‘Jaws without the Shark’

‘A couple of years ago, when I was in the closing stages of working on my last novel, Umbrella, I began casting around for a new subject for the next one. I greatly admire WG Sebald’s The Emigrants, which tells the stories of six refugees from the Nazis without heavy-handedly describing the mechanics of the persecution that the regime visited on Jews, gay people and the politically suspect. Following this pattern, I conceived of writing a novel about some of the more interesting characters I had known during my two decades in the netherworld of drug addiction. I would fictionalise their stories, of course, but more importantly, I would never mention, or otherwise allude to, the reasons why these people lost jobs, experienced relationship-breakdown, moved abroad, and went to hospital or jail. Their addiction would remain a strange sort of absence, deforming the course of their lives but never emerging into the full light of day. My working rubric for the novel was “Jaws without the shark”.

Real meals: Sonic drive-in

De gustibus non est disputandum, so I don’t want any wise-ass backchat from you lot when I tell you that the meal I had at the Sonic drive-in on the Murfreesboro Pike on the outskirts of Nashville was probably the best one I’ve ever eaten. I don’t, by this, mean that the food was the best I have ever eaten – far from it – nor that the ambience was particularly good (I was sitting in the driver’s seat of my rented Chevy SUV), but the sky overhead was beautiful, the company highly amusing and most importantly: I was on holiday … sort of.

On location: Florence

Arriving at the Stazione di Santa Maria Novella I feel like a bit of a Rodin’s Messenger of the Gods: after all, I’m in Florence merely to make money, while all around me people are purely intent on having a good time. I walk towards the centre of town; the throng of tourists swirling about the flanks of the basilica church parts for a moment, and beside one of those hat stalls that have sprung up the world over (selling panamas, trilbies and caps of many colours, none of which you ever notice anyone wearing), I see a man with no feet lying on the pavement and begging, the ends of his stumps apparently smeared with mercurochrome, or something else that stains them an obscene reddish-orange.