Writing to 10 of My Greatest Influences

Regular readers will know that a few months ago, I wrote a letter to Kazuo Ishiguro after reading his book Never Let Me Go. I did it because his publisher didn’t provide anything but a postal address for its authors.

To date, Ishiguro has not replied, but I was itching to repeat the experiment with others I admire. It’s a slower and more laborious process that makes you think about every word you write. Yet the sealed envelope is far more difficult to ignore, and your words don’t become just another comment on another social media page.

With this in mind, I’ve tried to emulate the pre-Internet and pre-fax era as much as possible, a time when celebrities felt more removed from their audiences. I’m lucky enough to have mutual friends with a few popular performance poets who influence me. I’ve excluded them because they feel too ‘close’, even though we don’t know each other directly.

There’s one important concession to the old-school vibe: it would create a lot of hassle to find out the postal address of agents, management companies or publishers in an offline manner. I therefore set a rule that I was allowed to use the Web for the task, but I wasn’t permitted to contact anyone to ask for the correct details. I instead used the most likely addresses I could find.

So who are the top 10? I’ve listed them in no special order:

  1. Andrea Gibson – performance poet
  2. Peter Doherty – musician and poet
  3. Marshall Mathers – rapper, aka Eminem
  4. Mike Skinner – rapper
  5. David Nicholls – novelist
  6. Tracey Thorn – musician in Everything but the Girl
  7. Jasper Carrott – comedian
  8. Billy Joel – musician
  9. & 10. Harley Alexander-Sule & Jordan Stephens – musicians in Rizzle Kicks

It took under an hour to collate most of the addresses. However, I counted six contacts for Marshall Mathers alone as he has a number of specialist managers, so I settled for writing to his agent. Conversely, Peter Doherty proved über-difficult to pin down. My initial searches pulled up a management company in the West of Scotland; later searches provided a much more likely address.

But finding the contact details was only the start. Before I uncapped my Biro, there were other issues I wanted to iron out.

  • Firstly, should I use my pen name? A pen name would allow the recipients to look me up online should they choose, whereas using my legal name would ensure that any reply is correctly delivered. I decided from the start I wouldn’t include an e-mail address to maintain the pre-Internet feel – though I can be easily contacted via this site – so I’ve compromised by including my legal name in the address, but explaining in the body of the letter that I write as Gavin Cameron.
  • Secondly, what about the content of the letters? Naturally, this had to be customised to the recipient, but the text can be broadly divided into three sections. In the first, what I enjoy about their work or views; the second explains why I’m writing by hand rather than doing it online; the third is a summing-up and best wishes. I haven’t asked for an autograph, a photo, or even a reply; I wanted the letters to be mainly about the recipient and his or her influence, without me being too much of a fangirl.
  • Thirdly, do I publish any replies? I quickly decided that would be a negatory, rubber duck, other than to provide a brief summary in a future blog entry. It’s not that I think any of the recipients would mind, but because personal letter-writing is an inherently private activity, I would rather the recipients kept my correspondence confidential, although there is a sample in the picture and it’s ultimately their decision as I haven’t specified I want it kept secret.

    Notebook with tear-out pages for writing to celebrities
    Notebook with tear-out pages for writing to celebrities

So how did I feel when I put pen to paper? I knew I would have to develop a template of sorts as it’s far easier than starting from a blank page. I first drafted the Marshall Mathers letter (pictured), then copied it onto writing paper in pen. Even with my preparations, I found it difficult at first to place my thoughts in a flowing order.

Probably the easiest letter to write was that to Andrea Gibson, which ran to three A5 pages with my signature on the fourth. I found once I’d started that I had loads I wanted to say, and I acknowledged at the end that if I’d been using a PC, I would have edited much of the ramble. I could have started a new letter, but I felt it wouldn’t have been so candid as it was in that first form.

If I did make a mistake in a word, I would simply cross it out and write it again. It didn’t occur to me until I’d sealed the envelopes that Tippex still exists. I’m glad I didn’t realise this, though, as it wouldn’t have looked pretty on the cream page.

The hardest letters were probably those to Jasper Carrott and Billy Joel. I imagine it’s because they influenced me more in my childhood than they currently do. But I’m glad I still wrote to them because I might not repeat this experiment, and none of us will be around forever.

The one thing I didn’t find intimidating at all was the level of fame my recipients enjoy. I’m currently taking the MLitt course at the University of Dundee. There, I was introduced to the concept of thinking about where I fit in with other writers and poets, including those who are well-known. So rather than considering yourself to be lower down the food chain, you’re encouraged to ponder whether you’re producing your own work to an equal standard, and how you can raise your standard if you’re not. Or in Internet jargon, MIND=BLOWN.

Thinking in those terms helped to relieve the pressure. I know I can produce work to the same standard of some of the folks I’ve contacted, and I also know I can pick holes in their work just as much as they could potentially rip mine apart. So in that respect, I’m a person doing one creative activity who’s writing to a person who does another creative activity, not a ‘civilian’ writing to a ‘celebrity’.

If I receive no replies, I won’t cry into my notebook, as I’ve said what I have to say. I’ll be happy if I attract one response; I’ll be ecstatic if I receive two; goodness knows what I’ll be like if three or more come back.

Now all I need to do is what writers do best: wait.

What If This Entry Had Never Been Written?

In September 2002, I left home for the first time to study at the University of the West of Scotland. After matriculation, I met a fellow student called Billy, and we decided to head to the student union. In those days, you received your first student loan tranche by cheque on matriculation day, then the rest by bank transfer at the start of each term.

As Billy and I passed my bank, I realised I’d forgotten to pick up said cheque. I had two main options:

  1. Head back to the university, collect it, then join him later.
  2. Continue to the union and collect it later or the next day.

I chose the first. I don’t recall taking too long, but when I arrived at the union, I couldn’t find Billy. In fact, I never saw him again. I don’t know why we didn’t swap phone numbers at the bank.

But what if I’d chosen the second option? We might have had a few drinks then went our separate ways, or we might have become firm friends and been inseparable for the rest of our respective courses.

This decision therefore created a point of diversions where one sequence of events happened because of an action, and another sequence of events didn’t happen thanks to the same action. In real life, we can’t know what might have occurred if the other decision were made, but we can make logical assumptions in fiction to produce an alternative narrative.

Sliding Doors
Sliding Doors (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The most famous example might be the 1998 film Sliding Doors. Gwyneth Paltrow’s character Helen Quilley catches a train in one narrative, but misses the train in the other. This creates two parallel but separate universes where two stories play out.

The technique also works in novels. In Fatherland, Robert Harris explores what might have happened in the event of a German win at the end of World War II. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling imagines that Charles Babbage completed his eponymous machine and began the computer revolution much earlier than it actually happened.

I have unpublished novels that use the same alternative history technique: in one, men are extinct by the 26th century; in another, the petrol engine isn’t invented until 1999. I’m editing a third at the moment that takes the Sliding Doors approach towards the end. I’ve had to work out a way to show this without confusing the reader, and my current solution is to label the chapters so there will be one Chapter 13, followed by a Chapter 14A then a Chapter 14B.

Will it work? Only time will tell.

Accidental Acquisition

If there’s one thing that keeps me awake at night, it’s subconscious plagiarism. It was reported this week that Ed Sheeran is being sued by two songwriters as he allegedly copied their work, and it’s always in the back of my mind that however original I think I am, there’s a chance I’ve accidentally remembered words from elsewhere.

At its most extreme, it can leave a person’s reputation damaged. In 2015, poet Sheree Mack was accused by some of ‘wholesale plagiarism’ of other poets’ work, although she denied it was deliberate.

But if you like another poet’s work, there are legitimate ways to reference them.

Writing After, then naming the poet

It’s a convention in poetry that you can credit someone else using this format. Let’s say I wanted to credit a certain political poet from the 1980s, I might write:

Nigel at B&Q
After Attila the Stockbroker

Nigel wants to go to B&Q,
but there’s Isis fighters all round the bathroom department.
Nigel doesn’t like Isis fighters.

Bear in mind this is not a licence to copy that poet word for word; you should be responding to their work, updating it, making your own interpretation, &c.

English: Attila the Stockbroker, taken in the ...
English: Attila the Stockbroker, taken in the Cabaret Tent at the 2010 Glastonbury Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Using a title

In the majority of cases, it’s all right to use a title, particularly if the word can be found in a dictionary. A quick look at Wikipedia offers a whole list of instances of the title Life.

However, be wary if the title is very distinctive, as it can seem as though you’re capitalising on the other person’s success. If you used the title Evidently Chickentown but your work was completely different, a lot of John Cooper Clarke fans would be unhappy.

Imitating a structure

Unless a structure is so closely associated with one particular poet, it’s fair game to emulate a structure as long as you’re saying your own thing. When I wrote Purple, I was going through a Luke Wright phase, so I borrowed the structure of Bloody Hell, It’s Barbara for the last section:

Excerpt from Purple

You’re always dressed in gingham checks
and Oakley specs, and round your neck
those headphones: Oh, I do love Beck.
Large as life, it’s you.

Here, the words are totally different from Wright’s, but would fit a similar metrical pattern.

General themes and ideas

Many people are familiar with the Allen Ginsberg poem Howl and the Gil Scott Heron track The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. The two works touch upon the same themes: disaffected youth, race relations, rebellion, &c. Both also make heavy use of repetition.

It is possible that Scott Heron was influenced by Ginsberg, as his work was written 15 years later, but despite the described similarities, there is no way that one could be accused of copying the other.

Where in the World?

On Friday, WordPress told me my viewing stats were going through the roof, with 30 views in one hour. A closer inspection showed that these views came from Pakistan; what’s more they all appeared to originate from the same person.

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan was formed in 1947 and has a population of 199,000,000. Its official language is Urdu, with more than a dozen recognised regional languages, none of which are English.

So I’m curious to know what someone from this country would gain from my writings, when I speak only English and come from a culture with such different values. Or perhaps my mystery visitor is a British expat, or simply wanted an insight into my world.

If you are, or you know, the person in question, do leave a comment below or e-mail purple@gavincameron.co.uk.