Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed author Ross Patrick about his life what inspires him, and the work that went into his new novel, A New Dark Age.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I work nights at a supermarket squeezed into a BP petrol station. I live quietly in a house by a stream with my cat, Graham. I was born and lived my early life in the Scottish enclave of Corby in the English East Midlands. When the Steel Works shed jobs, we moved to rural Leicestershire.
Introverted and anxious, I drifted like a discarded crisp packet across the park, past the frozen statues of benched pensioners and the whining swings where years later, drunk on cider bought by a friend’s older brother, my first romantic longings were stirred.
On through a grey school of tired buildings and lingering temporary classrooms to provincial universities at Leicester and then Norwich, the University of East Anglia, where I studied Literature, having previously studied History. I then lost a decade working in wine retail and education before a breakdown.
I find distraction in long walks, studying philosophy of consciousness and the hope that we are all one dream experiencing itself subjectively from infinite disassociated perspectives.
Otherwise, I suffer persistent disappointments of following Nottingham Forest, and the joyous feelgood escapism of following Ben Fogle’s New Lives in the Wild. I enjoy both cooking and eating Italian food, an inheritance from mother’s family. I am also vegetarian; Graham the cat is not. I believe in the collective whilst Graham is frustratingly individualistic – these differences continue to bring some small amount of tension to our otherwise companionable existence
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I always enjoyed storytelling, like making something real out of the dreams and imaginings in my head. My grandmother was a storyteller, she claimed her stories were true, but the truth lay somewhere between history, myth, and fantasy. I like stories that have this quality.
I enjoy playing around with words as a substitute for lack of artistic or musical talent and I enjoy the attempt to manipulate language to conjure some personal response to the heft and mystery of being alive, our smallness and our need for other people.
When did you take a step to start writing?
I took creative writing courses at the University of East Anglia, but it was a decade later, and during the slow period of largely housebound recovery from depression, initially as catharsis, I began writing more seriously.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
The idea behind A New Dark Age had been evolving in my mind for years, that of a society or country in crisis, in a moment that echoes Rome in 410. Overall, A New Dark Age took about three years to write. I began the serious work in 2018 and completed a first draft in 2020, then working through numerous revisions and reworkings to the point of it being published now, at the end of 2021.
What made you want to write A New Dark Age?
More than a decade ago, during late-period Blair-era Cool Britannia / Heritage Britain plc, and for the West more broadly the post-Cold War era, the future seemed secured. In the 90s, Francis Fukuyama prophesied Liberal Capitalist Democracy would be the end of history. How often through history though have civilizations fallen back; I read people like Jared Diamond and Eric Cline and mediaeval history. I was interested in what were the common features of civilizations that declined and more interested still in what followed.
It struck me that the speculative, dystopia novels that I knew of, more often wrote about the coercive terror of a technologically advanced society, and it interested me to imagine living in a society that had regressed. Furthermore, Modernity has a civilizing effect, even if it is clothing the naked human nature, the lack of modernity I thought might allow for that human nature to be more exposed, to quote Tennyson, “Red in tooth and claw.”
What were your biggest challenges with writing A New Dark Age?
The biggest challenge I faced writing A New Dark Age was in the scale and scope of trying to conjure up this world with a cast of characters that all had lives and personal stories for which the tumultuous times they’re living through are only a part. I didn’t want to have a few hero characters just doing heroic things, I wanted ordinary people leading ordinary lives. I think tales of heroes are disempowering.
I wanted A New Dark Age to be a novel flush with ordinary, often flawed, unheroic seeming characters, who for various reasons become involved or affected by the times they must contend with.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
The main protagonist is Esme, a young woman coming of age in a backward community who runs away to join the uprising that the novel is built around to avoid an unwelcome arranged marriage that has become the norm. There were two people I knew who inspired Esme’s character, one around the age that Esme is in A New Dark Age, who seemed to possess a combination of lonely melancholy and hurt rage.
The other was my grandmother, who I saw a lot of over the last couple of years of her life until her passing in 2018. She retold to me all the stories she told to me growing up and a number more. I imagined as a young woman she too would have possessed that disquieting combination of melancholy and anger, as it flared frequently throughout her life.
In describing the background of Esme, I drew heavily on my grandmother’s stories of growing up in an old-fashioned rural family in an old-fashioned English village in the 1930s, where there was a keen sense of community that was both tightly bound in bonds of kinship as well as controlling and suffocating, where especially for women, individual human agency seemed most diminished.
I always appreciated the way a writer like Harold Pinter would explore the tension between the individual and the need to belong in work like The Birthday Party – it’s something I wanted to explore in A New Dark Age.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
The ultimate antagonist to the novel is the distant, faceless authorities that dominate the world the characters of A New Dark Age inhabit. For the protagonist Esme, the antagonist takes the form of McCain, a state agent that sexually assaults her when visiting her house along with his colleague Miller, to collect census information.
The characters of Miller and McCain were inspired by the characters of Goldberg and McCann from Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party; Pinter said they represented the personification of authority. I also had in mind the issues that led to The Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, which the novel echoes throughout.
One of the issues that finally tipped people to revolt was when bailiffs coming to provincial towns and villages were accused of assaulting women, and as McCain does, they claimed they had the power of the state to do so.
What is the inciting incident of A New Dark Age?
Traumatized by being sexually assaulted by the state agent McCain, when the day of the weddings comes, Esme is a reluctant bride-to-be. The day of the weddings turns chaotic when Hereward, a leader of a growing rebel movement operating out of the flooded Fens of 2061, turns up, killing a number of state agents based in Esme’s hometown of Fenby, and sending those they let survive away with a warning to pass on that the time of the reckoning had arrived. In Fenby, there are sympathizers with the rebels, who Esme joins as much as a means of escape as for any nascent revolutionary tendencies.
What is the main conflict of A New Dark Age?
The main conflict surrounds a protest that gathers in London, which also acts as cover while a rebel group, operating from the disused and abandoned underground tunnels, subterranean waterways and sewage system aim to overthrow the autocratic rulers.
The background to these events is grumbling uprisings that are becoming more common and coordinated across the whole country, particularly across the Northern cities that are the heartland for English dissent. The administrative state is on the point of collapse and so there is an escalation of the violence between rebel groups and state forces made up increasingly of paid mercenaries and support from other countries.
Did you plot A New Dark Age in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
A lot of the ideas that fed into the book had been developing for a long time and I had developed a skeletal structure based around imagining if a Peasant’s revolt happened in the near future. For the most part though I just wrote, allowing new ideas and narratives to emerge as the characters organically developed. This meant that early drafts of the novel were loose and unwieldy, and it took numerous re-writes with often savage editing pull it together.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did A New Dark Age need?
I did get some support in editing the novel from Philippa Donovan of Smart Quills, whom I could recommend. I have become a strong believer in the usefulness of an editor for clarifying the writer’s vision and helping to make it work. Due to both the scope of A New Dark Age, and my approach to writing, the novel needed considerable editing and revision and I wrote a number of drafts in attempting to hone the novel.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
Write with ambition but also humility, be willing to adapt and change so that it becomes something different to what might have been initially envisioned, that way there is more chance you’ll discover something unexpected and magical.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I plan to write at least two more novels following on from A New Dark Age, again drawing on history to provide a context, for Esme’s personal growth as the world around her continues its collapse. As this novel was drawing heavily on the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, I will specifically look towards the time of The Anarchy (1135-1153) and the Heptarchy of around the 6th to 9th centuries.
On completely different subjects I have a completed draft of a novel provisionally entitled, “Springsteen Slays Zombies’ about a family break-up and other difficult relationships that the members of that family have to negotiate.
And, though at this stage notionally, a novel whose working title is ‘Twilight Over The Land of Make-Believe’ which would be a kind of sentimental and slightly magical novel about various members of a family who all have to reconcile endings and the ‘make-believe’ of self-delusion we build our lives on melt away.
Beyond that, I’d like one day to research and write something on the limitations and problems of materialism, but now I’m getting wholly hypothetical.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I am proud of A New Dark Age. It’s been a challenge to write and bring to publication but certainly worth the effort, if only as a matter of personal expression.
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Amazon: A New Dark Age
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