This week the spotlight lands on Jason Beech. His location is a little hard to pin down accurately on any map! But no less vivid and atmospheric for that. I grew up in 1970s Liverpool and his descriptions of Sheffield in the same era brought back a lot of memories…
Book title: City of Forts
Setting: Blue collar America meets Sheffield, England!
Author: Jason Beech
City of Forts is set in an unspecified part of America – a mush-up of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and a bit of Georgia, especially their rougher, working class parts. The atmosphere I wanted to recreate is one of fighting the breadline, working multiple jobs to get by, grabbing pleasure where you can get your hands on it, and holding on to a past which people feel is slipping by. I wanted to put a harder mark on the Spielberg ideal of childhood, put a little more grey into the sepia.
But it’s actually Sheffield, England, which inspired the setting. I started the book in Yorkshire, where I grew up. I remember Sheffield in the late 70s and 80s two ways. I grew up in a very leafy council estate surrounded by acres of woods and fields we ran wild across as kids. You’d go out after school, or in the holidays, and not come back home until you heard your mum holler that she had tea ready. Green surrounded us on all sides. But my dad worked as a union man in the steel works and when he took me to the city’s industrial areas such as Attercliffe and Carbrook it’s as if I’d stepped into the aftermath of a nuclear blast. A few factories and rows of terraced housing looked like sorry boats in a sea of bricks from demolished buildings. Smack in the middle sat a classic boozer, The Royal, full of characters, the smell of beer and dehydration competing against each other. City of Forts swims in that kind of post-industrial atmosphere of decay and before transition into something new, with the added intensity of American summer heat.
So why did I set City of Forts in America? I’ve lived here for sixteen years now and the kid’s voices came out all American. I think the world views of the characters came out stronger in that setting, too, along with the wide-open spaces. I wanted that contrast between those working hard to survive, those hustling at the edges to also survive, and the Darwinian view from above, to hit each other hard. I’ve travelled through all of the east coast, north to south, and much of the Midwest, stayed with dozens of Americans in their homes, ate food at their tables, and listened to all kinds of viewpoints from uber-liberals to hard-right conservatives who believe anybody should be able to own an automatic machine gun. But every single place was so friendly and welcoming you couldn’t rut against any of them. That friendliness would make a rubbish novel, mind, so I used some of the viewpoints and turned them dark for dramatic effect, adding gangsters, betrayal, family tension, murder, and a bit of ancient Mediterranean history.