is Karl’s technical-mindedness a key characteristic? Is he in the music world for the fame and fortune, or is music something he just has to do?
Both David and Karl are what you might call musical purists, in it for the sound they want to create rather than any kind of fame. It’s their shared love of style and technique that brings the two of them together, but it also masks the cracks in their relationship and in the whole fabric of the band. Karl is a deeply flawed creative who loves to make music. But he also suffers from terrible stage fright and it’s the conflict between wanting to get his music ‘out there’ and being terrified of performing that helps fuel his eventual breakdown. He reminds me in many ways of Brideshead Revisited’s Sebastian Flyte – or how Sebastian Flyte might turn out if he was transported to the rock-and-roll era.
Where does Karl’s stage fright come from? What kind of performer is he – is he Freddie Mercury, is he The Fall’s Mark E Smith?
I’ve never seen The Fall perform so I went and checked out a couple of video clips on YouTube and yes – Karl is very much at that end of the spectrum. Cold snarling rage rather than Mercury’s flamboyant, almost joyous performances. At least that’s the impression I get. As to his stage fright, I think it’s partly his own personality, his shyness versus his need to get his art ‘out there’ for everyone to see, which causes massive internal conflict (and is probably recognisable to a certain extent to many creative types). But this isn’t the only factor. Karl also suffers from flashbacks and general messed-up-ness thanks to a traumatic event in his teens. I can’t tell you what it is because it’s revealed towards the end of the book and forms an important part of the plot – as well as delivering a terrific, kick-in-the-pants kind of twist. But it’s enough to affect Karl for the rest of his life. And his coping mechanisms – including way too much alcohol, drugs, and withdrawal from everyday life, really don’t help either.
Karl has dominated the conversation so far, but isn’t it David who tells the story? Is David a strong character in his own right?
The whole book is told in first-person point of view from David’s standpoint and he’s the central element, the glue that holds all of the other pieces – and characters – together. He’s not a typical “hero” – he’s a bit weak at times and prefers to let people get on with their own lives rather than getting too involved or too close to anyone. Interestingly, I’m not sure we ever find out why that is, unlike Karl whose motives are much clearer by the end of the book. But David’s essentially a decent guy – drinks too much, sleeps around a bit, but never seems wholly comfortable with the whole sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll scene in the way Karl and some of the minor characters clearly are. And it’s that decency that could well be his downfall. He’s basically too nice to have the drive required both to succeed in the music business, and quite possibly to cope with the volatile Karl.
If I have a gripe with the book it’s that I don’t think there’s quite enough backstory for David. It would be brilliant to know just a little more about him – what makes him tick, why he acts the way he does. He’s quite a passive character and while that gives Karl all the space he needs to shine through the pages, it means David is more of an enigma than I’d like him to be. Then again, this really is the story of Karl as seen through David’s eyes.-
Does Karl want to be helped, or does he embrace the ‘unhinged reality’ as a means of escape from his demons?
I don’t think he does want help. He certainly doesn’t ask for it, and at one point he literally runs away rather than accept that he might need it. Whether that’s because he doesn’t want people fussing over him, or whether it’s because he thinks he’s not worthy of helping, I’m not sure, even after reading the book twice. Maybe a bit of both. The bombshell Joel Lane drops near the end of the book would certainly make both possible. As to embracing the unhinged reality, Karl takes refuge in drink and – eventually – hard drugs to escape. But they bring demons of their own, so it isn’t the most successful means of getting away from his problems. But that’s typical of noir, isn’t it? That characters (people) find it hard to understand themselves, or to know what they need for the best. They make all those wrong choices, even when presented with the opportunity to make the right ones, and that’s the desperate, achingly enduring appeal of the genre. Because it’s exactly like real life…
You typically think of noir as guns, femme fatales, money. Is From Black to Blue marketed as noir?
It isn’t your typical pulp noir, certainly, but I believe it fits well into the noir genre overall. I looked up the definition of noir online and the Oxford English Dictionary mentions cynicism, fatalism, and moral ambiguity. And From Blue to Black majors on at least two of those – the characters aren’t villains but they really aren’t ‘good guys’ either, and there’s a definite air of fatalism as events slide further and further out of control. Although the book cover doesn’t mention the word ‘noir’ specifically, the blurb and various quotes involve words like ‘jet-black’, ‘disconcerting’, ‘desperation’ and ‘despair’. Without giving too much away, the ending isn’t a particularly happy one and any hope the characters might have had is soon washed away on a tide of broken dreams. And yet the book isn’t a total tragedy; there is still life at the end of it, even if it isn’t the life the characters hoped for. This is really well illustrated by the lyrics from one of Triangle’s songs (also written by Joel Lane), which gave the book its title: The train runs empty down the track Fades with the night From blue to black Wave goodbye to the future It’s never coming back. I do know that Joel Lane himself was passionate about noir, with an extensive, even encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre, and saw himself mainly as a noir writer. From Blue to Black is a great example of how the tenets of noir can be taken and stretched to fit other scenarios that they weren’t necessarily invented for.
Is the novel a variation of the Jekyll and Hyde story? Is Karl the protagonist and the antagonist at the same time?
I’d never really thought of it like that. I guess there are elements of Jekyll and Hyde, but only in the same way that we all have elements of good and bad in us. Mostly, we hide the bad but sometimes it takes over and that’s rather the same with Karl, David and the other characters in the book. However, it’s more subtle than a sudden raging transformation into Hyde or Hulk. Instead the book charts Karl’s gradual descent towards breakdown, with episodes of strangeness, depression, or self-isolation. And what Joel Lane does so well is to make Karl and the others less like characters in a book, and more like complex, richly-imagined and surprisingly real people. Like real-life people they do stupid things, lose their tempers, argue, make up again, love each other and generally rub along with life. And like real people they’re not there to move the plot along or be a cipher for a particular theme or aspect of humanity. They’re just, well, people.
The novel is set in Birmingham. I know you love Birmingham, but it sounds like the story’s setting mirrors the bleak mental state Karl is in. What’s your take?
I spent over twenty years living in Birmingham and know it pretty well – but I’m not blind to the fact that whilst some parts of the city are surprisingly leafy and prosperous, others are pretty bleak. From Blue to Black is set in various locations around the city including at least one of the greener suburbs (Moseley), and several others that are less salubrious (local clubs and bars, Spaghetti Junction, decaying industrial landscapes in the Black Country). Where Joel Lane excels is in finding the grit and surrealism in even the pleasantest places – and in using them, as you say, to mirror the bleak storyline. The descriptions are remarkably poetic. They grabbed me from the very first paragraph – this one, about Moseley: “A bloodshot moon hung over the tall houses in Salisbury Road, giving faint doubles to the shadows of trees. Across the road, the lights of a housing estate floated in empty air.” Of course, it helps that I was living in Moseley at the time and recognised many of the landmarks. But even when the book moves to places I’m less familiar with, the poetry remains. As does the extraordinary palette of colours, or rather, mostly, the lack of them. Much of the book uses settings that seem bleached of colour, or that reflect the blue and black of the title. Every now and again there’s a sudden flare of vivid colour, often in red or orange – that bloodshot moon, a sunset, a house on fire – to break the monotone. It’s a striking effect, and not one I’ve ever come across before.
Do such descriptions come out of the characters? Some editors think they should – does the descriptiveness take you out of the story even as you admire it?
For me, not really, for a number of reasons. One, the book is in first person point of view so you’re seeing the world through David’s eyes. Then the descriptions, although poetic, aren’t overly long – there’s no sense of the Dan Brown school of using every adjective you can think of, or of the descriptions going on for pages at a time. Two or three lines is about what Joel Lane gives us most of the time, but because it’s such powerful imagery he packs a lot of information into that short space. Where I did find things took me outside the story occasionally was in the track listings of the various gigs the band did. They got rather repetitive and didn’t always seem to add to the story. Once or twice is fine, to give a flavour of what Triangle were playing and how they adapted it to suit different venues/sound systems/audiences, but there were a few too many paragraphs in the vein of “Then we played at…” for my own taste. In the end, though, I think this is down to the reader’s individual preference. I love descriptions of locations, especially if they’re as pared down and evocative as this, but I’ve seen reviews of From Blue to Black that describe it as the most boring book ever. Then again, I’ve seen other reviews that say it “stayed with” the reader longer than anything else they’d read. I’m firmly in the latter camp, but I can see that it wouldn’t be popular with everyone.
Can you imagine what the music sounds like? What’s banging about your head when the tunes kick in?
Oddly enough I don’t really hear the music while I’m reading. Partly I think that’s because I find it hard to mix music with reading or writing anyway. When I write I prefer total silence – or at least nothing that’s going to distract me, like music or voices. And when I read, I’m lost inside the book and very unaware of anything else around me. Plus I think I have a very visual way of responding to what I’m reading – I see the scenes very clearly, but am less aware of sounds, smells and touch. On top of that I’m not actually a big fan of indie/alternative music from the 1990s, so I’ve got very little to fall back on when I try to imagine what it might sound like. If I think of anything it’s probably Joy Division – one of the few bands I know anything about – or perhaps Nirvana, a band that Joel Lane himself mentions in the book a couple of times. None of that affects my enjoyment of the book, though. I’m happy to read the lyrics as a kind of urban poetry, with their own rhythm and “music”, without stopping to think what the guitars, drums and vocals would sound like if I was listening to them in real life.
The book sounds dark. Does a streak of bleak humour run through it?
Very much so. Dare I say, perhaps less than in my own writing, but it’s there. Every so often there’s a wry, dry little comment or line of dialogue, often throwaway, that you could miss if you blink. Often it’s a quiet dig at human foibles or at the more ridiculous side of the music business (‘their haircuts alone were enough to get them signed to Creation.’). There’s also an occasional Brummie in-joke, including someone referring to the band as “Troy Engle”. You kind of have to have lived there, or know what Brummies sound like, to get that one. None of it is laugh-out-loud but it helps to relieve the tension from time to time, and give the reader a quick, sideways smile of understanding. Overall, though, From Blue to Black isn’t a funny book. Most of the narrative is pure noir. And that’s why I envy it, and Joel Lane, for being able to write it, because I struggle to write such dark fiction without the humour creeping in.
Your book, Gravy Train, made me laugh throughout, but some of the stakes terrified me. Do you think humour can dilute a noir novel?
This is a tough one. My first reaction was ‘yes’ but then I paused and thought again. Humour certainly changes the tone of any novel and if there’s too much of it, it probably does dilute the darkness. But it can also be a great way of softening up your audience so that the eventual blow is unexpected and all the more powerful. Tolkien was a master of this technique – he understood that readers mostly can’t stay at the same level of tension throughout a long book. So he interspersed the scary bits with more pastoral or humorous scenes, which made the darker stuff all the more poignant and horrifying. Horror movies often do the same. You’re pottering along, enjoying some minor plot point about the family cat, and then blam!
In the case of From Blue to Black the humour is subtle and scattered through the pages so it’s never enough to water down the bleakness. And in my own writing I like to think my humour is dark enough to point up the hopelessness rather than detracting from it. But then I would say that, wouldn’t I…?
Who do you picture as Karl in a TV series/film?
I tend not to picture characters all that strongly when I’m reading, but if I was pushed I’d say someone who can do quiet intensity, even suffering, without necessarily having the flashy good looks of a big star. David Tennant would be a strong possibility but is perhaps a bit too well known. Others that spring to mind are John Simm or Stephen Graham, or perhaps a young Liverpool actor called Tom Hughes. I’ve seen in a couple of very different roles and he was excellent in both so he clearly has the necessary range – and he’d be closer to Karl’s age during the book, too.
You’ve just finished a new novel. Can you talk about it? If so, what is it, what’s the style?
Hmm, I think “finished” is a little optimistic! But yes, I have indeed written the first draft of a new book, Embers of Bridges, which is similar in many ways to my most recent novel Gravy Train. Both are set in Birmingham, both feature petty criminals, and both are what you might call ‘comédie noir’. In the new book the central theme is loyalty and honour among thieves – or lack of it. Brummie van driver Mickey has been mates with Gaz since primary school. Along with their pals Charlie and Pete, and Gaz’s younger sister Trudy, they formed the Live Hard Die Young gang and spend their spare time robbing newsagents, off-licences and jewellery stores. Until things start to unravel, with job after job going wrong and the gang members falling out with each other. Gaz drags Mickey into one last job on a warehouse in the famous Jewellery Quarter, and suggests a bizarre getaway on a canal boat. But when one of them makes a shocking discovery, it leads to a dark – and watery – conclusion for both of them! As with Gravy Train I had a lot of fun writing it, but it still needs hammering into shape and I’m working on that (with a very large hammer) as we speak.
I loved Gravy Train, so I’m looking forward to this one. Sounds like you’re a pantser?
Hey, thanks for the kind comments – it makes all the hard work worthwhile when people enjoy my books! And yes, guilty as charged on the ‘seat of the pants’ stuff. I tried planning a book out once, and used up so much of my creative energy on a complete list of every chapter and its contents that I had none left to actually write the thing! So now I tend to plunge straight in. I do need a few things to be in place first, though. Most important is the main character(s), plus a rough idea of what the main plot will be. In Gravy Train that idea was a bag of stolen money changing hands many times before it ended up in the local canal, while in Raise the Blade it was the concept of people finding the victims of a serial killer and using the knowledge for their own ends. I also need at least a vague feel for the ending I’m aiming for. And I find it hard to get going unless I have a title, or a working title at least. These days I try to use Pink Floyd lyrics for my titles (‘Raise the Blade’ is from Brain Damage; ‘Gravy Train’ from Have a Cigar, and the new book ‘Embers of Bridges’ is from High Hopes). So before I start any major work on a book you can usually find me poring over track listings on the internet, looking up something that will suit the tone of the book. So far, Messrs Gilmour, Wright and Waters haven’t let me down!
Tess, you’ve been great. Any final words?
Only to say thanks, Jason for such a fascinating, in-depth set of questions, which really got me scratching my head. Thanks too to the late Joel Lane for writing such a fantastic book – and to everyone on here for putting up with me rambling on for so long! And if by any chance you want to look for my own books, you can find all the details at my website at www.tessmakovesky.com.
You can get a feel for Tess’ style with a few of her short stories. Try these out:
The Floor’s the Limit (published by Flash Fiction Offensive).
Bang to Rights (published by Punk Noir Magazine).
Trick of the Trade (published by Spelk Fiction).