Poet’s debut novel about home city
It might seems slightly surreal to be talking to Helen Mort in Café No 9 in Nether Edge about her debut novel, Black Car Burning, because it features in the book.
But then there are dozens of other places in Sheffield and the Peak District in which the story is played out.
It turns out that Café No 9 is the one location specifically named though she guesses that many readers who know Sheffield will spot which pub or shop or road she is describing. “Since I spent so much time in here, often working on the book, I felt I owed it to them,” she says.
The story alternates its focus on four principal characters. Alexa, a police community support officer, her girlfriend Caron, an obsessive rock climber, Leigh, another member of the climbing community, and a former policeman haunted by memories of being present at the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. In between are short sequences in which the location speaks in the first person and is much more the sort of thing we expect from the award-winning poet.
So what was the motivation behind switching to novel-writing? “I didn’t ever think I would write a novel,” she insists. “Poetry is my first love and most of my ideas come out as poems. It’s almost as if I don’t have a choice. They form themselves. This was sort of different.
“I had these characters in my head. People describe characters talking to them and it was very much like that for me and wouldn’t let me go and I thought, this isn’t a poem, it needs a bigger canvas. So it came from a necessary form if you like. I didn’t even necessarily think I could finish the book, but I thought I would have a go.”
The poetic landscape interludes came late to the process.”I was thinking about what was going on in Sheffield, I was thinking about the tree protests and everything and began thinking about much landscape is a canvas for our desires and impulses and I think they are for the characters in the novel, particularly the climbers.
“I thought it would be interesting to let some of the places that feature in the stories tell some of the story. I wanted Sheffield to be a character in the novel as much as the people.”
Black Car Burning weaves in many of the events that have occurred in the city in recent years such as the Hillsborough Inquiry, the tensions between communities in Page Hall, EDL marches, and the protests against tree felling.
“It is a novel about trust. I had seen a documentary which linked some of the problems the police were having in East Sheffield and some of the tensions they were either dealing with or anticipating and they were finding questions of trust and I am interested in how that goes back to Hilllsborough, Orgreave or further back.
“Will people trust the police and how easy is it to trust each other when you are living in a city? I wanted to write about what was in the news but I didn’t want to do it in a way that would suggest it was anybody’s fault. It just happens when different communities come together. It’s not that anyone is particularly racist.
“I was anxious to write it in such a way to show there was also a lot of tolerance and it wasn’t just one group against another. I don’t live in Page Hall although I have friends who do but I am not writing about my immediate neighbourhood. I was worried about handling it in the right way. At the same time I didn’t want to shy away and take It out of the story because it seemed important to the whole picture.”
The theme of trust also extends to the relationships in the story. “In the book there is a polyamorous relationship (where people have more than one partner by agreement) that is going wrong and also a monogamous relationship that is going wrong. I suppose what I wanted to say was that trust is something that people have to work on.. Nothing is better than any other it doesn’t matter if you are straight or gay or in a polyamorous relationship it is just hard to trust someone at times.”
And trust is essential in rock climbing where your life depends on the person below holding the rope. “The remarkable thing about that is you might not know them that well,” she observes.
The arresting title, Black Car Burning, which conjures up a vision of an urban riot of the sort that threatens to engulf Page Hall, is in fact the name of a climbing route near Stanage which Caron becomes fixated on.
It was a name that had always fascinated her though she admits she is not a sufficiently elite climber to attempt it herself. Once en route with others to the location she did see a burned out car. “It had the sense of the edge of the city bleeding into the rural landscape,” she observes.
It has been a long process writing the novel and since starting back in 2012 a lot has happened in the life of Helen Mort, not least the arrival of first child, Alfie.
“When we set the release date for the novel as April 2019 I wasn’t even pregnant. It seems you can grow and birth a baby quicker than you can finish a novel,” she laughs. “Now I have two babies.”