Interview with Steve Jenkins
The Nobody Man is a vigilante revenge novel, a slice of gritty realism, inner-city life at its darkest. Reviewers have described it as raw, uncompromising, and richly cinematic. Can you tell us a little more about how the idea for the novel came about and why you wanted to tell this story?
The idea for the book came when I saw a social media post about an old man, a man who had worked hard all of his life, served in the British Armed Forces, who had done nothing but contributed positively to society, who had his prized vintage motorcycle stolen. The hoodlums that stole it tried to ransom it online and then, when they didn’t get any money, they set fire to it and posted the pictures. I was incensed, and I tried to imagine what the owner of that bike would feel like. The rest of the story just fell into place around that. I wanted to tell the story because I think most people in the UK see plenty of movies about how tough life is in the hard cities of the USA, but don’t realise that there are worse places right here. There is a whole nasty underbelly of society here in the UK that people aren’t aware of.
The Nobody Man certainly has an element of vigilante revenge to it, but the protagonist, Dan, constantly struggles with his own ethics and morality. Is he becoming as bad as the criminals he opposes? Should he try to let the authorities deal with crimes against him? If not, why not? Why would he feel that the authorities would fail him and other victims of crime in modern Britain? And of course, with Jonah, the story shows that some criminals are able to change and rehabilitate, given the chance. Jonah is a petty criminal but also a victim of circumstance. This is explored in more depth in the sequel to The Nobody Man, should I ever finish it!
Dan is a paramedic with a military background – which I believe is similar to your own background. Most writers deliberately avoid making their main characters appear too similar to themselves – was this a deliberate choice you made, and if so, do you think you were trying to tell your own story at some level?
I used the old cliché “write what you know about”, I guess. I didn’t construct Dan’s character from my own. He is a far more intelligent and interesting person than I, because I had free rein to make him that way. It was never meant to be my own story, although I ended up using anecdotes from my childhood, from my military career and from my paramedic role. Some of those violent episodes in The Nobody Man were based on real life events, not necessarily from my life, but from the lives of those people I grew up with on the estates in Walsall. Real life events are often more incredible than fiction, that’s why the genre of real life crime is so popular.
I don’t think I was trying to tell my own story. I wanted to tell the stories of ordinary people, stuck in the horrible sink estates of Great British society. They deserve to have their stories and their struggles told.
You were brought up on a deprived housing estate, but were nevertheless encouraged to write at school, and the headmaster, Col. William Flood, also encouraged you to join the British Army. Do you think your life would have been totally different if it hadn’t been for your education at Hydesville Tower School?
Yes, definitely. If I hadn’t been so lucky to go to Hydesville, my life would have turned out very different indeed! The housing estate I grew up on was a stark contrast to the school I attended. One extreme to the other. I’m not sure why my mother decided to send me to a private school, Hydesville, from the kindergarten stage, but I knew by the time I reached secondary school age that there was no way I could just drop back into a state school. There’s nothing wrong with state education, I’m not implying that at all. But the two schools in my area were really brutal hard-knock schools and the kids who went there were part of a social group that I had not been initiated into. Kids can be horrible, really vicious, and standing out as different is a sure-fire way to get your life ruined by becoming a target for bullies. I knew this, and I also knew that if I hadn’t managed to gain the scholarship to Hydesville secondary school, I would not be attending the local comp. One way or another, I would not go. My mind was definitely made up about that. In all truth, the thought of it absolutely terrified me! A good friend of mine, who was the basis for one of the main characters in The Nobody Man, spent a lot of time telling me how he was really scared, every day, to attend school in one of those comps. He rarely went, played truant a lot, eventually dropping out of the education system altogether by the time he was fourteen years old without even learning to read or write. He wasn’t a weak person, he was a bit of a scrapper and a lovable rogue, but he was bullied to the point of having suicidal thoughts. This was Great Britain in the 1980s, when there was no support for kids with this sort of problem.
Colonel Flood was a very influential character in my life and the encouragement that I received from him and other teachers certainly made me write. It was a method of desperately needed escapism and those teachers must have been decades ahead of their time to be so insightful.
Joining the British Army was the only safe decision to make when I left school. The other choices would have been either risking becoming a lifetime member of the “benefits generation” or choosing a life of crime. It was so easy for young people to make the wrong choices, and once those choices had been made they were virtually impossible to change. Most of the kids from Hydesville went on to be doctors or lawyers or other professionals. I didn’t consider those options, not because I thought I was too stupid, but because I thought those career choices weren’t for kids like me. If one of my school friends told his parents he wanted to become a doctor, there was a strong chance that one of the parents was a medical professional too, or one of their friends or family members were. It wasn’t outside their social circle. It would have been attainable and almost expected. I may as well have told people I wanted to walk on the moon as say I wanted to become a solicitor! Looking back, I see that I could have chosen a career like that if I had really wanted to, but I didn’t know how and I didn’t realise I just had to ask someone for guidance. Life was very different back then. Most people followed their predetermined social pathways. Only the most outstanding or unique characters were strong enough to say, no, that’s not what I want to do. That was my misconception of things anyway, and by the time I had realised I was wrong, I was all grown up and already on my own pathway. I think that Colonel Flood knew how I felt and he also knew that joining the army would change me as a person and make me stronger, mentally as well as physically.
Do you think it is harder for working class authors, writing about working class lives, to achieve mainstream success?
No, I don’t think so, certainly not now. Perhaps yes, in the 1980s, but not now. The internet has opened up so many options because it shows everyone that there are other life choices. It shows how other people have achieved what they wanted, regardless of their social class. When I left school I knew that anyone could write stories, but I didn’t know how they got them published. The main problem in getting published now is very different to the 1980s. The dreaded subject of political correctness is ever present in the 2020s. It stifles creativity and it makes the average person’s opinions taboo. I read a decent article here – Publishers must act now to develop working-class writers, says report | Publishing | The Guardian – I agree with some of it, but I don’t think that there is a lack of social diversity, in fact I think that the opposite is true, thankfully.
The Nobody Man has been praised for its raw authenticity. Was it difficult to ‘live’ in such a bleak world while you were writing the novel, or did you see it as an extension of the world you grew up in? What was your biggest challenge when writing the novel? And what did you enjoy most about the process?
The Nobody Man did become a sort of extension of that world, yes, although I hadn’t thought of it like that until you just asked that question. I tried to bring all the different small stories, from various sources and even from different timeframes, all together in the overall story.
My biggest challenge when writing The Nobody Man was time management. My job involved a lot of studying, in my own time, and juggling the novel’s deadlines was challenging. Not impossible though, and time management became an important part of the writing process. I set myself a word count target per month, and kept track of it. Eventually, those deadlines helped to complete the book. If I hadn’t had the pressure of finishing the book in the timeframe agreed with Victorina Press, I might never have finished it. I really didn’t want to let Consuelo down. She’d shown faith in me, and I wanted to at least finish the first draft on time. If she had read the finished product and not liked it, that would have been disappointing, but at least I would have known that I hadn’t let her down by being lazy and not producing the goods.
I enjoyed developing the characters. The extra snippets, the short stories I wrote about some of the main characters on the facebook page of The Nobody Man were initially done while writing the first draft. I never realised that this process would help to strengthen the characters in the book. I think I got the idea from Stephen King. Those snippets were never intended for publication in the novel but I really enjoyed writing them.
Are you a fast or slow writer? Do you find it difficult to carve out time to write, or are you quite disciplined?
I don’t consider myself a fast writer at all. I know of some writers that can do 5-10 thousand words per day! It takes me a month to write 10,000 words that I am happy with. Once I set my own deadlines, I am quite disciplined. Any writer has to be. I schedule writing time into my diary and stick to it.
Your publishers, Victorina Press, believe very strongly in the principles of bibliodiversity. What does this mean to you personally and was it a factor in your decision to submit your work to them?
Personally, I don’t think that bibliodiversity is perceived as an important concept in the free western world, as we have always been lucky enough to have freedom of speech and freedom to express ourselves with the written word, whether that is factual writing such as journalism (sometimes!) or whether it is creative freedom expressed as fictional writing. I don’t mean that it isn’t important, far from it, but we have taken it for granted, in the same way as an indigenous tribesman might not consider the importance of freedom to wander and hunt in their land until it has been taken away by the imperious colonial invaders.
When I was growing up, I read books that described how some dictatorships would enforce burning books policies and restricting people’s freedom to read or write whatever they wanted. I saw it in movies too, but I didn’t truly appreciate how destructive this book burning policy was, how it was a method of control, of demonstrating power of the state over the individual. I couldn’t imagine living in a state where I couldn’t read whatever I want to, but I know that it happens in many countries. I think that bibliodiversity is an absolute right of the individual in a free society. I applaud Victorina for bringing this concept to British awareness, however it wasn’t a factor in my decision to submit my work to them, because I never saw lack of bibliodiversity as a problem in this country. Of course I may be wrong on that, but I hope not.
I sincerely believe that political correctness is the most stifling restriction on creativity in the UK at the moment.
What is next for you as a writer? Another novel, or something completely different?
Unfortunately, life events across the world have changed my plans over the last couple of years, and since the publication of The Nobody Man. A significant life event in 2019 stifled my creativity and then the pandemic of the last two years has meant that I have been working flat out in my NHS frontline role. I have also started my own business, as an exit strategy from the aforementioned NHS role, and like a lot of small businesses worldwide, it has been challenging. As you can imagine, the time constraints have left few spare periods to write creatively and productively. As things are now hopefully settling down again, I find myself reading a lot more and this is inspiring me to continue my writing again.
I started a sequel to The Nobody Man, with some of the original main characters, and I also started a completely different genre of book.
I wanted to write the story of a man and his journey through dementia after his diagnosis and subsequent decline, seen through his own mind’s eye and through the experiences and frustrations of his family as they deal with this terrifying disease. I’ve used my own experience for this book, from seeing a family member suffer from Alzheimers and from the work that I do in the NHS.
In lots of ways, this story is completely different from The Nobody Man, but it is also intended to be similar in the way it portrays difficulties of the ordinary British person when dealing with societal problems and the infuriatingly complicated system that we live in.
I wanted The Nobody Man to make a statement on British society, and this other book would also be written with that in mind.