Hell is Empty Name: CONRAD WILLIAMS

Author of: DUST AND DESIRE (2015)
                      SONATA OF THE DEAD (2016)
                      HELL IS EMPTY (2016)

On the web: conradwilliams.wordpress.com

On Twitter: @salavaria

When I teach creative writing at university (I’ve had a few gigs over the years at Manchester Metropolitan, Edge Hill and, in the new year, I’ll be at St John’s, York) I invariably include a class dealing with sense of place. In the strongest fiction, a location can possess as much impact as a character; can in fact almost become another character, real or especially imagined. Look at China Miéville’s Bas Lag novels, Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Cormac McCarthy’s destroyed America in The Road, Iain Banks’ Scottish island in The Wasp Factory, William Golding’s island in Lord of the Flies. These are all fictional landscapes that provide a colourful, fertile background to their characters’ travails. These places are the novels, arguably. They are so exquisitely rendered that you feel you know them, that you could inhabit them.

In the crime novels I’ve written for Titan Books I very much wanted to make Joel Sorrell’s London a hyper-real city filled with shadows and light, texture and danger. Threat has to come from the antagonists, but it can also come from the urban surroundings. The city can feel alien even to those who spend their lives within it and Joel, as a loner, an outsider, is acutely aware of this. This loose sequence of novels is a missing girl trilogy, but also a trilogy of dereliction. Of duty, certainly, but more so where architecture is concerned. Each of the books end in crippled buildings because I wanted to have that sense of ruin and menace, as well as something positive rising from the dust: a worthy life, a father, a daughter, hope, love.

What is now the Renaissance Hotel, a beautiful reimagining of the old Midland, serving St Pancras station, was for a long time a shattered shell used as railway offices after its closure in 1935. Tours were made of the building in the mid 2000s and I signed up for one, having decided the hotel – surrounded by piledrivers and cranes and diggers – would make a great scene for the climax of my novel. Inside it was dusty, rotting, thick with shadow and old forgotten rooms, some of which had been sub-divided and were windowless places of filing cabinets and filth. The stealthy pursuit of the Four Year Old in Dust and Desire that draws Joel to a window leading out on to the roof of the train station was all mapped out as our group was taken along peeling corridors and that magisterial double staircase that, at the time, looked like some forgotten corner of Dracula’s castle.

Thinking about it, many of the set pieces that occur in this dereliction trilogy are found in and around buildings on the cusp of transformation or are ghosts of glory days long gone: the broken Liverpool docks and the sleeping giant of a hotel in Dust and Desire, a tired old tower block earmarked for refurbishment and a once bustling factory gone to seed in Sonata of the Dead, a squalid prison destroyed by fire in Hell is Empty. I guess they suggest the fragile, transitory nature of relationships. Everything gets demolished in the end. Everything is subject to decay.

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