Wednesday 26 July 2017

Guest Post | How Real Life Became More Frightening than Fiction by Mike Thomas (Unforgivable)

Published by Zaffre on July 27, 2017

How Real Life Became More Frightening than the Fictional Events in ‘Unforgivable’

What if the unreal became real?

What if something you were planning to write, something so extreme and preposterous and troubling, became – during the creation of the novel – the horrifying new normal?

I’d had a story idea rattling around my addled brain for some time: what if, against a backdrop of racial tensions in the UK city of Cardiff, a lone white male decided to attack an ethnic market then blow up a mosque? What if this was our very own Anders Behring Breivik moment, or David Copeland all over again, targeting people with nail bombs and firearms and remote-detonated homemade explosive devices? But what if I dialled it up to eleven, really pushing the devastation, the insanity?

And what if these attacks paralysed an entire city? Brought the populace of a cosmopolitan west European capital to its knees, and stretched its emergency services – already fraying at the seams during an ongoing case of racially-motivated murder – to breaking point? How would the police respond to such a meticulously planned and vicious series of events where hundreds of people were left dying or dead?

I thought I’d find out. It was in the early summer of 2015 that I finally began writing, hacking away at an opening chapter – the market scene, where the attacker strides in and begins setting off IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) – that was designed to get the heart thumping. That was designed to leave you open-mouthed at its conclusion, reeling at what you had just read.

It worked well enough, but something was niggling at me. That niggle stayed with me as I moved on to the next chapter, and the next. I couldn’t work out what it was, so I kept writing, dismissing it as first draft jitters.

It was at around the ten thousand word mark that I realised: this is too far-fetched. Nobody will believe it. Nothing like this could ever happen. Remember, this was 2015. This was before. Before homophobic gun rampages in nightclubs, before airports being blown up, before images of Paris suburbs turned into war zones.

So I put the manuscript away. Gave up on the idea, after months of planning and prep, of hours spent typing and editing and working my way into the story.

It just seemed too out there to work. I had dozens upon dozens of people dead. More injured, maimed. It just felt too unrealistic. I brooded about the thing for a month or so, thinking how I could make it better, more authentic.

I decided to reduce the carnage. Just a few deceased in the market. A couple in the mosque. Nothing too outré, and it would have the bonus effect of leaving the investigation in the hands of the Cardiff police – with large-scale casualties you’d be talking national anti-terror officers and the Metropolitan Police getting involved. I’d have been left without a Cardiff-based story to write.

So I took to the novel again, happy that it was more realistic. Less ridiculous.

Then I woke on the morning of Saturday 14th November. And, oddly for me, the first thing I did was check Twitter on my phone.

And I saw the news.

The tweet I sent read: ‘What a shitty thing to wake up to. The world has gone mad.”

Paris. The Bataclan. The images, the stories, beyond awful.

The unreal had become real. My – now abandoned – initial tale seemed almost tame in comparison to the horrors scrolling across the television screen, the reports coming out of the music venue, the restaurants and café bars. It was as if things had slipped their moorings, the world as we know it spinning off into some place of outrageous, terrifying new levels of slaughter, of inhumanity.

More of it came in the following months, into 2016. Istanbul. Brussels. Orlando. Ataturk Airport. Bastille Day. The seemingly daily bombings in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan. A wave of senselessness that numbed you as you watched and read. And then Westminster in London, a pop concert in Manchester, London once again.

My concerns had shifted: where once I was worried the book wouldn’t be published because it was too ridiculous, a few months ago I was worried it wouldn’t be published as it was too close to the bone for readers’ tastes.

‘Unforgivable’ is a novel, one you can step away from at any time. You have entered the world of DC Will MacReady voluntarily and can leave when you wish. As I was writing it I thought about the poor people caught up in these attacks, who were going about their business, living their lives, when terror struck.

They had no choice. It was a sobering, scary feeling. It fed into the novel, because now it focuses on the families, the aftermath, the humanity and warmth and love that people can have for one another when these terrible things occur.

Yet the fact remains that during the lifetime of this novel, what I considered outlandish and likely to be ridiculed as impossible has become – dare I say it – entirely commonplace.

Now that’s scary.

Thanks, Sophie!


Thank you, Mike!

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