The Death and Life of Red Henley

By Philip Wilding

A contemporary noir novel set against the decaying façade of 1980’s New York and a religious commune staked out in the Tennessee countryside. But what connects them both and who killed Red and why?

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Spark To The Flame

A few years ago I tried to leave London (in truth, I think I was trying to get away from myself, but that's for another time). I gave away most of my books, my music, my DVDs (the Oxfam shop in Kentish Town, littered with remnants of my past, had a display window that looked the Wilding Bazaar and Emporium, I winced each time I went past), packed up my little flat and headed for an even smaller space down on the south coast. It was the August bank holiday weekend, a rare strand of sunlight shone down on the hire van as we negotiated our way through the one way system that is Croydon town centre and headed for the South Downs and out towards the sea, never stopping until we ran out of road.

I liked it there, I love Brighton, I still nurture a dream that I'll end up there with a view of the garden, writing reams as the days drift. I settled, I healed, I revelled in the friends I had and the ones I made, but work and London kept calling me back. I headed to the coast to see if the second book I'd been pushing around was actually in me or just a notion, that Cross Country Murder Song was the one novel I could and would write or was the idea of Red (that, like CCMS, was a completely different novel in the initial stages, I think a few hundred early words might have survived and made it to the completed manuscript) just that, an idea?

Each morning, when the trains ran (Southern trains are so uniformly awful that you think they've been created as some sort of social experiment to see how far you can push people until they crack and set fire to the carriage) I'd take my notebook, an actual notebook, and my pen and I'd write as we rattled towards London. That notebook multiplied, and some mornings as the clouds drifted up over the South Downs I had some of my best and most fruitful periods of writing. I even made myself cry at Gatwick as I reached a pivotal point in the plot, it took my breath away, though I fear it did little for the man next to me who'd just got off a plane from Dublin and gave me a perplexed sideways glance as if I'd just placed my hand on his thigh and given it a squeeze.

By the time the next August Bank Holiday had come around, the first draft of Red, in my awful, inky scrawl was finished. I moved back to London a day to the year that I'd left, it had been a strange turbulent last few months, though oddly calm for me, like I was sat peacefully at the eye of the storm as the world blew up around me. Two friends had seen their marriages falter and fail, through no fault of their own, and as I left Brighton it felt tarnished somehow, at least then and for a little while. I moved to the very edge of London and found that I liked it again, close enough to escape the hellish commute that Southern seemed intent on visiting upon the earth, but far enough out that it didn't quite feel like London, not least Kentish Town, which often felt like you'd just had grit blown in your face.

I think most of you know what came next, manuscript optioned for TV, it spent a year away from home in the doldrums of Hollywood, returned unmade and then I'd missed some kind of window and subsequent publishing deal. I gave it up, convinced myself that it wasn't the book I thought it was, put it in my desk drawer and left it there. And then after chatting to one diminutive Welsh rock star, there are more than you might think, we're a small people, decided to read it again, liked it, loved it if I'm honest, it's actually thrilling, and sad and dark and bloody and occasionally beautiful. Pitched it to Unbound who scooped it up in a matter of days (which lifted me higher than I could have possibly imagined) and then set about getting it backed by friends and strangers alike. Spring ceded to summer and the figure crept ever upward, stuttered, slowed and then sprang into life again, it was maddening and exciting in equal part.

Then it was another August Bank Holiday, the sun shone, Lauren and I walked around Crystal Palace Park, admired the vintage sports cars racing there, sat outside, drank beer and kept a wary eye on my Unbound campaign as it eclipsed 90% and kept going. And then on the Monday holiday it rallied and stumbled forward like a runner taking the tape only to collapse across the finishing line. Late on the Bank Holiday Monday afternoon after a slew of pledges we sat just two pounds from our target. Two fucking pounds, which I must have muttered only a hundred times or so, Lauren suggested putting the money in myself, but I was strangely honour bound to stay true to the idea of a pledge campaign and then someone I didn't know appeared on Twitter to tell me that he'd pushed me over the edge and past my target. I went over into this new rubicon like a fat kid chasing chocolate cake. There was whooping, almost certainly some hollering, we dragged our tired bodies to the pub, I was deliriously happy, enlivened by another pivotal Bank Holiday.

Since then I've spoken to my new editor and I liked him, I think we might have an accord until we don't. I get my first notes on the manuscript in the next week or so, I've been here before, but it's none the less a thrill that this whole process begins again, the book cover, the proof pages, hell, even seeing the words typeset and on the page. And then a book in my hands at some point in early 2018. Opening your own book up for the first time is almost indescribably moving, unless they've spelt your name wrong inside, that kind of thing can put a real kink in your day, like falling off a roof and onto broken glass can put a kink in your day. But let's not think the worst, Red lives, she's stirring as I write, rising up from the ground, her hair falling away from her ashen face, green eyes framed in the red, the dirt falling from her shoulders, coming back to the world.

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