I enjoyed reading Mark's debut novel Off Key. It was a bit different from the books I usually read and it was about a subject I knew nothing about. I laughed, I shed some tears and I was left wanting more, that's all I ask for in a book.
I asked Mark if he would write a guest post for Books with Wine and Chocolate giving my readers an insight into why he wrote this book.
“I COULD DO BETTER THAN THAT!”
I’m pretty sure that at one time or another we’ve all said this, in relation to a book we’ve read or a play we’ve seen. For me, it wasn’t just about doing it “better”, it was about doing it more believably. We all know what it’s like to invest in a story only for a sudden element of the writing to break the spell.
Miss Bennett held onto the invitation knowing she would be quite unable to accept the honour, despite his pleasant countenance beside her. She awaited, undaunted, as a groom attended to her horse before Peggy, the housemaid, busselled into the courtyard and announced
“Mr Darcy it’s your Mam on the phone . . . she says are you recording Game of Thrones?”
My first novel is about the world of jazz musicians in the North-East of England . . . which, if I’m honest, makes it as glamorous as a story about ‘couture fashion’ set in Goole. But playing unfashionable music, thousands of miles away from its natural home, is what I know about. The final straw, that motivated me into putting pen to paper, was hearing a radio play in which a girl found herself performing across America within a month of deciding she’d like to be a singer. After thirty years of being a working musician I’m still waiting for that particular call from across the water. There seems to be something of a blueprint in fiction about musicians . . . all stories must end with someone bursting into a room clutching a radio saying” Guess what ‘fellers’ we’re number one in the charts”. Cue the sound of champagne corks popping as the band realise that their epic six week struggle to the top has been worth it.
The sad truth is, I can write with a degree of accuracy about trying and very much failing to get ahead in the music business because that is what I’ve been doing for the past three decades. Twenty years ago I worked with one of the biggest names in the industry, a household name, a multi-million selling Diva who is recognised around the world. It was I, Mark Robertson, who provided the drums behind every note she’d sung, to that point. She was the legendary Cheryl Cole . . . it was the Whitley Bay Am-Dram Panto . . . she was eight years old. So I’m not suggesting that musical dreams don’t come true . . . I’m just pointing out that they’re quite a rare occurrence.
I wrote Off-Key because I thought there was a more genuine story to tell about people consumed by making music for its own sake and their daily struggle to keep on making it, in the face of endless economic hardship. I think it’s important to stress here that these circumstances, whilst undeniably grim, can also lead to some fairly farcical and funny situations. In the words of Hawk-Eye Pierce from M*A*S*H “Sometimes laughing is the only way I can open my mouth without screaming”.
It may be very noble to give everything in the pursuance of your art but what happens when you have dependents? You might be entitled to go hungry on your own behalf, chasing your dream, but what about your loved ones. In the opening of my novel saxophone player Kyle is more than happy to be kept by his girlfriend Charlotte but once she decides it’s her turn to follow a dream there’s a problem.
“I bet I cost you less than your clothes bill every month.”
“You’re thirty four, you shouldn’t be costing me anything.”
I also wanted to explore what it’s like to be the person at the other end of this equation. There is no doubt that Charlotte loves Kyle but just how far should she be prepared to submerge her own desires, in life, in order to support his? Given the circumstances it wasn’t hard to come up with the friction necessary for a decent story.
As a piece of therapy, writing a novel about musicians, that are unlikely to be famous any time soon, has been wonderfully cathartic. It’s given a sense of purpose to the thousands of badly paid, badly attended gigs I’ve done in pubs, halls, sheds and toilets across the UK and Europe. So I’m quite prepared to take on board any criticism regarding my novel except “I didn’t believe it”. I’ve spent too long, in too many desolate, deserted venues trying to explain to a loved one, down the phone, why I’m not around for it not to ring true!