This piece was written for and published in The Western Mail Weekend Arts Section
Who's that guy?
Looking inside yourself can reveal some pretty startling things, says novelist and musician Colum Sanson-Regan
I wrote a short story. It didn’t take long, I really I didn’t think it through. It was just a few pages, not long enough for anything to really happen. Not long enough for any action, or suspense, or storyline. Not long enough for any elaborate description or detailing, or any character development. Just long enough for two people to meet. Martin, a seemingly mundane and predictable chap, met a mysterious guy called Henry. Henry knew more about Martin than anyone else did. More about him, in fact, than Martin was willing to accept or admit about himself, and so Martin resolved to find a way to get rid of Henry. That was it. I put it down, but story stayed stuck in my mind like a jagged piece of glass. In the evenings, gigging in Cardiff with my band, I found myself scanning the room, mid-song, trying to spot which one was Martin and which one was Henry. What was it Martin was trying to hide? How did Henry know everything about Martin? Again and again my thoughts snagged on this abstract short story I had written without thinking.
I didn't want to do any writing for a while. I read The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde and Frankenstein, and loved them both. Weeks later, driving home in the early hours of the morning along the A4232, the shard came loose. Martin had created Henry. Henry came from inside Martin. The story began to flow. My mind was filling up. As soon as I got home I started to write. And write. Just a few days later I was knee deep in interlocking stories of a detective, an author, a drug lord, an addict, a property agent and a body guard. Martin was the author, who created Henry the detective. And now Henry had appeared in Martin’s reality to investigate him. That was how it started. All of a sudden I was writing a novel.
I didn’t tell my friends. The last thing I wanted was to be that guy, we all know one, who’s writing a novel and has been for, what, how long now? The romance of a writer is an alluring one, but the tragedy of the failed writer is not. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I wrote poems and stories before I ever wrote a song. I’ve always thought I’d like to be an author, but I wasn’t prepared. The reality of writing a novel is totally different discipline to poetry or song. You have invented people. You need to find out what their motivations are. You look around. You look inside. You end up opening doors within yourself you didn’t know were there. Doors which otherwise would remain locked, but now you’ve got to see what’s inside and once you’ve walked through you can never go back.
So I wrote. I would get back from gigging and sit down at the kitchen table. At 3 or 3:30 I’d find myself flagging and go to bed. Connections I had made during the day, or on the drive home after the gig, were tested and stretched and reversed and either discarded, broken, or woven in to the story. But there was a momentum that I couldn’t afford to stop. I just had to trust myself. These night-time sessions were all about trying to build a body. When I was a young teenager, about 13 or 14, my bedroom was in the attic room. I remember these hours having a magic about them, as if at midnight a switch went on, and now! Now was the time to write! Get as much down as you can before time runs out and you fall asleep with the pen in your hand. I’d pull the blinds back and write poems for the girl who lived across the road, and for the bare trees in the streetlight, for the people in the cars passing on the quiet road outside, for my family sleeping in the rooms below. Now 20 years later, I was inventing the girl across the road, pouring moonlight on the trees, filling the cars and my families’ beds with characters whom I trust far less. All along I knew how the story would end. I just didn’t know how I was going to get everyone there. I wrote. Gradually, carefully, I put The Fly Guy together.
I moved my writing time to the day. Now was the time to try to bring it to life, so I went back to the start and rewrote and rewrote. It needed to be muscular and lean, it needed to move fast and strike hard. It needed to be strong, if it was to live long, then my god it had to be strong. In the daylight the hours went quicker and by November ‘13 I was finished the first draft. I wrote. In Feb ‘14 I let The Fly Guy out. I was ready for long slog which everyone told me is the journey to publication. There’ll be time to write another while you try and get this one published, that's the general advice, so I wasn’t quite ready when it was spotted and picked up by an American Publisher in June. Now less than a year later we are on a countdown to March 15 for release. I wanted it to move fast and strike hard. The first part has happened. I’m excited to see what happens next. The Fly Guy is a story about how much of ourselves we invent and how much we can never change. It’s about what slips between the cracks of imagination and reality. It’s a story about creation and losing control. It's about stepping through the door. You can never go back.
Cardiff Radio sits in old city scrubland. The roads are potholed and narrow, the buildings are tired and buckled, and nature is trying its best to claim back this broken landscape. It balances at the edge of Cardiff City, and the growing new city is slowly pushing it over. This is where I was going on the day of the launch and art exhibition of The Fly Guy. I was due to do an interview from 3 until 3:30 and at 2:50 I was still driving around the catacombs of the old Cardiff docks trying to find it.
The gallery was in its final stages of being set up, the art pieces were in place and the lighting was being arranged. The actor and producer Kieran O Brien would be arriving soon and we were going to have to decide which extracts he was going to read and how he and Boyd Clack would interact to perform the readings. There was a lot to do and this interview was a quick opportunity to remind people that it was all happening that night. I pulled in to the little Cardiff Radio car park at 2:55 and got through the door. In front of me was the desk and a middle-aged lady who was leafing through envelopes. When I told her I was there to do an interview with Mark Sam, she nodded and asked me did I want to make myself a cup of tea. I declined. From where I stood I could see the live room. It was empty. She continued to leaf through the post. I said “Do you want to tell him that I’m here?” It took her a few seconds to respond. She had just unfolded a sheet of paper which had a message in letters cut from newspapers and magazines. I leaned over to try and make out what the note said. She gazed back up at me, as if seeing me again for the first time. I said again, “Do you want to tell him I’m here? Tell him Colum Sanson Regan is here.”
She shouted “Mark! There’s someone here for an interview!” There was a grunt from a room off to the side. “He’ll be out now” she said. She concentrated on the note again.
I stood away from the desk. The radio was coming through the speakers. The 3 o clock news started. The news ended and some more music kicked in. The live booth was still empty. The lady at the desk had called someone on the phone and was now speaking in a low voice, holding the strange note in front of her. Another insipid pop tune leaked through the speakers as I paced slowly up and down, and then another, until it felt like I was wading through sticky pre-choruses.
It was 3:13. I approached the desk again and said, “Sorry about this, I have to leave at half past, so if he wants to do this, then we have to do it now.” She told whoever she was talking to to hold on and then went to the room at the side. I leaned over to try and see the note, but she had folded it again, and then she was back. She picked the phone back up and continued her conversation as from the room behind, a small crooked man with a scowl burning through his beard hobbled out and squinted at me. He walked with a stick and was hunched on one side and he growled something at me and went into the live room. I followed. He sat on the DJ side and said, “Let’s make this quick then” I sat opposite him and put a pair of headphones on. I couldn’t hear anything. I followed the tangled wire and checked its input and then tried the input next to it. That one worked but the sound was faint. I moved and there was a crackling and then the noise came rushing through. I lifted the headphones.
Mark said “Why are you here then?”
“I’ve got a book launch tonight in town” I handed him a copy of the book.
“Are there other headphones?” He gestured to the side of the desk.
“And you have to be gone by half past” he said.
“That’s right.” There was a nail in the side of the desk with another set of headphones.I started to untangle the wire as he said “We’ll start after this song. What’s your name?”
“It’s on the book” I said, “Colum Sa-”
“It doesn’t matter” he said. The song faded out and Mark flicked the desk to live. I put the headphones on and plugged them in.
“What’s up Cardiff? I’ve got someone here in the studio. I’ve been forced into doing this, into having him on now because he’s in a rush. Come on, do you want to introduce yourself then?”
I leaned in to the microphone. “Ah, Radio Cardiff, good to see it’s as professional as ever. Yes, well I’m Colum Sanson-Regan and I’m in a rush because tonight there’s something very exciting happening…” and I proceeded to talk about the launch, the book, the artwork, the readings, the music performances.
After I had run through all of the important information I paused and he held the book up.
“Well” he said “it must be a good book because it’s a real book, you know it’s got a cover and everything, and what’s it about flies or something?”
I said what the premise of the book is and that it is published by an American company and where it was available. Mark opened the book and handed it back to me.
“Read from this page. I’ve just opened it randomly and now Colin-”
“What? Are you Irish?”
“Yes I am.”
“What are you doing over here?”
“Em, well, I’m going to read an extract -” I looked at the page he had opened. A few words jumped out – God sucks my cock – I flicked to another page – there is a loud crack of breaking bone. Gregor does it again, back handed this time, putting all his weight into the hammer, smashing the other ankle – “Tell you what, how about you play a song and I’ll do it after that.”
“If you just –“
“Yeah, well, great, play a song and I’ll read something then.”
“OK Cardiff, you heard him. I am being bossed around today, here’s…” and he introduced the song and we were off air.
I explained that there was a lot of graphic detail in the book that wasn’t suitable or afternoon broadcasting. He perked up. “What kind of detail?” he asked.
“Sex and violence mostly.” Then he asked was it Joanne who had contacted Cardiff Radio and set this up. When I said it was he shook his head slightly and said “What a lovely girl, a real gem.” Mark was gradually warming to me. I could see it. I was Irish and had a filthy mind, and my PA was an attractive blond who wasn’t too tall. He even expressed interest in coming to the launch. Back on air, I read the first page and a half of the book and then said I’d love to stay longer but had to go, and thanks so much for having me on. I mentioned the launch one more time and then we were done. As I took my headphones off and put the copy of my book back in my bag, he apologised for being grumpy at the start. “I was recording a demo, that’s what I was doing.”
“Oh really? What was it you were recording?”
“A demo for the BBC, to get out of this place. I didn't want to be disturbed because no-one here knows I'm doing it. I’ve got to get out.”
“But you’ve got a plan.”
“To get out.”
It was 3:30. I had to get back to the gallery, and was glad I had an excuse to leave quickly.
Through the window of the live room I could see the woman at the front desk, the other envelopes were still in a pile next to her and the strange note with the chopped up letters was still in her hand.