One of the major highlights of my 2017 was a commission from the West Midlands Readers’ Network (WMRN), which led to publication and performance during the October Birmingham Literature Festival 2017.
Each year the WMRN pairs regional writers with reading groups, to work together to produce a story. And behind it all is the support of Writing West Midlands, the regional agency for literature development.
I was paired with a reading group called Page Turners, which meets at Pheasey Library in Birmingham’s Great Barr. They were a charming set of people, who shared their ideas with great enthusiasm, and topped me up with tea and cake.
We discussed the story having a contemporary setting, but with historical elements to take in some key landmarks and incidents in the immediate Pheasey surrounds. These included St Margaret’s Mental Hospital, which closed in the late 1970s or early 1980s.
They were also keen to include mention of the US Replacement Depot at Pheasey Farms Estate in Great Barr during WW2. Part of the estate was requisitioned by the British forces at the outbreak of the war and in 1942 the first group of American soldiers moved in and had a major impact on the surrounding area.
And finally, they were very keen to focus on the German Luftwaffe bombing of Birmingham during the war.
A lot of elements, but we agreed a thriller treatment with a potential murder or suspected murder at the heart of the story.
I took a walk around the area straight after my meeting, and found a lake they’d mentioned – supposedly a haunted lake – still fenced off, and some dilapidated remains of the old hospital, but now with a new red brick housing estate blocking it from general view.
Back at home, a spot of online research led me to a history book, They Also Serve Who Stand and Wait: A History of Pheasey Farms US Army Replacement Depot. I pored over it on my summer holiday, a week in Cornwall on a glamping site.
After days basking on beaches and building sandcastles, we’d head back to the campsite for cricket and campfire cooking then during the late night games in the field kitchen I’d crack open the book while the kids ran feral with their cousins, safe within the campsite confines.
It was a slim but rich volume, packed with glorious detail, anecdotes from servicemen and civilians living on the estate, period colour, detail you couldn’t make up. It was invaluable background.
The first draft of the story came out pretty quickly, but the re-writes were more painful. I made the deadline with a week or so to spare, with a story I’d named ‘American Boy’.
The first time I saw it in print, in the anthology Five Stories, was when I arrived early for the Birmingham Literature Festival event, Small Wonders, held at Waterstones Birmingham.
I was to take part in conversation with former Birmingham poet laureate Roz Goddard, along with a five-strong line up of impressive Midlands-based writers including Kerry Hadley-Pryce and David Calcutt.
When my turn came, I chatted with Roz about the process of writing the stories and what narrative ingredients I was given and how I’d wrestled this into a story. And then I read a five-minute extract from my story, American Boy, in front of a decent crowd, including a handful of Page Turners.
There’s nothing quite like reading a story you’ve written to an attentive crowed, seeing the sentences land, the expressions on faces as they respond to the words and imagery you’ve built – it’s the best feeling in the world.
At the end of the evening, after chatting with the writers also published in the anthology, and with attendees who each took away a Five Stories anthology with them into the night, I headed home, buoyed and inflated and feeling the big opportunity of Small Wonders had brought me a baby step closer to where I want to be.