Friday, 23 February 2018

Story of a Novel: Ghost Town by Catriona Troth

It’s no secret that Ghost Town had one of the longest gestations in literary history. But what inspired me to write it and why did it take me so long to finish it?

The ruined cathedral of St Michael's - Coventry's symbol of reconciliation

Back in 1981, I was a post-graduate student at the University of Warwick. I could not help but be aware, through that spring and summer, that tensions were building between local skinheads and the then relatively new British Asian community. There was an undercurrent of violence in the air and a sense that something was about to boil over.

Years later, I had an idea for a story that seemed to fit perfectly with this background. As I began my research, I uncovered a story that was both darker and more shocking than what I remembered – but also profoundly hopeful. A story which – while still talked about in Coventry – itself is virtually unknown outside the city.

What I had remembered simply as ‘rising tensions’ had in fact included firebomb attacks, an assault on a young girl as she minded her family’s shop, and two racially motivated murders – one of a young student and one of a doctor. The murder of the student galvanised the Asian community in to action. A series of protest marches were held – the last and biggest of which was met by a phalanx of skinheads giving Nazi salutes in the middle of the town centre, backed by senior members of Far Right groups like the National Front and the British Movement. Fights broke out between skinheads and Asian youths that were broken up by a charge of mounted police. And always in the shadows, grey men from Far Right, fanning the flames of hatred.

Audio Extract from Ghost Town, describing the day a protest march exploded into violence

A collections of photographs from the Coventry Telegraph showing the real life protest march in May 1981

Members of the Specials and the Selecter outide the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry in 2014

This was a time when Coventry identified with Two Tone and Ska the way Liverpool identified with the Beatles. Bands like The Specials  and the Selector had been writing music with an explicitly anti-racist message. So when the band heard what had happened, the Specials' immediate response was to organise a Concert for Racial Harmony.

Photographs from The Specials' Concert for Racial Harmony 

Although everyone feared that would became a flash point for further violence, it didn’t. Within a couple of weeks, riots had kicked off in cities across the UK, starting in Southall. But Coventry remained one of the few major cities the riots never reached. It was as if the city paused, took stock and listened to its own conscience. The Specials and the other bands at the Concert for Racial Harmony bore witness to a different kind of future.


My first draft came relatively fast. Allowing for the fact I was working and bringing up two small children, a year wasn’t a bad effort. I had the bones of a story not a million miles from the final plot of Ghost Town. But I knew some of it was built on pretty shaky ground.

In autumn 2001, I took myself back up to Coventry and immersed myself in the archive of the Coventry Evening Telegraph. That was when I finally understood the enormity of what had happened in the city in the spring and summer of 1981.

Part of Coventry's 'Concrete Jungle'

The next draft of Ghost Town came very slowly. I became passionate about telling the story of what happened in Coventry that summer. I was soaking up a lot of research, reading books, trawling the internet, understanding a lot of things I hadn’t understood before. The story was fleshing out, but something wasn’t right. My female lead no longer fitted the book. So I took the drastic decision to rip her out and look for a new lead.

That was when, luckily or unluckily, depending on your point of view, I lost my job. I had a year unemployed and I spent it feverishly finishing Ghost Town, with its new female lead. By the time I started work again, I had a completed manuscript.

I proofread it, parcelled up a few chapters, and started sending it round to agents. According to my records, I had an encouraging number of people asking for the full MS. But that was all. I got busy with my new job, and the manuscript languished – until I discovered online critique groups.

Hugely excited, I posted a few chapters. The initial response was scathing, to say the least. I felt like giving up. I remember telling someone that, if I had to rewrite this book one more time, I thought my ears would bleed. “Then let them bleed,” they said, “if that’s what it takes.”

Finally, I started to find people who seemed to ‘get’ my story. They were critical, sometimes harshly so. But their criticism was constructive. One of the most painful things was that, chapter after chapter, I was told that my new female lead, the one for whom I had ripped the whole book apart, was ‘cold’ and ‘unsympathetic’. I can’t tell you how many tears I shed, until at last I reached a point where people started to connect with her.

And well, there were a few more iterations after that. Some savage cutting of an overly long manuscript, courtesy of the sharp editing scalpel of Amanda Hodgkinson. A wonderfully sensitive reader, Sudha Buchar, helped me avoid more than one pitfall with the British Asian characters in the book. Finally, the MS went through the hands of a copy editor and proof reader. And Ghost Town was published with Triskele Books, with the gorgeous cover designed by Jane Dixon Smith.

And that is how a series of events that made a deep impression on me back in the summer of 1981 found their way onto the page in November 2013.

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