Gerard Canney talks austerity, mental health, self-publishing and writing in secrecy

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Gerard Canney

Gerard Canney

Indie author, Gerard Canney, has released his debut novel, Ambition and talks to Getintothis’ Simon Kirk about the writing process, austerity, self-publishing and much more.

Gerard Canney‘s first independently released book, Ambition, is yet another example that defies the odds of self-publishing naysayers.

Canney (real name, Gerard Lynch) began writing merely as a hobby and in private. Having known Gerard for the past twelve years, sharing a common love for music and the round ball game (Canney being an ardent Newcastle United supporter), I was astonished to learn that he had released a book on the quiet.

Not true, surely?

“Pretty much, “ starts Canney. “I didn’t tell anyone when I was drafting the story. I’ve also been very slow in letting people know that writing is something I do.

I suppose it is down to personal choice, but I felt that this approach allowed me to keep focus. I also wanted to get an independent review before announcing it which in itself was a real struggle.

One person got back to me saying that they would’ve reviewed the book, but, after reading the first few pages thought it was rubbish and didn’t see any point in reading on…that may have contributed to my reluctance!”

To find out that Canney had not only released a book but it was well above the echelon that defined good, was more than just a pleasant surprise. As for the cloak and dagger antics – well, it was something akin to your loved one telling you that they secretly supported your team’s fiercest rival.

Ambition consists of a succinct, brilliantly orchestrated narrative bound together by finely chiselled characters who encapsulate the new dark age of Great Britain.

The novella possesses the blood and bones of Britain’s north and in particular, its smaller towns. Through his characters, Canney expertly taps into the psyche of these towns and the ailment of social decay and austerity brought upon largely by the country’s infamous Tory government.

We’ve heard it all before, though, haven’t we? Invisible Britain. The subconscious punch line to jokes of the inner-city elites and the like which are facets in society which broaden the chasm of the great social divide.

An increasingly canvassed social omission caused over time by a receding economy, continual industry seizure and unemployment, creating a malaise of anger and broken spirit. Social decay.

An increasingly canvassed social omission that is simply forgotten by national media.

Then there’s local media in these towns, where they would rather name and shame some two-bit benefit fraudster over a couple of hundred quid as opposed to calling out multi-national companies who incessantly undertake the dark arts of aggressive corporate tax avoidance, thus largely contributing to the crippling of public services. Not least the NHS.

There are plenty of journalists at the grass roots level who want to write about this problem. They are merely hamstrung by their superiors, because – let’s face – fuck the bigger picture, it’s all about selling your rag, right?

With Brexit looming – ironic considering a lot of these towns probably voted leave as some kind of perverse stance to stick it to the man (granted – that point can be strongly argued against), it doesn’t escape the fact that austerity has strangled the social consciousness of Britain’s smaller communities and was doing so before Brexit was even a thing.

Canney‘s Ambition pays heed to these struggles in a sharp, perceptive manner. It’s an ultimate page turner, a gem in the realm of self-publishing and further proof that – while sometimes having to pan a lot of muddy water – there is artistic gold to be found.

In between working fulltime and raising a young family, Canney was kind enough to take the time and talk about his debut literary conception.

Ambition

Ambition

Getintothis: Tell me about your process in writing Ambition. So many interviews you read with authors don’t touch on this question, but it’s one that’s always been intriguing. Care to share?

Gerard Canney: “I wrote the first chapter without any idea of how the story would pan out. Initially, I thought it’d be a short story but, after sketching out a rough plot outline, realised I could probably string it out further. After that I’d just try and plug away at it whenever I had a bit of spare time.

The odd lunch hour or after work. It didn’t take long to do the first draft, relatively speaking, but the editing process seemed never ending. Every time I reviewed it, I’d find something else wrong; aside from spelling and grammar, there’d often be whole passages that didn’t make any sense.

I was under no time pressures and would sometimes go months without even thinking about it. I reckon from start to finish it took about 18 months.”

Getintothis: Was there a specific discipline involved? You work full-time along with having a family, so was there any particular methods you tried to employ during the writing process?

GC: “I do work full time but I think I’d finished it properly shortly before the little one was born. Which was good timing.

Having said that, my job at the time involved long hours proofreading and editing technical copy which was something that could be easily transferred.

I’d often give myself a deadline to proof and correct the changes. Creative writing is a good counterbalance to editing a method statement but it did mean unhealthy periods staring at laptop screens and square eyes.”

Getintothis: Ambition is written in present tense third person. Was that a conscious decision or did it just feel natural to you?

GC: “I wouldn’t say it was a conscious decision but I liked the idea of having a kind of perceptive bystander to tie the story together. I also think present tense gives a sense of urgency to quite a sparse writing style. I did think about writing it from the main characters perspective but would be limited due to his slightly sheltered existence.

There are certain references that would’ve seemed a bit contrived in the first person. I also found it a good way of streamlining the story as I sometimes find myself fixating on pointless detail like the colour of a carpet etc. There is some of this in the book, but I think if it was written in first person there’d probably be too many segues or bland observations.”

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Getintothis: There’s references to music and, particularly, to specific songs in Ambition. Did you listen to these songs whilst writing or were they a vehicle to ease the burden of writers-block, because you mention the latter in the prologue of the book?

GC:Yes to both. I’d never seen it done in a book before and a lot of these tunes I’d discovered whilst writing and just seemed to fit the story. I think music really helps with writing and thought it might enhance the story. Generally speaking, music is a lot more accessible nowadays so didn’t think it’d harm to give the reader a nod to certain songs.”

Getintothis: This work really illuminates the social decay of Northern Britain. Having also lived in smaller communities in the North over the last twelve years, thematically, Ambition rings so true on so many levels. Did you write while living in these communities or did you need to get away and not get too close to that culture before putting the ideas on paper?

GC: “No, I was living in London at the time. I grew up on the outskirts of a similar town to the one in the story. The only reason I didn’t mention it by name was to avoid getting tied up in the detail of where everything is.

The distance helped as I’d not lived there for some time, certain recollections had become a bit obscured which helped with the scene setting. I’ve worked in countless dreary jobs not too dissimilar to the main character.

Whilst the work can be tedious and low paid, I worked with some very unique and funny characters (including some complete headcases!) which also served as inspiration. As I mentioned before, I was working in a really busy office when writing and seemed to be swarmed by middle managers spouting corporate nonsense. I was pining for some authenticity which perhaps, subconsciously, spurred me on.”

Getintothis: I guess the message with Ambition is that one life altering moment can ultimately define which path you take in this life. So many people’s problems stem from that one moment and more often than not, things spiral from there. In an odd sort of way, people can find good things in dark moments, which is something you touch on. Would you agree with that?

GC: “Yes, definitely. Also, the main character seemed content in ambling through life, oblivious to the danger circling him overhead. He has enough courage to confront these without retreating back into his shell.

On a wider note, I wanted to make most of the characters unexceptional but nevertheless interesting to highlight that these problems are a reality for many people.”

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Getintothis: Do you think mental health colonises itself in certain areas? I read something the other day which basically suggested that a whole town can suffer from depression. What do you think of that notion?

GC: I’ve never heard that before, but it that does ring true.

A ‘depressed’ area is usually a polite way of saying that there are few jobs and no money. I think that hopelessness can be really damaging to mental health if you are just about scraping by. Some of it may be self-perpetuating; if you’re brought up in an area where there is little opportunity you only really have two options; stay and hope for the best or leave.

I know this whole Northern Powerhouse scheme is meant to renew confidence in these areas but it’s focussed more on big cities. The issues in provincial towns are probably considered too insignificant and obscure to be properly dealt with.”

Getintothis: The dark irony of that is that the whole Brexit implications could weigh heavily into this factor. Obviously, it’s only a forecast but with the economy so fragile in smaller towns across the UK, death of the high street for instance, it’s bound to have an effect. Did Brexit have any influence on the writing of Ambition?

GC:I started it about a year before Brexit (if there ever was one) and I’m fairly sure the word hadn’t even been coined at that point. It perhaps did have some influence in the editing stage but the main factor would be life after the financial crash and the austerity measures that followed.

Many of these towns were left in economic ruins and still are. Brexit has been a direct consequence of this and it never seems to get mentioned. I had read about and knew a few people who’d wound up in trouble with pay day lenders and how they’d used coercive tactics to extort these loans.

It really was a despairing time and so many people have been flung into precarious situations and many have never found their way back. I think it’s had a huge traumatising effect on people and perhaps Brexit was their reaction.”

Getintothis: Artists make films and music independently and have done for years. Why do you think that self-publishing eBooks is so frowned upon whereby there is this consensus that there needs to be a gatekeeper to define what is good and what isn’t?

GC: “Definitely. I think it’s even more difficult if you have something that doesn’t sit neatly into a particular genre. I always just write for my own amusement and initially just wanted a couple of people to read it for a bit of feedback, which is pretty much where I’m at now.

There may be a stigma attached but you can only use the tools you have to hand. It might also benefit from the literary equivalent of a John Peel to support new/unknown writers, although who has that kind of time on their hands?”

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Getintothis: It’s almost like the literati don’t subscribe to the notion of DIY ethos, which for people who are artists, sounds utterly absurd, narrow-minded and counterproductive. Surely it should be down to the reader to define what is good and what’s not?

GC:Ironically, I probably read more non-fiction than fiction so don’t really understand how critics determine quality. I think the majority of self-published work is well and truly beneath their line of sight or just dismissed as amateur.

I’m not sure of an effective way of bypassing this to reach readers who may be interested in fiction writing outside the mainstream.

Having said that, I think it’s much less common for consumers of culture to take a leap of faith with books, films or music as you can quickly get a consensus of its quality online. If no one has heard of you and/or it’s your first attempt then your chances are slim to nil.”

Getintothis: Based on these current attitudes of self-publishing, did it make you feel more apprehensive to actually release Ambition?

GC:I suppose with traditional independent film and music you do still receive some financial backing with production teams but given, I presume, more creative freedom.

Most independent films (in this country) are Arts Council funded so there is help there. Writing is a more solitary exercise and doesn’t cost anything except time and access to a PC/laptop.”

Getintothis: Are you working on anything else at the moment?

GC:I am but seem to have found myself stranded between two stories that are very different. One of which is quite dark in tone but I got so far with it and lost all momentum. To ease this, I began working on a comic short story which seems to have hit a brick wall as well.

I do have some short stories I wrote a while back which I’m thinking of releasing but not sure if the Amazon route is appropriate. The only thing I’ve been reading with any regularity are bedtime stories. Perhaps I’ll give one a go. Everything I’ve written so far is quite gloomy but I’m wondering if I can start a new genre; kitchen sink fairytales for toddlers. Maybe not.”.

  • Ambition by Gerard Canney  is available for purchase here.

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