Smoky Bacon Crisps: Finding The Edge Of Life

Dave Mearns writes:

A challenge that I always planned to set for myself in retirement was to take my book writing into a different genre. I have always loved writing in the domain of therapy and took pleasure in representing the humanity of the relationship between therapist and client in ways that came alive for the reader. In various books I described‘ Dominic’ the self-declared drunk, ‘Bobby’ the former gangster, ‘Rick’ the traumatised war veteran and ‘Joan’ who fought to survive her childhood abuse. In working at depth with such an array of people I became fascinated by the ways the human being strives for their survival even in dire circumstances. I wanted to take that interest in people and their development into a new sphere – the literary novel. Switching writing genres carries various challenges. Some, like characterisation and portraying the way people develop, were not difficult. But others, for instance writing dialogue, were totally new and had to be learned from scratch.

After twenty-five years of being pushed by publishers to accept writing contracts it has been an eye opener to be a new author in this different genre. It seems that the earlier pattern of first seeking an agent and then a publisher is now largely obsolete. Publishers and agents have had to narrow their vision to the already proven author or style of book because the market can no longer sustain failure. New authors, or even successful authors promoting something different, now regard self-publishing as the first step. Publishers look at what happens in the self-publishing market and occasionally pick up works to take-on. This fairly recent development may prove to be healthy for all concerned because a much wider range of works can be offered at minimal production costs through self-publishing.So, SMOKY BACON CRISPS and also SHADOW STATE are offered on Amazon.co.uk as well as Amazon.com in the USA and Amazon platforms in other countries as a paperback and an e-book via Kindle. Author profits on these book sales are donated to charities. The film rights for SHADOW STATE might be another matter!

Introduction to Smoky Bacon Crisps

In middle age Roy, Henry and Donnie have drifted into comfortable ways of being until a shared tragic event leads them to consider their lives and they each see that their comfortable space is also a prison. They start opening up their lives to new experiences and begin to find the edge of life.

The book is set in Glasgow, but it could be anywhere in the western world. It shows the city at its best, but Britain at its worst, as the three gentlemen find that the country has become gripped by ideologies more in keeping with the tabloid press than with any valuing of humanity. In this introduction we should not give away the events that challenge the social order of the nation and lead to The Pensioners March on Glasgow, but we can mention some of the characters. As well as Roy the retired factory worker, Henry a defected member of the landed class now professional gambler, and Donnie who is ex-army and clouded in mystery, there is Maureen, the bar manager and Rosie, her assistant and adopted ‘sister’. The sisters have both become strong in the face of men but to each other they can share the love of women. There is also ‘Finn’, a gangster known for his work with a filleting knife; ‘Adonis’, Finn’s bodyguard, whose body inspires Rosie but whose mind does not; the lawyer, Mr Findlay Macsween still sharp at eighty years of age; Donnie’s estranged son Donald, a property developer in Buenos Aires; Amjad and Mohsin the computer whiz kids; Nadira Khan, Professor at Oxford University and a Master of the Bench of Middle Temple; Chief Superintendent Roger Dingwall, referred to by his colleagues as ‘Dingaling’; the very smooth Chief Inspector Aldo Perretti, an expert in interrogating terrorists; the local journalist Sam Hunt who made a fortune and gave it away; ‘The Beast’, not someone with whom to spend time in a prison toilet cubicle; the Gaelic speaking Jock and Duncan in Lochinver; not to mention the mystical Aonghas of Assynt. Oh, and the First Minister of Scotland.
 
Reviews and Comments
 
One day in 2009 I was playing golf at Murrayshall near Perth with Professor John McLeod, my friend of forty years. He handed me a book with the firm instruction, "you will like that". I remember Carl Rogers once saying to me, "I don't read many books, but when someone recommends one to me I read it. I find that these books always prove useful to me." Thus I was introduced to Andrew Greig's Preferred Lies which, along with his later At the Loch of the Green Corrie, encouraged me to start the novel I had  long wanted to write. It feels as though the circle is squared by Andrew's recent comment on Smoky Bacon Crisps: "I read it right through with real pleasure. As Alasdair said in 'Return of John Macnab', " If only life was like this". It's an inspiring and entertaining fairy tale. Enjoyed the characters, felt I'd been with them in the Culloden." (andrew-greig.weebly.com)
 
At this time of writing, there are nine reviews on amazon.co.uk and one on amazon.com (covering sales outside Britain). Nine of the ten reviewers give the top rating of five stars and one gives three stars (but interesting observations). Following these reviews and other comments we will pick up on the discussion points arising.
 
The most recent review is very well written and brings an interesting perspective which I'll comment upon in the discussion section later:
I loved this book and was totally gripped by it from beginning to end. It's the flip side of a Janice Galloway, another admirable Scottish writer, whose novels tell of women lamenting their vain wish to be rescued by 'knights on a white charger' while these same men live out the 'emotional dishonesty that passes for normal male behaviour...down the pub with the other knights' (Foreign Parts, 1994). Smoky Bacon Crisps could well be three of these men a few years down the line, possibly in the same pub, at last finding emotional honesty and 'the edge of life' in each other's company.

We get to know Roy, Donnie and Henry as well as we get to know the female characters in a Janice Galloway novel. What stays with me is how vividly they are portrayed and how much I actually cared about what happened to them, in particular the much-battered Donnie who grows in self-belief and discovers a quality of life he's never known before through the support and encouragement of friends who really understand and respect the subtleties of 'normal male behaviour', which involves, amongst other things 'not too push too far'. I found the friendship between the three central characters and the insight with which it is presented surprisingly moving.

Smoky Bacon Crisps is not only insightful and vivid in its presentation of character, but also well constructed, with a plot of accelerating momentum that carries the reader along with a real wish that Roy, Donnie and Henry will triumph over all adversity. The novel is entertainingly written, engaging in its incidental detail- and inspiring in its reversal of stereotypes, including its heartening presentation of 'retirement' as a blissful opportunity, a sudden opening-out, a chance to step back and mend the past and, given the right circumstances, to live life more vividly than ever before.
JMO (amazon.co.uk)
 
The following review gives a better description of the book than I achieved in a dozen drafts of the 'blurb':
This novel is a massive achievement, which makes a significant contribution to understanding some of the key issues that confront contemporary society. Written with humour and acutely-observed cultural detail, the story is told of a group of individuals who find ways to move on from isolated lives by becoming more emotionally honest and supportive with each other. The consequence of their increased engagement with the world at large, is exposure to oppressive forces within the political and legal system. At its heart, this novel expresses a belief that commitment to a shared humanity allows people from all political and social backgrounds to work together for justice, and that it is never too late to fulfill your own personal potential. It is not appropriate, in a review, to disclose details of the plot. Suffice to say that what starts off as resembling an excursion into the territory of Last Tango in Halifax shifts gear in surprising and shocking ways. Moving, inspiring, enjoyable and thought-provoking; sure to become a widely-read classic.
JMAC (amazon.co.uk)
 
The other reviews and comments follow below. After these we will discuss the issues that arise from them.
Good Story well told. Nice subject matter. Believable characters. Slightly cheesy which spoiled it slightly. Glaswegian working class male characters speaking counsellor speak. I don't think so!
Moorlander (amazon.co.uk)
 
The title led me to think that this book would be a simple People's Friend cosy read. It was anything but. Happy and sad but so insightful about humanity. Well done Dave Mearns for finding the edge of life.
Jan Colligan (amazon.co.uk)
This is an unusual book about men and relationships between them. What does one do when one retires? Well this is a pretty good start to seeing why we should shake off comfortable, semi-reclusive familiarity and stand up, extend ourselves and find other people.
This book deserves a wider audience and it is high time it was picked up by a major publishing house/film company. It is timely and deals also with the rise of 'grey power' and the politicization of ordinary people in the face of extraordinary, though spurious, pressures being brought to bear on a population.
Questioning first our relationships, then our ways of being with one another, then our ways of being in society so that we find our own, personal voice and can make it loud is a story of triumph and overcoming that will resonate with readers for years to come. I found it a genuinely moving read and a book that I will remember for a long while. Quite apart from that, it has helped me plan my own retirement. Really.
I highly recommend that you buy this book if you are a man (its about you) and even more if you are a woman wanting to have extra insight into what it is to be a man. I recommend it if you are retired (its about you) or know someone who is or just think you might live long enough to retire one day yourself.
SHG (amazon.co.uk)
 
 
A most enjoyable read, the plot developing by twists and turns as the characters come to life on the page. I am already looking forward to the next in the series, assuming that one is planned. The Number One Glaswegian Potato Snack Agency perhaps? Maybe even, the film. I'm imagining Ken Loach taking up the rights. I read it as part morality tale, part heist - a kind of full catastrophe living for those who thought that retirement was an end, rather than a beginning ... a Last of the Summer Wine for the Taggart generation? It's just a shame that Mark McManus isn't around to play one of the parts.
J. Hilton (amazon.co.uk) 
 
An enchanting book. I loved the characters and their flaws. A real page turner . I felt I'd lost something important when I reached the end.
Cherry (amazon.co.uk)

I have been an avid reader and admirer of Dave Mearns as a Counsellor and so was curious and excited to see his work as a novelist. I was pleasantly unsurprised. After being so moved and encouraged by his counselling writings, this novel is no different.
The book clearly has Dave's counselling experience woven into it via the relationships, behaviours and understanding of people. The novel feels like a roller coaster that had me laughing, crying and being right alongside the journey the characters were taking.
The book moves from a journey of relational depth and moving out of comfort zones to a true and strong novel story line. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to be absorbed, inspired and touched. 
    

Chris (amazon.co.uk)
I have deeply enjoyed every page of this novel, and strongly recommend it to readers of all ages. I rarely give myself time for fiction reading during the week, given work and family commitments. Reading "Smoky bacon crisps" was an exception. Its main characters are described with so much love and sensitivity, that soon after starting reading it I felt very close to them, and found myself missing them every time I was away from the novel. By the end of it, I wanted to fly to Glasgow and have a pint with them at the Culloden (the pub where they regularly meet) myself! 
Julian (amazon.com)
 
Here are other comments and reactions sent directly to the author:
 
"I just wanted to let you know that I have just finished reading Smoky Bacon Crisps this weekend and wanted to congratulate and thank you for it. I really enjoyed reading it and also your writing style. It feels like a very powerful book. I felt extremely absorbed in the book and alongside the characters throughout. I could really relate to them and somehow felt close to them too. They were often in my thoughts in between readings! It had me feeling so many different emotions throughout the book and I think that can be really hard to capture and achieve just through text. I loved the way that your insights into people were woven into the book and something that I think 99% of books lack. It was a really refreshing change. The same goes for the political ideology too. Very refreshing, relevant and needed in my opinion!"
"I really like that the book is about men. I normally only read books about women. This was a real eye opener."

"As a reader you can't help getting involved with the people - they are so well painted emotionally - I felt I knew them."

"Many of the characters were people I had met - even the gangster - he was hard, but you a
lso saw his commitment to his friends. That is how it works."

"The characters complement each other really well - they are so different, yet the same kind of thing is happening to all of them."

"The book took a turn that I did not expect when it took on politics - I welcomed that."

"I cried a lot for my friends in the book, particularly when ...... died, but also when Roy met his wife."

"I found it difficult to read and eventually I stopped. There was so much of you (the author) in the book that I felt a bit of a voyeur."
"Once I started it I couldn't put it down. It certainly fits the description of 'page-turner'! I loved the characters, the Scottishness, the emotion, the hope for us all, and the plot, which was wonderful. I did laugh and I did cry - in fact I thought it would make a really good film."
Discussions Arising
"I loved this book and was totally gripped by it from beginning to end. It's the flip side of a Janice Galloway, another admirable Scottish writer, whose novels tell of women lamenting their vain wish to be rescued by 'knights on a white charger' while these same men live out the 'emotional dishonesty that passes for normal male behaviour...down the pub with the other knights' (Foreign Parts, 1994). Smoky Bacon Crisps could well be three of these men a few years down the line, possibly in the same pub, at last finding emotional honesty and 'the edge of life' in each other's company."
Dave: Yes indeed. I remember when in teaching I used to refer to the book "Women Who Love too Much", I would add: "Of course it should have been titled 'Men Who Cannot Love at All"! 

 

"Slightly cheesy"

Dave: I'll hold my hand up to this one. The problem is that I like cheesy! I'll need to control it in future.
"Glaswegian working class male characters speaking counsellor speak - I don't think so!"
Dave: Actually, this is a fascinating reality. It gets to the very heart of the book. When people are at 'the edge' of their experiencing they do indeed communicate quite differently. We found this when we ran a free public counselling service in the University. I remember one weekend taking home 12 recordings of sessions, all with working class male clients (unusually we had a high proportion of male clients using the service). It was incredibly moving to hear them speak about themselves in language that was not necessarily sophisticated, but was direct and powerful. Some years earlier, on a research project in a high school, we had found exactly the same thing with children. In fifty minute interviews we found that they spoke quite differently in the last ten minute segment than in the first ten minutes. We showed teachers the transcripts of the ending segments and asked them what year they thought the students were from. They all guessed S5 or S6. In fact the students were all in S1. People communicate very differently when they are at the edge of their experiencing. 
"I thought it would make a really good film"
Dave: Me too - I've sent copies to Ken Loach and Bill Forsyth.
"[The book] deals also with the rise of 'grey power' and the politicization of ordinary people..."
Dave: Very much so. Indeed, when my daughter drafted an early blurb for the book she categorised the genre as 'grey revolution'. When I do the next two books in the series that strand will become even stronger. It's not 'grey power' in the sense of fighting for the rights of the elderly, rather the elderly showing what they can contribute to the wider society...and showing themselves the strengths and abilities they had forgotten they possessed.
"This book deserves a wider audience and it is high time it was picked up by a major publishing house..."
Dave: I explored this possibility fairly thoroughly. There are various reasons an agency might be reluctant to take on a project such as this. As I mentioned at the start of this page, the publishing industry is focusing more on the proven product or author rather than exploring the edges as before. It's not a total shift but certainly a shift of balance. If I were an agent, my appraisal of Smoky Bacon Crisps would be something like the following...The writing is pretty good for a first time fiction author. The observational humour rivals Connelly. The language craft also shows the author's learning, though it is not on the level of a McIlvanney. The plot is intriguing and worryingly close to subsequent problems encountered by Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald and his partner David Miranda. The characterisation is its strongest aspect - the author really draws the reader into the characters and their relationships. But the big uncertainty is how to market the book. It doesn't slot neatly into 'crime', 'suspense', 'thriller', 'humour', although it has aspects of all of these. 
Perhaps an agent will want to take the risk of seeking to market this book as an example of what will certainly become a strong genre in the future. These will be books being fed by and feeding into the grey revolution. At present we have adventure books written for all ages and about all age groups, except the Greys. Why can't they have their own genre of adventure tales? Publishers might be encouraged to look at the statistics of which age groups read and buy most books. Of course the grey revolution genre would not only be attractive to the greys, but to many of those who expected that they might move into that stage of living! This genre would challenge ageist stereotypes in others and inspire greys to be more proactive in their own living.
Response to these Discussions and other discussion points are welcomed at: info@davemearns.com.  
Please add reviews on Amazon. These are extremely useful for potential readers.
 
NOTE: The 2013 edition of SMOKY BACON CRISPS is now replaced by the 2015 revised edition. This 340 page paperback, created through CreateSpace an Amazon.com company, is much superior to the earlier printed version, and also cheaper. Anyone who would like an autographed copy can Email me at: info@davemearns.com.