I’m delighted to introduce another friend from Authonomy days – Polly Johnson. Her book, Stones, sticks in my mind as an unforgettable story, beautifully and sensitively written. You really must read it. Over to you, Polly to talk about the vibrant setting for your book.
Stones was my first novel to be picked up. It is set in Brighton, an English seaside resort town (designated a city in 2000) about an hour out of London on the South coast. It has a broad shingle beach with the expected amusements and two piers – one still running and the other a black skeleton after a fire destroyed it. It also boasts the famous Brighton Pavilion, built as a seaside pleasure palace for King George IV, and is known as a young, diverse and arty place to visit with unusual shops in it’s Lanes and North Laine.
A lively place with a long history, we love to visit our friends in Brighton. I was asked in an interview – why set the book there? And there are two answers to that. One is that I honestly had little part in it. Stones was the result of an attempt to recapture the joy I used to take in writing just for myself, but lost in the busy round of adult life. It was a ‘start typing and see…’ exercise, and the characters and setting just appeared without my active choice. The second reason, if I had thought about it first, would be the nature of the place itself.
It is perfect for the story in that both the main character and Brighton itself contain contrasts. On the surface there is sea, candy floss, fun to be had, but underneath there is another side, which is true of most places, but especially in seaside towns where the surface looks so alluring (think Brighton Rock by Graham Greene). With this in mind, I went along with one of my daughters to take photographs to use back home when doing my first edit, so the pictures here are not sharp and beautiful, or even particularly attractive. For Brighton’s sake, I’d urge people to google and see all it has to offer. These, though, are the photographs we took that day.
The beach and pier both play a part in Coo’s story and are the well recognised face that most people know. The Palace Pier, was built to replace The Chain Pier which never made it past construction in 1896. It was popular as a theatre and entertainment centre and continued to function up to the 1970’s, when it was damaged and rebuilt, reappearing as an amusement park with fairground rides and arcade.
The West Pier, which features on the book’s cover, was opened in 1866 and was the first to be Grade I listed. It closed in 1975 and since then, neglect and a fire means it has become increasingly derelict and is now considered to be beyond repair. It is perhaps a more fitting symbol for Coo than its neighbour.
Other places invented for the book – the landscape that Banks, the anti-hero of the story would be more familiar with – we had to go and search for (a treasure hunt without any clues.) Riding along the sea-front on the Volks railway we were on the lookout for a place where Banks and his homeless friends might live, and there, right at the end of the line, almost up to the marina, we saw this:
This became ‘The Mansion’ and we couldn’t believe how perfect it was. All we needed now was the bench that Coo and Banks sat on to talk – and as we walked back from the mansion towards the town – very close by, we found it:
Coo and Banks have many talks here, and although the story might sound rather downbeat, it is also full of hope and a kind of magic that both the main characters are trying to find in each other. It was also rather magical to find these two settings right next to each other, already perfectly imagined, and strange to leave them and return to the colourful seafront.
So, my photographs are grainy and don’t really show the many attractive sights that Brighton bubbles with in all its variety and creativity, but this other side of things is as much a part of the story as the other, and Coo, the main character, moves between them, in and out, as easily as the clouds that cross the beach.
In STONES, Coo is trying to cope with the hand that life has dealt her. At sixteen, she feels she’s too young to have lost her older brother, Sam, to alcoholism. She’s skipping school to avoid the sympathy and questions of her friends and teachers, and shunning her parents, angry that they failed to protect her. Then, one day, truanting by the Brighton seafront, Coo meets Banks, a homeless alcoholic and she’s surprised to discover that it is possible for her life to get more complicated. It is also available here:
Polly Johnson lives just outside London. She works with special needs students and is working on her second YA novel, while an adult novel is currently with her agent.