Alan Brayne

Alan Brayne

Alan Brayne was born in the Black Country, but lived in Indonesia for six years and is writing a trilogy based on his time there. His first novel, Jakarta Shadows, was published by Tindal Street Press in 2002. His second novel, Kuta Bubbles was published in the US in 2009. Alan is now living in Malta and working on the final part of the trilogy, Lombok Flames.

How would you describe your book?
For me the key word would be ‘simple’. By which I mean that Jakarta Shadows proceeds in a straight line. It’s a political thriller with one central character based around the plot of a chase. This solved a lot of plotting problems – the structure became picaresque, as one figure travels through a variety of situations. Working on my second book has been more problematic, because there are more characters and two distinct strands to the plot.

One of my pet hates is authors who show off how clever they are. Extravagant pyrotechnics can be an easy way of hiding paucity of feeling and ideas. It’s not easy to do a simple thing well, and one thing I like about Jakarta Shadows is that I think it shows self-discipline. First novels can suffer from over-writing; the author tries to put in too much and ends up losing focus. Having said that, I do want to branch out into more complex plots and storylines, and also beyond the thriller genre.

What challenges and pleasures did you face when writing your book?
The main pleasure was taking 6 months off work to finish the book in Lombok, the beautiful island next to Bali. I lived 2 minutes from the sea and spent a lot of time with pen and paper in restaurants overlooking the beach. I loved Lambok and I loved being a full-time writer (although I didn’t dare call myself that at the time).
Which brings me to the main challenge, one that every writer must know about. Simply summoning up the belief that what you are writing is worthwhile, that you aren’t living a fantasy – and not knowing whether your words will see the light of day. I thought this would get better after Jakarta Shadows, but it seems almost as bad second time around.

Are you a regular and disciplined writer?
I try to be! I think it comes with age (I’m 52). You realise no one owes you a living, you haven’t got limitless time and books don’t write themselves. It’s hard, though, combining writing with TEFL, because they are both jobs that use the brain not the hands, and that concern language. But they require a different approach to language. TEFL is about presenting the students with a limited range of language, and that which is the norm within society. Whereas writers need to find the striking phrase, or at least avoid the hackneyed, the cliched. So the two tasks often pull in different directions; switching between them isn’t always easy.

As far as routine is concerned, I’m useless. I have nothing but admiration for these writers who get up at seven o’clock and then work a set number of hours each day. I am constitutionally incapable of that kind of discipline!

What lifestyle combination would you recommend for a well-balanced writer?
Since I daydream incessantly about making enough money as a writer to concentrate on that alone, I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t say that full-time writing is an ideal to work towards. In more realistic moments I realise that another job is a useful source of inspiration and ideas, and that a writer can become skewed and self-indulgent if writing is all he or she does.

Do you start with characters, a plot or an image?
I thought about this for a while, and realised I probably start with a place. Every place has a mood and I feel that mood inside me and want to communicate it. That’s probably how Jakarta Shadows took root. Kuta Bubbles is much the same – a different place and mood, but the same sense of wanting to sum up what it’s like to live and be there. And my plans for future books centre on the setting – Lombok is next.

The ‘image’ is also important. Jakarta Shadows started with the vision of a man – a fairly young man gone to seed, a rather disturbing individual – sitting in a Jakarta hotel-bar called the Kristal. I also had a Van Gogh painting in my mind – a night-café where a group of men play billiards beneath harsh yellow lighting, surrounded by lime-green walls. The unreal mood, the sense of people as insects pinned down under lights, was what I was trying to capture.

How many drafts do your novels go through and when do you rewrite?
No touch of the inspired genius about me, I’m afraid – I couldn’t do a Kerouac and just spill words onto the page. So I rewrite and rewrite, often until I’m back where I started.

One good thing – I enjoy rewriting. I like it more than getting down a first draft. For me the empty piece of paper is a nightmare. It’s fine when I’m writing the first draft in my head as I walk along the street, but as soon as I try to put it down on paper it fades into the air. I keep meaning to buy a Dictaphone to see if it might help.

What is your favourite read?
Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but I don’t much enjoy reading novels. I prefer non-fiction. Firstly, unless the author is very good, I find it hard to switch off and end up picking holes. I can watch some sci-fi B-movie and accept a silver cardboard spaceship and people wrapped in tinfoil, but I can’t ignore the equivalent in language, so I end up not reading, but tutting. (I want to Kerouac, but have the soul of an EFL teacher.)
My background is theatre studies – spot the drama queen – so a list of my favourite writers would all be dramatists. My personal favourites would be the ancient Greeks, Marlowe, Strindberg, Ibsen, Genet and Pirandello. I also like painting, and find it inspiring, often wanting to create a literary equivalent of something that an artist has produced on canvas.