David Belbin and Ella Joyce at Bromley House Library
David Belbin is the author of forty-something novels since 1990. Here he chats about his friendship with Booker-winning author Stanley Middleton, the focus of issue 14: Shelves
When did you first start reading comics?
My grandparents used to post us comics when I was very young. The Beano for me, TV Comic for my kid brother, Paul. Plus The Victor and Hotspur, because my grandad liked to read them… I got heavily into superhero comics when I was 8 or so – at first Batman and Superman, but then the golden age of Marvel. I had loads of Spiderman, Daredevil, Dr Strange and The Silver Surfer. Sadly, after I went to Grammar School, my mum threw them all out without consulting me. I got back into comics at university, as satirical classic Howard the Duck came around. My interest heightened when my youngest brother, Richard, introduced me to the Hernandez Brothers’ ‘Love and Rockets’ series, which I still collect. I used to buy ‘Akira’ and ‘Watchmen’ as they came out from the original Forbidden Planet store below Virgin on Wheelergate, whose workers went on to start Page 45.
Artwork: Ella Joyce from our ‘Shelves’ comic.
You are the only writer in our series not to have used thought bubbles in your comic…
I’ve written a few comics, mainly ones about social issues for Unicef, though not as many as I would have liked had I had the opportunity. I quickly realised that I don’t like thought bubbles – they’re like voice-over in movies, a cheat that interferes with the visual story telling. I’m interested in writer/artists who push the boundaries in how graphic fiction is laid out, like Chris Ware
. But for ‘Shelves’, as soon as I started writing the script, I realised that I wanted it to feel like a picture book, or the ‘Rupert’ stories (originally a strip in the Daily Express) which I used to be given annuals of when I was a child. Once you (James Walker) introduced me to Ella, and I saw her style and resourcefulness, I knew that she’d be able to make this approach work. Instead of my putting words into the characters’ mouths, what you get is my speaking directly to the reader (with a couple of quotations, from Cecil Roberts and Graham Greene, thrown in) with Ella’s wonderful illustrations to help bring my story to life. This makes it feel very personal, probably the most personal thing I’ve written, outside my blog.
You’re best known as a novelist. How does writing for a comic differ to writing a book?
Writing comics is completely different from writing short stories or novels. It’s much more like writing a screenplay. Only, the images are still…
Cecil Roberts Room at Nottingham Central Library
We discussed many potential Nottingham writers for your story but really it was always going to be Stanley Middleton…
I originally proposed to write a story about Nottingham’s forgotten writers, people like Cecil Roberts and the great Philip Callow (who I knew through Stanley), partly because, after editing two books and organising a day long memorial event at Lakeside, I felt I’d done my duty by Stan. But I found I couldn’t not write about him. He was a near neighbour and we we were good friends for thirteen years, until his death in 2009. It’s all in the story and the memoir that can be found in one of the embeds (click on the starred buttons!
). Once I’d started, the happenstance of six of his best novels being reissued and our being given several of Stanley’s bookcases fed into the story. I was really delighted when I could persuade my friend John Lucas, who’s a literary legend, to contribute an essay
And John is also a legendary jazz musician…
Yes, John and I run a monthly poetry and jazz night
. It’s every second Wednesday of the month at the Guitar Bar
, on Clumber Avenue, off Sherwood Rise, from 8 until late, and it’s free. On the 13th of May we have great poetry from my old friends Jane Bluett and Mike Blackburn, plus my newish friend Rory Waterman
, along with loads of classic jazz. Should be a great evening.
Stanley shared the Booker prize with Nadine Gordimer
Despite winning the Booker, not many people have heard of Stanley Middleton…
Stanley was never a big seller and didn’t aspire to be. He didn’t play the game by moving to London or even getting an agent. He was Nottingham through and through and liked being a schoolteacher. Until Holiday, I don’t think he ever had a print run exceeding a thousand copies. He’s a very fine writer and his work does get steadily better, with early peaks like Harris’s Requiem and late ones like Married Past Redemption (both recently reissued). I think his work tends to get overlooked because of the ‘provincial’ tag and because there’s so much of it: too much for academics who want to ‘discover’ a writer to read and extensively discuss. Also, let’s be frank, he kept writing until his late 80’s and the books do go downhill from his mid 70’s. So there’s a lot of late, not so good novels. I think he knew that, and didn’t care much. He just wanted to keep writing. It kept him alive.
Another thing that makes your comic very personal is the artist is Ella Joyce, daughter of novelist Graham Joyce. How was it?
I worked with Ella’s dad, Graham, for twelve years and had signed a couple of books for her, but we’d not met until she visited Nottingham to discuss ‘Shelves’. I gave her a bit of a tour of the city, including The Nottingham Writers’ Studio
, which didn’t make it into the story, and Bromley House
, which features heavily. She was great to work with and already knew a lot about how comics work, even though she hadn’t done one before. Perhaps being new to the form made it easier for her to adapt to my deliberately old-fashioned approach, I don’t know. What I do know is that she brought great style and intelligence to the piece, tactfully improving some of my image suggestions and proposed lay-out. She also managed to get away with making the story three pages longer than usual! She’s a terrific artist and I wasn’t at all surprised when, while in the middle of doing the comic, she got in to Ruskin to study Fine Art. Her dad, I’m sure, would have been very, very proud of her. I hope she works in comics again but she’s a terrific artist, and so young, she ought to be able to do whatever she wants.
As well as helping us promote Nottingham’s literary heritage through Dawn of the Unread you’re also chairing our UNESCO City of Literature bid…
The bid call for the Unesco City of Literature
bid has finally come out, four and a half months later than we were originally told it would. This has delayed the next Bone and Cane
novel somewhat and messed with our budget, but does mean we’ve had more time to prepare, to set up projects like the Big City Read and Write, which we’ve just got a big grant for, and to get the company making the bid registered as a charity. We have a team primarily drawn from the city’s two universities working on the bid, which has to be delivered by July 15th. The forms we have to fill in require some tough answers. It’s like the city’s being asked to take an exam and we don’t know how high the pass mark is. Regardless of the outcome, the city of literature project has already done a lot of good, celebrating, coordinating and enabling literature related events in Nottingham, and it will continue to do so. I’m proud to chair it. The bid has brought together all sorts of people, highlighting the diversity and grassroots genius that this city should be shouting from the rooftops about. We punch way above our economic weight.
Now the hardest question of all: Please recommend three books for readers from your own shelves…
Only three? I have to mention Moon At The Park and Ride by Sue Dymoke
, who’s been my partner for 31 years. It’s her second collection of poetry from Nottingham’s Shoestring Press. Yes, the title refers to the Forest Park & Ride, where we launched the Sillitoe tram back in November. I was with Sue when she took the great photo on the cover, which, in turn, inspired the title poem. We’d just come out of one of many visits to Christian Marclay’s wonderful ‘The Clock
‘ at New Art Exchange. The book’s launch in 2012 was at The Guitar Bar, with Four in the Bar playing, and led to the monthly Jazz and Poetry event starting that autumn.
In Shelves, I say how Stanley and I had a lot of the same books on our shelves. One writer we agreed about was Brian Moore, not so well known now, who I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on at the University of Nottingham. Moore, from Belfast, is probably the novelist who has influenced me the most. Hard to pick one novel, but I’ll go for No Other Life, about Haiti. I bought a copy of that one for Stan and we both loved it. The story’s inspired by the thwarted presidency of a former Catholic priest, Jean Baptiste Aristide, a radical leftist whose return the US is still trying to block. In some ways it’s reminiscent of Graham Greene, who I love, and who was a big fan of Moore’s. Just thinking about the novel now makes me want to read it for a third time. I think I will.
Only one more? I’m tempted to pick a crime novel by Ed McBain, Lawrence Block or Walter Mosley. Or there’s The Great Gatsby and Great Expectations, two of the greatest novels ever written. But I have to go for Robert Cormier’s I Am The Cheese, which I reread every few years. It’s hard to sum up what it’s about without giving too much away – let’s call it a mystery thriller, which is how my first novel was labelled, but it’s much more than that. 31 years ago it introduced me to Young Adult novels and showed me that they could be as ambitious and involving as any adult or ‘literary’ work. I’ve never written anything half as good. But I keep trying…
Dawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.