Sunday, November 23, 2014

Welcome John Lawton: an Englishman in New York (among other places …)

John Lawton is a very difficult writer to categorise. His Inspector Troy series (seven novels so far and counting) was selected by Time magazine as one of the six ‘Detective Series to Savor’, as well as being bought by Columbia Pictures.

The man himself has been compared favourably to Le Carré and was named as one of only half a dozen living English writers in The Daily Telegraph’s ‘50 Crime Writers to Read Before You Die’. Last year saw the start of a new series featuring reluctant post-war spy Joe Wilderness, and this month came the US publication of his Vietnam-era standalone, SWEET SUNDAY, called by the Literary Review ‘a sprawling heartbreaker of a novel.’

In short, he’s such a fine writer he makes you spit, if he wasn’t also one of those charming eccentrics who always keeps you guessing.  ZS

Most of my early novels were written in the USA. I saw two ways to get England off my back … to write about it and not to live there. For ten or twelve years I shuttled back and forth between England and New York, with occasional forays out West … Oregon (lying in a salt pool in the Cascade Mountains in the middle of a thunderstorm, bollock-naked), Arizona (climbing mountains in the Chiricahuas trying to remember whether you squared up to bears or ran for it … maybe that was mountain lions?) and Lubbock … butt of so many of Molly Ivins’ jokes and the only one-storey town I have ever visited. Lubbock, after all, has no need of skyscrapers, although there is sky aplenty to be scraped, it just spreads out across the Texas panhandle.

Sometime in the early Nineties, lunch with Quentin Crisp in the Cooper Square Diner on 2nd Ave … he is explaining to me why we are there and not in London … or Manchester … or Scunthorpe: “In my heart I have always been an American.”

I could have narrowed that down for him, in his heart he had always been a New Yorker, and I think he was telling me I had too. (Sorry Sting, a great song but I never heard that Englishman in New York ask for tea, he drank Coors and Bud.) Our New Yorks were very different. He lived in the East Village, on 2nd Street opposite the Hells Angels HQ – claimed they kept a paternal eye on him. I lived up on Central Park West … Lauren Bacall on the floor above, Shelley Winters in the block next door, Yoko Ono on the other side of the square … no Hells Angels that I knew of. But it was the same city in the mind’s eye … a construction erected in the spring-bust, flea-pit cinemas of the Olde Englande we’d readily abandoned at the first beat of Please Please Me thirty years earlier. We were not Citizens of the USA (although Mr Crisp eventually won that one too), we were its ‘American’ acculturants.

Maybe it was in that conversation that I decided to write a novel set in New York. If so I didn’t set one word of the damn thing down for at least five years and then spent another six writing it: SWEET SUNDAY. And it grew beyond the city, stayed rooted in it but spread across the continent, through the 1960s, across my lifetime and beyond … but … but I could not pretend to be a New Yorker, sheerfukkinfolly … nor could my first person narrator be English. Then it hit me. Lubbock. A child of the plains, from the one-storey town whose take on NYC might be as oblique as my own inevitably was … that heady mixture of awe, delight and bafflement that New York always induces in me. Hence John Turner Raines was born, an educated innocent in a pair of expensive Tony Lama boots, adrift in the New York of the 1960s.

It is not a happy tale … I find it hard to recall the 1960s without a sense of tragedy … but I hope the reader will ‘endeavour to persevere’, (as Dan George once said in a Clint Eastwood Western) … because the ideas of the Sixties matter still (yes, I know fekkinwell that I’m writing this the day after the Republikan landslide, so don’t tell me!), and in this America led.  It was Abbie Hoffman who said, “We (the Yippies) staged our revolution as such it was: ideas from the Civil Rights Movement ... music by the British Bands.” Hoffmann (never met the guy) and Rubin (knew him somewhat in the late 80s) were not my generation, and while I would not argue with Tom Brokaw over 'The Finest Generation” … theirs has a lot to be said for and about it.

Soundtrack for SWEET SUNDAY:

‘America’ – Simon & Garfunkel
‘Somewhere Down The Crazy River’ – Robbie Robertson
‘Hot Fun in the Summertime’ – Sly & the Family Stone
‘For What it’s Worth’ – Buffalo Springfield
‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ – Billy Joel

This week’s Word of the Week was also chosen by John Lawton who happens to be something of a whiz when it comes to making his own bread. The word, therefore, is poolish, meaning a fairly wet sponge usually made with equal parts flour to water, whereas a biga is typically a drier mix. Both are types of preferment, which is any technique that combines a modest amount of flour in the total recipe—usually twenty to thirty percent—with a very small amount of leavening agent (yeast or sourdough starter) and some of the total water and lets it develop for a period of time—usually overnight, but it can be anything from an hour to several days or more than a week.


  1. Thanks, John! Where was the salt pool in the Cascades? One of my favorite memories is when my son took me hiking up into the Jefferson Wilderness and we camped overnight. About 7pm it started to rain, so we crawled into our small 2-man tent and by 8pm it was a full-blown thunderstorm. The wind was near hurricane strength, the rain was hitting the tent like a team of firemen had their hoses trained on us, and the lightning strikes on the peaks around us were coming about every 5-10 seconds, lighting up the tent like we were surrounded by a team of paparazzi. That went on for over two hours. But butt-naked in a salt pool? That takes balls...

  2. Thanks for the video. It's one of my favorites by RR.

  3. I've been AWOL from MIE for the past ten days or so due to no good reason but travel, conferences, and general goofing off, so it was an unexpected pleasure to tune back in and find your post, John, as my first read. It walked me down my own NYC memory lanes of the 60s, 70s, 80s [getting older just writing out the decades] that shaped us all. Those were quintessential New York Camelot times, and to talk about experiencing those days through a Tony Lama loving, Lubbock emigre...well that's simply brilliant. Can't wait to read "Sweet Sunday."