The loneliness of the long-distance writer: Read Regional 2017

John Donoghue – author of The Death’s Head Chess Club – talks about his experience of participating in Read Regional 2017, as one of our twelve chosen writers from across the North.

I once read something by Stephen King in which he said that the power of writing lay in its ability to provide a means of communication over time and distance – a sort of telepathy, according to him. I’m not so sure about the telepathy, but I’ve started to understand what he meant about distance this spring, travelling the length and breadth of northern England for Read Regional 2017.

Today I’m off to meet people in Berwick-on-Tweed, which means an early start and a train from Liverpool via York. Trains are without doubt my favourite mode of transport: I think it’s brilliant that you often end up chatting to complete strangers. I was once on a train when some young football fans came and sat at my table. I had my laptop open and was editing a short story. “Whatcha doin?” one of them asked. “I’m writing a story,” I told him, acutely aware he was reading it even as we spoke. I waited for perhaps a half a minute while he read down the page. “Not much cop, is it?” he said. His friends laughed. I did too. “What team do you support?” I asked. “Wolves,” came the reply. “Never mind,” I said, getting my own back. “I suppose there are worse teams to support.” We all laughed again, united in not taking ourselves too seriously.

Writing can be a solitary activity so it’s great to have the opportunity to meet people who like to read and are interested in meeting writers. Up to now I’ve met people in Willerby, Wakefield, Doncaster and Blackburn, and in every place I’ve had a very warm welcome – in the nicest possible way! My novel is set in Auschwitz, in 1944, so it’s perhaps not the easiest of subjects, but at every event people have shown not just an interest, but also often a detailed knowledge of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. Many have visited Auschwitz, and there’s usually a discussion of how moving people have found the experience.

My story is about a relationship that develops between an SS officer and a Jewish prisoner, brought together through the game of chess. An unlikely scenario, perhaps, and, as you might expect, the most frequent question I get asked is, ‘Where did you get the idea from?’. I wish I could say it was something that I spent many a tortured night thinking and agonising over, but it wouldn’t be true. Like many creative ideas, it came from nowhere and then it wouldn’t leave me alone. I felt almost as if the story itself was telling me to write it; it certainly took over my life, with research and then writing, for over two years. Since then it’s been a bit of a roller coaster. My novel was published, first in the UK then internationally, then, last year, I received the Waverton Award – the only literary award to be voted for by the public.

Then, I was asked to take part in Read Regional. I’ve enjoyed it immensely – meeting so many different people and having such lively discussions about my book that I wish it didn’t have to come to an end. Suddenly it seems that being a writer is perhaps not such a solitary existence after all.

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