Fresh Blood

Name: Ian Ayris

Title of Book: Abide With Me

' this book and brag to your mates that you were there at the very beginning. '

Two boys growing up in London's East End of the nineteen-seventies. John, from a streetwise and fanatical West Ham supporting family; Kenny, across the street, slow-witted, living in a world of dreams and shadows, beaten by his father, bullied by life.

And one day, Kenny, he just breaks right in half and the two boys are forced apart by a society crumbling around them.

Fourteen years later, after cup finals of joy and personal loss too searing to contemplate, the two boys are re-united, fronting up local gangster Ronnie Swordfish. It doesn't start well. And from where John is, laying on the ground, beat half unconscious with a metal bar, seeing Ronnie lifting up his sword to cut down his childhood friend Kenny, it don't look like it's going to get much better.

But Kenny, he's got other ideas. He always did.

The current state of publishing means that the more nimble, smaller publishers are able to pick up on some major new talent that the publishing big boys are too afraid to touch. Ian Ayris is one such talent.

‘Abide With Me’ is a superb debut novel full of heart, tragedy and humour. It’s a book about friendship and the power of community; both in the criminal fraternity and in the community that is built by family and neighbours.

When we meet the narrator, John, he is at primary school. At that tender age he has a strong moral code, a complete lack of interest in school and a salty turn of speech – and you fall in love with him immediately. You are utterly charmed by his personality and like his family and neighbours you want first to ruffle his hair ... and then take him by the scruff of his neck and slap some sense into him, when his choices take a turn for the worse. But the lessons that stick best in life are the one you learn for yourself and Ayris is a skilled enough writer to know this and sends our hero on a journey that you can only hope, like a committed uncle that he manages to settle on the right course.

In short, this is wonderful stuff, worthy of a wide readership and a shedload of awards. Without any hint of hyperbole, can I say that Ian Ayris is a writer with a big future: buy this book and brag to your mates that you were there at the very beginning. He is that good.

Reviewed by: M.M.

CrimeSquad Rating

Fresh Blood Questionnaire

1) What first made you want to write a crime novel?
I first started writing seriously about three years ago. I had no intention of writing in a specific genre, I just wrote. And what came out were thirty seven crime/noir short stories, all subsequently published online or in print. When I decided to try my hand at writing a novel, a friend of mine pointed out extending one of the already published stories might be a good start – hence ‘Abide With Me’.
2) Given that this is your debut novel, more than a few people will suspect that there is an autobiographical element to the book. How much of you are in your main character/s?
‘Abide With Me’ is set in a working class area of East London, a few miles from where I was born, and the main character is just a couple of years older than me. The book is something of a family saga as well as a crime novel, so much of the childhood references are direct references from my own childhood. I am also a father, a son, and a brother, and these elements are key relationships within the book.
As for the main character – John – as well as replaying or witnessing many of the incidences from my childhood, he is as close to me as any character I have ever written. Ironically, though, it is the incidences in the book that are not autobiographical – for instance, his criminal activities, his time in prison, and his confrontation with local villain, Ronnie Swordfish – that draw most heavily from me. I have never been to prison, but I have known loneliness and fear; I know what it is to be separated from my family, to feel regret, to feel pain. When writing the prison scenes and the others mentioned, the line between myself and John was very thin indeed. I always tend to write from the inside out – intuitively, no planning at all – and during the writing of these elements of the book, I learnt to write almost viscerally. I was a bit of a wreck, to be honest. Typing through tears, and wrought with fear.
So, yes, there is a large amount of direct autobiographical content in the book, but it is the feeling content, the indirect content that links most closely with who I am.
3) The narrator's voice in ‘Abide With Me’ consistently employs the vernacular, to excellent effect. Was this a conscious choice or instinctive? How difficult was it to maintain that stylistic tool?
Most of my stories are written in the vernacular of East London. As I said in my reply to the earlier question, I write intuitvely. Most of the time the voice that comes through my fingers is the voice I speak with – hence the vernacular is not really a choice for me to make. Maintaining this 'stylistic tool', if you like was very easy as I murdered my internal editor the moment I submitted my first story written in this manner three years ago. But that was a short story. That was comparatively easy. I mentioned editing there. Well, killing the editor. The editing of sixty thousand words written in the vernacular was an absolute nightmare. And it wasn't until I had a go at running through the first draft with a red pen that I realised the rules of writing in the vernacular, or dialect, are just as strict as those in 'proper' English. And the key, the golden rule : 'CONSISTENCY'. I had characters that swore, I had characters that didn't. I had characters in which the 'g' was dropped from every 'ing' ending, I had characters that didn't. I had characters that uttered misspelled words, and one of the main characters that never spoke at all. And I knew just a handful of mistakes in the editing would bring the whole thing down.
Fortunately, my publisher - Caffeine Nights - employ the services of the lovely and extremely talented Julie Morrigan as an in-house editor. Funnily enough, Jools is a Geordie, so you can imagine the fun we had cleaning up sixty-thousand words of Cockney vernacular.
4) There is a strong sense of community within your characters and their story - on both sides of the law. How important was it to you to depict that element of the human experience?
For me, the human element in any story is everything. When I read, I want to be able to fill the shoes of the character I'm reading about. I want to experience what it is like to be him or her in their world, just for a moment – to see through their eyes, to ‘feel’ their joy, their pain, their confusion, and their sense of who they are. I want this even from the ostensibly 'bad' characters. The human experience runs the gammut of emotions. When I read I want them all. When I write, I want to challenge the reader to feel them all.
5) 5) As a reader who fell in love with your character, can you tell me what your plans are to re-visit his world?
A lot of readers have asked me to write a sequel, yet I didn't want to write one purely on the basis that it had a waiting readership. I promised myself I would only write a sequel if I could justify it to myself. I was pretty adamant at one point there would be no sequel, and then, a few weeks ago, dragging a load of shopping back from Tescos, that same voice came into my head – John's voice. Within ten minutes of getting home, I had the first page of a potential sequal complete. It's only a tentative beginning, and it might not come to anything, but something tells me, there's more to come yet…
6) The early word on ‘Abide With Me’ has been overwhelmingly positive, how does that make you feel?
To be honest, I thought the reception for ‘Abide With Me’ would be far more polarised than it actually has. Looking at the book objectively, it's a debut novel from an unknown writer written in the first person vernacular, redolent with swearing, slang, and a whole host of cultural references from the seventies that unless you were there might be completely meaningless. I thought the book had no chance of translating to an audience even outside of London, but but some of the kindest, most heartfel praise has come from readers from America as far apart as Maine and California. There have been a couple of dissenting voices – and I love dissenting voices – so I have no problem with that at all. But each day I receive one or two messages from people I have never met – from the UK and the US, telling me how much the book has affected them. And there are no words for how that makes me feel.
7) Caffeine Nights Publishing is a relatively new publishing house started in 2007 that is bringing some of the most exciting crime fiction on the market. How do you feel being involved with such a young publisher?
Fellow Caffeine Nights author – Nick Triplow – once described being with Caffeine Nights as similar to being with a record label such as Rough Trade at the height of Punk. I'll take that, any day.
8) Have you started your next book and can you give us a taster of what some of it involves?
My next book is a novella comissioned by Brit Grit publisher – Byker Books, called ‘Jason Dean’. When I was asked by Byker Books to write the novella, I'd just finished writing a short story entitled : 'Down in the Tube Station at Midnight' for the excellent, and most worthy, charity short story collection, 'Off the Record', put together by Luca Veste. The un-named main character in this short story is a hitman with a penchant for literature. As soon as I submitted the short story, I knew there was more mileage in this character so, almost immediately, sat down to write the novella. The novella is the story of one day in the life of Jason.
9) If you had a gun to your head (only figuratively speaking) who would you have as your main characters on the silver screen?
That's a difficult one, as the book runs the course of fourteen years, and many of the main characters begin the story as children.
As for the adults, in my dreams, I'd go for Ray Winstone as John's dad, Sally Hawkins as John's mum, and Ben Kingsley (a la ‘Sexy Beast’) as Ronnie Swordfish.
10) 10) What would you say would be the top three crime novels that have made a lasting impression on you?
The Long Goodbye – Raymond Chandler.
L.A. Confidential – James Ellroy
He Died With His Eyes Open – Derek Raymond

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