Which of your books has more of an Essex focus?
My novel ‘Vulgar Things’ is set in Canvey Island and Southend and I also co-wrote ‘Trying to Fit a Number to a Name: The Essex Estuary’ with Tim Burrows, a joint essay project concerning Essex myth and identity.
Which aspects of Essex do you write about?
I am interested in the landscape of the estuary and its effect on individuals; how it shapes narratives, myths, and perspectives. Especially its flatness: at Southend when the tide is out, the expanse of mud becomes a living canvas, littered with footprints, marks, blemishes, all combining to create this strange work of art, only to be washed away at the next high tide. The repetition of this somehow seems important. Something special happens out there. Conrad witnessed it (as many other writers, musicians, and artists have), when in the opening paragraph of his masterpiece ‘The Heart of Darkness’ he describes the estuary on a grey day, leaving the docks of Tilbury behind, heading out between Sheerness and Shoeburyness, the grey sky and sea welding together at the horizon into a ‘vanishing flatness’.
Why do you like writing about Essex?
It’s rich in culture, history, and narratives. As an outsider (I am from Manchester) the common, media-created surface generalisations about Essex and people from Essex in particular annoy me. I aim to sift through these generalisations in search of the gems, nuggets, and rare stones that lay buried just beneath its murky surface.
Are there books about Essex you’d recommend?
Well, obviously Iain Sinclair has written a lot about Essex, and the stuff on the broomway by Robert MacFarlane. ‘The Essex Coast’ [https://silvermud.wordpress.com] website has some interesting writing. The Canvey Island set novel ‘Behindlings’ by Nicola Barker is wonderful. There’s a Victorian novel by a Southend author, Robert Buchanan, called ‘Andromeda: an Idyll of an Island’ which is good and strangely lost these days. Sophie Sleigh-Johnson’s ‘Chthonic Index’ while not necessarily about Essex is a fine example of a book/work of art which could not have been created anywhere other than Essex – it’s truly mesmerising.
Name your favourite Essex place, person or whatever.
Essex person has to be Wilko Johnson, the man’s an inspiration. Place would be the estuary itself (especially on the grey days as mentioned above). My whatever is a beer and some fresh seafood by the cockle sheds in Leigh-on-Sea, a proper Essex tradition.
One tip for writers who want to write about people and places
Walk, walk everywhere. Walk into strange pubs, deserted streets, back alleys, up and down high streets. Listen to conversations, record sounds, and speech patterns. Look at the topography, the architecture, what’s being demolished, left to rot and decay, sniff out the vernacular of what’s being built, the strange things so ordinary you wouldn’t normally notice them. You know, the same stuff all writers do.