“This has completely turned things around.” Ian Nettleton on winning the Bath Novel Award 2023 and writing his dark literary thriller, Out of Nowhere.
Congratulations again, has the win sunk in and what does it mean to you?
Thank you. Yes, I think it has. What does it mean to me? This is a game changer. My year started badly on the writing front – I felt like I was back to square one and got quite fed up about the whole thing. This has completely turned things around.
Where were you when you heard?
At first I didn’t want to look, so I went and sat out in the garden and contemplated the clouds. I was still out there beyond the time for the announcement. My wife got back from the school run and said, ‘Come on! I’ve got a piano lesson in ten minutes!’ So I had to go upstairs to my office. I got an e-mail that said I’d won but I didn’t quite believe it, so I kept clicking on the website, just to be sure. There was a delay. Then there it was. We both laughed and cried. Who wouldn’t? The piano lesson was abandoned and we went out for coffee and cake.
What’s the reaction been like from friends, family, students?
It’s been quite overwhelming. On Twitter and on Facebook there have been so many messages that I’ve only just managed to answer them all. People have been so kind. My family have been super excited and there have been quite a few tears. My mother-in-law was so choked up that when she tried to tell my father-in-law, she couldn’t speak. He thought something terrible had happened. My National Centre for Writing students knew about it before I entered the classroom this week and gave me a round of applause. Bit embarrassing. But also rather nice.
“As a writer you want to connect with your reader. You hope to move them, to disturb them, to keep them reading, to engage them with your main character. You can never really be sure if you are succeeding until someone reads your writing. “
Out of Nowhere is a tense, disturbing literary thriller, set in Australia, about an escaped prisoner on the run, trying to see his long-lost daughter again. It’s the loose prequel to another Australian-set manuscript which was our inaugural runner up back in 2014. Why is Australia such an inspirational setting for you?
Out of Nowhere is kind of like a road movie, and it just wouldn’t work in England. I did try, but the story didn’t take off till I could picture Frank Neely walking up that abandoned railway line. The story needed Australia’s wide expanse, from the outback to the east coast, from Broken Hill to Cairns to Port Douglas, with its four-mile beach and creepy mangrove swamps and crocodiles and sea eagles. All of this is essential to the mood of the story. I’ve travelled there with a rucksack – my second visit was mainly for research. Australia is key to my story but so is what I bring from my own experiences. Graham Greene set a novel in Mexico after visiting there for a few months as a journalist. Lee Child is from Coventry but his Jack Reacher stories are set in the United States. I don’t think Shakespeare ever went to Venice. When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the London he depicted was his childhood Edinburgh, with its Old Town closes and the pond across from his bedroom which became the Treasure Island of his adulthood. In all cases it’s that landscape of the imagination, merged with the real.
Readers love the spareness of your writing and the powerful, vivid sense of place. As a creative writing lecturer is there a favourite exercise you could share on how to achieve this?
There are two kinds of writing that I favour, parataxis and hypotaxis. Sometimes it’s a matter of paring the writing down so much that the writing seems impressionistic, while at other times it’s a matter of immersing the reader in something ponderous and almost biblical in tone. As for an exercise, if you want to create a sense of place, I would apply the following: Go back in your mind to a setting that was familiar to you as a child. Make sensory notes on this place, picking out those small details that make it distinct and which you connect to emotionally. Then bring in a stranger – a fugitive, a new child perhaps, someone who doesn’t belong. You will know the world well enough that it will stand out for the reader, while the sense of strangeness/the uncanny will give it a dramatic impact. Graham Greene said, ‘If I had known it, the whole future must have lain all the time along those Berkhamsted streets’. His stories are set in Vietnam, Sierra Leone, Haiti, Mexico, but it is the landscape of his troubled childhood – the common where he played Russian roulette, the castle, the school where he was mentally tortured – that informs his story world.
Your prize included a compilation of readers’ comments. Any favourite responses?
I love this one:
My favourite read this year. Also the book that has stayed with me the most. A lingering sense of optimism in the desolate outback. It would be a brilliant film.
This sums up the novel so well, for me, and I did see it as though I was watching a film. I’d love to see it up on the screen. Films like The Proposition and Walkabout show just how the Australian landscape lends itself to the medium. And I do see the novel as hopeful, even if the plot is downbeat. And this:
The worldbuilding is consistently deft, vivid, immersive and at times quite breathtaking.
The writing is deliciously dark and so damn good, bending my will and not allowing me to stop reading. Key scenes are heart in the mouth compelling and the reader is directed and misdirected to feel all kinds of ways about Frank.
Reading that again choked me up. As a writer you want to connect with your reader. You hope to move them, to disturb them, to keep them reading, to engage them with your main character. You can never really be sure if you are succeeding until someone reads your writing. I don’t think writers really know how effective their writing can be until they see its effect on a reader. You work alone for so much of the time.
Where, when and how do you write?
I write last thing at night, when I’m close to that hypnogogic, near-dream state. I also write between 9:00am and 10:30am, before doing any other work, and get myself into the right state of mind through reading. Films helps too. I’m very influenced by cinema. The Coens, Lynne Ramsay. I write in my office, in a chair in the corner, with a fountain pen. I love ink. I think every writer has to find a ritual that works for them and this is one of mine. I then type this up. When I’m finished, I print the whole thing off and read through it, making notes, and then type these amendments up. With a novel, I do this until I get to the point where I can read it all the way through without anything snagging. Then I hand it over to someone I trust to read it through.
“There are two kinds of writing that I favour, parataxis and hypotaxis. Sometimes it’s a matter of paring the writing down so much that the writing seems impressionistic, while at other times it’s a matter of immersing the reader in something ponderous and almost biblical in tone.”
2023 judge Kate Barker said: “Out of Nowhere is a tense, disturbing literary thriller, set in Australia, about an escaped prisoner on the run, trying to see his long-lost daughter again. It is an impressive, dark-hearted novel which is hugely atmospheric, has an authentic and gripping sense of nastiness, and is peopled by totally convincing characters who perhaps weren’t born bad but time and again make bad decisions in tough circumstances.” What was it like to read her comments?
That’s a book blurb right there. I couldn’t ask for a better response. A dark hearted novel – that’s just great and brings to mind Heart of Darkness. Joseph Conrad had a big influence on me through my 20s. I also love the ‘gripping sense of nastiness’. I don’t think I realised just how hard the novel is to read! I know it’s not ‘up lit’. What I really like about this response is that Kate really gets the novel.
If there’s one thing you hope readers take from your book what would that be?
I think the answer to that is in the monologue on the first page. I entirely understand atheism, but I’m not an atheist, neither am I an orthodox believer. Life is too interesting to be orthodox, but the idea of a transcendent narrative has always appealed to me.
Any plans for the prize money?
I haven’t told my girls yet, but we are hoping to take them to see My Neighbour Totoro on stage. We couldn’t really afford it before, but now we can. They love the Studio Ghibli films. We all do.
Where will you be keeping your trophy?
That trophy means a great deal to me and I want to keep it safe but I also want to be able to look at it. I think I’ll keep it in my office for now as inspiration.
Can you say what’s happening in terms of agent representation?
There are things happening in the background – some publishers are reading and some agents will be taking a look shortly.
What’s next for you?
I’m halfway through writing a new novel. Just today an important plot point came to me – a dark twist that I’m really pleased with. There you go, ‘dark’ again. I’ll keep on working on that. I’ll also revise a novel I finished earlier this year, about a Blackpool comedian and some London gangsters. And I’ll do any revisions that may be needed on Out of Nowhere, ready for whatever comes next. Aside from that, I’m going enjoy this moment of success. I’ve been a big fan of this award since 2014. It’s amazing to now be one of the winning writers.
IAN NETTLETON is from Yorkshire and lives in Norwich. He teaches creative writing for the National Centre for Writing and the Open University and has worked in advertising, in a book shop, as a cleaner, an illustrator, a care worker and a teacher in Prague. He was runner-up in both the Bath Novel Award 2014 and the Bridport Novel Prize 2014 and Out of Nowhere is a loose prequel to his 2014 manuscript.
Out of Nowhere is a literary thriller based on Ian’s own journeys in Australia – everywhere the protagonist goes, Ian has gone. It is the story of Frank Neely, a small-time criminal who is implicated in the massacre of some prison guards and who heads up the east coast of Queensland to see his young daughter one last time, pursued by the police and a streak of bad luck that leads him into some unexpectedly dark and treacherous places.
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